Reluctant as I am to dive freestyle into pedantry, I prefer Michael Phelps to be described as the ‘most decorated’ Olympian in history. The word ‘greatest’ makes me nervous. Perhaps I’m just treading words, but ‘greatest’ covers too much territory. What’s wrong with the modest ‘great’?
Which is not to say that watch-ing the amphibious Mr Phelps move through water is anything short of mesmerising.

This is a man who has been training six hours a day, six days a week since he was a child. When Malcolm Gladwell researched the origins of success, he discovered that behind every genius was 10,000 hours of practice. But nurture needs a signal from nature. Michael Phelps is 6ft 4in. His size-14 feet, longer than most flippers, rotate 15˚ more than average. His arm reach is 6ft 7in, 3in longer than his height. When he enters the water, he goes more than 30ft before
having to swim.

I was still feeling quite emotional about the winning relay that made Phelps the ‘most decorated’ Olympian when I heard that another remarkable American, the writer Gore Vidal, had died. In less time than it takes Phelps to swim 100m, Vidal was being described as the greatest essayist of our age. Again, I flinched at that use of ‘greatest’. I don’t know who I would rank above the elegant provocateur, scholar, historian, novelist and scoundrel, whose books-mostly his essays, but also his memoirs and an historical novel, Lincoln-occupy a good stretch of my shelves, but I wanted a degree of restraint.

Not that Vidal ever practiced restraint in his own life. His magisterial putdowns and his acute judgments enabled him to swim in waters that most people would have found too dangerous. A patrician with a tongue that could take paint off a barn, he explored fearlessly the worlds of literature, politics and sexuality.

Although, later in life, he came across as a brilliant crackpot, his genius was in making you wonder if he was right. Did the Mob really kill John F. Kennedy? Vidal wrote convincingly about how and why the Mafia was behind the assassination. His essay on 9/11 opens: ‘According to the Koran, it was on a Tuesday that Allah created darkness.’ His visceral response blamed the attack on the USA, which had waged ‘perpetual war’ in pursuit of ‘perpetual peace’ for half a century. Vanity Fair refused to publish it.

Vidal is the last of a generation of American men of letters who were born in the 1920s, served in the Second World War and returned home to America to begin their postwar lives seated at a typewriter. Norman Mailer. William Styron. James Jones. William Buckley. Vidal outlived them all, and I suspect his essays will be read long after their novels are available only on www.abebooks.com.

Was he the greatest essayist of his age? I think of Christopher Hitchens, the gentler E. B. White, the agrarian Wendell Berry, the lesser-known but wonderful Hal Crowther, and I’m inclined to modify: one of the greatest. And the most prolific, producing nine volumes, including United States: Essays 1952-1992, a mere 1,271 pages. He learned from the all-time greats: H. L. Mencken, Hazlitt and Montaigne, patron saint of the personal essay, who believed: ‘Every man has within himself the entire human condition.’

Compared to the essay, a 700-word column is like trying to perform a ballet inside a phonebox. A Vidalian essay is a three-act opera performed by a conductor with perfect pitch who knows the score by heart. Olympic committees hope that boys and girls will watch Michael Phelps and jump in the water. It is my hope that Mr Vidal’s writing will keep alive the personal essay, the most companionable, diverting and intimate form of literature. Jump in and read.

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