The love of his life has gone, replaced by a black-and-white photo of a smiling man's face inside an ornate silver frame. The old, quiet, dark Spanish house in the hills above Hollywood smells of eggs at lunchtime. Gore Vidal sits quietly reading. He is 79, and has lived, fought and written through world wars, cold wars and red scares as an author, essayist and historian.
He is back home, after 40 years of dividing his time between Italy and America, a semi-permanent resident of the place he calls the United States of Amnesia. He is not a sentimental man, Vidal once said in an interview, and that he is now in the sunset of his life has not diluted the acid in his pen, nor dulled the lash of his views.
"This is a bubble," he says of America and its imperviousness to world opinion. "Nothing from outside gets in, unlike a European country or even a semi-Asian one like Australia or New Zealand. They all have neighbours, who have media; who have newspapers; who have criticisms to make. They all have dealings.
"We have nothing but Canada and Mexico, for whom we appear to have contempt in both cases, for quite different reasons. We get no outside information. When was the last time you saw or heard of any coverage of the last Australian election when Master Howard was elevated yet again to the throne?
"And here we are, a great Pacific power and the only ally we have of importance in the Pacific - putting to one side the strange case of Japan - is Australia, who actually seem more benign than not when they regard America and its empire, and yet we don't know anything about them."
As without, so within. It is a wonderful time to be an historian in or of America, if you can take the detached view the job description suggests. The country is undergoing a massive political and financial experiment, while being transformed by technology, for good and ill. It is a period that will be studied avidly in decades to come.
Vidal foresees his colleagues poking through the ashes. "This [country] will die in a pauper's grave, I can tell you," he says. "The great theory, you would think, for the Republican Party, which is the party of corporations, big business and money and of, you know, drip-torture greed, is allowing the place to go broke. There's a two-and-a-half-trillion-dollar deficit."
His grandfather, Thomas Gore, whose name he later took, was an influential Democratic member of the US Senate. He was blind, and the young Eugene Vidal would read to him. In exchange, throughout his childhood and adolescence, the grandfather filled him with the history and the notion of what America and Americans should be, and the uncontestable rights they were born with, as spelt out in the nation's blueprint, the constitution.
"Almost every day of my life when I was growing up," Vidal recalls, "my grandfather, sooner or later, would start to talk about the constitution. Always remember: it's based on one phrase, due process of law. You cannot have your life, property or liberty removed without due process of law.
"And they ended it," he says of the White House of President George Bush, and its introduction, in 2001, of the USA Patriot Act, with its expanded government powers of surveillance and investigation. There is a quizzical expression on his face. "It's unthinkable."
As has been his method in some of his novels, Vidal finds historic parallels between the founding of the US and its 21st-century version in his book Inventing a Nation launched earlier this year by the Premier, Bob Carr, a long-time admirer. The book considers the motivations for and origins and authors of the US constitution; in particular, George Washington, the hero of the American Revolution and the country's first president, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. AT 17, Vidal fibbed about his age to join the US Army Reserve at the height of World War II. "Of course I like my country," he once replied to another critic. "I'm its current biographer" - a reference to the span of seven historical novels he had written over 30 years.
In person, Vidal speaks as he writes, with what an American Public Broadcasting Service documentary called a mixture of authority and intimacy.
He is an author, TV and film scriptwriter, historian and essayist, but also a living repository of that history; an American icon who lived it all and saw it all from the very earliest years of his existence: the friend of Greta Garbo and Paul Newman, the host of Tennessee Williams, and Mr and Mrs Mick Jagger, the guest lecturer at Harvard University, the backgammon opponent and step-brother-in-law of President John Kennedy, the early interviewee of Dr Alfred Kinsey, the eternal and unforgiving enemy in print and airwaves of author Norman Mailer and William Buckley, another American historian.
An interview with Vidal is much more like a history lesson, leavened with some low-key theatrics. The story of what he calls "imperial America" is salted with recited quotes from presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman, and Winston Churchill.
The recitations are provided in what sounds like a fair approximation of the original voice: the sinister whisper of Roosevelt telling Churchill he will have to give up India; Churchill's reply, a brandied, upper-class rumble; the stentorian mid-Western bellow of Truman in his 1948 inauguration speech, foreshadowing the Cold War against "an enemy that is everywhere, in every country including our own, a godless and atheistic power, forever on the march ..."
Inventing a Nation began life more than 40 years ago, as a question posed by John Kennedy in 1961, in a conversation with Vidal. They had just had a game of backgammon - "which I won," Vidal writes, and Kennedy, musing about the "second-raters" he had met passing through the White House, wondered how "a sort of backwoods country like this" could produce the three geniuses of their time: Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton, regarded by historians as "the prophet of the capitalist revolution".
There was time to read and think, Vidal remembers replying, and they interacted a great deal. Beyond the presidential query, there was another reason for writing it. "Wherever I go, there's total ignorance of American politics," he says.
"And when you have an Administration that is dedicated to ever larger lies about everything, including the foundation of our own country and the nature of our own constitution, you've got to get some truth out there. So I thought a little book in which I'd use their own words ... It's a good crash course of what they talked about, what they intended the country to be.
"The more you know of the background of something, obviously the more able you are to grasp what is happening at present. We are filling people in on things they don't know. How much did Halliburton really steal from the United States Government? Those are things we really should know about. Our representatives in Congress are not very good at telling us that."
He is working on the second instalment of his memoirs, reminded of the passage of his time, not so much by the newly installed left knee which drove him out of his cliff-top home in Ravello, Italy, but by the obituaries he reads. He knew some of those people, and the details of their lives are a sort of Post-It note for the memoirs. His handwriting is now impossible to read, he says, and he types "pretty fast for two fingers".
He is asked what emotion sustains him in his writing, for the books, for The Independent of London, The New York Review of Books, The Nation magazine and now, a rapprochement of sorts, The New York Times Book Review. Anger? Rage?
"Fury will do," he replies.
Copyright © 2005. The Sydney Morning Herald.