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Vidal pens a tale of time

The title of Gore Vidal's Point to Point Navigation refers to the dangerous feat of steering a ship without the benefit of a compass. It also says something about the zigzagging course of Vidal's richly eventful life. And it suggests a vision of seafaring in which celebrated figures from the realms of art and politics serve as landmarks. While he name-drops captivatingly about these other luminaries, Vidal reserves for himself the all-important role of North Star.

As a memoir (his second, after Palimpsest), Point to Point Navigation is as meandering as its title indicates. That's a compliment: It takes an adroit raconteur to skip so entertainingly among seemingly unrelated subjects without losing track of each anecdote's destination.

Had it been organized more rigorously, this book would have suffered. Great gaps and inconsistencies would have shown. As it is, Vidal's immense charm turns sketchiness and obliqueness into unexpected virtues. An example: Among the many photographs included in Point to Point Navigation is a flattering (but of course) picture of Vidal, in his dashing mid 30s, hovering over "Claire Luce," as the caption misspells her first name. (It was Clare.)

Both are in elegant evening clothes, and she gazes up at him raptly. But Luce is not mentioned anywhere in the text of the book. And they are at a 1961 party that Vidal has not otherwise described. What is this picture doing here? The point, to the extent that there is one, is that Vidal was president of the jury at the Venice Film Festival nearly 30 years later. This picture was taken in what was once the study of Robert Browning. "Each has just misquoted him," says the caption. And that's that: a brief, beguiling and amusingly convoluted, free-floating memory. Its sheer irrelevance to the rest of the book is what makes it fit so perfectly.

"Recently I observed to a passing tape recorder that I was once a famous novelist," Vidal writes with typical diffidence at the start of this book. "I am still here but the category is not." This strain of mock-facetious mourning is what gives Point to Point Navigation true ballast and keeps the author's stray memories from drifting off in all directions.

"Those of us whose careers began in the 20th century are now rapidly fleeing the 21st, with good reason," writes Vidal, who says he is in failing health and last month passed his 81st birthday. He considered calling this book Between Obituaries, again, with good reason.

Its most poignant passages describe the death of his beloved companion of 53 years, Howard Auster. Auster is interred in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, "as I shall be in due course," Vidal writes archly, "when I take time off from my busy schedule."

The farewell spirit extends to many lost friends and colleagues, summoned in Vidal's variously fond or feline moods, so that Susan Sontag is recalled as "the winner of so many skirmishes in her long campaign against oblivion." If there is a caustic, competitive tinge to his appraisal of her work, there is also wry appreciation that her final resting place in Paris is close to those of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. "Not too bad for a graduate of Hollywood High," he writes.

Anybody with Roosevelt-Kennedy-Fellini-Earhart-Garbo-Capote-Tennessee Williams connections (and many more) could have turned his autobiography into something reasonably glamorous. But Vidal, who does not have to overreach for these references, manages both to exploit and upstage them all. His supercilious wit, which is as much vaunted by Vidal as it is by anyone else, remains by far this book's most alluring attribute.

One of Vidal's great stylistic gifts is the ability to structure his thoughts the way others build umbrellas. Consider this slow-opening sentence about "a transAtlantic lady" named Alice Pleydell-Bouverie: "She was to the end more English than American and lived in a sort of English manor house near the village of Rhinebeck on the Hudson River not far from her endlessly irritable and irritating brother Vincent Astor, who owned much of New York City." In microcosm that illustrates how the book works, Vidal starts with small observations and builds them up until they ascend to the proper grandiosity - and grandeur.

Like any man who can write of himself that "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," Vidal is quite interested in his own legend. He spends the least interesting part of this book quibbling with critics and biographers, and casually mentioning that no small number of them have taken great interest in his life and work.

In the end he is his own best advertisement, with a lifetime's worth of stinging observations and sharp, combative insights to his credit. Add vanity, hubris and audacity on the same scale, and you have a man whose new memoir is unmissable. Surely he would be the first to agree.


Point To Point Navigation

By Gore Vidal

Doubleday, 277 pages, $26