Diary

Ian Hamilton

In the current issue of a magazine called The Face there is an article on Norman Mailer’s recent visit to this country. He was here, it seems, to promote Tough guys don’t dance, his latest novel: he did some ‘major’ TV interviews, a bit of radio, and – towards the end of his stint – he called a press conference in order to complain about the low quality of the reviews he had been getting. His tone was querulous. He felt that we (I myself was one of the ‘wimp’ critics he objected to) had been made nervous by his powerful masculinity and, to cover up our fear, we had tried to get macho with his book. Mailer was angry, says The Face, and he was spoiling for a fight.

What is it with these New York lit-celebs? A year or two ago, Gore Vidal published a book-length essay of complaint in the Spectator after his new volume of essays had been underhailed by the London reviewers. Again, I was named among the guilty men and Vidal’s tone, like Mailer’s, was shrill, vengeful and tremulous with self-regard. It was not that the reviewers had been ‘wrong’ about his book: it was simply that, in one way or another, because of something feeble or unhealthy in their personalities, they were not ‘adequate’ to cope with the full majesty of Gore’s achievement. It was a size thing, as it always is with these Americans. British critics just aren’t big enough to grasp what’s going on up there.

In one sense, people like Mailer and Vidal are indeed built to a larger plan than most. I‘ve looked up the reviews I wrote and in neither case, it seems to me, does the discussed author have grounds for more than – at worst – a middle-sized pang of resentment. Indeed, the Vidal review now strikes me as quite kindly. Well ... big men, big egos, you might say. But that won’t really wash with these two, as it might have done with innocent, out-of-town megalos like Steinbeck or O’Hara. Both M and V take pride in the pitiless, almost imperial candour with which they have despatched upstarts and rivals to the outer darkness. Indeed, they have often entertained us with their lordly put-downs of each other. ‘You demagogue!’ roars one. ‘You narcissist!’ retorts the other. No, these are city boys, big fish. And yet here they are whimpering because a few British book-reviewers can’t quite bring themselves to kiss their feet. It’s hard to fathom.

And yet it becomes not so hard after a week spent toiling through a couple of weird new publications from the States: Mailer, His Life and Times, by (that means ‘transcribed by’) Peter Manso, and Conversations with Capote by (can this be the correct spelling?) Lawrence Grobel.[1] Each book goes far, and unpleasantly, beyond mere feet-kissing, and each offers a neat image of the sort of literary-critical milieu in which the Mailers and Vidals feel most relaxed: a milieu in which their kingship is acknowledged, in which other people are either sycophants or foes or, now and then, pretenders to the throne. These last are dealt with savagely, in chic one-liners which the sycophants can busily sculpt into headstones.

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[1] Mailer: His Life and Times by Peter Manso. Viking, 778 pp., £16.95, 25 July, 0 670 80643 9. Conversations with Capote by Lawrence Grobel. Hutchinson, 244 pp., £10.95, 25 July, 0 09 161960 2.

[2] Novelists in Interview, edited by John Haffenden. Methuen, 328 pp., £11.95 and £5.95,19 September, 0 416 37590 1.

[3] Falling Towards England: Unreliable Memoirs, Part Two by Clive James. Cape, 192 pp., £8.95, 12 September, 0 224 02822 7.