Norman Mailer, going on 80, is out there stirring people up

On Books

January 19, 2003|By Michael Pakenham

I was a student when I read Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead. I don't remember how old I was, though surely the book had been out for some years. I probably read it for the wrong reasons. It was most talked about for its threshold-breaking use of barracks-room expletives -- misspelled as they were.

Since then, I have been regularly aware of Mailer, though I have read far less than all of the 31 previous books listed in his latest, The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing (Random House, 320 pages, $25.95). Over a bit more than 40 years, I have occasionally had casual conversations with Mailer, but we have no personal relationship. Because of his notorious public arrogance, I have gone through periods of detesting him. I have been appalled by the self-indulgence of some of his work, while awed by the best of it. Even more, I'm impressed by the diligence and discipline he's shown by the prodigious output of his writing life.

In the preface to this new book, he declares it to be about writing's "perils, joys, vicissitudes, its loneliness, its celebrity if you are lucky and not so very lucky in just that way. Needless to add, it speaks of problems of craft and plot, character, style, third person, first person, the special psychology of the writer. (I do not think novelists -- good novelists, that is -- are altogether like other people.)" He writes that he thinks the book is perhaps mostly for young novelists, but might be useful to anyone interested in writing or serious reading.

The structure and much of the content is fresh and original, but it draws heavily on published interviews with Mailer and on pieces of criticism he has written over his entire working life. He draws on introductions and passages from his previous work. It might be said that he has emptied his trunk, but very selectively.

Mailer grew up in Brooklyn and went from Boys High School there to Harvard, where he studied engineering as well as English. Except for one story he wrote at 7, he did not write in childhood, but began while at Harvard. He was graduated from Harvard in the spring of 1943 and was drafted into the U.S. Army in March 1944. He figures he wrote half a million words before his first published novel, The Naked and the Dead, which is still accepted by many people as the defining World War II novel. It was published in 1948 when Mailer was 25 years old. He will be 80 years old this Jan. 31, and celebrates that as the publication date of the book.

The book reaches back often and nostalgically into his life even before The Naked and the Dead, into a bit of childhood and his undergraduate days at Harvard. The first piece is an adaptation of a 1960 interview with him for the Paris Review. But Mailer also, on occasion, hurtles ahead to the present, writing observations on Afghanistan, Sept. 11, and immediately contemporary threats.

Often the book is episodic, even spasmodic. Mailer lifts observations from here and there. Even in sustained passages, he has a wonderful but sometimes off-balancing capacity for getting distracted by asides, which, in turn, distract us.

The book should nourish and inform -- as well as entertain -- almost any serious reader of novels. His observations about the processes -- structure, energy, meanings, deeper truths and superficial commercial realities of writing and writers, especially of the novel -- are rich and often extraordinary.

Why do it?

"We write novels," Mailer declares, "out of two cardinal impulses (other than to make a living and the desire to be famous). One is to understand ourselves better, and the other is to present what we know about others."

There is a lot of serious and responsible thought in this book. "I feel that the final purpose of art" he writes, "is to intensify -- even, if necessary, to exacerbate -- the moral consciousness of people. In particular, I think the novel at its best is the most moral of the art forms."

And he extends his high appraisal of the importance of literary fiction to the limits of social consequence: "You cannot have a great democracy without great writers. If great novels disappear, as they are in danger of doing, and our storytelling is co-opted by television and journalism, then I think we will be that much father away from a free society."

Yes! And, one might add to the threatened species list great readers of novels as well.

Much of Mailer's argument is delivered briskly but with grand metaphoric illustration or personal anecdotes. Perhaps the greatest weakness of the book is Mailer's implied assumption that every reader has read everything that Mailer has written, or at least his major books. Mailer assumes, for example, that everyone knows that The Executioner's Song was about the murderer Gary Gilmore, and so forth.

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