A lot of funny stories about Norman Mailer have reached us from across the Atlantic through the years, each one adding to the increasingly complex sum of his legend: Mailer Stabs Wife, Mailer Runs for Mayor, blacks the eye of Gore Vidal, gets arrested for disorderly conduct, boxed John Updike at two a.m. on a New York street corner, forces his dinner guests into rope-climbing races, gets married, divorced and married again all in one day … The tales are sometimes amusing, often bewildering, occasionally infuriating. Read by Mailer’s own lights, some can be seen as exercises in extremism; at worst, they tend to confirm our worst suspicions, that for all his great gifts and wisdom, he is the victim of childish impulses which drive him to regard every form of human conduct as a contest in which he must triumph or die.
Mailer has assumed many challenges in his time – he has even thought of running for President – the biggest of all being to prove himself the literary world’s Number One. ‘There are days when I think of myself as being the best writer in America,’ he once jabbed at Robert Lowell. That kind of boast comes largely from a sense of fun – a side of Mailer’s nature seldom given proper notice – and partly from the need to keep his name pressing from tongue to tongue, but there is nonetheless a dubious earnestness locked within it. It really is important for him to prove himself ‘the best’, although he may have succeeded only in being more famous than most.
Famous he certainly is: a famous braggard, a famous insulter, a famous puncher at cocktail parties… To the offended ‘Why?’ he will say, back to the wall and ready for all-corners, ‘Well, I figured you had it coming to you.’ Some kind of nervousness, one feels, must be responsible for this readiness to offend lovers and friends to gain the attention of the anonymous masses: perhaps Mailer feels he cannot afford to be too well-liked, in case that luxury should choke the constant pull and push between tension and aggression which provides his fuel.
Yet, taken together his extravagances begin to look like a part of his creative effort, his gestures themselves seem to be signals of the artistic impulse which is so large in him, in the same way that writing a sentence is. His contradictions are thus a measure of his spontaneity, and, as much as we may laugh with him or sneer at him, he has every right to them, since without them he would be a different man and a different writer.
His new novel, Ancient Evenings, a story set in Ancient Egypt, is over 700 pages long, and the book before it, The Executioner’s Song, reached a thousand. Both are possessed of monumental virtues and monumental defects; each is the act of a man suffering from genius.
Mr Mailer was in London to help promote the new novel, and also to cover the British general election for the Mail on Sunday. An odd vehicle, you might think, one which was chosen for financial reasons. With six wives, eight children and the taxman at his door, Mailer needs money. The advance payment for Ancient Evenings was a million dollars, but still he needs money. That the rich get poorer is a conundrum which the simple poor will never understand.
He had never written for the or any of its sister papers before, and he was learning. In the piece which had appeared before we met, the few uncomplimentary remarks made about Michael Foot in a generally approving piece had been taken out of context and headlined on the front page. He was annoyed about that. Now, on the eve of publication of his second piece, this time on the trail of Thatcher, he was worried that the same trick might be played in reverse.
‘She’s fantastic,’ he said. I expressed a more moderate opinion. ‘Yeah, she’s that too, but if you rate politicians as athletes, like I do, then she’s the greatest.’ His article called her ‘beautiful’ and ended: ‘Who would be there to tell Maggie that the devil may be the most beautiful creature God ever made?’ However, next day, fears proved justified: the Mail’s sub-editor had spotted ‘beautiful’ and left it at that.
Mailer has a habit of comparing politicians and anyone else who will bear the comparison (as well as many who will not) to athletes. At one stage in our conversation he stood up to demonstrate a point about literary competence by giving an excellent impersonation of the boxer Archie Moore.
‘When Archie Moore was at the end of his career he was built about the way I am now: he was overweight and could hardly get into shape, he was just too old, but he used to be able to get into a ring and box like this…’ Mailer ducked; ‘and this…’ he feinted; ‘…and in the meantime these freight-trains are going by! But he knew so much about boxing that it took very little effort, and he could go through a round and walk about this much.’
It was Saturday morning arid Mailer had been up late the night before completing his piece for the Mail. He asked if he might finish his breakfast before we got down to business. His good manners are famous – one might say ‘notorious’ since that reputation sits so oddly next to his other one, as a literary hooligan. He brought tea and as we talked before the large window of his hotel room, I tried to retain in myself, and to prompt from him, a sense of the great complexity which is his mark and his fate. A page by Mailer is livelier than ten by most English contemporaries; his speech, and the gestures accompanying it, prefigure the energy which illuminates his books.
At sixty he looks both older and younger than his years: if his frame confesses its age, his facial expressions belie it. Everyone I knew who had met him said ‘He’s smaller than you think’, but still he was smaller than I had thought, dressed in running shoes and khaki trousers and safari shirt which permitted a froth of white hair to spill out and match the odd thick-and-thin mop on his head. He has a twinkle in his eye and a talent for chuckling self-deprecation, two of the many sources of his genuine charm. Recent photographs had made him appear ‘dignified’ but this morning he looked more likeable than that word suggests, one of the boys, a good drinking companion, with plenty of stories and a ready laugh.
‘One of the paradoxes of my life is that in the public eye I’m an incredibly assertive person, whereas I always think of myself as being slightly off the mark and ironic. One of the reasons for that, I think, is that reporters have very little sensitivity to the concept of irony, and in the stories they write about me they tend to leave it out. You know, I once said that all women should be kept in cages, a remark that has landed me in endless trouble. But I was teasing. I was with Orson Welles on a television show and he was praising women to the skies, and I knew what he was like, so I said, “Oh come on, Orson, women should be kept in cages!” Of course I was being ironic, but it got into print, and in print it sits there like an enraged assertion.
‘In the same way I use irony when writing: Irony is the salt of literature, and I feel trapped when I’m deprived of it. In other words my worst writing comes out when there is the need to be assertive. I can tell when it happens because I get tired, and when that happens you start nailing everything to the wall. Let me give you an example: the worst chapter I ever wrote in a book was the last chapter in Marilyn. And the reason was that when I was rushing to deadline I discovered this bizarre evidence that probably she was murdered. But I didn’t know at the time what to do with it, and I didn’t have the sense-or the courage to say we have to wait six months, and so I rushed into it without detachment, and there I was, making all sorts of rash statements all over the place.’
Nevertheless, journalists are required to produce quick copy, which calls for fast judgements, and while Mailer’s claim to the title of heavyweight champion of the novel is in question, there is no dispute about his standing as one of the greatest journalists his country has ever produced. His career as a journalist spans many years, and The Executioner’s Song, which many consider his greatest work, is in a sense its crowning achievement. Yet Mailer is restless and uneasy with the title and in the gaps between writing novels (Ancient Evenings is the first since 1980) has occasionally attempted to dress up his journalism in a guise of fiction, of which it has little need: The Armies of the Night (1968) was subtitled ‘The Novel as History, History as a Novel’; Marilyn (1973) got dubbed ‘A Novel Biography’, and then there was the Executioner’s Song, ‘A True Life Novel’, the life being that of Gary Gilmore. a convicted thief and killer who requested the death sentence. Mailer has, furthermore, invented the effective device of writing about himself, the reporter, in the third person, as might a novelist. Is this activity the result of a thwarted desire to be writing more fiction, and has he ever felt that he was stuck in journalism?
‘The answer is no to both questions. I like writing journalism. I got into it by accident when I was drinking with one of the editors of Esquire once and he asked me how I felt about covering the 1990 political convention. I thought it sounded like fin and so I said okay. Then when I came to do the piece I discovered that I had a flair for this kind of thing, and 10-and-behold I was now in journalism. I think I react to situations rather than make decisions, and so I’m suited to it. I’ve never felt “stuck” or anything like that, although I don’t regard it in the same awe-stricken light as I do fiction, because for one thing it’s a lot easier. You see, I have trouble with plots. They never come naturally to me and I have to work them out bit by bit and eke them out … I brood over a plot, it gets me nervous. So when I write a novel it takes me a long time. Give me the story and I’m happy, because I can interpret what I’ve seen or what’s happened. For that reason I’ve always found it comfortable to do journalism, but I’ve also always felt that it was not the high road.’
He wasn’t particularly impressed, then, when Robert Lowell, as recorded in The Armies of the Night, presented him with the compliment that he was the finest journalist in America?
‘I don’t think I’m even a competent journalist.’ Then he saw how open that was to misinterpretation. ‘In the technical sense. I’ve never had to file my copy the same day or anything like that. The toughest assignment I ever had was to cover the first Ali–Frazier fight in 1971. I had thirty-two hours to get my story in, and it was 9,500 words long. But as for getting names of people and places very quickly, I’ve never had to do that.’
‘King of the Hill’ is a brilliant piece of reportage and offers proof, if proof were needed, that Mailer is more than a ‘competent’ journalist. It exhibits well the vivacity which often generates his prose – for he is nothing if not a writer who enjoys writing:
The referee gave his instructions. The bell rang. The first fifteen seconds of a fight can be the fight. It is equivalent to the first kiss in a love affair. The fighters each missed the other. Ali blocked Frazier’s first punches easily, but then Ali missed Frazier’s head. That head was bobbing as fast as a third fist. Frazier would come rushing in, head moving like a fist, fists bobbing too, his head working above and below his forearm, he was trying to get through Ali’s jab, get through fast and sear Ali early with the terror of a long fight and punches harder than he had ever taken to the stomach, and Ali in turn, backing up, and throwing fast punches, aimed just a trifle, and was therefore a trifle too slow, but it was obvious Ali was trying to shiver Frazier’s synapses from the start, set waves of depression stirring which would reach his heart in later rounds and make him slow, deaden nerve, deaden nerve went Ali’s jab flicking a snake tongue, whoo-eet! whoo-eet! But Frazier’s head was bobbing too fast, he was moving faster than he had ever moved before in that bobbing nonstop never-a-backward step of his, slogging and bouncing forward, that huge left hook flaunting the air with the confidence it was enough of a club to split a tree, and Ali, having missed his jabs, stepped nimbly inside the hook and wrestled Frazier in the clinch.
He has observed that a writer who did make, effective use of the first person in the writing of non-fiction was James Baldwin, about whom, along with roughly fifteen other ‘competitors’, he made several uncomplimentary remarks in a piece published in Advertisements for Myself in 1959, called ‘Quick and Expensive Comments on Some Talent in the Room’. (‘Most accurate title I ever had!’) Baldwin, for example, he accused of being ‘too charming to be major … even the best of his paragraphs are sprayed with perfume. Baldwin seems incapable of saying “Fuck you” to the reader.’ I reminded him of Baldwin’s later remark that his first reaction was to send a cablegram disabusing at least one reader of that notion. Mailer laughed.
‘Well, he certainly went on saying “Fuck you” to the reader after that, didn’t he? Of course, the black movement also came along and began taking up more and more of his energy. That was written before everything black erupted in America and in those days Baldwin was still writing essentially for white society. I always felt that Baldwin had the most delicate sensibility of any of the writers of my generation, and therefore it cost him more than anyone else. What people don’t understand – and I think this is one of the reasons I’ve always been interested in boxers – is that the life of a writer is incredibly punishing.’
About Bellow he said in 1959: ‘I cannot take him seriously as a major novelist’.
‘I don’t think … I don’t think one should talk about him as a major novelist. There really should be a special category for Bellow. Two or three of his books are going to be classics, but the notion of a major novelist is of one who puts you through the wringer. My idea of a major novelist is Dreiser or Dos Passos or Hemingway; a major novelist changes your life, whereas a novelist who gives you classics gives you something you can admire but finally it’s a little like going to the museum.’
To James Jones, author of From Here to Eternity, awarded the prize of being ‘the only one of my contemporaries who I felt had more talent than myself.’ I asked if that was still true, which brought a moment’s hesitation from Mailer, who was in a generous mood this morning.
‘Do I still think he’s the only one? Well, there were an awful lot of them that I felt were, uh … I really don’t have that many contemporaries, you know … But, uh, yes, I guess so.’
One of his least happy stints in the headlines occurred recently when, after a lengthy correspondence with a prisoner called Jack Henry Abbott, Mailer helped to secure his release on parole, and also to get a book of Abbott’s writings published. After only a few weeks, however, Abbott, who had spent only nine months out of the previous twenty-two years at liberty, got into a fight and killed a young waiter. A torrent of hostility descended on Mailer’s head, and was unrelieved when he said that under identical circumstances he would act in the same fashion again. He had been aware of the possible difficulties of getting involved with a man like Abbott, he said now, but it was his opinion that prison was doing nothing for the prisoner, and that his literary talent might blossom on the other side of the bars.
‘What shook me most when I heard the news that he’d killed somebody was that I had no sense that something like this was going to happen. I worried about him for the first few weeks and then just when I was thinking, Gee, the guy’s coming round the bend he’s going to be all right – it happened.’ It was as if I’d run into a steel pole. It shook my sense of my own acumen because you like to think you know when trouble’s near. Afterwards there was great woe … I had, at third or fourth remove, the death of a young man on my conscience. It was one of those things that ages you a little bit.’
Mailer has corresponded with and helped other, less publicised prisoners, but hadn’t he invited some of that woe by speaking of Gary Gilmore, whose life story he wrote, as a future candidate for sainthood?
‘That got pulled out of context, I never said that exactly. What I have always felt is that there is a spectrum of personality running from the saint to the psychopath that’s different from the spectrum of personality in most average people; in other words, saints and psychopaths are reverse faces of the same coin, in that they both have an immense sense of the present and live very much for what’s before them.’
‘Is The Executioner’s Song your best book?’
‘I think it’s one of my best – but I think Ancient Evenings is my best book. There are two tendencies in my writing, the realist tendency and the symbolic tendency. And what you have to remember is that The Naked and the Dead is in a sense an anomaly. Before I became a soldier I wrote a long novel about a mental hospital called Transit to Narcissus: a murky, romantic, highly overcharged, symbolic novel; and had the war not come along I probably would have gone on in that direction, writing novels very much in the manner of a writer I admire, Iris Murdoch. Since then, however, I’ve lived with these two possibilities in my writing, and while The Executioner’s Song is the flowering of one of those tendencies, Ancient Evenings is the flowering of the other.’
Ancient Evenings was begun with the intention of taking a ‘karmic protagonist’ on a journey through the ages, from Ancient Egypt up to the present day, but as his interest in the Egyptians developed, Mailer decided to remain there. With considerable diligence, and equal amounts of boredom and difficulty, he read every work on Egyptology he could find, digging, digesting, writing. There are parts of the book in which the writing was mainly a matter of being faithful to the research, but elsewhere Mailer invented freely and extravagantly.
‘People have asked what Mailer is doing in Ancient Egypt, saying shouldn’t he stick to America?’
‘A writer is entitled to do whatever he can get away with. I’m never worried why I’m doing something. It’s good enough if one is writing. I started Ancient Evenings because I felt I couldn’t write about America any more. I lost my sense of clarity about it and I thought I’d better get away for a while. So maybe when I come back I’ll be able to see more clearly.’
In a shelf of his books it would be hard to isolate a ruling passion, unless it be the effort to communicate a world view, for with great strides he changes his climate at will. The writer he makes me think of most is not Hemingway or Dos Passos, but the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, who once described himself as a volcano which throws off showers of fire and heat, and a fair amount of rubbish beside. On this account, Mailer demands a great deal from his readers, for one is required to participate in his imagination, share its dimensions and comprehend its architecture. He has left Ancient Egypt and is already heading for a different sphere; whatever he returns with, it will be a surprise; he is too large for categories. The only certainty is that Mailer will go on writing, breathing ideas, infuriating and illuminating, and striving – as he has said all great writers must – to force a vision of existence.