Palimpsest by Gore Vidal

Palimpsest is Gore Vidal’s first memoir. Early on in the book, he makes the point that this is not an autobiography, but a memoir. Too many autobiographies read like an excuse for the author’s failings and a platform for their supposed triumphs, as though they are getting their two cents in before someone else gives the final accounting. Vidal offers no excuses, even admitting in the beginning that he chose the title, and later realized he had been mispronouncing the word for years, and didn’t fully understand the origin of its meaning.

In Palimpsest he plays with time like a magician, deftly moving from one place to another, never losing the reader, an uncommon fluidity where most memoirs follow a strictly age based progression. There was no prose for prose sake, or lyrics over substance, yet his writing draws the reader in as though you were spending an evening listening to incisively funny repartee. He had me chuckling in the first few pages. Essentially, he’s the guy at a cocktail party you’d most like to spend the evening with.

He has an almost clinical insight into people and it doesn’t hurt that he’s known some of the icons of his age. His slant on Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Jackie Onassis (they shared a stepfather) and countless other characters of his time are priceless. There is no lack of dysfunctional family dynamics, either. Though he doesn’t use his upbringing as anything more than a travelogue of how he got where he is. He continues to be the most erudite voice of the anti-establishment. You can catch vintage Vidal on YouTube sparring with William F. Buckley on a sixties talking head show in a game of wordsmanship.

For all his wittiness and fascinating stories, the real value is that his memoirs chronicle how his life as a writer evolved. At a critical juncture early in his career, he decided to go ahead with the publication of his third novel, The City and the Pillar, over the objections of his agent. It contained overt homosexual overtones and true to form, the publishing industry blackballed him for the content. That he chose truth over conformity, and the commercial success that comes with it, was a defining moment. It seems the writers who only give their audience exactly what’s expected end up being trapped by their success.

His decision led to Hollywood and Broadway, experiences that ultimately made up for the early rejection. It is what allowed him the freedom to produce a wide range of work, from Myra Breckenridge (a one finger salute to the entertainment industry), to Visit to a Small Planet, and historical fiction, Lincoln, being his most famous.

Palimpsest is a gift from Vidal.  He shared the essence of who he is with clarity, style and honesty. Isn’t that what art is all about?

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