Books: Mailer's <i>Marilyn</i> |
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Mailer's Marilyn

‘She was a fruitcake,’ Tony Curtis once told an interviewer on B.B.C. television, and there can’t be much doubt that she was. Apart from conceding that the camera was desperately in love with her, professional judgements of Marilyn Monroe’s attributes rarely go much further. It would be strange if they did: there’s work to be done, and a girl blessed with equivalent magic might happen along any time — might even not be a fruitcake. Amateur judgements, on the other hand, are free to flourish. Norman Mailer’s new book, Marilyn, is just such a one.

Even if its narrative were not so blatantly, and self-admittedly, cobbled together from facts already available in other biographies, the Mailer Marilyn would still be an amateur piece of work. Its considerable strength lies in that limitation. As far as talent goes, Marilyn Monroe was so minimally gifted as to be almost unemployable, and anyone who holds to the opinion that she was a great natural comic identifies himself immediately as a dunce. For purposes best known to his creative demon, Mailer planes forward on the myth of her enormous talent like a drunken surfer. Not for the first time, he gets further by going with the flow than he ever could have done by cavilling. Thinking of her as a genius, he can call her drawbacks virtues, and so deal — unimpeded by scepticism — with the vital mystery of her presence.

Mailer’s adoration is as amateurish as an autograph hunter’s. But because of it we are once again, and this time ideally, reminded of his extraordinary receptivity. That the book should be an embarrassing and embarrassed rush-job is somehow suitable. The author being who he is, the book might as well be conceived in the most chaotic possible circumstances. The subject is, after all, one of the best possible focal points for his chaotic view of life. There is nothing detached or calculating about that view. It is hot-eyed, errant, unhinged. Writhing along past a gallery of yummy photographs, the text reads as the loopiest message yet from the Mailer who scared Sonny Liston with thought waves, made the medical breakthrough which identified cancer as the thwarted psyche’s revenge, and first rumbled birth control as the hidden cause of pregnancy. And yet Marilyn is one of Mailer’s most interesting things. Easy to punish, it is hard to admire — like its subject. But admire it we must — like its subject. The childishness of the whole project succeeds in emitting a power that temporarily calls adulthood into question: The Big Book of the Mad Girl. Consuming it at a long gulp, the reader ponders over and over again Mailer’s copiously fruitful aptitude for submission. Mailer is right to trust his own foolishness, wherever it leads: even if the resulting analysis of contemporary America impresses us as less diagnostic than symptomatic.

Not solely for the purpose of disarming criticism, Mailer calls his Marilyn a biography in novel form. The parent novel, we quickly guess, is The Deer Park, and we aren’t 75 pages into this new book before we find Charles Francis Eitel and Elena Eposito being referred to as if they were people living in our minds — which, of course, they are. The permanent party of The Deer Park (‘if desires were deeds, the history of the night would end in history’) is still running, and the atom bomb that lit the desert’s rim for Sergius O’Shaugnessy and Lulu Meyers flames just as bright. But by now Sergius is out from under cover: he’s Norman Mailer. And his beloved film star has been given a real name too: Marilyn Monroe. Which doesn’t necessarily make her any the less fictional. By claiming the right to launch vigorous imaginative patrols from a factual base, Mailer gives himself an easy out from the strictures of verisimilitude, especially when the facts are discovered to be contradictory. But Mailer’s fantasizing goes beyond expediency. Maurice Zolotow, poor pained scrivener, can sue Mailer all he likes, but neither he nor the quiescent Fred Lawrence Guiles will ever get his Marilyn back. Mailer’s Marilyn soars above the known data, an apocalyptic love-object no mundane pen-pusher could dream of reaching. Dante and Petrarch barely knew Beatrice and Laura. It didn’t slow them down. Mailer never met Marilyn at all. It gives him the inside track.

Critical fashion would have it that since The Deer Park reality has been busy turning itself into a novel. As Philip Roth said it must, the extremism of real events has ended up by leaving the creative imagination looking like an also-ran. A heroine in a 50s novel, Lulu was really a girl of the 40s — she had some measure of control over her life. Mailer now sees that the young Marilyn was the true 50s heroine — she had no control over her life whatsoever. In the declension from Lulu as Mailer then saw her to Marilyn as he sees her now, we can clearly observe what is involved in dispensing with the classical, shaping imagination and submitting one’s talent (well, Mailer’s talent) to the erratic forces of events. Marilyn, says Mailer, was every man’s love affair with America. He chooses to forget now that Sergius was in love with something altogether sharper, just as he chooses to forget that for many men Marilyn in fact represented  most of the things that were to be feared about America. Worshipping a doll was an activity that often came into question at the time. Later on, it became a clever critical point to insist that the doll was gifted: she walks, she talks, she plays Anna Christie at the Actors’ Studio. Later still, the doll was canonized. By the time we get to this book, it is as though there had never been any doubt: the sickness of the 50s lay, not in overvaluing Marilyn Monroe, but in undervaluing her.

Marilyn, says Mailer, suggested sex might be as easy as ice cream. He chooses to forget that for many men at the time she suggested sex might have about the same nutritional value. The early photographs by André de Dienes — taken before her teeth were fixed but compensating by showing an invigorating flash of panty above the waistline of her denims — enshrine the essence of her snuggle-pie sexuality, which in the ensuing years was regularized, but never intensified, by successive applications of oomph and class. Adorable, dumb tomato, she was the best of the worst. As the imitators, and imitators of the imitators, were put into the field behind her, she attained the uniqueness of the paradigm, but that was the sum total of her originality as a sex bomb. Any man in his right mind would have loved to have her. Mailer spends a good deal of the book trying to drum up what mystical significance he can out of that fact, without even once facing the possibility of that fact representing the limitation of her sexuality — the criticism of it, and the true centre of her tragedy. Her screen presence, the Factor X she possessed in the same quantity as Garbo, served mainly to potentiate the sweetness. The sweetness of the girl bride, the unwomanly woman, the femme absolutely not fatale.

In her ambition, so Faustian, and in her ignorance of culture’s dimensions, in her liberation and her tyrannical desires, her noble democratic longings intimately contradicted by the widening pool of her narcissism (where every friend and slave must bathe), we can see the magnified mirror of ourselves, our exaggerated and now all but defeated generation, yes, she ran a reconnaissance through the 50’s....

Apart from increasing one’s suspicions that the English sentence is being executed in America, such a passage of rhetorical foolery raises the question of whether the person Mailer is trying to fool with it might not conceivably be himself. If ‘magnified mirror of ourselves’ means anything, it must include Mailer. Is Mailer ignorant of culture’s dimensions? The answer, one fears, being not that he is, but that he would like to be — so that he could write more books like Marilyn. As Mailer nuzzles up beside the shade of this poor kitten to whom so much happened but who could cause so little to happen, you can hear the purr of sheer abandon. He himself would like very much to be the man without values, expending his interpretative powers on whatever the world declared to be important. Exceptional people, Mailer says (these words are almost exactly his, only the grammar having been altered, to unveil the epigram), have a way of living with opposites in themselves that can be called schizophrenia only when it fails. The opposite in Mailer is the hick who actually falls for all that guff about screen queens, voodoo prize fighters, and wonder-boy Presidents. But his way of living with it hasn’t yet quite failed. And somehow, it must be admitted, he seems to get further, see deeper, than those writers who haven’t got it to live with.

In tracing Marilyn’s narcissism back to her fatherless childhood, our author is at his strongest. His propensity for scaling the mystical ramparts notwithstanding, Mailer in his Aquarius/Prisoner role is a lay psychologist of formidable prowess. The self-love and the unassuageable need to have it confirmed — any fatherless child is bound to recognize the pattern, and be astonished at how the writing generates the authentic air of continuous panic. But good as this analysis is, it still doesn’t make Marilyn’s narcissism ours. There is narcissism and there is narcissism, and to a depressing degree Marilyn’s was the sadly recognizable version of the actress who could read a part but could never be bothered reading a complete script. Mailer knows what it took Marilyn to get to the top: everything from betraying friends to lying down under geriatric strangers. Given the system, Marilyn was the kind of monster equipped to climb through it. What’s debilitating is that Mailer seems to have given up imagining other systems. He is right to involve himself in the dynamics of Hollywood; he does better by enthusiastically replaying its vanished games than by standing aloof; but for a man of his brains he doesn’t despise the place enough. His early gift for submitting himself to the grotesqueness of reality is softening with the years into a disinclination to argue with it. In politics he still fights on, although with what effect on his allies one hesitates to think. But in questions of culture — including, damagingly, the cultural aspects of politics — he has by now come within an ace of accepting whatever is as right. His determination to place on Marilyn the same valuation conferred by any sentimentalist is a sure token.

On the point of Marilyn’s putative talents, Mailer wants it both ways. He wants her to be an important natural screen presence, which she certainly was; and he wants her to be an important natural actress, which she certainly wasn’t. So long as he wants it the first way, he gets it: Marilyn is an outstandingly sympathetic analysis of what makes somebody look special on screen, and reads all the better for its periodic eruptions into incoherent lyricism. But so long as he wants it the second way, he gets nowhere. He is quite right to talk of Some Like It Hot as her best film, but drastically overestimates her strength in it. Mailer knows all about the hundreds of takes and the thousands of fluffs, and faithfully records the paroxysms of anguish she caused Billy Wilder and Tony Curtis. But he seems to assume that once a given scene was in the can it became established as a miracle of assurance. And the plain fact is that her salient weakness — the inability to read a line — was ineradicable. Every phrase came out as if it had just been memorized. Just been memorized. And that film was the high point of the short-winded, monotonous attack she had developed for getting lines across. In earlier films, all the way back to the beginning, we are assailed with varying degrees of the irrepressible panic which infected a voice that couldn’t tell where to place emphasis. As a natural silent comedian Marilyn might possibly have qualified, with the proviso that she was not to be depended upon to invent anything. But as a natural comedian in sound she had the conclusive disadvantage of not being able to speak. She was limited ineluctably to characters who rented language but could never possess it, and all her best roles fell into that category. She was good at being inarticulately abstracted for the same reason that midgets are good at being short.

To hear Mailer overpraising Marilyn’s performance in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is to wonder if he has any sense of humour at all. Leaving out of account an aberration like Man’s Favourite Sport (in which Paula Prentiss, a comedienne who actually knows something about being funny, was entirely wasted), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is the least entertaining comedy Howard Hawks ever made. With its manic exaggeration of Hawks’s already heavy emphasis on male aggressiveness transplanted to the female, the film later became a touchstone for the Hawksian cinéastes (who also lacked a sense of humour, and tended to talk ponderously about the role-reversals in Bringing Up Baby before passing with relief to the supposed wonders of Hatari), but the awkward truth is that with this project Hawks landed himself with the kind of challenge he was least likely to find liberating — dealing with dumb sex instead of the bright kind. Hawks supplied a robust professional framework for Marilyn’s accomplishments, such as they were. Where I lived, at any rate, her performance in the film was generally regarded as mildly winning in spite of her obvious, fundamental inadequacies — the in spite of being regarded as the secret of any uniqueness her appeal might have. Mailer tells it differently:

In the best years with DiMaggio, her physical coordination is never more vigorous and athletically quick; she dances with all the grace she is ever going to need when doing Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, all the grace and all the bazazz — she is a musical comedy star with panache! Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend! What a surprise! And sings so well Zanuck will first believe her voice was dubbed...

This is the language of critical self-deception, fine judgement suppressed in the name of a broader cause. What does it mean to dance with all the grace you are ever going to need? It doesn’t sound the same as being good at dancing. The fact was that she could handle a number like the ‘Running Wild’ routine in the train corridor in Some Like It Hot (Wilder covered it with the marvellous cutaways of Lemmon slapping the back of the bull-fiddle and Curtis making ping-pong-ball eyes while blowing sax), but anything harder than that was pure pack-drill. And if Zanuk really believed that her voice was dubbed, then for once in his life he must have made an intuitive leap, because to say that her singing voice didn’t sound as if it belonged to her was to characterize it with perfect accuracy. Like her speaking voice, it was full of panic.

It took more than sympathy for her horrible death and nostalgia for her atavistic cuddlesomeness to blur these judgments, which at one time all intelligent people shared. The thing that tipped the balance towards adulation was Camp — Camp’s yen for the vulnerable in women, which is just as inexorable as its hunger for the strident. When Mailer talks about Marilyn’s vulnerability, he means the inadequacy of her sense of self. Camp, however, knew that the vulnerability which mattered was centred in the inadequacy of her talent. She just wasn’t very good, and was thus eligible for membership in the ever-increasing squad of Camp heroines who make their gender seem less threatening by being so patently unaware of how they’re going over. On the strident wing of the team, Judy Garland is a perennial favourite for the same reason. If common sense weren’t enough to do it, the Camp enthusiasm for Monroe should have told Mailer — Mailer of all people — that the sexuality he was getting set to rave about was the kind that leaves the viewer uncommitted.

Mailer longs to talk of Monroe as a symbolic figure, node of a death wish and foretaste of the fog. Embroiled in such higher criticism, he doesn’t much concern himself with the twin questions of what shape Hollywood took in the 50s and of how resonantly apposite a representative Marilyn turned out to be of the old studio system’s last gasp. As the third-string blonde at Fox (behind Betty Grable and June Haver) Marilyn was not — as Mailer would have it — in all that unpromising a spot. She was in luck, like Kim Novak at Columbia, who was groomed by Harry Cohn to follow Rita Hayworth in the characteristic 50s transposition which substituted apprehensiveness for ability. For girls like them, the roles would eventually be there — mainly crummy roles in mainly crummy movies, but they were the movies the studios were banking on. For the real actresses, times were tougher, and didn’t ease for more than a decade. Anne Bancroft, for example, also started out at Fox, but couldn’t get the ghost of a break. Mailer isn’t careful enough about pointing out that Fox’s record as a starmaker was hopeless in all departments: Marilyn was by no means a unique case of neglect, and in comparison with Bancroft got a smooth ride. Marilyn was just another item in the endless catalogue of Zanuck’s imperviousness to box-office potential. James Robert Parish, in his useful history, The Fox Girls, sums up the vicissitudes of Marilyn’s career at Fox with admirable brevity and good sense, and if the reader would like to make up his own mind about the facts, it’s to that book he should turn.

Right across Hollywood, as the films got worse, the dummies and the sex-bombs came into their own, while the actresses dropped deeper into limbo. Considering the magnitude of the luminary he is celebrating, it might seem funny to Mailer if one were to mention the names of people like, say, Patricia Neal, or (even more obscure) Lola Albright. Soon only the most fanatic of students will be aware that such actresses were available but could not be used. It’s not that history has been rewritten. Just that the studio-handout version of history has been unexpectedly confirmed — by Norman Mailer, the very stamp of writer who ought to know better. The studios created a climate for new talent that went on stifling the best of it until recent times. How, for example, does Mailer think Marilyn stacks up against an artist like Tuesday Weld? By the criteria of approval manifested in Marilyn, it would be impossible for Mailer to find Weld even mildly interesting. To that extent, the senescent dream-factories succeeded in imposing their view: first of all on the masses, which was no surprise, but now on the elite, which is.

Mailer is ready to detect all manner of bad vibes in the 50s, but unaccountably fails to include in his read-out of portents the one omen pertinent to his immediate subject. The way that Hollywood divested itself of intelligence in that decade frightened the civilized world. And far into the 60s this potato-blight of the intellect went on. The screen was crawling with cosmeticized androids. Not content with gnawing her knuckles through the long days of being married to a test pilot or the long nights of being married to a band leader, June Allyson sang and danced. Betty Hutton, the ultimate in projected insecurity, handed over to Doris Day, a yelping freckle. The last Tracy-Hepburn comedies gurgled nostalgically in the straw like the lees of a soda. The new Hepburn, Audrey, was a Givenchy clothes-horse who piped her lines in a style composed entirely of mannerisms. And she was supposed to be class. Comedy of the 30s and 40s, the chief glory of the American sound cinema, was gone as if it had never been. For those who had seen and heard the great Hollywood high-speed talkers (Carole Lombard, Irene Dunne, Rosalind Russell, Katherine Hepburn, Jean Arthur) strut their brainy stuff, the let down was unbelievable. Comic writing was pretty nearly wiped out, and indeed has never fully recovered as a genre. In a context of unprecedented mindlessness, Marilyn Monroe rose indefatigably to success. She just wasn’t clever enough to fail.

Marilyn came in on the 50s tide of vulgarity, and stayed to take an exemplary part in the Kennedy era’s uproar of cultural pretension. Mailer follows her commitment to the Actors’ Studio with a credulousness that is pure New Frontier. The cruelty with which he satirizes Arthur Miller’s ponderous aspirations to greatness is transmuted instantly to mush when he deals with Mrs. Miller’s efforts to explore the possibilities hitherto dormant within her gift. That such possibilities existed was by no means taken as gospel at the time of her first forays into New York, but with the advent of the Kennedy era the quality of scepticism seemed to drain out of American cultural life. Marilyn is a latter-day Kennedy-era text, whose prose, acrid with the tang of free-floating charisma, could have been written a few weeks after Robert Kennedy’s death rounded out the period of the family’s power. Mailer’s facility for confusing the intention with the deed fits that epoch’s trust in façades to perfection. He is delicately tender when evoking the pathos of Marilyn’s anxious quest for self-fulfilment, but never doubts that the treasure of buried ability was there to be uncovered, if only she could have found the way. The true pathos — that she was simply not fitted for the kind of art she had been led to admire — eludes him. Just as he gets over the problem of Marilyn’s intellectual limitations by suggesting that a mind can be occupied with more interesting things than thoughts, so he gets over the problem of her circumscribed accomplishments by suggesting that true talent is founded not on ability but on a state of being. Nobody denies that the snorts of derision which first greeted the glamour queen’s strivings towards seriousness were inhuman, visionless. In rebuttal, it was correctly insisted that her self-exploration was the exercise of an undeniable right. But the next, fatal step was to assume that her self-exploration was an artistic activity in itself, and had a right to results.

Scattered throughout the book are hints that Mailer is aware that his loved one had limited abilities. But he doesn’t let it matter, preferring to insist that her talent — a different thing — was boundless. Having overcome so much deprivation in order to see that certain kinds of achievement were desirable, she had an automatic entitlement to them. That, at any rate, seems to be his line of reasoning. A line of reasoning which is really an act of faith. The profundity of his belief in the significance of what went on during those secret sessions at the Actors’ Studio is unplummable. She possessed, he vows, the talent to play Cordelia. One examines this statement from front-on, from both sides, through a mirror, and with rubber-gloves. Is there a hint of a put-on? There is not. Doesn’t he really mean something like: she possessed enough nerve and critical awareness to see the point of trying to extend her range by playing a few fragments of a Shakespearean role out of the public eye? He does not. He means what he says, that Marilyn Monroe possessed the talent to play Cordelia. Who, let it be remembered, is required, in the first scene of the play, to deliver a speech like this:

Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, lov’d me: I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty:
Sure I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.

Leave aside the matter of how she would have managed such stuff on stage; it is doubtful she could have handled a single minute of it even on film: not with all the dialogue coaches in the world, not even if they had shot and edited in the way Joshua Logan is reputed to have put together her performance in some of the key scenes of Bus Stop — word by word, frame by frame. The capacity to apprehend and reproduce the rhythm of written language just wasn’t there. And even if we were to suppose that such an indispensable capacity could be dispensed with, there would still be the further question of whether the much-touted complexity of her character actually contained a material resembling Cordelia’s moral steel: it is not just sweetness that raises Cordelia above her sisters. We are bound to conclude (if only to preserve from reactionary scorn the qualities Marilyn really did have) that she was debarred from the wider range of classical acting not only by a paucity of ability but by a narrowness of those emotional resources Mailer would have us believe were somehow a substitute for it. Devoid of invention, she could only draw on her stock of feeling. The stock was thin. Claiming for her a fruitful complexity, Mailer has trouble conjuring it up: punctuated by occasional outbreaks of adoration for animals and men, her usual state of mind seems to have been an acute but generalized fear, unreliably counterbalanced by sedation.

Mailer finds it temptingly easy to insinuate that Marilyn’s madness knew things sanity wots not of, and he tries to make capital out of the tussle she had with Olivier in The Prince and the Showgirl. Olivier, we are asked to believe, was the icy technician working from the outside in, who through lack of sympathy muffed the chance to elicit from his leading lady miracles of warm intuition. It’s a virtuoso passage from Mailer, almost convincing us that an actor like Olivier is a prisoner of rationality forever barred from the inner mysteries of his profession. You have to be nuts, whispers Mailer from the depths of his sub-text, to be a real actor. The derivation from Laing’s psychology is obvious.

The author does a noble, loyal, zealous job of tracing his heroine’s career as an artist, but we end by suspecting that he is less interested in her professional achievement than in her fame. The story of Norma Jean becoming Somebody is the true spine of the book, and the book is Mailer’s most concise statement to date of what he things being Somebody has come to mean in present-day America. On this theme, Marilyn goes beyond being merely wrong-headed and becomes quite frightening.

As evidence of the leverage Marilyn’s fame could exert, Mailer recounts a story of her impressing some friends by taking them without a reservation to the Copacabana, where Sinatra was packing the joint to the rafters every night. Marilyn being Monroe, Sinatra ordered a special table put in at his feet, and while lesser mortals were being presumably asphyxiated at the back, he sang for his unexpected guest and her friends, personally. Only for the lonely. Mailer tells such stories without adornment, but his excitement in them is ungovernable: it infects the style, giving it the tone we have come to recognize from all his previous excursions into status, charisma, psychic victory, and the whole witchcraft of personal ascendancy. Marilyn seems to bring this theme in his work to a crisis.

In many ways The Naked and the Dead was the last classic novel to be written in America. The separately-treated levels of the military hierarchy mirrored the American class structure, such as it was, and paralleled the class structure of the classic European novel, such as it had always been. With The Deer Park the American classes were already in a state of flux, but the society of Hollywood maintained cohesion by being aware of what conditions dictated the mutability of its hierarchy: Sergius the warrior slept with Lulu the love queen, both of them qualifying, while fortune allowed, as members of the only class, below which was the ruck — the unlovely, the unknown, the out. The Deer Park  was Mailer’s last attempt to embody American society in fictional form: An American Dream could find room only for its hero. Increasingly with the years, the broad sweep of Mailer’s creativity has gone into the interpretation of reality as it stands, or rather flows, and he has by now become adept at raising fact to the level of fiction. Meanwhile society has become even more fluid, to the extent that the upper class — the class of celebrities — has become as unstable in its composition as the hubbub below. Transformation and displacement now operate endlessly, and the observer (heady prospect) changes the thing observed. Mailer’s tendency to enrol himself in even the most exalted action is based on the perception, not entirely crazed, that the relative positions in the star-cluster of status are his to define: reality is a novel that he is writing.

On her way to being divorced from Arthur Miller, Marilyn stopped off in Dallas. In Dallas! Mailer can hardly contain himself. ‘The most electric of the nations,’ he writes, ‘must naturally provide the boldest circuits of coincidence.’ Full play is made with the rumours that Marilyn might have had affairs with either or both of the two doomed Kennedy brothers, and there is beetle-browed speculation about the possibility of her death having placed a curse on the family — and hence, of course, on the whole era. Mailer himself calls this last brainwave ‘endlessly facile’, thereby once again demonstrating his unfaltering dexterity at having his cake and eating it. But this wearying attempt to establish Marilyn as the muse of the artist-politicians is at one with the book’s whole tendency to weight her down with a load of meaning she is too frail to bear. Pepys could be floored by Lady Castlemaine’s beauty without ascribing to her qualities she did not possess. The Paris intellectuals quickly learned that Pompadour’s passion for china flowers and polite theatre was no indication that artistic genius was in favour at Versailles — quite the reverse. Where hierarchies were unquestioned, realism meant the ability to see what was really what. Where the hierarchy is created from day to day in the mind of one man interpreting it, realism is likely to be found a hindrance.

Mailer doesn’t want famous people to mean as little as the sceptical tongue says they do. To some extent he is right. There is an excitement in someone like Marilyn Monroe coming out of nowhere to find herself conquering America, and there is a benediction in the happiness she could sometimes project from the middle of her anguish. Without Mailer’s receptivity we would not have been given the full impact of these things; just as if he had listened to the liberal line on the space programme we would not have been given those enthralling moments in A Fire on the Moon when the launch vehicle pulls free of its bolts, or when the mission passes from the grip of the earth into the embrace of its target — moments as absorbing our first toys. Mailer’s shamelessness says that there are people and events which mean more than we in our dignity are ready to allow. He has nearly always been right. But when he starts saying that in that case they might as well mean what he wants them to mean, the fictionalist has overstepped the mark, since the patterning that strengthens fiction weakens fact.

Mailer’s Marilyn is a usurper, a democratic monarch reigning by dint of the allegiance of an intellectual aristocrat, the power of whose regency has gone to his head. Mailer has forgotten that Marilyn was the people’s choice before she was his, and that in echoing the people he is sacrificing his individuality on the altar of perversity. Sergius already had the sickness:

Then I could feel her as something I had conquered, could listen to her wounded breathing, and believe that no matter how she acted other times, these moments were Lulu, as if her flesh murmured words more real than her lips. To the pride of having so beautiful a girl was added the bigger pride of knowing that I took her with the cheers of millions behind me. Poor millions with their low roar!

At the end of The Deer Park the dying Eitel tells Sergius by telepathy that the world we may create is more real to us than the mummery of what happens, passes, and is gone. Whichever way Sergius decided, Mailer seems finally to have concluded that the two are the same thing. More than any of his essays so far, Marilyn tries to give the mummery of what happens the majestic gravity of a created world. And as he has so often done before, he makes even the most self-assured of us wonder if we have felt deeply enough, looked long enough, lived hard enough. He comes close to making us doubt our conviction that in a morass of pettiness no great issues are being decided. We benefit from the doubt. But the price he pays for being able to induce it is savage, and Nietzsche’s admonition is beginning to apply. He has gazed too long into the abyss, and now the abyss is gazing into him. Bereft of judgement, detachment, or even a tinge of irony, Marilyn is an opulent but slavish expression of an empty consensus. The low roar of the poor millions is in every page.

(Commentary, October 1973)


Years later, when I finally met Norman Mailer in the back of a limousine in New York, he generously neglected to punch me out for a review he must have thought unfair. He certainly could have decked me had he wished, and in the limo I would not have had far to fall. I never saw a more threatening neck on a writer: his ears sat on top of it like book-ends on a mantelpiece. But on this occasion he was civility itself. Perhaps he remembered that I had studded my diatribe with tributes to his gift. In retrospect I only wish that there had been more of them. Opportunities to register gratitude should never be neglected, and gratitude is what I have always felt for Mailer, over and above — or should it be under and below? — the inevitable exasperation. A Fire on the Moon (called Of a Fire on the Moon in the United States: a striding title crippled by an extra word) was to remain one of my models for how prose can reflect the adventure of high technology without lapsing into a hi-fi buff’s nerdish fervour, and later he restored himself triumphantly as a writer of fiction with the remarkable Harlot’s Ghost. But I still think he got it all wrong about Marilyn Monroe. He was right to think that film stardom hasn’t got much to do with acting talent. He was just wrong about the talent. In conversation it might have been edifying, if dangerous, to pursue the point, but as I remember it he raised the subject of Iris Murdoch. Since there were about half a dozen other people in the car better qualified to pursue that topic than I, my colloquy with the patriarch was soon suspended, along with any chance of a fist fight.

It was a pity Mailer ever saddled himself with a reputation as a brawler, because in the New York literary context fisticuffs rate as a hopelessly anachronistic weapons system. At the kind invitation of Norman Podhoretz of Commentary, my review of Mailer’s Marilyn was the first big piece I published in the United States. Not long afterwards, Robert Silvers asked me to write for the New York Review of Books, whose personnel felt about the Commentary crowd the way Iraq later felt about Iran. It was an ideological battlefield, and the free-floating contributor was very likely to get zapped in the contending force-fields of influence. Later on I moved to the New Yorker and fancied that I had got above the battle, but I never moved to New York. Fed-Ex, fax and then e-mail made it steadily more easy to maintain a safely detached participation in a literary scene that resembled a John Carpenter movie with better dialogue. (Exercise: armed with a video of Escape from New York and a list of prominent Manhattan culturati, re-cast the roles of the Duke, Brains, Cabbie and that babe with the big maracas. Keep the Kurt Russell part for yourself.) It helps to know one’s weaknesses, and the hypertrophied celebrity culture in New York appeals too much to my sweet tooth. In London I find it hard enough to preserve my rule not to be quoted on anything that I am not prepared to write about. In New York, where not to be quoted is to be considered dead, pressure from publishers would soon make it compulsory to succumb. Mailer himself is a case in point. After the criminal Jack Abbott, for whose release Mailer had campaigned, celebrated his freedom by murdering a waiter who looked at him sideways, Mailer was caught saying that Abbott’s action might have had some redeeming use as a ‘challenge to the suburbs’. But he would never have been caught writing something so callously foolish. Writers should stay off the air unless they can keep their equilibrium, and the media in the United States devote a lot of money and effort to making sure you can’t keep that.