THESE THREE BOOKS -- a collection of interviews, an act of homage, and an autobiography -- pay tribute to the peculiar notion that the way a man writes can be the touchstone of his life. Gore Vidal, novelist, television guest and essayist, says frankly that he wishes to be remembered as "the person who wrote the best sentences of his time." Critic Edmund Wilson, once described as "sentenced to the sentence," even in his last years composed six pages a day of forceful, periodic prose. And Peter Quennell, self-designated "historical litterateur," still writes so purely that he winces at the thought of needlessly repeating a preposition.
This link between character and style is hardly new (le style, as Buffon remarked in the 17th century, est L'homme meme), but for Vidal there is a particularly intimate connection.As he reminds us throughout Views From a Window, he is a self-made man -- without academic degree, disdainful of convention, sexually unrestrained, a free lance in several literal and metaphorical ways. His conversations, thematically organized by Robert J. Stanton, are at once detached, almost Olympian, in their epigrammatic inevitability, while also committedly forthright and passionate in their criticism of the ways of the world. Vidal's literary genealogy, as he says to one interviewer, includes "Petronius, Juvenal, Apuleius -- then Shakespeare -- then Peacock, Meredith, James, Proust," each a critic who cast a cold eye on his society and yet upheld the values of urbanity against the onslaught of the philistine.
By contrast, Edmund Wilson derives from the line of the great 19th-century journalists of letters -- Sainte-Beuve, Saintsbury, Poe. He writes and speaks directly, without stylistic extavagance -- though his stance is cooly seignorial, to use Richard Hauer Costa's word in the slight, but engaging Edmund Wilson: Our Neighbor From Talcottville. Wilson's talk during his last 10 years could be rather drunken -- he seems to have lived on Johnny Walker Red and little else -- but it remained the potent distillation of a lifetime of reading and reflection.
Costa's memoir adds only a few touches to the Wilson self-portrait in Upstate; in part, because this Syracuse professor doesn't seem to have known his neighbor all that well. He tried repeatedly to discuss H. G. Wells while the old critic wanted to talk about Henry James. But out of these cross-currents emerge little touches that humanize the legend -- Wilson shuffled rather than walked, found Doris Day "irresistibly attractive," adored Bolero, freely admitted that he'd never read Don Quixote, gobbled brownies, peanut brittle and other sweets, viewed The French Connection just before he died.
Vidal, keeping to his own high standards, never allows himself such ordinary humanity. Readers wishing to learn more about the intimate doings of the author of Myra Breckinridge will have to keep looking. In these interviews -- taken from various magazine and television appearances -- Vidal is always on stage, perpetuating a persona that crosses Will Rogers with Oscar Wilde. (Nevertheless, an inate kindness shines through in his forbearance with votary Stanton, an over-earnest academic who regularly offers inane critical remarks or embarrassing self-revelations.) Though Vidal may scant the personally sensational, his observations -- on the sexual life, population growth, the political climate, his own oeuvre -- remain at once sensible and scandalous: "In America, bookchat has always been written by people who were not good enough to write about sports . . . Change occurs all the time. Nothing ever remains the same, with the possible exception, as someone said, of the avant-garde theatre."
"To make the past live," notes Vidal elsewhere, "is a lovely task." Both Wilson and Vidal share this task with biographer Peter Quennell. In Views From a Window Vidal repeatedly comments on his historical novels Julian and Burr as summation points in his career -- the first a paean to the values of the late pagan world, the second an examination of the nature of politics in the early days of the Republic. Wilson's magisterial works of interpretation, such as To the Finland Station, an overview of the theory and practice of socialism, and Patriotic Gore, an account of literary responses to the American Civil War, also kept alive what he once called "the historical study of literature" in the era of New Criticism.
But more than either of the others, Peter Quennell has specialized in the historical and biographical essay. Like Wilson, he has been accused of haute vulgarisation, of producing charming profiles rather than scholarly, definitive lives. There is some truth to this criticism, if criticism it be. But Quennell is to biography what Auden was to occasional verse -- a writer who can make an ordinary bit of writing into a little work of art. He accomplishes this through an exquisite prose, remarkable for its vivid detail and controlled syntax. (It was he, rather than his Cyril Connolly, who should have been the disciple of Logan Pearsall Smith, the advocate of pure English.) No one who has read Byron in Italy, Ruskin: The Portrait of a Prophet, or the brief sketches collected in Casanova in London and The Singular Preference can fail to appreciate his graceful style.
The main criticism that can be made of Quennell's memoir The Wanton Chase, a follow-up to The Marble Foot and to the often autobiographical The Sign of the Fish, is that such find writing seems rather understated after Vidal's flagrant epicureanism and Wilson's seignorial vigor. Somewhat rambling in structure, the book's chief joys are shrewd, brightly lit portraits of Cyril Connolly, Wyndham Lewis, Diana and Duff Cooper, Antoine Bibesco, Henry de Montherlant, Ian and Ann Fleming. Here, pinned to a moment in time, is the portly Connolly on his way to do a bit of firewatching during the Blitz: "I well remember how I saw him leave the house carrying a case of cigars, a hot-water bottle, and a heavy tartan rug." Quennell also has the knack of recalling tantalizing bits of historic trivia: "While classical art was being rediscovered, enthusiasts would frequently fall in love with, and now and then, we learn, make love to statues."
Love and sex, often somewhat bizarre, play an important part in Quennell's life, as they do in those of Wilson and Vidal. Vidal claims to have tried everything, excluding only animals and small children. Costa shyly asks Mary Pcolar, Wilson's sometime amanuensis and Hungarian teacher, whether she ever slept with the septuagenarian critic. (She insists their relationship was not of that kind; but adds enigmatically that the full truth about it will never be known.)
Like Wilson, Quennell has always had wives or girlfriends, usually mysterious and Proustianly elusive, often of the demimonde. Winston Churchill, having heard that Quennell was writing the biography of Rushkin, once mumbled, "Ah, Rushkin . . . Rushkin -- a man with a shingularly unfortunate shex -life"; much the same remark, though for different reasons, might be made of Quennell himself, who seems to have regularly loved and lost. For a while he had a liaison with a woman of remarkably literary tastes: "I remember exchanging a complete Jane Austen, published by the Oxford University Press with some admirable plates, for the hour or two of warmth and happiness she might have otherwise refused me."
Seldom are the pleasures of literature so tangible! Still, anyone who opens these three books will be able to spend a few hours with companions of charm, intelligence and culture -- and of a kind who are far too rare.