The brilliant sequel to Gore Vidal's acclaimed, bestselling memoir, Palimpsest.
In Point to Point Navigation, the celebrated novelist, essayist, critic, and controversialist Gore Vidal ranges freely over his remarkable life with the signature wit and literary elegance that is uniquely his. The title refers to a form of navigation he resorted to as a first mate in the Navy during World War II. As he says, "As I was writing this account of my life and times since Palimpsest, I felt as if I were again dealing with those capes and rocks in the Bering Sea that we had to navigate so often with a compass made inoperable by weather." It is a beautifully apt analogy for the hazards (mostly) eluded during his eventful life and for the way this memoir proceeds--far from linear but always on course.
From his desks in Ravello and the Hollywood Hills, Gore Vidal travels in memory through the arenas of literature, television, film, theater, politics and international society where he has cut a broad swath, recounting achievements and defeats, friends and enemies made (and on a number of occasions lost). Among the gathering of notables to be found in these pages, sketched with a draftsman's ease and evoked with the panache of one of our great raconteurs, are Jack and Jacqueline Kennedy, Tennessee Williams (the "Glorious Bird"), Eleanor Roosevelt, Orson Welles, Johnny Carson, Greta Garbo, Federico Fellini, Rudolph Nureyev, Elia Kazan, and Francis Ford Coppola. Some of the book's most moving pages are devoted to the illness and death of his partner of five decades, Howard Austen, and indeed the book is, among other things, a meditation on mortality written in the spirit of Montaigne.
Elegiac yet vital and even ornery, Point to Point Navigation is a summing-up of Gore Vidal's time on the planet that manages to be at once supremely entertaining, endlessly provocative, and thoroughly moving.
It would be too easy to say Vidal's second memoir picks up where Palimpsest left off; as in that earlier book, he essentially lets his memories flow at will, often revisiting yet again the stories of his Washington childhood. The general focus, however, is on the latter half of his life, particularly the deaths of those closest to him, including his longtime companion, Howard Auster. Yet Vidal changes subjects and tone so frequently and abruptly--here tender, here combative--that the family memories and celebrity anecdotes become scattershot, limping to a close with a bizarre summary of somebody else's theory about how organized crime bosses ordered the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Assured of his own genius ("I have never needed an editor"), he repeatedly slams biographer Fred Kaplan as "dull" and sex-obsessed, then jabs at a few other people who've written about him. He also makes frequent observations about the current events unfolding as he writes, and his criticisms of the New York Times and the Bush administration's "oil-and-gas junta" will come as no surprise. In short, the memoir is a perfect encapsulation of Vidal's outsized personality--and readers' reactions will be determined by how they already feel about him. (Nov. 7)
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
-- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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October 08, 2007
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Excerpt from Point to Point Navigation by Gore Vidal
The Influence of the Movies on My Generation: The Backstory
As I now move, graciously, I hope, toward the door marked Exit, it occurs to me that the only thing I ever really liked to do was go to the movies. Naturally, Sex and Art always took precedence over cinema but neither ever proved to be as dependable as the filtering of present light through that moving strip of celluloid which projects past images and voices onto a screen. Thus, in a seemingly simple process, screening history. (My book of that name has been allowed to go out of print and so I now reprise its principal argument.)
As writer and political activist, I have accumulated a number of cloudy trophies in my melancholy luggage. Some real, some imagined. Some acquired from life, such as it is; some from movies, such as they are. Sometimes, in time, where we are as well as were, it is not easy to tell the two apart. Do I wake or sleep?
I was born October 3, 1925, on the twenty-fifth birthday of Thomas Wolfe, the novelist not the journalist. I have lived through three-quarters of the twentieth century, and about one-third of the history of the United States of America. Briefly, what has been your impression thus far, Mr. Vidal? as eager interviewers are wont to ask. Well, it could have been worse, I begin with a calculated understatement. Then the Japanese recording machine goes on the blink and while the interviewer tries to fix it, he asks me to tell him, off the record, what was Marilyn Monroe really like? As I barely knew her, I tell him.
It is a universal phenomenon that whether one is at Harvard or at Oxford or at the University of Bologna, after the dutiful striking of attitudes on subjects of professional interest, like semiology, the ice does not break until someone mentions the movies. Suddenly, everyone is alert and adept. There is real passion as we speak of the falling-off of Fellini in recent years (of which more later) or of Madonna's curious contours and have they yet passed the once-disputed border of mere androgyny, arriving at some entirely new sexual continuum? Movies are the lingua franca of the twentieth century. The Tenth Muse, as they call the movies in Italy, has driven the other nine right off Parnassus--or off the peak, anyway.
Recently I observed to a passing tape recorder that I was once a famous novelist. When assured, politely, that I was still known and read, I explained myself. I was speaking, I said, not of me personally but of a category to which I once belonged that has now ceased to exist. I am still here but the category is not. To speak today of a famous novelist is like speaking of a famous cabinetmaker or speedboat designer. Adjective is inappropriate to noun. How can a novelist be famous--no matter how well known he may be personally to the press?--if the novel itself is of little consequence to the civilized, much less to the generality? The novel as teaching aid is something else, but hardly famous.
There is no such thing as a famous novelist now, any more than there is such a thing as a famous poet. I use the adjective in the strict sense. According to authority, to be famous is to be much talked about, usually in a favorable way. It is as bleak and inglorious as that. Yet thirty years ago, novels were actually read and discussed by those who did not write them or, indeed, even read them. A book could be famous then but today's public seldom mentions a book unless, like The Da Vinci Code, it is being metamorphosed into a faith-challenging film.
Contrary to what many believe, literary fame has nothing to do with excellence or true glory or even with a writer's position in the syllabus of a university's English Department, itself as remote to the Agora as Academe's shadowy walk. For any artist, fame is the extent to which the Agora finds interesting his latest work. If what he has written is known only to a few other practitioners, or to enthusiasts (Faulkner compared lovers of literature to dog breeders, few in number but passionate to the point of madness on the subject of bloodlines), then the artist is not only not famous, he is irrelevant to his time, the only time that he has; nor can he dream of eager readers in a later century as did Stendhal. If novels and poems fail to interest the Agora today, by the year 3091 such artifacts will not exist at all except as objects of monkish interest. This is neither a good nor a bad thing. It is simply not a famous thing.
Optimists, like the late John Gardner, regarded the university as a great good place where literature would continue to be not only worshipped but created. Perhaps he was right, though I do not like the look of those fierce theoreticians currently hacking away at the olive trees of Academe while seeding the Cephisus River with significant algae, their effect on the sacred waters rather like that of an oil spill off the coast of Alaska.