"He is materialising my fear that he will do something to disgrace his oeuvre," Christopher Hitchens told me an in interview a few months before his death. The "he" was Gore Vidal, the author and essayist. They had once been allies. Vidal had only semi-jokingly nominated Hitchens as his successor in the world of letters. But, as he told me, Hitchens had become repelled by Vidal's 9/11 conspiracy theories and "his inability to stay off the Jewish question".
Vidal died last month, epitomising this enigma to the last. He was an outstanding writer with an essential role in the history of postwar literature in English. He was especially good at wryly revising historical reputations, as in his best novel, Julian. The protagonist is the Roman Emperor known to history as Julian the Apostate for his efforts to stem the spread of Christianity. In Vidal's account, the conflict is between free thought and the superstitions of the new faith.
In fictional depictions of the ancient world, Vidal enthralled. In scabrous commentary on modern manners and mores, he was brilliant. He ensured that dramatic treatment of love between men was not consigned to a ghetto of "gay writing" but became part of the mainstream of American cultural life. Few could equal him for the pithy, laconic one-liner. "Meretricious and a happy new year," he responded, unanswerably, to a hostile critic.
I was fortunate to hear Vidal speak once, at Oxford, where I was an undergraduate in the 1980s. He was eloquent and hilarious. Yet this erudite, cultured cosmopolitan was a relentless vehicle for crank conspiracy theories and nativist bigotry. He had a particular problem with Jews. The contrast between his personae was stark and the evidence is dispiritingly strong.
In a foreword to a tendentious polemic, Jewish History, Jewish Religion by Israel Shahak, in 1994, he claimed "the hasty invention of Israel has poisoned the political and intellectual life of the USA", and that "no other minority in American history has ever hijacked so much money from the American taxpayers in order to invest in a 'homeland'."
Vidal lacked any conception of the urgency of Israel's creation and the moral grounds for US support. If only he had left it there. He abjured even the pretence that he was talking of Zionism rather than Judaism, which he described as an "unusually ugly religion that caused a good deal of suffering not only in its original form but also through its later heresy, Christianity". He charged US Jewish critics with being "Israeli fifth columnists" and of holding dual loyalties.
Such grossness was replicated in Gore's demented theories of US complicity in 9/11. His partiality for conspiracy theories was long-standing. He believed that the Roosevelt administration had advance knowledge of Pearl Harbour. In a monstrous, 7,000-word tirade, he called for an investigation to discover whether the "Bush junta" had deliberately ignored warnings of the 9/11 attacks.
Aesthetic judgments on artists and novelists are independent of political criteria, and Vidal was a writer of the first rank. Yet obituarists were curiously reticent about the world-view that animated him. This was not, as both friends and opponents thought, ultra-liberalism. It was ultra-populism.
It derived from Vidal's old sympathies for the isolationist campaigns of Charles Lindbergh, whose opposition to US involvement in the Second World War mutated into antisemitism.
Populism is a position that permeates both wings of politics. Vidal, with his gift for rhetorical indiscretion, revealed its rankness and embraced it.