on November 7, 2006
Point to Point Navigation is best described as a stream of consciousness. Reflections, observations, and reminisces, not in any chronological order necessarily, but as one thought leads to another Vidal recollects interesting as well as poignant memories from throughout his life. Filled with Vidal's wit and observations, one comes away from the book with a sense of what it must be like to sit down with this renowned author simply for a talk together.
Aptly titled, "Point to Point Navigation" refers to the dangerous navigation Vidal had to use during World War Two when as first mate on an army freight-supply ship they had to maneuver without compass (inoperable due to weather) but rather by memorized landmarks and without radar, a process which the writing of this memoir made him feel as if he "were again dealing with those capes and rocks in the Bering Sea," for the memoir presents a nonlinear reflection of a life whose course and recollection thereof has twist and turns but which remained on course.
Vidal is one of America's finest biographers: author of twenty-five novels including his fascinating informative Narratives of Empire series, six plays, many screenplays, and more than two hundred essays. He is an esteemed political commentator who has expertly utilized rationality and erudite humor regarding topics such as sex, religion, politics, literature, and history of empire.
I have loved the man's works since I was a teenager, from his essays and earliest novels to his more recent pamphlets regarding American imperialism, his words have educated, enlightened, and given me much to ponder. When I consider Vidal, I think of knowledge combined with unrestrained candor, and this is what makes Vidal a pleasure to read.
Though subtitled "A Memoir 1964-2006" the book reaches far back into Vidal's earliest childhood years with touching stories of his fascination with cinema (including a charming anecdote of seeing his first movie in 1929), as well as his family and early exposure to politics and politicians. All this is presented with a wry humor and beautiful style we've come to expect from him, such as this indicative gem, "Contrary to legend, I was born of mortal woman, and if Zeus sired me, there is no record on file in the Cadet Hospital at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point..."
Point to Point Navigation seems shorter than Vidal's first memoir, Palimpsest, and also seems to contain shorter chapters, and in the latter chapters it digresses into quotes/excerpts/and Vidal's commentary upon other's books: that of Dennis Altman's Gore Vidal's America, Marcie Frank's How To Be An Intellectual In The Age of TV: The Lessons of Gore Vidal, and Lamar Waldron and Thom Hartmann's Ultimate Sacrifice.
As a reader of most of his works, I appreciated his occasional comments on the writing of such greats as Myra Breckinridge, Washington D.C., and occasional references throughout the book on his life during the writing of other works.
But in the primary quest to learn more of Vidal's experiences, the reader is generously rewarded, with this reader at times nearly brought to tears, with other passages making me laugh a loud at his signature wit and sarcasm. Far more than entertaining, Point to Point Navigation delves into what this reader would consider painfully personal experiences, as well as Vidal's recounting of tidbits from the huge array of well known personalities he has known including among others Jack and Jacqueline Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Saul Bellow, Orson Welles, Greta Garbo, Federico Fellini, Elia Kazan, and Francis Ford Coppola.
My personal favorites of Vidal's memories of those he has known are of Tennessee Williams, Johnny Carson, Rudolph Nureyev, Paul Bowles and Amelia Earhart. Recollections of his father, Gene Vidal, were poignant. Of his mother, Vidal is extraordinary in his objective perception and awareness of her even from his youngest years (a most difficult task for most children even as adults).
For a man who is, as he has oft repeated, not his own subject, Vidal superbly permits the reader to observe the seasons of his life, heart and mind: taking us on a journey from the spring, summer, autumn and now into the winter of his life, even venturing into dreams of Edgewater, Howard Auster, and his father.
Both throughout the writing of the memoir and the years covered, a number of Vidal's friends and acquaintances of his age-range, die...with the notification or recollection thereof resulting in yet more memories and thoughts.
Vidal begins with prose reminiscent of his Screening History, with several stories regarding his youth including memories of the army's dispersion of the First World War veterans at a Boners' camp in 1932 at Anacostia Flats of which Vidal always remembered, causing him to be alert to all films regarding the French and Russian revolutions; his fascination with twins or "doubleness," including commentary upon the film The Prince and the Pauper"; and memories of his favorite theaters and the films he viewed and which stayed with him sometimes for a lifelong effect. Later he ventures into his decision and details of his two campaigns for public office (1960 & 1982).
Willing to share even the most personal experience of the loss of his partner of fifty-three years, Howard Auster, Point to Point Navigation was particularly beautiful because of Vidal's joyful memories of Auster (told in a perfect "past present" tense to use one of Vidal's terms), his sharing of their time during Auster's illness, Vidal's references following Auster's death of the plans for trips or celebrations which will never be realized, as well as Vidal's poignant reflections on death and grief.
It is because of Vidal's willingness to share such deep personal experiences and observations of his beautiful friendship with Howard Auster, that I began this review with Twain's quote upon grief. I was particularly touched by Vidal's references of the "we" (he and Auster) now having become the singular "I, " except, of course, in Vidal's memories where the "we" remains as if in the seeming present...making such recollections of their years and travels together all the more poignant and conveying to the reader the joy of such deep friendship.
Vidal has indeed been the "Fruit of Eden" for many (a phrase Tennessee Williams noted in a letter to Vidal). May he never deviate from his thus far ever so accurate point to point navigation. Despite what may transpire in these dire days of "the last empire," may he stand firm, without compromise, behind the strong message he has consistently spoken and written for years.
In summary, 'Point to Point Navigation,' as with 'Palimpsest,' brought to my mind and heart Grieg's Piano Concerto in A Minor, Adagio, a composition reminiscent to me for years of Vidal's life from childhood to the man now in his eighties. A life of solitude amidst the many around him...a life of reflection amidst worldly distraction...a life of truth in a world of lies. A life well-lived, and through which we may all gain more wisdom, intellectual insight, and knowledge with Point to Point Navigation being one more piece in a lifetime of literary work I highly recommend.
on December 28, 2006
If name dropping bothers you, you will not want to read this book, for most of the author's best friends belong to the Who's Who of the 20th century. And if egotism and self-glorification annoy, you will have even more reason not to open this book. But then let's be open-minded, in memoirs the Self always plays the starring role, and in Gore Vidal's case, he always shines and often outshines some of the 20th century's most interesting characters.
Vidals list of friends and acquaintances include Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Anais Nin, Johnny Carson, Rudolph Nureyev, Eleanor Roosevelt, Paul Newman, Orson Welles, Saul Bellow, JFK, Princess Grace, Princess Margaret, Amelia Earhart, Greta Garbo, Federico Fellini...just to name a few. One notices that most of these people are no longer among the living and Vidal, now 82 and in failing health, is pondering his own journey "toward the door marked Exit."
There is no continuous narrative in this book. The stories jump from the Hudson Valley to the Hollywood Hills to Ravello and back again. It zooms back and forth in time as well with 30 and 50 year jumps, so the metaphor of point to point navigation is apt. I have read only a few of Vidal's novels (Kalki, Messiah, Myra Breckenridge, Creation) but I have read, I think, most of his essays. Some critics predict that Vidal's American chronicle series of novels are his best work (I couldn't finish them.) but I believe that his essays will be his lasting legacy.
Vidal's essays are always witty, observant, and his prose is always a precision instrument. He often repeats himself, especially in this book. He recognizes that his memory is failing and wonders out loud whether he has already told some these anecdotes. But the telling is always entertaining. He alwalys consults his master, Montaigne: "..describe what you see, not how you feel." ( That's approximate, I'm quoting from memory which also has lapses.)
Although many of his essays are glib and supercilious, there is a moving and heartfelt account of his companion of 53 years, Howard Auster. Auster has been mentioned before over the course of Vidal's long career but this is the first time Vidal has written about him at any length. Towards the end of his life when Auster asks, "Didn't it go by awfully fast?" Vidal's reply was, "We had been happy and the gods cannot bear the happiness of mortals."
In an elegiac tone, not only with Auster's death but the deaths of most of his friends, Vidal is readying himself for his own departure. He had thought of calling this book "Between Obituaries." All things considered, this is still a wonderful if gloomy memoir of one of the century's most brilliant literary careers.
"No other writer has peered so intently under the hood of American Society. None can match his uncanny gift for "telling us what we want to know' about public life, including politics, theatre and the movies. Three worlds he has noted where 'no one is under oath'. But this author kept one subject under cover: himself. His new book is a sad, spotty chronicle that would suggest Gore is stuck in a fog from a dwindling set of landmarks. Vidal's' imagination has always been able to get into the past. With his first memoir, Palimpsest, Vidal finally took the witness stand." James Marcus
None of us know much about Gore Vidal, he likes it that way. His two memoirs have finally put sight on himself, and the people he liked and those he loved. Gore's wit could cut someone, usually politicians, to the core without them even realizing they had a sliver. However, with his contemporaries, authors,per say, he is even tempered and respectful. His stories about Tennessee Williams, whom he adored, but wrote about with sarcasm and satire are ones to savor. As are his stories about and with Johnny Carson. Carson and Gore liked each other and when Gore appeared on 'The Tonight' show, that was what television was all about. There are witty remembrances of Paul Bowles, Federico Fellini, Amelia Earhart, and Jackie Onassis. Gore Vidal's father had a 'fling' with Amelia Earhart and this inside is a story in itself. And, the stories of Saul Bellow, 'a man of Bentha glimpsed checking out some sexy nuns with Albetto Moravia.' Of course, the fact that Gore Vidal had entrance to the Camelot known as the Kennedy Administration, was his forte. He and the Kennedy's had spats, but one of the final chapters in this memoir is about Kennedy and his death and this portrayal has credence.
The most painful portion of this book is the time and death of Vidal's companion Howard Austen. Vidal gives s a vivid portrayal of his life just before Howard's death, and the final moments of Howard's life, when he checks for breathing 'by passing a hand in front of his nose and mouth'. These are poignant and give us insight into the man that is Gore Vidal. We learn about Gore Vidal's entry into politics and why it did not work out. The writing of his forty-six books, his philosophy of life and the writers he revered. Gore Vidal loved his grandfather, the blind senator, T.P. Gore.
"In due course, he moved west to the Indian territories and helped organize Oklahoma as a state where he served as their first senator from 1907 through 1937. His last years were spent working as an attorney for several Indian tribes that had been cheated of their land by the US Government."
"Gore Vidal has the looks of a prince, the connections of a prince, more wit than any prince, and a prose style that should be the envy of the dwindling few who realize that prose style matters." Larry Mc Murtry.
This is a book to be revered for all of us Gore Vidal fans. Gore Vidal is now eighty-one and his memoirs may end at book two, but a trilogy would be most welcome. Highly Recommended. prisrob 12/09/06
In this what Vidal calls his final memoir that loosely covers events in his life from 1964 to the present, a continuation of PALIMPSEST-- more or less-- he, in his words, navigates "so often with a compass made inoperable by weather." The memoir goes back and forth from Vidal's comments about his personal life to art to world events. If you get bogged down in trying to sort out all the marriages and divorces that make him somehow related to Jackie Kennedy, just keep reading for anon you'll know why he has little use for Jimmy Carter (he sent Carter a telegram after the aborted rescue attempt of the hostages in Iran asking him to resign) but admires Princess Margaret: "she was far too intelligent for her station in life."
Vidal writes with candor and for the most part kindness about a great many people he has known: Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Joan Didion, Truman Capote ("no fact ever gave him pause"), Tennessee Williams, Greta Garbo, Eleanor Roosevelt, Fellini, Nureyev, Johnny Carson et al. He has not mellowed in old age-- he is now 81 and "waiting for diabetes to do its gaudy final thing"-- in his view of what is wrong with American politics. The grandson of a U. S. senator as well as a candidate for both the United States Congress and Senate, Vidal certainly speaks with knowledge and authority. He finds C-SPAN the only "exciting and useful American television" now available to the public as it "affords us the only living look we will ever have of a government that is more and more secretive and remote not to mention repressive."
Vidal's account of the illness and death of Howard Auster, his partner ("as the politically correct call it") of 53 years is moving but without self-pity. The most difficult thing about grief is that those that remain have no one to talk to and "familiar rooms" are now empty. Emily Dickinson would describe the loneliness as that "awful leisure."
As always, we are reminded that Mr. Vidal is a master of the English language. And certainly we have to revere someone who says that Barbara Bush looks like George Washington and will have his entire library of 8,000 books shipped from the Italian coast to California when he moves to the United States.
on December 3, 2009
Gore Vidal makes many fascinating points in POINT TO POINT NAVIGATION that I believe all can identify with on our journey to the grave. I bought the complete audio version of this book because I feel the emotion in Mr Vidal's voice, though he keeps it veiled in a professional, human warmth that listeners of audio books most appreciate. I admire him for speaking his mind whether others like it or not. His brilliance, experience and genius have long inspired my respect for him. The detailed death of his true love, after the great many years and experiences they shared, moved me not only to tears but to face the fact that there is no escaping the inevitable. I'm also reminded how young we remain within our bodies chained to time. Of all Gore Vidal's works, many of which I am a fan, this is the one that lets you in. If it is true that one can only respect others as much as one respects one's self, then I feel my self-respect has evolved through the experiences and deep insights shared by Gore Vidal in his points of navigation. He has stirred my emotions, stimulated my intellect, and awakened me through this profound book. I urge all to absorb the wisdom of a man who knows more about life -- not to mention the hidden side of those in power controlling life -- than any writer of our era. Apart from my standing ovation for POINT TO POINT NAVIGATION, I must admit to the sorrow I feel over our dilemma on this dying planet. I guess Mr Vidal really got under my skin with things he left unsaid because of being too sad to say. I wish we could all value each other as if we were a close family stuck on a sinking ship. I wish we could throw the gold overboard in favor of prolonging as many lives as possible. Another human in your arms must feel better than the loneliness of an award or riches. Through listening to Gore Vidal, I feel embraced by someone who knows. We're all in this together. Whatever faults we may find in others originate in our own mind and can be replaced with those better thoughts we have that make what's left of life worth living. Consider this review as another point in a navigation that involves each of us. Bravo, Gore Vidal!
"Point To Point Navigation" is a quite different book than "Palimpsest", Gore Vidal's last volume of memoirs. It's shorter, and the chapters are briefer and terser. There really isn't a chronological order to his stories. After starting with his childhood memories of going to the movies (still, he says, his favorite activity in life), he tells of decade to decade of his amazingly eventful times as the mood strikes him. And the mood is often wintry, indeed, in his 81st year. He doesn't mention this in the book, but news reports say he is now mostly confined to a wheelchair. And three years ago his longtime partner Howard Austen died a hard death from lung cancer, about which Vidal writes with unique (for him) openness and feeling. This is clearly a book by an exhausted man, but one who can still draw blood with his words when he wants.
He remains a remarkable combination of tough-minded wisdom and extreme crankiness. He still writes the wittiest, most impeccable prose. It's a voice, filled with irony, learning and shrewd observation, that I find is impossible to dislodge from my head. As mortality looms for that important post-World War II generation (RIP, William Styron) I begin to really mourn the impending loss of so many of the great American writers I grew up reading--Vonnegut, Styron, Vidal, and, yes, his nemesis William F. Buckley. (There is a single, curious reference to Buckley in this book, when Vidal quotes a professor who opines that the two of them could be considered "national treasures." This is an opinion I have shared for quite some time.)
Probably my favorite parts of the book involve two friendships: with Johnny Carson (who Vidal calls "John"), and with Tennessee Williams, "the Glorious Bird." These are warm, funny chapters, that take a tone that is not usually associated with Vidal. (Although there is also considerable asperity in Vidal's accounts of Williams' recklessness with his own health and very well-being.) This is a book by a man who has consciously modeled his outlook on the classical civilizations about which he wrote in his underrated novel, "Creation." There is a large element of Stoicism to him. I respectfully disagree with the metaphor of his title; I think there are a few stars visible by which to navigate. But I still think his astringent voice has been very, very valuable in American letters.
on November 25, 2006
It has been a decade since Mr. Vidal pulblished his first memoir, "Palimpsest." Now in his 80's and feeling the approach of death, the author reminscences in short vignettes about his interesting life. The reader should be forewarned that a straight-forward chronology does not exist -- Mr. Vidal is in the mood to be telling stories and settling past debts (past book reviews, past slights, past political scores). His observations of human nature are just as withering as are his political observations in his historical novels ("Burr" - 1973; "1876" - 1976; "Lincoln" - 1984). The reader should set back and read, imaging that Mr. Vidal is sitting in a nearby chair, telling these tales.
on December 23, 2006
Read this book while drinking a bottle of brandy that someone had bought me for Christmas. As such, I can say that it starts off a bit lumpy but gets better as it goes along. The early parts recount stories any reader of Vidal has heard many times before. Then there is a harrowing description of the illness and death of his friend, Howard Auster; so harrowing, in fact, that I almost stopped reading. It seemed to me an old man's book. A book about being at the end of your life with nothing to say to those of us with a few miles left on the clock (other than things that are depressing). There is also a slightly off-putting feel of self-parody in the way that Vidal is ego-centric. He always is, of course, but it's often tempered and witty and even charming, but here thin.
Anyway, this was all early on. I don't know if it was the brandy at work or not, but quite soon it was back to Vidal's usual enjoyable writing. Recounting stories about Paul Bowles, Williams, etc. The bit about Fellini made me laugh a great deal. The brandy was really starting to take hold by that point.
And yes, I still feel the effects as I write this review. Unlike Isherwood, I won't wait for the hangover.
on March 8, 2013
I am an admirer of Vidal and have read his two autobiographical books. The only complaint I have is that he repeats too much of his childhood experiences in each book. Once would have been enough. This book was supposed to take up his life after he had become an adult. However a few chapters were devoted to his childhood. I didn't need to read that again. It was covered extensively in Palimpsest.
When it comes to Gore Vidal's latest, and, no doubt, last memoir, "Point to Point Navigation," the Publishers Weekly review gets it right: "readers' reactions will be determined by how they already feel about him."
I like Vidal. Even when I disagree with him, I can't help but be impressed by the wit of his arguments and the style in his writing. And I like "Point to Point Navigation," even though it seems like something of a cheat, opening as it does with four chapters - 27 pages - recycled verbatim from 1992's "Screening History," a small gem about the impact that movies have had on his life and society at large. Vidal explains his action by saying (in parentheses) that the book "has been allowed to go out of print and so now I reprise its principal argument."
The appearance of old material seems spookily prescient in some ways, as if Vidal, now 81, can't be bothered restating anew that which he has already said. After all, time is short. It also seems to be a testament to his recent admission that "I no longer find myself waking up every morning with the compulsion to put pen to paper.''
The spectre of death hangs heavy over this volume, with Vidal devoting many pages to his late partner, Howard Austen, as well as reminiscing about Johnny Carson, on whose late night show I was introduced to this man of letters in the early '70s. There are times when his memory fails him (as does his proofreader). He tells us his father died in February 1969, yet claims he lived to see man walk on the moon, an event that occurred five months later. Elsewhere, he takes on his own biographers, dismissing Fred Kaplan's "authorized" account of his life as inaccurate, but expressing some admiration for recent books by Dennis Altman, among others. The general tone is one of a man attempting to set the record straight and to tie up loose ends.
Vidal is sometimes dismissed these days as an eccentric who no longer deserves to be taken seriously. He is, after all, a "conspiracy theorist" who has questioned, in such books as "Dreaming War," the official story about the events that led to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. But Vidal is unbowed. "Ours is a society riddled with plots of every kind..." he writes before delving, once more, into a conspiracy theory related to the JFK assassination.
"Point to Point Navigation" is rather scattershot, jumping from one subject to another without the benefit of nice comfortable segues, but that tends to be true of memory itself. If you like Vidal, you'll forgive the book its inconsistency, and be rewarded with a worthwhile read.
Brian W. Fairbanks