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I sydney or the bush?
The novelist talks about Australia to LOIS MILES
GORE VIDAL, author, critic, television personality and master of the American lecture circuit, lounged back on the blue velvet sofa in his rooftop flat in Rome. An ele°ant figure with sleek collar length grey hair, he is 50 this year and inclined to dwell on middle
"Australia? 1 liked it so much I'm going back there to buy some land." he said.
Vidal is a sophisticated world traveller with a beautiful house at Ravello on the
steep slope overlooking the blue bay of Amalfi, south of Naples, and an apartment in the historic centre of Rome (St Peter's dome in the background and from the terrace a view of the Roman ruins), but in his brief visit last December he caught Australian fever.
"It's like America in the '40s.
Everything sort of works, is sort of new. It's
without stress - well, nowhere near what
America and Western Europe are like
now," he told me.
"Australia is in a sort of time warp - and it's politically interesting. It is one of the few societies that could make good.
"lt has energy, enough people but not too many. Most countries are too crowded, have race divisions. Unless they inherit our Anglo-Saxon attitudes and ruin it . . . as they are apt to do.
At the moment he is optimistic and continues to list Australia's virtues: "Space, clean air. not as good as it was I'm told, but still better than most places.
"I like the idea of having a farm.
PM is "practical"
"The Australian Prime Minister strikes
me as being an essentially practical man. I don't think ideologues make much of an impression in Anglo-Saxon politics. However, practical men always run the risk of being called opportunists.
"Now don't you misquote me. Don't say Gore Vidal calls Whitlam an opportunist. I didn't say it and anyway it is not really a bad thing."
Vidal, who has been living permanently m Italy since 1962, spends most of his time in Ravello and uses the Rome apartment for brief visits. Why Ravello?
"lt's the country. When you get middle-aged you tend to move out of the cities." he said.
"We (Vidal and friend Howard Austin)
make our own wine, grow our own vegetables - a blissful life."
In Italy he combines the best of the country life with the other attractions Europe has to offer: a trip north for the theatre festival at Spoleto and to see Baryshnikov dance and later to Salzburg, parties in Rome and "dinner with my
communist friends" to discuss the latest elections.
Politics figure largely in his life. He is a
socialist. You know, one of the comfortable kind.
"I hate possessions." he declares but he has two houses (admittedly leased) "done" by a decorator and full of objets d'art plus
5000 books ("I need reference books for my work. Even 'Myra Breckenridge' required a lot of research into old movies"). And he owns six acres of Italian land which he might build on one day.
He finds Australia's Labor government "awfully exciting." "A socialist govern- ment makes Australia very attractive.
.'I was impressed by the young men in Canberra - awfully sharp and informed. They could tell you all about the latest election figures in Albury. Australia
reminds me a bit of America's New Deal
when everyone with a brain could go to Washington and expect to be heard.
"It's a small country, a manageable place, if I were 20 years younger I would go there and be part of it."
Are you part of the life in Italy? "It is just a place where I am."
Vidal came to Rome because of the
American Academy library, "one of the
best ancient libraries in the world."
He has always been interested in Roman history: his grandfather was a
classical scholar and he claims his mother's
family (her name is Nina Gore Vidal) were
the direct descendants of a Roman
legionary stationed north of Venice.
"Roman history seemed much more immediate than American, which seemed
so dull the way it's taught in schools."
And "Burr," his latest novel, based on the American vice-President who was
accused of treason? "A singlehanded effort to save our history from our historians."
His next book, due out in the northern spring, takes one of the characters from "Burr" for a new look at 1876 - "a gilded age novel."
One of Vidal's books, "Julian." a novel based on the fourth century Roman emperor, provided the fuel for a small battle in one-upmanship between him and
Whitlam in which Vidal seems to have had the last word.
"Mr Whitlam had read 'Julian' four or
five years ago but he had made some notes. He disagreed about the relationship between Julian's wife and the emperor." he
said. "I came back and checked out the
facts at the library and wrote a letter to him in late silver-age Greek."
"Do you read Greek? Oh. you shouldn't have asked that question. 1 like to give the impression of reading Greek."
And have you received a reply? "No, Whitlam is still looking up his dictionary." Vidal replied, looking very pleased.
"Rome is dead"
From Mr Whitlam it was a short step back to Australia. Apart from Australia, a young country - a place where "there is still a chance" to get things right - Vidal thinks the world is falling apart.
"That's not a figure of speech, it is a visible figure of reality. There are too many people, too little food, too little raw
materials. The human race will survive but two-thirds of it will suffer. Australia will
really be a blessed place. The demerit of Australia used to be that it's all very beautiful but it's all very small town. But Sydney's a real city. It is more intel- lectually alive than Rome. Rome is dead."
Dead? Not while there's television
specials for Gore Vidal to do.
"I've just done three. The last one was for the BBC. I am usually photographed in
front of the forum but this time I decided
to do something different so we went around the slums, the parking lots. The
backside of Rome."
Dead? Not while there's Fellini.
"I'm writing the English script for his
new film: 'Casanova'."
Dead? Not while there is Gore Vidal
answering his constantly ringing telephone, accepting invitations and being lionised.