Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 440
Palimpsest: A Memoir chronicles the first thirty-nine years in the life of its author. As the title indicates, the book reads like a manuscript with more than one layer of text. Repeatedly the memoirist abridges his own narrative to insert another’s biographical account of the same event, only to return...
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- Critical Essays
Palimpsest: A Memoir chronicles the first thirty-nine years in the life of its author. As the title indicates, the book reads like a manuscript with more than one layer of text. Repeatedly the memoirist abridges his own narrative to insert another’s biographical account of the same event, only to return again to his own admittedly imperfect recollections. The book is, therefore, a retelling of the author’s early life through the use of personal material superimposed over the public and private memories of others.
Through his novels, plays, and essays, Vidal has established a reputation as a major social critic, and as Palimpsest makes clear, his position stems from a double perspective. Gore Vidal is an insider by birth but an outsider by sexual preference. On one hand, his grandfather was a powerful senator from Oklahoma; his father was the director of the Department of Air Commerce under Franklin D. Roosevelt; and he shared with Jacqueline Kennedy the same wealthy stepfather. On the other hand, his avowed bisexuality and, in particular, the homoerotic content of his novel The City and the Pillar (1948) caused him, by his own assertion, to be blackballed by the literary establishment and relegated to writing for such popular media as television and the movies. Thus, Vidal by birth is connected to many of the most important figures in modern American politics; yet, as a result of his sexual status, he serves as observer rather than participant in the great events of his time.
Other than Vidal himself, the most important character in Palimpsest is Jimmie Trimble, a young man with whom the author had a brief romantic relationship before Jimmie’s untimely death in World War II. The ghost of Trimble haunts the seventy-year-old memoirist, and references to his “other half” are interlaced throughout the narrative. Indeed, it is Vidal’s theory that the “twin is the closest that one can ever come toward human wholeness with another,” and the reader is left to infer that Vidal’s lifelong inability to develop full spiritual and physical relationships with others stems from this lost opportunity of his youth. The author’s subsequent interactions, such as a long friendship with playwright Tennessee Williams, an affair with erotic diarist Anaïs Nin, and a one-night stand with novelist Jack Kerouac, were only fragments of the fulfillment that would have been his had Trimble lived.
As the recorder of his own past, Vidal asserts the privilege of the writer to get the last word. Thus, in this portrait of the artist as a young man, the author, who wields the pen, consciously holds the key to his own identity.