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Norman Mailer Could Make a Phone Book Fascinating

This weekend, the second one in September, now (as of publication) passed, I will be doing something I have never done before: reading a second book in a row by Norman Mailer. I sense “T.G.I.F.” readers quivering with excitement out there. Such reckless weekend abandon, but there you go. ­That’s right. ­I’m bad. A wild man, uh-huh.

Mailer died of renal failure about three years ago, in November of 2007, some three months after completing the novel I have just finished reading, The Castle in the Forest. It is, among several other things, about the early childhood of Adolph Hitler told from the point of view of an S.S. officer inhabited by an intelligence operative from hell. Not long ago, I saw Mailer on Charlie ­Rose’s television show, promoting the book and saying he thought it was his best novel. This is saying much. I resolved to read the thing; after all, ­hadn’t I thoroughly enjoyed The Gospel According to the Son (the life of Christ told in the first person), Tough Guys ­Don’t Dance, and Why Are We in Vietnam? But it took me two years to work up to this one. Mailer exacts a price from his audience, and rightly ­so.

An example of this, in The Castle is more than 200 pages of minutiae concerning the art and craft of beekeeping or apiarian matters, something of an obsession for ­Adolph’s dad, Alois Hitler. Certainly very well and clearly written, even wildly funny as well as informative, I found these pages at least partially maddening and could not, for the life of me, reckon what Mailer was up to here. I finally settled on this being an extended metaphor for the mundane, even anal aspect of evil and an early inspiration for the Third Reich. I am, I think, at least partly ­correct.

The second book by my former neighbor in Brooklyn Heights is The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing, which buttresses my contention that Mailer could make a phone book fascinating. Here, almost at random, is a single sentence from that book about graffiti or “tagging,” a subject in which I have only the most remote interest: “[I]t looked as if graffiti would take over the city, when a movement that began as an expression of tropical peoples living in a monotonous iron-gray and dull-brown-brick environment, surrounded by asphalt, concrete and clamor, had erupted to save the sensuous flesh of their inheritance from the macadamization of the psyche, save the blank city wall by the exercise of their united brain, ready to paint the dead-ass wall with their equivalent of giant trees and petty plants of a tropical rain ­forest.”

­Mailer’s famous obstreperousness is something I never saw on Montague Street in Brooklyn or while drinking in ­Capulet’s bar while he was there. I did, however, see it on television some years earlier and described here on Wikipedia: “A 1971 interview with Norman Mailer was not going well. Mailer moved his chair away from the other guests (Gore Vidal and Janet Flanner), and Cavett joked that ‘perhaps ­you’d like two more chairs to contain your giant intellect?’ Mailer replied, ­‘I’ll take the two chairs if you all accept finger-bowls.’ Mailer later said to Cavett, ‘Why ­don’t you look at your question sheet and ask your question?’, to which Cavett replied, ‘Why ­don’t you fold it five ways and put it where the moon ­don’t shine?’ A long laugh ensued, after which Mailer asked Cavett if he had come up with that line, and Cavett replied, ‘I have to tell you a quote from Tolstoy?’”

Norman Mailer had a sense of occult realities (which I apprehended in inchoate ways early on in life, though I rarely voiced them), and ­he’d write about them as he did in his preface to the book Unholy Alliance, by Peter Levenda, about ­Hitler’s and ­Himmler’s sensibilities/beliefs along these ­lines.

“If magic is composed of a good many things, out-of-category forces that press against established religions, so magic can also be seen, in relation to technology at least, as the dark side of the moon. If a creator exists in company with an opposite Presence (to be called Satan, for short), there is also the most lively possibility of major and minor angels, devils and demons, good spirits and evil, working away more or less invisibly in our ­lives.”

Mailer contained all of these things — more or less and at one time or another — but nowhere more evidently than in the work he left behind. This evidence of things unseen, whether heaven-sent, from hell, or the unconscious is an earmark of every literary practitioner worth reading. If this seems an unsettling verity, Mailer had an observation there as well. “Culture,” he said, “is worth a little ­risk.”

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This weekend, the second one in September, now (as of publication) passed, I will be doing something I have never done before: reading a second book in a row by Norman Mailer. I sense “T.G.I.F.” readers quivering with excitement out there. Such reckless weekend abandon, but there you go. ­That’s right. ­I’m bad. A wild man, uh-huh.

Mailer died of renal failure about three years ago, in November of 2007, some three months after completing the novel I have just finished reading, The Castle in the Forest. It is, among several other things, about the early childhood of Adolph Hitler told from the point of view of an S.S. officer inhabited by an intelligence operative from hell. Not long ago, I saw Mailer on Charlie ­Rose’s television show, promoting the book and saying he thought it was his best novel. This is saying much. I resolved to read the thing; after all, ­hadn’t I thoroughly enjoyed The Gospel According to the Son (the life of Christ told in the first person), Tough Guys ­Don’t Dance, and Why Are We in Vietnam? But it took me two years to work up to this one. Mailer exacts a price from his audience, and rightly ­so.

An example of this, in The Castle is more than 200 pages of minutiae concerning the art and craft of beekeeping or apiarian matters, something of an obsession for ­Adolph’s dad, Alois Hitler. Certainly very well and clearly written, even wildly funny as well as informative, I found these pages at least partially maddening and could not, for the life of me, reckon what Mailer was up to here. I finally settled on this being an extended metaphor for the mundane, even anal aspect of evil and an early inspiration for the Third Reich. I am, I think, at least partly ­correct.

The second book by my former neighbor in Brooklyn Heights is The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing, which buttresses my contention that Mailer could make a phone book fascinating. Here, almost at random, is a single sentence from that book about graffiti or “tagging,” a subject in which I have only the most remote interest: “[I]t looked as if graffiti would take over the city, when a movement that began as an expression of tropical peoples living in a monotonous iron-gray and dull-brown-brick environment, surrounded by asphalt, concrete and clamor, had erupted to save the sensuous flesh of their inheritance from the macadamization of the psyche, save the blank city wall by the exercise of their united brain, ready to paint the dead-ass wall with their equivalent of giant trees and petty plants of a tropical rain ­forest.”

­Mailer’s famous obstreperousness is something I never saw on Montague Street in Brooklyn or while drinking in ­Capulet’s bar while he was there. I did, however, see it on television some years earlier and described here on Wikipedia: “A 1971 interview with Norman Mailer was not going well. Mailer moved his chair away from the other guests (Gore Vidal and Janet Flanner), and Cavett joked that ‘perhaps ­you’d like two more chairs to contain your giant intellect?’ Mailer replied, ­‘I’ll take the two chairs if you all accept finger-bowls.’ Mailer later said to Cavett, ‘Why ­don’t you look at your question sheet and ask your question?’, to which Cavett replied, ‘Why ­don’t you fold it five ways and put it where the moon ­don’t shine?’ A long laugh ensued, after which Mailer asked Cavett if he had come up with that line, and Cavett replied, ‘I have to tell you a quote from Tolstoy?’”

Norman Mailer had a sense of occult realities (which I apprehended in inchoate ways early on in life, though I rarely voiced them), and ­he’d write about them as he did in his preface to the book Unholy Alliance, by Peter Levenda, about ­Hitler’s and ­Himmler’s sensibilities/beliefs along these ­lines.

“If magic is composed of a good many things, out-of-category forces that press against established religions, so magic can also be seen, in relation to technology at least, as the dark side of the moon. If a creator exists in company with an opposite Presence (to be called Satan, for short), there is also the most lively possibility of major and minor angels, devils and demons, good spirits and evil, working away more or less invisibly in our ­lives.”

Mailer contained all of these things — more or less and at one time or another — but nowhere more evidently than in the work he left behind. This evidence of things unseen, whether heaven-sent, from hell, or the unconscious is an earmark of every literary practitioner worth reading. If this seems an unsettling verity, Mailer had an observation there as well. “Culture,” he said, “is worth a little ­risk.”

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Comments
7

John: Mailer's presence in the world is actively missed by those of us who love good writing. More and more we are losing the heavy hitters. You remind me that I also never read"The Castle and the Forest" and have been meaning to for quite a while. I always think it's particularly instructive to read the last books of major writers. They're written at a time of life when most writers have jettisoned whatever pretensions they've carried with them from book to book and are committed to writing only what really matters. I'm going to order it right now...and be prepared to learn a lot about bee-keeping.

Federico Moramarco

Sept. 15, 2010

Culture may well be worth a little risk, but it's an unfortunate remark considering that it was Mailer's oft-quoted response to the news that the convict he helped free from prison, Jack Henry Abbott, had been arrested for murdering a waiter. Agile as he was with pencil in hand, he was often maladroit when pressed with evidence that his assumptions about the spiritual essence of violence and the power of writing to redeem and reform a sinner had proved disastrous in practice.

There was a substantial uproar from Mailer's critics condemning him for testing his notions with people's lives at stake, but remarkably absent from the irate chorus was conservative gadfly William F.Buckley. A consistent advocate of cultural values, Buckley had his own folly with being a convicted killer's advocate with Edgar Lee Smith. Buckley worked to get Smith freed from prison under the belief that he was innocent of the murder charge he'd been convicted of. Smith was consequently released, only to admit sometime later that he was, after all, guilty . The good conservative remained silent during Mailer's travails.

Mailer's fiction, I think, has been given a tragic short -shrift even among his advocates, and it occurs to me that some of those works--An American Dream, Why are We in Vietnam?, Harlot's Ghost--will have posthumous reappraisals and will come to be regarded as some of the most important American novels written in the 20th Century. Mailer's elephantine persona no longer obscures his many good graces as a writer.

Sept. 17, 2010

For anyone who's interested, here's a link to my review of "The Castle in the Forest". http://ted-burke.blogspot.com/2007/01/mailers-masterful-castle-in-forest.html

Sept. 17, 2010

Re #2: Regarding Buckley, your account is somewhat choppy and ideologically convenient. Buckley did publicly regret the article he wrote for Esquire. Some time after Smith was released, Smith attacked a woman at knife-point, actually stabbing her in the side (in San Diego, no less). Afterward, Smith contacted Buckley and Buckley promptly notified the F.B.I. and Smith was then captured.

And if you'd like to know how Buckley felt about Mailer:

http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/222822/norman-mailer-r-i-p/william-f-buckley-jr

Regarding Mailer, I read him when I was quite young and didn't care for him. I might revisit some of his later novels, perhaps my tastes have changed.

Sept. 17, 2010

Choppy? Compressed is more like it;anyone wishing to read about Buckley and Smith in more depth can use Google easily enough. I

"Ideologically convenient"? That's a stretch. I merely speculated as to why Buckley was silent during the Mailer/Abbott fiasco. While every cultural conservative had a field day excoriating Mailer for his romanticist obsession with criminality and how his applied notion resulted in the death of an innocent man, Buckley had shared with him the erring notion that literary talent can transform odious individuals into decent, honorable men. Like Mailer, Buckley learned tragically that the benefits of art on human behavior only go so far. Hence, he chose to remain mute rather than run his mouth. Buckley was easily one of the few intellectually honest conservatives at the time, and I respect him for not expressing copious amounts of strained outrage.

I am well aware of what Buckley thought of Mailer, and vice versa, as I've been reading both of them for forty years.

Sept. 17, 2010

Re #5:

Choppy as in disconnected from their true relationship as you represented it. Ideologically convenient as in, a better example of a diametric rival would've been Gore Vidal, but Vidal's ideology is represented in a more complex manner. And the fringe "cultural conservatives" of that time more closely resembled the neo-conservatives of today. I would venture to guess that conservatism has become precisely the thing that Buckley did not want. Again, that's a guess.

So far as Buckley himself, I agree with your opinion of him, and would likely stretch that further. As much as the masses wish to believe that he was so conservative as to completely represent that movement, he was very willing to absorb ideas from liberals and even defend such ideas when he thought it appropriate. I know that his son, Christopher, was working on a biography of his mother and father, but I have no idea if it is published quite yet (I live outside of the U.S.). I imagine that Chris will certainly reflect this and possibly include several stories in demonstration.

Sept. 18, 2010

Well, no.My point was why Buckley didn't join the collective condemnation of Mailer and his championing of Jack Henry Abbott. How I cited the two incidents were appropriately succinct to the particular subject.

Mailer's problematic relationship with Gore Vidal is another matter altogether and has no relation to what I was talking about. Remember, I was commenting on John Brizzolara's use of the Mailer quote "culture is worth a little risk", which though it offered a nice way to end an interesting column, was itself removed from it's context. That context was the aftermath of the murder Abbott committed after his release from prison. Vidal, to my knowledge, never advocated for a convict's release; hence, his name never arose in my first post. Why you brought him up is puzzling.

Sept. 18, 2010

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