book 5 of 24 books in 28 days: point to point navigation
Gore Vidal writes in his 2006 Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir, "I left myself at the end of my first memoir, Palimpsest, in the year 1964, when I was thirty-nine. It is now April 2005." I came upon this "Part 2" of Vidal's memoirs via some list or other of "grief memoirs," and Vidal does write about the illness and death of his partner of fifty-three years, Howard Auster. But his grief extends beyond the loss of Auster into the loss of many people and even the impending loss of himself.
There is something deeply uncomfortable, ill-at-ease, in this book, and it has rubbed off on me. I have been writing this post for three days, trying to get a handle on the book's slipperiness and my reaction to it.
When Vidal nods to Montaigne and Rousseau, and what they might require of him or think of him, he is very "meta" about his memoir. But just when I'm about to think I've "got" him, he invokes Howard in an ever-so-slightly loving way, or mentions his own mortality.
Toward the end of the book, he writes, "Eighty sounds serious to me. Certainly when people ask 'How are you feeling?' they are actually interested, for the moment at least, in your answer. Most people my age are safely dead and I must soon throw out my book of telephone numbers since nearly everyone in it has, as they used to say, fallen from the perch or ridden on ahead–mad euphemisms abound."
One has the sense of his looking through this book of numbers, remembering not only Auster but Johnny Carson, Paul Newman, Tennessee Williams, and enough others that this book has an index which consists primarily of people's names. He moves from memory to memory, character to character, story to story in a free-associative journey through his life since his last memoir.
As for my repeated questions of how did he and Auster "do" their long-term relationship and how Vidal does grief, Vidal gives a few answers. On the question of grief, he defers to Jefferson:
"Jefferson once noted that although he could see the possibilities of
some good, even utility, in most human emotions, no matter how
negative, he found nothing redemptive or useful in Grief."
Later Vidal writes, though, "If Thomas Jefferson had found nothing at all useful in grief, I found
it weirdly energizing. Certainly, the aftermath of a death in today's
United States brings one into contact with all sorts of strangers:
lawyers, accountants, morticians, insurance claimants, not to mention
old friends in their thinning ranks and new acquaintances in their
As in so many other places, Vidal seems to bob and weave, moving between the jarring honesty of "weirdly energizing" and the more distant ironic stance of the last line of thinning and thickening ranks.
Writing of his relationship, the vascillation is more disturbing to me.
"We had been together fifty-three years. He confessed that he thought he was just passing through my life and was surprised as the decades began to stack up and we were still together. But then it is easy to sustain a relationship when sex plays no part and impossible, I have observed, when it does. Each had a sex life apart from the other; all else including our sovereign, Time, was shared."
It's not so surprising that he and Auster did not have sex (with each other), but again, after that cool revelation, in the same sentence Vidal moves into the more intimate, to me, belief that they shared everything else, and the recognition of Time as their sovereign moves me.
After reading The Pure Lover, in which passion for the lover's body is intimately central, or centrally intimate, the absence of sex or bodies from this relationship is striking. When Vidal does describe Auster's body, it is after death, and he does it at all, he says, because it is what Montaigne would require of a memoirist.
The following passage describing Howard's death and the immediate aftermath made me deeply uncomfortable–as if I were being given a glimpse that I did not want to see, as if he were forcing himself to tell us something that he did not want to tell, and then after he told it, he did not delete it but negated it by writing something else.
"I sat in the chair opposite and did all the things that we have
learned from movies to determine death. I passed a hand in front of
his mouth and nose. Nothing stirred. Montaigne requires that I
describe more how he looked–rather than how I felt. The eyes were
open and very clear. I'd forgotten what a beautiful gray they
were–illness and medicine had regularly glazed them over; now they
were bright and attentive and he was watching me, consciously, through long lashes."
In the next scene, the nurse, Leto, wept. Vidal writes,
"I envied him–the WASP
glacier had closed over my head. It took over an hour for the ambulance
to come take him away. During the wait, I pulled back the sheet for
one last look at those clear gray eyes–could they still see?–but the
substance of the eyeballs had collapsed and two gelatinous streaks of
the sort snails make had coursed down his cheeks."
Does he write this in deference to Montaigne? To be unfailingly accurate? To thaw and refreeze the WASP glacier? To emphasize how quickly the body changes after death? Why does it disturb me so? What does this book, and this passage in particular, teach me about memoir?
I'm still working out these questions to which there are no easy answers. I hope for more of your excellent teaching in the comments.