Who will posterity bless: the lofty Vidal or the grounded Binchy?

Aug 3, 2012
Michael Bywater

'Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little,' said the arrogant Gore Vidal – an odd thing for a writer to say

WRITERS wonder what posterity will say of them. They hate celebrity authors, they hate the Fifty Shades of Magnolia woman, they hate everyone in the Daily Mail's Sidebar of Shame, particularly the ones they've never heard of, because these people are having their posterity now, in real-time.
What's more, they're getting the money, everyone's looking at them, and they're getting laid: things that don't really happen to writers, which is why they write so much about famous rich people having sex.

Gore Vidal summed it up: Never pass up the chance to have sex or appear on television. Presumably because he got asked. But he was an oddity. So lacking in uncertainty that he was his own posterity. Not since God had anyone so single-mindedly looked upon his work and seen that it was good.

But... Mistah Vidal, he dead. Surrounded by his glittering epithets, like an Egyptian prince with his grave-goods.

Maeve Binchy, she dead too. No such epithets there. Nobody will ever put on that smug dinner-party face and say, "I believe it was Maeve Binchy who said..."

She just wrote stories about ordinary people, mostly Irish people, mostly about the world as it changed after WW2. Sold forty million or more. But "just"? "Ordinary"? No.

The common touch is harder - and rarer - than the loftiness of the combative, often outrageously self-regarding Vidal who dropped 'Eugene Louis' from his birth certificate in favour of his socialite mother's maiden name, Gore, because he wanted the sort of name appropriate for a famous author or national politician.

As things turned out, he combined the two: became a National Author, known not so much for his books but for his being.
Unfair, perhaps, because there was some good stuff there. There were a couple of fine screenplays - Suddenly, Last Summer and Billy the Kid - and an insanely indulgent one, Caligula.

But the novels, particularly Kalki and, of course, Myra Breckinridge, his 1968 satire on Hollywood, gender, sexuality and everything else which then suddenly seemed up for grabs, while immensely accomplished, were clouded by the dismal lens of National Authorism.

If some Joe Blow, rather than a well-to-do, publicly out, educated, posh, West Coast liberal straddling the three-way fault-line between fairyland, the establishment and risqué bohemia had written them, they might have fared differently.

But Vidal was no Joe Blow. He was wealthy, the scion of senators, athletes, officers and tycoons. His mother allegedly had a long affair with Clark Gable. He had ambition and opportunity from his birth.

And now you might expect to hear about the contrasting hardship of Maeve Binchy's start. The lumpy potato fields. The little white cottage up the sodden lane. Her Da a drunk, her darling Ma a SAINT.

Well it was nothing like that. She was born in Dalkey, a seaside town seven miles from Dublin. Her uncle was a historian; her brother became Regius Professor of Law at Trinity College Dublin (alma mater of Oscar Wilde, whom Binchy unequivocally outsold). She adored her parents, had a happy childhood, moved back to Dalkey when she married, and stayed there, happily, with her husband, until she died on Monday, the day before Gore Vidal.

Both, you could argue, had privileged beginnings, privileged lives. Both knew great success. But one was, for all his famed Augustan loftiness, an arrogant killjoy and a snob, perhaps never more honest than when he said, "Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little".

An odd thing for a writer to say, writing being as far from a zero-sum game as you can get. For my book to succeed, it is not necessary that your book fails. Perhaps that's why there's so little money in it, on the whole. Or perhaps, not "why" but "because".

In any case, we're two writers short now. Two writers who've gone to face the judge against whom there's no appeal: the future. Who'll be remembered a hundred years from now? Who'll be read? The one who said: "It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail," or the one who said: "Everything turned out well"?

  • Myra Breckinridge by Gore Vidal, Abacus. ISBN 978-0349103655
  • Heart and Soul by Maeve Binchy, Orion. ISBN 978-0752884646

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Up to a point. I’m sure Maeve was
a daycent auld skin and I would not begrudge her her financial success or her
popularity. She may well be well-regarded by posterity. Good luck to her. I
have tried reading her and found it very hard going. Possibly my fault. One
thing that irritated me was the relentless employment of the tricks of
best-selleritis. Because she sold so well editors couldn’t touch her lucrative prose. Characters appear briefly, perhaps just delivering the
milk, and are given an in-depth
description and analysis and then disappear forever.

On the other hand I have,
without too much effort, enjoyed many of Vidal’s novels. Perhaps when the image
of him as a snobby bitch on the TV fades, his reputation may grow. Perhaps the
camp quotes relating to zero-sum game of success might have been ironic?

yeah, i thought the same thing re Vidal's "sniffle" about friends' successes. seems pretty ironic, and sly, clever, and funny, to me. was he a weinie? sure. did he know it? certainly.

BTW I have always been a great
fan of Michael Bywater.

I live in Sri Lanka but missed
the opportunity of meeting Vidal when he
attended the Galle Literary Festival in 2008. I could not attend but I
understand he made a good impression. Among a compilation of quotations from
authors fulsomely praising the festival Vidal’s stands out: “where’s my luggage?”

Mary Theroux did meet him when
she organised a post-9/11 symposium in San Francisco: “In all the years of
hosting authors, I’ve never seen such generosity of spirit, notable especially
in light of his age and established fame... We will forever fondly remember
this gentle, gracious, and generous man of peace with gratitude, and wish for
more like him.”

“... gentle man, at once a man of
his own fame and storied history, yet remaining one still seeking
connection—perhaps never more than in a world once again gone mad. As a result,
he became a good friend and member of the Board of Advisors for the Independent

Don’t forget that despite his
campiness Vidal was an elegant and courageous voice against US corporate power and militarism.
More than a gadfly.

Sorry to be an old pedant, but c'mon Michael Bywater, try getting your English grammar right. It should be: "Whom will posterity bless ..?" (Ever heard of the accusative?) Or should the blame go to the sub-editors at The First Post? Either way, a pretty bad blooper. You're a great daily read - so let's keep up those standards by using grammatical English, too.