A new biography of Norman Mailer and a book of his essays offer further insights into the life and work of the Pulitzer Prize winner, whose achievements as an author were often eclipsed by his mammoth ego, writes Saul Austerlitz
He-man of letters
The stonemasons have come and gone, carving a bust of Norman Mailer’s craggy head for posterity in whatever literary equivalent we might have for the Hall of Fame or Mount Rushmore. Mailer is enshrined, alongside Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, William Styron and Bernard Malamud, as exemplars of the muscular mid-century modern style of American literature. And yet, of all the members of that exclusive club to which he so openly hungered to be invited, Mailer has perhaps the shallowest bench of enduring works. One indisputably great novel, The Naked and the Dead. One indisputably great hybrid of literature and non-fiction reporting, The Executioner’s Song. After that, precisely what? If we fail to immediately take note of the relative paucity of enduring work, it is likely because, as J Michael Lennon’s voluminous biography Norman Mailer: A Double Life repeatedly indicates, so much of Mailer’s mystique was rooted in the force of his own persona. Mailer was, in the words of Harold Bloom, “above all the author of ‘Norman Mailer’, his most persuasive fiction”. After his debut novel The Naked and the Dead was an instant bestseller in 1948, widely acclaimed as the best book yet written on the Second World War, Mailer was a man with a self-proclaimed mission light only on modesty: “It is to put Freud into Marx, and Marx into Freud. Put Tolstoy into Dostoyevsky and Dostoyevsky into Tolstoy.” Mailer was famous, and fame was a drug: “Each good review gives fuel, each warm letter, but as time goes by I need more and more for less and less effect.”
Mailer’s aspirations were titanic, even as they also hinted at the limitations that would keep him from quite achieving them. In his own estimation, he was “one of the few writers of my generation who was concerned with living in Hemingway’s discipline … I shared with Papa the notion, arrived at slowly in my case, that even if one dulled one’s talent in the punishment of becoming a man, it was more important to be a man than to be a good writer”. Mailer was living out the fantasy of the brawny man of letters epitomised by Ernest Hemingway, treating the creation of literature as an act of pugilistic savoir-faire.
Self-aware to the last, Mailer was puffed-up in appreciation of his own magnificence even as he peered down on himself from a height, taking in the chaotic jumble of his personality. The author rendered himself a character – “Mailer” – in his hybrid work The Armies of the Night so that he could fully acknowledge his own flaws: “Now Mailer was often brusque himself, famous for that, but the architecture of his personality bore resemblance to some provincial cathedral which warring orders of the church might have designed separately over several centuries, the particular cathedral falling into the hands of one architect, then his enemy. (Mailer had not been married four times for nothing.)” As Norman Mailer: A Double Life makes clear, Mailer was forever planning his assault on the gods of literature, but the result was a mélange of half-finished and underbaked works, lavish projects that did not come to full fruition and behemoths like Ancient Evenings and Harlot’s Ghost.
Lennon has admirably wrestled Mailer’s oversized life to the ground, engaging with not only his personal and professional lives, but also his forays into politics and his disastrous embrace of career criminal and aspiring writer Jack Abbott, whose release from prison he endorsed, and who murdered a man named Richard Adan soon after his release.
Lennon clearly admires Mailer’s talent, his ferocious devotion to writing and his zest for life, but his scrupulousness as a biographer exposes Mailer’s worst flaws. Mailer is self-absorbed, philandering, status-conscious, crude, blustering and occasionally violent. His ego knew no bounds.
Lennon seriously ponders the effect of Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Mailer’s book on the 1968 presidential conventions and the outcome of the election.
Lennon is loyal to a fault to Mailer. He has come to praise the man, not to bury him. This is a warts-and-all biography in which the biographer sees fit to grapple with Mailer’s critics, even when the case for Mailer is dubious at best. Of Mailer’s 1970s run-ins with feminism, including his notorious remark that “a little bit of rape is good for a man’s soul”, Lennon merely says that “the women’s revolution was nearing its apogee and Mailer became its piñata”. He criticises the onslaught from “righteous” journalists and pundits when Mailer went on record defending Abbott’s career prospects after murdering Adan.
The result is a biography that reads like a non-fiction version of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, whose ultimate effect wildly diverges from its putative intent. Lennon, seeking to protect Mailer against all attackers, opens up his idol to all manner of assault. Finishing A Double Life, we breathe a sigh of relief, thankful that we have been freed from the tyranny of Mailer’s delusions.
Mind of an Outlaw is no less eye-opening an introduction to Mailer’s peculiar obsessions – philandering can prevent cancer; American students’ poor educations stem from television commercials; the Soviet Union is no worse a human-rights abuser than the United States – but also documents his strengths as a writer. Mailer is superb on the pomp and fluff of electoral politics, even as the sheer gall of his ego bursts through the line, unblocked by any defenders. He is convinced that his Esquire profile had single-handedly won the 1960 election for John F Kennedy.
Mailer’s egomania is absurd, and the author knows it, but remains helpless in the face of his conviction that the world – nay, the universe – spins on the axis of his thoughts and sensations. Kennedy is an impressive candidate, finally, because he knows enough to praise Mailer, upon meeting him, for his poorly received novel The Deer Park, and not for the more obvious choice of The Naked and the Dead.
“A man cannot be judged by what he is every day,” Mailer argues in his superb bullfighting essay The Crazy One, “but only in his greatest moment, for that is the moment when he shows what he was intended to be.” Mailer’s judgement is open to debate, but by his own standard, he is to be measured as a literary critic – the ideal spot where his brio and egotism and incisiveness conjoin. Quick Evaluations on the Talent in the Room and its successor Some Children of the Goddess are far and away the best things in Mind, a catty and insightful look at Mailer’s competitors for literary immortality.
Mailer’s friends are damned with faint praise, while his rivals are expertly dissected. James Jones “could do 10 bad novels and I would never write him off, not even if it seemed medically evident he had pickled his brain in the gin”. Truman Capote, “tart as a grand-aunt”, “hesitates between the attractions of society, which enjoys and so repays him for his unique gifts, and the novel he could write of the gossip column’s real life, a major work, but it would banish him forever from his favourite world”. Unlike Mailer’s endless political predictions of steadily encroaching fascism, his literary predictions are astonishingly accurate.
Mailer is in his element in talking books; he is the wizened pugilist sitting ringside at the local boxing gym, watching the younger fighters sparring and expertly analysing the holes in their stances. Here, Mailer’s egotism finally makes sense, for to him, literature is a sporting event – sometimes a prizefight, elsewhere a pole-vaulting competition – and each new book threatens the arrival of a challenger. His honesty and his hunger for fame trade blows, rooting for his rivals to fail even as he awards them points for their strengths. Mailer’s best opponent was, is and always will be himself.
Saul Austerlitz is a regular contributor to The Review.