It seems to be the season of ‘double lives’. I have on my desk galleys of The Double Life of Paul de Man, the reader-proof doyen of deconstruction who began his career in Belgium during the Second World War writing newspaper articles sympathetic to the Nazi cause. That was an aspect of his literary production he declined to advertise from his perch as Sterling Professor at Yale in the 1970s. And now we have Norman Mailer: A Double Life, a hagiographical, ‘authorised’ biography of the novelist, wife-stabber and booster of homicidal misfits. De Man’s double life revolved around his efforts to conceal his early fondness for the doctrines of Hitler; Mailer’s revolved around the tension between his identity as a ‘nice Jewish boy’ and his caddish misogyny and obsession with violence.
For several years before his death in 2007 at 84, Mailer was regarded by many as a grotesque, almost comic figure, alternately repulsive and pathetic. There was a time, however, when he was widely considered to be not only a serious novelist but also a deep thinker – ‘the country’s