The idea of an aspiring ‘serious’ novelist, truly committed to his or her craft, being able to afford a small flat, let alone an imposing, persona-defining home, is increasingly improbable. Yet, once upon a time, Somerset Maugham had the Villa Mauresque in Cap Ferrat, Edith Wharton had the Mount in Massachusetts, and Walter Scott, of course, had Abbotsford. Literary writers all – it scarcely seems believable.
Perhaps the last great author’s home/artistic salon was ‘La Rondinaia’, Gore Vidal’s villa in Ravello, on the Amalfi Coast. Clinging to a cliff face, two hundred metres above the Mediterranean, La Rondinaia (‘The Swallow’s Nest’) was built in 1925 and bought by Vidal in 1972. He sold it in 2006 and, though it’s firmly closed to the public, I was lucky enough to get the chance to wander around it not so long ago. Even in its current, neglected state, it’s an astonishing place and reflects his personality in ways he perhaps never quite intended.
I first became aware of Vidal when I saw him being interviewed on television by Clive James in the early 1990s. The aging heartthrob appearance and patrician drawl made their customary impression. But it was what he said that really captured my attention. He spoke about wealth inequality and the deformation of politics by corporate greed. He predicted a significant increase in tensions between the Muslim world and the West. He dismissed US Presidential elections as meaningless, disputatious carnivals in which the two candidates were funded by the same elite interests and represented merely different wings of a single ‘property party’. This was all heady stuff to a naive Ayrshire teenager. Even at the time, I noticed that TV critics who reviewed the interview scolded him for being so cynical. Yet everything he said has since entered the mainstream political dialogue and seems like plain commonsense. What strikes me now is not so much his prescience as his guts. He said what he thought and didn’t care whom he annoyed.
I can’t say I went on to read everything he wrote, but I read a good deal, in particular the essay collection, United States, and the memoir, Palimpsest. I even met him, albeit very briefly, at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Given his waspish reputation, I was incredibly nervous, but what struck me was how patient he was with those of us in the signing queue, paying close attention to our babbled remarks. Unlike many acclaimed authors, he seemed not to have lost the ability to listen.
Though I continued to follow his media appearances into his seventies and eighties, I watched with sadness as too much booze caused the prescient scepticism to degenerate into hectoring paranoia. When he died, in 2012, I despaired of the media obituaries, most of which portrayed him as a camp purveyor of bitchy put-downs. But it had also occurred to me for some time that he was, at heart, a rather old-fashioned person, whose reputation for coldness derived in part from his belief that the public sphere was the place for reasoned argument and nothing else. In an era when effusive, emotional ‘sincerity’ was prized above all else – even when concealing absolute vacuity – he was bound to end up out of step.
And then I found myself in Amalfi, on a package holiday with my wife. Having done some research in advance, I contacted local hotelier, Vincenzo Palumbo, the current owner of La Rondinaia, and, via a mixture of dogged persistence and rudimentary Italian, managed to tag along while he showed the property to some rich Americans he was courting as investors.
Vidal’s guests included Mick Jagger, Greta Garbo, Springsteen and Hilary Clinton
Having assembled with the others in the main square of Ravello, my wife and I set off on a route that I’d read about in numerous profiles of the great man: through the discreet iron gate then along a cliff-side path, shaded by drooping wisteria and overgrown with chestnut trees, their fallen husks crunching underfoot. Citrus groves and a small vineyard, bordered by swaying cypress trees, shelved away steeply. Far below lay the Gulf of Salerno. Mingled scents of rosemary, lavender and thyme filled the air. We followed steps down to a pool area (the pool itself drained to reveal its startling, dark blue tiles) and finally arrived at the graceful entrance, where a statue of the Virgin Mary clasped its hands in an alcove above the door.
Inside, the house appeared slightly smaller at first than I’d expected from seeing it in various documentaries (a judiciously chosen camera lens can turn a small tiled bathroom into the Palace of Mirrors at Versailles). But it was deceptive, following the classical Roman layout, whereby numerous unsuspected rooms fan out from narrow corridors. And the architectural details didn’t disappoint: barrel-vaulted ceilings, elegant archways, terracotta tiled floors, Tufa stone fireplaces. On the dining room wall hung a first century AD mosaic of a hippocampus, which must be worth an absolute fortune and would, in any country other than Italy, have long since been sequestered in a museum.
Beautiful as all this was, though, the rooms lay empty. The only exception was the study, still crammed with Vidal’s possessions, in the half-hearted intention of turning it into a museum. Copies of his books, some rain damaged, filled the shelves and several bottles of booze were on display on his writing desk, alongside a portable Olivetti. A portrait (the same one that appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1976) was propped against the fireplace. Elsewhere, there was tarpaulin over some of the windows, and bare wires hanging down the walls. Scaffolding covered parts of the façade and canvas sacks of debris were dotted around the place, along with an idle cement mixer. It seemed as if Palumbo’s dream of turning the place into a luxury boutique hotel and spa had long since foundered.
It was sad. As you moved around the neg-lected rooms and stepped onto the broad terrace, you could hear the laughing voices of yesteryear. Celebrity guests once included Paul Newman, Mick Jagger, Greta Garbo, Sting, Bruce Springsteen and Susan Sarandon. More stirringly, the house also played host to writers like Tennessee Williams and Italo Calvino. (The residents of Ravello refuse to be dissuaded from their assertion that Jackie Kennedy was a guest at the house, even though Vidal fell out with her long before he bought the property. Hilary Clinton, yes; Jackie O, no.)
But, in spite of the emptiness and general dilapidation, nothing could diminish the views. Standing on the smallest balcony, looking out at the heat-soldered sea and sky, you felt as if you were in an opera box suspended above an infinity of blue. To the south-east, towards Paestum, the rocky, precipitous coastline was lost in a haze of antiquity – Magna Graecia.
Huddled into the soft limestone, La Rondinaia, for all its glamour, feels like a refuge. You can see why it would appeal so much to a man who, whatever his peccadilloes, always felt compelled to place himself above it all – not only above political graft and literary envy, but above ordinary heartaches. None the less, ordinary heartaches came to him in the end. His life partner, Howard Austen, died in 2003 and he was compelled to relocate to his house in Los Angeles, grieving both for Howard and for La Rondinaia. He confessed that when he woke in the night in LA, he could still hear the guides’ voices from the tourist boats far below declaring, “Li vive lo famosissimo scritore Americano, Gore Vidal….”
Our tour over, we returned to the town’s main square. Palumbo had the preoccupied, disconsolate look of a man who knew that he had, from a commercial viewpoint, bought a lemon – an Amalfi lemon, the best kind, but a lemon none the less. Who knows if the rich Americans (who serenely ignored our presence throughout the tour) made an offer to invest in La Rondinaia as a hotel. But I do know that Palumbo has since put it on sale again for twenty million dollars, so I suspect not.
As we left Ravello, I was preoccupied with all the standard thoughts about mortality and the artist’s galvanising wound and the evanescence of fame. But then, to cheer myself up, I recalled my own favourite Vidalian story – one that didn’t appear in any of the obtuse obituaries. Allan Massie once told me about being asked by his publisher to try and elicit a blurb from Vidal (with whom he enjoyed a cordial if distant acquaintance) for his forthcoming Roman novel. Reluctantly, Massie made the request. Vidal responded generously in the end, but his first offering prompted a certain amount of consternation. It read, “Modesty forbids me from calling Allan Massie the world’s second greatest historical novelist.”