An Endearing Cynic
Actually, I enjoyed this book a lot. More than perhaps I had expected. Vidal writes well, really beautiful prose, and I like that he is a bit of a cynic. From some of the reviews I have read I gather that the structure of the book was not that common in those days, that it was considered something of a pioneering work. These days of course, every writer with some sense of literary fashion has written at least one book in which he or she themselves are the protagonists, as Gore Vidal is the protagonist of this book. He also writes it first person, which gives the impression of it being a memoir, which of course it isn´t. They say a good lie should be served on a platter of truth.
The story begins in Italy, where Vidal lived for much of his life, on the balcony of his apartment in Rome, where his friend and collegue Marietta Donegal (Anaïs Nin?) unbuttons her shirt to show off her breasts, like some goddess of love. However, she is not there to make love, but to show Vidal a filmscript written by a former lover of hers and an old friend of both of them, who has recently died, Eric van Damm. The script is accompanied by a journal, adressed to his twin sister, Erica, but never sent to her.
The story jumps back and forth in time as Vidal reads the journal and the script, and he remembers his side of the story, as it takes place in Paris in the late 40´s. If there is any part of the story that reminds me of the Bouvier sisters it´s Eric´s film script, about two sisters in Ancient Ephesus, Helena, the Dowager Empress of Persia, and Artemisa, the Queen of Caria. There is also a half-brother, Herostratus, who has an incestuous relationship with Helena, and schemes to become King of Ephesus. Helena is engaged to marry Achoris, an Egyptian of slave origins, one of the richest men in the world. Artemisa, who is the clever one, is suddenly also widowed and immediately steals him from her sister. In the end, Herostratus, after a failed coup d´état, sets fire to the temple of Diana and trumps both sisters in the quest for immortality.
(Herostratus is actually modelled on a real, legendary arsonist, who set fire to the temple in Ephesus to become famous. Artemisa is also modelled on a real queen of Caria, who took part in the battle of Salamis, and Vidal has used her in one of his other novels, "Creation".)
This story somewhat mirrors what happens in Eric´s life, and Vidal´s own memories are corrected. The reading of the journals and the manuscripts will give him some unexpected revelations. And Marietta acts as Diana herself in a way, a vengeful goddess, who´s temple has been desecrated.
I like Vidal´s tone of voice, I like the warmth that is clearly there underneath the cold and clear observations. There are several themes in this story, and the quest for immortality is one. Art, children, politics, scandal. Love is another, forbidden love, one man´s love for another, a man´s love for his sister. Vidal was only 43 when he wrote this book, younger than I am now, but he seems old and worldweary, though still not totally free from illusion.
I´m pretty sure I will read him again. And you know, I think cynics are misunderstood. There is a disappointed idealist lurking inside every one of them, too loving to hate, too intelligent to be fanatic. I wonder what Vidal himself would have said about that. He probably would have turned up his patrician nose on me.