Books: Cultural Amnesia — Norman Mailer |
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Norman Mailer was born in Brooklyn in 1923, educated at Harvard, saw action in the Pacific, and returned to write one of the three American novels that made the war the subject of a serious best-seller, with the word “serious” used in both senses. James Jones wrote From Here to Eternity, Irwin Shaw wrote The Young Lions, and Mailer wrote the book that was most commonly, and correctly, greeted as a modern classic, The Naked and the Dead. The unarguable stature of his novel established him immediately in the twin roles of media celebrity and literary hope: an inherent conflict which it suited his personality to dramatize, and which it suited his talent to make a subject, thus opening up a whole new avenue of creative expression that can be summed up by one his titles, Advertisements for Myself. Ever since his dazzling beginnings, for a half century and more of unceasing fame, Mailer the holding company and corporate brand-name has mainly been in competition with himself, pitting Mailer the novelist against Mailer the anti-novelist, whose principal incarnation is the writer of non-fiction. The novelist Mailer, as if in flight from his own talent, has always made a point of writing barely readable books—from Barbary Shore to Ancient Evenings, they stretch out in a line that only a tenured academic could love—but he occasionally re-emerges from disaster with a substantial new success: Harlot’s Ghost was the fictional effort most like a complete return to form. If there had been whole row of such completely worked-out novels he would have ranked unquestionably with Philip Roth, John Updike and Saul Bellow among the novelists giving us the imaginative account of America’s post-war emergence as the world’s dominant cultural power. It could be said that he chose to do something more interesting, although it is possible that burgeoning alimony requirements chose his course for him. For whatever reason, he preferred to extend the career of the other Mailer, the journalist. Unlike his television sparring partner Gore Vidal, he has never—to his loss and ours—bothered to master the standard set form of the pointed and reasonably brief essay. But he has invented other forms in profusion, some of them running to volume length. In his books of non-fictional prose, such as The Armies of the Night and Of a Fire on the Moon, are to be found some of his most astonishing stretches of imaginative prose. Tom Wolfe, in his entertaining book of essays Hooking Up, is within his rights to contend that his own novel A Man in Full, which took him ten years of research, well deserved its commercial success, the hit parade result that the average, dashed-off novel or glorified think-piece by Mailer fails to achieve. But Wolfe is on dangerously yielding ground when he supposes that the assiduous fidelity of his own social observation is automatically a more interesting quality than Mailer’s irresponsible extravagance. Wolfe’s diligent reportage is good at observed detail, and he knows how to dress it up with exaggeration, invective and mimesis, but Mailer’s prose, even at its most slipshod, has access to moments of poetry beyond the ken of a busy dandy in a white suit. Everything that the cult of celebrity in America can do to destroy an artistic gift has been done to Mailer. Much of the damage he has either connived at, or else has taken an indecent pleasure in recording, as in the wonderfully awful The Prisoner of Sex. But the fame machine is right to recognize him as a talent, as if talent can exist as a potential, without solid achievement. It can. As when Orson Welles sat on television doing nothing except reminisce about films that were never even made, the creative imagination can prove it exists merely by suggesting itself. Literary talent, especially, will out even when its owner goes nuts. It might come only in flashes, but without the flashes there was never a true fire. It must be firmly said, however, that the hints demand to be followed back to their source: every student should be familiar in detail with The Naked and the Dead, the book in which an abundant gift fulfilled its duty to history, at the precise moment when American cultural imperialism became, for good or ill, the world’s most pervasive political fact.

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In the middle classes, the remark, “He made a lot of money,” ends the conversation. If you persist, if you try to point out that that money was made by digging through his grandmother’s grave to look for oil, you are met with a middle-class shrug.


IF HE HAD never written a single novel, we would have to call Norman Mailer a great talent, and even a great poetic talent, simply for the richness of his prose. If he had made himself the protagonist of twice as many embarrassing scenes, we would still have to call him disciplined: because in even the most fatuous of his written opinions he is capable of a phrase that opens up the depths of a subject on which he seems determined to sound shallow. He couldn’t be trivial if he tried, and sometimes he tries hard. Mailer tried especially hard when he was young, with the result that no considerable writer sounded young so long. Henry Miller, whom Mailer generously elected as a precursor, was less a case of protracted adolescence than of premature senility. Miller, doddering and drivelling before his time, drooled much low-flown foolishness but never volunteered himself as a teenage fantasist. Mailer did, and well into what should have been his mature years: when he suggested, in cold print, that he had met Sonny Liston and seen fear in his eyes—meaning fear of the physical violence that the coiled Mailer might unleash—there was a sort of brilliance to it. (There might also, it should be said, have been an element of truth, although not in the way Mailer intended: professional fighters will go a long way to avoid a brawl with a civilian, because a human skull is exactly the wrong sort of thing to hit with an unprotected hand.)

But there is nothing very brilliant about Mailer’s standpoint in this paragraph: it is the same blanket rejection of the bourgeoisie that Sartre tried to wish on Flaubert, and is self-refuting in the same way, by the social background of the man writing it. There is everything brilliant, however, about the comic illustration contained within it. The illustration is not even placed or timed for comedy: it is just thrown in, as if it were being thrown away. (Its introduction is decidedly casual, and even careless: he could have put “that the” for “that that,” thus avoiding an awkward mouthful that always looks more mistaken than intended.) The illustration takes off from a cliché: the man who would sell his grandmother is already in the language. But Mailer’s man digs though his grandmother’s grave to look for oil. You get the sense that Mailer thought of that on the spot—on a flat spot that he saw needed livening up. Somewhere among his many writings about writing—perhaps in Advertisements for Myself—he speaks about the delight he felt when he revised a sentence in the last draft of The Deer Park and hit on the extra few words that brought it to life. With his usual combination flurry of modesty and conceit (Mailer’s verbal version of the old one-two) he is enunciating a principle. The principle is simple, but only because its complexity is irreducible. It is the poetic principle. Mailer is no better at analysing it than any other poet who possesses the same gift. All he can do is tap into it when it comes. When it doesn’t come, he has to wait; and he has said and done some silly things while waiting. But he has never had to wait long.

Randall Jarrell said that a poet must wait to be hit by lightning. Even in an otherwise demented essay, Mailer can be hit by lightning so often that you can hear his hair fizz. The effect is of brilliant conversation. You are having a drink with him, and he wants to describe someone who will do anything for money. The standard idea comes into his head of a man selling his mother or grandmother. Instantly he sees that the idea needs improvement. Sell her into white slavery? Not good enough. What about if she’s already dead? Hallowed ground. Where is the money? Under the hallowed ground. So the man digs through his grandmother’s grave to look for oil. Like the inspired talker, Mailer can put it all together in a moment. In jazz, the improvisation that most satisfies is the one that comes out better than it could be written. The quickness of the creative power deceives the intellect. No wonder the young Mailer saw himself as a jazz soloist. Writing like this, he is at his most American, and shows why America is at the heart of modernity—which would be arid if it were merely a sophisticated development, but is at its most rich when the sophistication returns to the emotions. One never stops writing about Mailer and neither does he. In both cases, however, the best reason to do so is that he takes us so close to the awkward reality about talent. It does not belong to its possessor. Its possessor belongs to it, and can find freedom only by accepting that he is a slave.