It’s been a pleasure all weekend to picture Norman Mailer finally meeting the Maker he’s been courting so originally, so well, these many years. There was a theologian inside the novelist, I presumed to say in this last conversation in the spring. And then in just the last few weeks came his new (last?) book, On God.
The most enviable of his many gifts, as Alex Theroux once remarked, was energy — 85 years’ worth, of the peculiarly urgent, male variety, in dimensions sexual and spiritual, literary and political, philosophical and paternal. Norman Mailer was another blessed mama’s boy who grew up with Frank Sinatra’s pugnacious assurance that he could sing any of his rivals off the bandstand. It was a thrill to interview him, or just to be around him. The nonpareil radio producer Mary McGrath — reading her brother Chip’s superb Mailer obit in the Times this morning — recalled our afternoon of Mailer Time in the summer of 2004, drinking his whiskey as the sun went down over Provincetown harbor. She’ll never forget it, and neither will I.
Mailer was the answer, really, to the question that posed itself last summer when I was so besotted with Victor Hugo and his Les Misérables. Who in our American setting made it the novelist’s assignment to chronicle the Waterloos of our own time and the Paris uprisings — to speak comprehensively and critically of our nation and its culture, in peace and war, in cinema and the boxing ring, and to run for Mayor of New York? Thank you, Norman Mailer.
This show was recorded on Friday, March 9, 2007.
Norman Mailer in conversation is formal, playful, learned, cordial, intensely civilized, energetic from start to finish. We sat in the living room of his year-round house facing south onto Provincetown Harbor. The panoramic “long view” Mailer has always liked for writing (and talking) was one of many reminders of Steven Marcus’ wonderful Paris Review interview with Mailer 40-some years ago, in the novelist’s Brooklyn Heights apartment overlooking New York Harbor. “In general,” as Marcus observed then, “he conducts himself without affectation as a kind of secular prince. The interviewer was repeatedly struck during the course of a long afternoon’s work by Mailer’s manners, which were exquisite. The role of novelist-being-interviewed suits him very well.”
The peculiar pleasure of interviewing Norman Mailer comes in this notion he encourages — that we are, each and all of us, engaged in the composition of a panoramic Proustian novel of our time. It’s in his almost absurdly generous and challenging extension of the fantasy that his eye and his writerly craft over the last 60-some years are part of a web “nearly all of us have created in our own minds; each book vastly different yet still related by the web of history, the style of our lives, and the river of becoming that we refer to by the most intimate and indefinable of words, the most mysterious word of them all — time. Time!”
The occasion of our resuming the conversation, so to speak, was Mailer’s new novel, The Castle in the Forest. As you’ve heard, it is a fictional treatment of history and rumor about the mutiply-incestuous conception of Adolf Hitler. It’s a book about fleshly and philosophical evil — about 20th Century history and a few players in the Nazi Reich, like Heinrich Himmler, that fascinate Mailer particularly. It’s also about bees, a subject Mailer has studied almost as E. O. Wilson has studied ants. But more fundamentally The Castle in the Forest seems to me an exercise in theology, a confirmation, finally, that there’s a believer inside Norman Mailer — original, but recognizably sprung from the Jewish and Christian traditions, and almost systematic. The narrator of the novel is a devil, an agent of the luciferian “Maestro,” who takes the historical form of a Nazi security agent. He explains himself early on:
Given the present authority of the scientific world, most well-educated people are ready to bridle at the notion of such an entity as the Devil. They have even less readiness to accept the cosmic drama of an ongoing conflict between Satan and the Lord. The modern tendency is to believe that such speculation is a medieval nonsense happily extirpated centuries ago by the Enlightenment. The existence of God may still be acceptable to a minority of intellectuals, but not the belief that there is an opposed entity equal to God or nearly so. One Mystery might be allowed, but two, never! That is fodder for the ignorant.
Norman Mailer, The Castle in the Forest, page 71.
And then there’s this modern and Mailerian twist on human agency in a zone of struggle between God and Satan:
… there are three aspects to reality — the divine, the satanic, the human — in effect, three separate armies, three kingdoms, not two. God and His angelic cohort work upon men, women, and children to bring them under His Influence. Our Maestro, and we, his representatives, look to possess the souls of many of these same humans. Until the Middle Ages, human beings could not bring much of an active role to the contest. Often, they were pawns. Hence the notion of the Two Kingdoms. By now, however, we are obliged to take the individual man or woman into account. I will even say that many, if not most, humans, are at present doing their best to be beholden neither to God nor to the Maestro. They seek to be free. They often remark (and most sententiously), “I want to discover who I am.” … Humans have become so vain (through technology) that more than a number expect by now to become independent of God and the Devil.
Norman Mailer, The Castle in the Forest, page 76.
Chris visiting Norman Mailer, 2004 [Mary McGrath]
Mailer’s theories of God get the conversation started. He has suggested elsewhere that his edge in the competitive struggle with the secular storytellers of his generation is precisely this taste for metaphysics and theology. But in his 85th year, or with me anyway, he is generous with old rivals like Updike and Roth, and content with the line that there are perhaps 20 American writers who think they’re near the top of the heap, and he’s one of them.
And then we digress.. onto his love of Proust — brilliantly apotheosized; and his own conditioning in Existentialism… Hilariously onto John McCain, then Donald Rumsfeld, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama… onto the grip of Stupidity on the Age of Bush; and the multiplicity of wrong motives behind the War in Iraq… onto the nine Mailer grandchildren to whom this very patriarchal character dedicated The Castle in the Forest.
I wish I were asking for questions to put to the man, but the interview is done. I’d still be fascinated to hear what people consider to be the essential Mailer.
What if it was his movie role as ringside commentator in “When We Were Kings,” in which I and many others say he damn near stole the show from Muhammad Ali?
I keep Mailer’s 1300-page collection of a life’s work, titled The Time of Our Time ever close at hand, and there are so many passages to savor. For example:
Bobby Kennedy, that archetype Bobby Kennedy, looked like a West Point cadet, or, better, one of those unreconstructed Irishmen from Kirkland House one always used to have to face in the line in Harvard house football games. “Hello,” you would say to the ones who looked like him as you lined up for the scrimmage after the kick-off, and his type would nod and look away, one rock glint of recognition your due for living across the hall from one another all through Freshman year, and then bang, as the ball was passed back, you’d get a bony king-hell knee in the crotch. He was the kind of man never to put on the gloves with if you wanted to do some social boxing, because after two minutes it would be a war, and ego-bastards last long in a war.
Norman Mailer, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” on the Kennedy convention at Los Angeles, 1960, in The Time of Our Time, page 350.
I have a proposal. Address an open letter in your name to Ernest Hemingway. Many would say — I am one of them — that he has been our greatest writer. It is certain he created my generation — he told us to be brave in a bad world and to be ready to die alone… Show the world that you will let a Nobel Prize writer who speaks the language of the country travel anywhere in your territory, unmolested, unobstructed, unindoctrinated. Let him come, let him get to know you if he wishes, hope that he will write something about Cuba, a paragraph, a line, a poem, a statement — whatever he says cannot be ignored in my country. The world will read what Hemingway has to say, the world will read it critically, because he will be making a history, he may even be preparing a ground on which you and our new president can meet.
Norman Mailer, “An Open Letter to Fidel Castro,” written in November 1960 but not published until after the Bay of Pigs invasion in the Spring of 1961, in The Time of Our Time, page 391.
He kept making encouraging comments, “Hey, you’re doing fine, Norm,” and, a little later, “Say, you’re in good condition,” to which the physical specimen could only grunt for reply — mainly it was the continuing sense of a perfect pace to Ali’s legs that helped the run, as if his own legs were somehow being tuned to pick their own best rate, yes, something easy and uncompetitive came off Ali’s good stride.
“How old are you, Norm?”
He answered in two bursts, “Fifty — one.”
“Say, when I’m fifty-one, I won’t be strong enough to run to the corner,” said Ali. “I’m feeling tired already.”
Norman Mailer, on Muhammad Ali in training for “the rumble in the jungle” with George Foreman in 1974, from The Fight, quoted in The Time of Our Time, page 918.
Mailer is still, at 84, the embodiment of manly energy. He seems to me the fulfillment in our time of what Henry James expected the artist to be — the one “on whom nothing is lost.”
So, friends: who is Norman Mailer to you?
- Extra Credit Reading
Mark Singer, Tough Guy, The New Yorker, May 21, 2007: “‘Norman said, “The sounds of punches in movies are all phony,”‘ Shatz recalled. ‘He wanted me to record his own punches. He was a boxer, of course. So we were in my cutting room with a portable digital recorder, and I remember thinking at the time, I’m watching Norman Mailer hit himself and I’m not stopping him. He hit himself at least twenty times—in the face and the chest—until we finally got it right.’”
Boris Kachka, Mr. Tendentious, The New York Magazine, January 15, 2007: “If the reviews for Castle are bad (and the buzz ain’t good), don’t be surprised if the old lion roars yet again. After all, it was only last month in Esquire that he took on one longtime foe, Times critic Michiko Kakutani, saying, ‘What put the hair up her immortal Japanese ass is beyond me.’ Below, a necessarily much-abbreviated dossier, Mailer’s All-Time Enemies List.”
Norman Mailer, interviewed by John Freeman, Critical Outtakes: Norman Mailer on Bush, Iraq and Fascism, Critical Mass, November 21, 2006: “People really do take their cue from how well the leader speaks. FDR was able to turn the nation around because he spoke so beautifully. He had such command of language, such a love of language, such concern for it. The English were able to keep themselves together after losing the Empire because they had Shakespeare and they have a tradition of speaking well. And when you have a leader who speaks in dull slogans you are stupefying the mind of the country.”
Bill Gunlocke, Norman Mailer: The Long Goodbye, An Editor’s Notes, January 29, 2007: “He looked a little stronger than the last time. He looked a little different too. You likely saw the Times photo in the book review a week ago. His hair straighter than you remember it. He looked like Irwin Corey meets Pat Riley. His voice was stronger than you’d think for someone turning 84 any minute. It’s a great voice, unmistakable for 40 years.”
Marshall Payne, Music and writing fiction #1, Marshall Payne’s LiveJournal, May 28, 2007: “I read an interview with Norman Mailer where he said that when he quit smoking he found it impossible to write. He never said if it was the physical act of not having a cigarette in his hand while he wrote, but I imagine it was more the shock of nicotine withdrawal that knocked him out of the creative saddle for a few months. At any rate, he said that he had to teach himself to write all over again. Where before he was a word writer, he became a rhythm writer once he regained his artistry.”
nother, in a comment to Open Source, March 28, 2007: “For me, all of Mailer’s moves coalesce into a lived life of art. Guys like him and Hemingway, and even Muhammad Ali, were all carrying on a tradition of the Aesthetic movement, one of its tenets being to make an art of life. Yet if the coin is the Aesthetic movement and Oscar Wilde is on one side, then our American men of men are certainly on the other. In the same way that Wilde’s homosexual flamboyancy expressed his individualism to those Victorians, our American machos expressed their individualism by flamboyantly displaying their masculinity.”