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Palimpsest: A Memoir.

Gore Vidal lived, off and on, in Rome for close to thirty years. The reason: "For one thing, I had never had a proper human-scale village life anywhere on earth until I settled into that old Roman street." On the other hand, he observes: "I never wanted to meet most of the people that I had met and the fact that I never got to know most of them took dedication and steadfastness on my part."

Palimpsest, Vidal's fascinating memoir of his first forty years of life, swings in its narrative mood from one to the other of these two poles: from a poignant humanity to a caustic cynicism. He writes as "the eternal outsider, the black sheep among those great good white flocks of folks who graze contentedly in the amber fields of the Republic." These memories, "recorded during 1993 and 1994 and completed - or abandoned - in March of 1995," are informative, often delightful, and utterly fascinating.

He remembers his beginnings vividly, starting with his mother Nina: "The fact that the eight years between my tenth and seventeenth years were spent far from home at boys' schools was, in one sense, a good thing: I did not have to deal with Nina." His father, Gene, graduated at the top of his West Point class, became one of the army's first fliers, and eventually founded three airlines with Amelia Earhart: TWA, Eastern, and Northeast. However, it is his maternal grandfather, Thomas Pryor Gore, blind, the first senator from Oklahoma, that he remembers most fondly: "Dad," as Vidal called him, built a house in Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., that Vidal called home for many years. It was in that home, reading to "Dah" and meeting many of the movers and shakers of the time, that he learned so much that helped make him the great observer and critic of American life that he is. After St. Albans and Exeter, he went to VMI and then into the army. It was there that he composed his first book, the novel Williwaw (1946), thus beginning a life of enormous productivity: twenty-two novels, nine volumes of essays, five plays, and several TV plays and movie scripts. This productivity resulted from an early developed "vivid inner life," and his observance that the boys at St. Albans "accepted my preference for books to their games" and were tolerant of his "eccentricities."

Palimpsest is laced with stories of and comments by the rich and famous; every reader will have a special favorite. There is much about Anais Nin, interesting observations about Orson Welles, Andre Gide, E. M. Forster, Marlon Brando, Jack Kerouac, George Santayana, William Faulkner, Truman Capote, Greta Garbo, and Federico Fellini ("I called him Fred, he called me Gorino"), among many others. I found the sections on Tennessee Williams ("Bird") and the Kennedys the most fascinating and the most revealing of Vidal's sensitivities. His reaction to the Kennedys at Hyannisport in 1961 also makes some very meaningful points about JFK's "Cold War."

Vidal's very touching association with places - Rock Creek Park, Edgewater (the home he owned on the Hudson from 1950 to 1968), Rome, and his present home at Ravello - reveals a sense of the importance of something as simple as "home" in his rather glamorous life. The other most striking revelation in this book, purportedly about others but very much about himself, is his boyhood relationship with his one true love, Jimmie Trimble. Trimble is Vidal's lifelong soulmate, although he died at Iwo Jima. Even though he says, "Since I don't really know what other people mean by love, I avoid the word," Vidal clearly knows what love is. He also says, "Should you get to know yourself. You will have penetrated as much of the human mystery as anyone need ever know." Palimpsest is Gore Vidal's testament to self-knowledge.

Marvin J. LaHood SUNY College, Buffalo
COPYRIGHT 1996 University of Oklahoma
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Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:LaHood, Marvin J.
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1996
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