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An American Perspective: Spotlight on Gore Vidal

by Anna Battista

Gore Vidal, the man defined as the "critical conscience of the Empire" by the most famous Italian commentator on American literature, Fernanda Pivano, speaks in an enthusiastic voice and with a very relaxed smile when a man asks him how he feels like to be in Abruzzo. "I always like it here, especially because they always give me a prize!" he exclaims. Indeed in July 2000, Gore Vidal received the Italian Premio Scanno, but this time, something different awaits him in Pescara, an award assigned him by the panel of the Italian XI Scrittura e Immagine Film Festival to compliment his career and in particular his work as screenwriter.

The morning of the award ceremony, Gore Vidal is invited to speak in a local school to students and assorted journalists. We all realise that it would be really a missed chance if we'd let the author of what is ordinarily dubbed "history fiction" leave us without asking him what he thinks about the American situation right now. "As Francis Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby about Americans, 'They were the sort of people who made messes for other people to clean up,'" Vidal states, continuing, "If you want to live without fear, you must not create fear in others and the American empire has been doing that for fifty years. There's an enormous anxiety in the States because of the war. But we made a lot provocation before this happened, so I think that an historian should do a balance to explain what has happened, this is my point of view. I'm an historian and one of the reasons why I wrote my books was because in American schools they don't teach history, but propaganda. When I write of historical figures, like President Roosevelt, I don't use fantasy, it's reality. My point of view of Washington is really different from the official one, so it causes great anxiety among those who are called historians."

When Al Gore was chosen to run for the presidency Gore Vidal said that they had chosen the wrong Gore, but what would he do if were the president? "The first thing I would do would be cut the military budget 50%. It already absorbs almost two thirds of the revenues and, as I explained in my latest book, since 1947 we have attacked 400 countries, some of them two or three times, while we've only been attacked twice, on 7 December 1941 and on 11 September 2001. I'll tell you an Orson Welles story, everybody loves his stories. He was a good writer and a brilliant man. He wanted to go to the Senate and defeat McCarthy. He was a great friend of Roosevelt and the latter encouraged him. Since I was running to the Senate in California, the last time I had lunch with Orson in Beverly Hills, I asked him 'Why didn't you run?' and Welles said 'I was told that as an actor I couldn't be elected and I had also been divorced and, look, now Ronald Reagan is President and he's divorced and a bad actor!' My cousin Al Gore was elected President by half a million votes, but the Supreme Court much preferred the Bush family because they're not very intelligent, but they are obedient. We are governed by a junta from the Pentagon. That's why we have president Bush and not Gore. So if I'm hard against him let's say it's partly for personal reasons, but there's also fear for my country that the first thing we'll get into is the most unexpected war."

"This is a war even an intelligent president as Roosevelt would not have known how to face. It is bad luck. President Bush falls into the worst American habit: everything is moralistic of the kind 'he's evil, we are good,' this is supposed to be a political philosophy. There's always been in Americans an eschatological tendency. A while back I wrote a book called Kalki about an American in Vietnam who thinks he's the latest incarnation of Vishnu. Kalki decides to kill everyone on earth with something like anthrax. Everyone dies except six people who were vaccinated. Kalki becomes the father of the new human race. I think you can see some of it in Bush only with him there's more manicheism. The simplest American policy is 'Believe in good, believe in evil'. Of course we tend to personalise: instead of thinking of Islam as a system we should understand, we see only a bad man with a beard. There's nobody in the government now that we know who can explain to the American people why this dedicated Muslim hates us. There are many reasons and many are written in the book which is going to come out soon in Italy The End of Liberty - Towards a New Totalitarianism? I feel that trying to explain why things happen is the business of a great historian. We Americans are a-historical. We don't know our history nor the history of the other countries; we live in the present. We spend thirty million dollars a year on the CIA, that's a lot of money and a lot of people working just to inform us. The CIA and the FBI - not one of them had a word of warning about a plan that took at least two years to put into place. I was talking to a friend at the CIA and I said 'What's wrong?' and he said 'We don't have anybody, there's nobody who speaks Arabic', so they have all these information and they can't read them. This is no way to govern an empire."

In Italy, American authors are often cherished and revered, but what does Gore Vidal think about contemporary American literature? "I think power and literature don't go together," he states. "Earlier in our civilisation you had writers who had political effects such as Goethe and Byron, but it is very rare. At the moment our literature is not powerful but it is also flat, now it is not very interesting. The only place that took literature very very seriously was the Soviet Union. Children of six or seven were told the stories of Chekov and Turgeniev. American children were taught 'Look at Jack run, look at Jane run, look at Jack and Jane running,' that's not the base for a great civilisation and now that the Russians have discovered pornography they will never look back. For me the number one writer in the world was Italo Calvino and I think that if I can say that I did something great as a critic, well, I introduced him in the English language and within a year I reviewed all his books, thirty, in The New York Review of Books. It was 1973 I think and in three years all his books were in English paperback and this is why every Italian novelist sends me his new novel, but it only worked with Calvino and I tried with Sciascia, but Americans thought that he was just a writer of crime stories."

Apart from Gattaca, in which Gore Vidal starred, during the festival three movies which he wrote the screenplay for were shown: The Catered Affair, The Left Handed Gun and the regretted Caligula. But there's one movie he'd like to see again: "1964's The Best Man, it's about two men who run for the presidency. It began as a play that I wrote for Broadway forty years before it became a film directed by Franklin J. Schaffner and I didn't have to change a line, which I must says meant that nothing had changed in forty years. An old French actor once said 'Everything on earth changes, except the avant-garde theatre.'" For Vidal, cinema has even got a particular meaning, it's a sort of team work: "When you write for the cinema you write with other people, so it's difficult to say who's the author of the film. Nobody can be the author of a film, not even the person who writes it. "

Gore Vidal's future includes a book, still unpublished in the States. "I will soon have The End of Liberty - Towards a New Totalitarianism? out in Italy," he starts, underlining "on the cover of the Italian edition of the book, there is the Statue of Liberty wearing a gag on her mouth: that symbolises the fact that we still have censorship in the USA."

Scholars claim that Herodotus was the first historian and that he used stories to make examples to his readers, to teach them something. Gore Vidal uses history in his novels to portray America and find proper answers to the endless questions an historian should always ask himself. No doubt he will keep on finding them all.

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Gore Vidal's pic by Anna Battista.