In Ravello, as in Duluth, Gore Vidal's Bile Is Still Flowing

updated 08/15/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/15/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Gore Vidal is on the coast. Not that coast. This is the Amalfi coast, on the western shore of Italy, about 40 miles south of Naples. Here, in the ancient, terraced town of Ravello, 1,200 feet above the Gulf of Salerno, sprawl six sun-streaked acres of vineyards and lemon and olive groves, the setting for Vidal's home away from L.A. It is a tall, five-story, spacious, brilliantly white villa called La Rondinaia (the Swallow's Nest), inhabited by Vidal, 57, and his longtime friend, Howard Austen, 54, a U.S. businessman who looks after Gore's affairs and makes sure that the "farm" is well tended.

Ravello is a fine place for Vidal to live and work. In his study, a high-ceilinged library filled with books and periodicals, he sits at a broad, cluttered table. There, in longhand on lined yellow legal pads, he has written some of his 19 novels, including his latest assault on American culture, Duluth (Random House, $13.95). Gore's surrealistic attack on the petty values, sexual morals and unbridled crime in poor Duluth (which turns out to be a semi-fictional city bordered by both Lake Erie and Mexico) lacks the bite of Myra Breckinridge or Kalki, but has garnered the measured respect of critics.

The author himself has never set foot in Duluth and has no intention of doing so. He prefers the seductive confines of Ravello. There life is mellow. Vidal finishes a day's writing in a leisurely three hours or so. After that, he reads—Wordsworth or Milton—and then makes his daily journey, walking across the hills and down the terraces to the beach at Amalfi. He swims, picks up the English-language newspapers and takes the 5:30 bus back to Ravello.

In this small, close-knit community, nearly everybody seems to like and respect Vidal, and he returns the compliment with seigneurial geniality. To the local priest and the mayor, to the owners of the trattorias and to the waiters, to the taxi drivers and shopkeepers, even to the local newspapers, he is known simply and affectionately as lo Scrittore, the writer.

This recognition is especially pleasing to Vidal, for though he is an American of considerable accomplishment, he is not always honored in his own country. He is, after all, a cynic, the quintessential outsider, the great disliker, and these roles he cultivates with all the cleverness of an astute politician. He doesn't like Truman Capote, (the two had a vicious fight in 1975 over Capote's comments about Gore in a Playgirl article), Republicans, Democrats, Ronald Reagan, Norman Mailer (who attacked Vidal because of differing viewpoints on feminism in 1971), the rich, the Pentagon, New York City, corporations, bankers, the New York Times, English professors and the intellectual Establishment. He is a man on the offensive, and his weapon is a keen, corkscrew mind with more turns than the hazardous road to Ravello. With only the slightest smile of approval, he recalls that a critic once labeled him a "gentleman bitch."

On a recent weekend Vidal and a visitor roamed through the winding, narrow streets of Ravello, stopping here and there for a soft drink or a beer, and at a trattoria for dinner. Along the way, lo Scrittore scattered random musings about everything from politics to pop culture.

On the Presidency: The people who run the country hire a very intelligent lawyer who turns out to be somewhat weird, Richard Nixon. He picks Ford, who doesn't really count. Then they get a twice-born Christian, Southern liberal—whatever that means—and he shoots his foot off. Then they give up. They say, all right, let's get the best cue-card reader in the country. With Reagan one has the sense of being trapped inside a movie. There he is on the morning news at 72 and there he is on the evening news at 72. There he is on the late show at 35. And on the afternoon movies, there he is again at 32. I can see him as sort of a Hindenburg President. Hindenburg was so old when he was in power that one day when they brought him his lunch at his desk where he was signing some papers, he signed his sandwich. I can see Reagan's second term. "The President this morning signed his lunch...."

On the literary Establishment: I know very few writers. But I'm always in danger of being co-opted into the world of hustlers. In 1976 I received a very pompous telegram saying I'd been elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters—200 living immortals. I sent them back a telegram saying that the Institute does itself an enormous honor in electing me, but I cannot accept as I already belong to the Diners Club.

On Hollywood: I enjoy the toy movies, like Return of the Jedi and Star Wars. As for the Bond movies, they are so old-fashioned! I remember the Bond movies when I was a child. They were silent then.

On Gore Vidal: What I like least about myself is my belligerence. I just love fighting. I'd have thought it would have been better, all in all, for my blood pressure were I less awash in adrenalin. At any rate, it is not wise to be like this, so I'm not wise. I could be a lot happier. I could be the senator from Aerospace taking bribes, and be quite happy."

Suddenly, a high-pitched scream knifes through the night air. It is only an automobile burglar alarm gone berserk. "Ah," says Gore Vidal, "For a moment I thought it was Truman Capote, reading from his collected works."

A gentleman bitch with an ear like that can't be all bad.

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