The Reviewer’s Song

Andrew O’Hagan

  • BuyNorman Mailer: A Double Life by J. Michael Lennon
    Simon and Schuster, 947 pp, £30.00, November 2013, ISBN 978 1 84737 672 5

Andrew O’Hagan on Norman Mailer

Let me issue a warning. This is not a review. And it isn’t a memoir either: it’s a memoir-as-review, or perhaps an autobiographical review, or just a moderate piece of literary egotism masquerading as scholarship, or a shotgun marriage between the handsome remnants of personal history and the pretty stuff on the public record. Let’s take the spirit of J. Michael Lennon’s ‘double life’ of Norman Mailer and offer that doubleness back as subjective criticism. Mailer, after all, gave us the non-fiction novel, Lennon gives us the pseudo-objective biography, so why can’t I offer the confessional review?

On the afternoon of 10 April 2007 I was on a plane over the Atlantic watching Infamous, one of the films about Truman Capote. It contains a scene where Truman and his frightful swans are discussing the Clutter family murder case. ‘Weren’t you scared going into their cells?’ asks Babe Paley (played by Sigourney Weaver), speaking of the murderers while sipping a martini and purring for the Upper West Side.

‘Well,’ he says, ‘it’s not as frightening as meeting Norman Mailer.’

It was a boring flight and I was trying and failing to make headway with Mailer’s novel about Hitler, so I watched Factory Girl, the movie about Edie Sedgwick, the ultimate 1960s poor little rich girl. The film opens with Andy Warhol (Guy Pearce) in a confessional box – always a good start – telling his priest how sad he is that someone else, not him, got to be punched at a party by Norman Mailer. ‘Why can’t I be punched by Norman Mailer?’ says the artist.

Lennon is Mailer’s official biographer and he is good at catching the ways in which Mailer dramatised his own moral inclinations. (‘Acting’ was Mailer’s reply when I asked him which of the other artforms novel-writing was most like.) Lennon captures the young Mailer drinking gin to be more like Hemingway. He sees him smarting at his father’s addiction to gambling and shadow-boxing around Brooklyn impersonating Rocky Graziano. He doesn’t quite explain Mailer’s pugilistic kind of heroism, but he portrays very well how captivating he was to his friends. We miss the private moments: there’s too little sense of Mailer alone, though the journal, which is used lavishly, makes up for it. I don’t think he gets a grip on Mailer’s social life, or the intellectual scene surrounding him in America in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, which is more pungently caught in the oral biography Peter Manso produced in 1985, yet Lennon often puts his finger on the kind of detail that makes sense of Mailer’s character. Pearl Kazin (Alfred Kazin’s sister) was an editor at Harper’s Bazaar and her manner was said to be quite superior. She deployed it over the years to get American novelists to jump through hoops. And when she asked Mailer if he’d care to contribute something to her magazine we can now be grateful to Lennon for bringing us the following reply. ‘Dear Pearl Kazin, I’m still too young and too arrogant to care to write the kind of high-grade horseshit you print in Harper’s Bazaar.’

Mailer’s early success made his struggle ‘to be a man’, as he often called it (dreaming again of Hemingway), into a struggle to distinguish reality from everything around it. Lennon understands what Mailer was up against: he was up against himself, up against the failure of the novels after his first one to live up to that spectacular early promise. From the early 1950s his career often looks like the career of a writer in crisis. Mailer was also up against his sensational ability to reroute his novelistic imagination through journalism and the essay, which both galvanised him and enslaved him as a stylist, causing him to worry about a ‘poverty of the imagination’. Lennon reveals all of this in slow motion, and his biography is a life-map that misses very few twists in the road, showing us how Mailer went about surviving the kind of reputation that would be retailed in gossip columns and joked about on in-flight movies for sixty years.

After I stepped off that movie-heavy flight to New York, I was due to have dinner with Jean Stein, who wrote the ‘oral biography’ of Edie Sedgwick. (She had published something of mine in Grand Street, and was a friend of Edward Said’s, whom I knew when I worked at the London Review.) On the day of the dinner she phoned to say that her cook had broken her arm so the dinner would be in a restaurant called Basta Pasta on 17th Street. I thought that sounded like the kind of place my friend Sam and I would find insufficiently grand for breakfast, but when I got there I saw that it was in fact rather posh. Lots of yellow lighting and noise but most of all there was heat – it felt like an oven and half the old-timers were falling asleep as I came in. I saw that Jean Stein and Joan Didion were deep in a conversation that could only be private, so I went over to the bar and had a whisky before approaching them.

Joan Didion gave me her hand and she was so thin it felt like I was holding a butterfly. I remember she was dressed a little like the flag of Brazil: blue sweater, green skirt, and wrap gleaming like gold armour. Her nails were nicely manicured and painted a sort of pearl grey. She seemed scared in general and nervous in particular, but I think I understood it was probably just her thing, this immense sense of smallness, the distance and resignation in her eyes that flew away as soon as she smiled. When Didion laughs she laughs rather gutsily and her frame shakes and she turns to show you she likes jokes. ‘Jean said you’re seeing Norman.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘In Provincetown. Tomorrow. For the Paris Review.’

‘People forget how good a stylist Norman is – like in that book about Gary Gilmore. He really got the nothingness of that place, the nothing.’

‘The loneliness of Utah out there.’

‘The West,’ she said. ‘That’s what’s always interested me and he was the one that got it.’

The next day I walked through a healthy thicket of transvestites on Provincetown’s Commercial Street to get to Mailer’s house at the other end of town. He obviously quite liked transvestites, despite his image: the first time I went to see him he recommended I go to a bar that had a Judy Garland impersonator. When I got to his house this second time, Norman was sitting at his dining table looking wiry and small. He walked with two sticks and was six months from death. He was reading the New York Times and circling things: he had on one of those armless, fleecy windcheaters and a pair of Ugg boots. When we sat down to talk he told me to let him have it – ‘both barrels’ – and I told him I was there strictly on pussycat duty. ‘The Paris Review loves you,’ I said, ‘and so do I.’ But we got into a few things all the same. In the evening we headed off to Michael Shay’s, a restaurant not far from Norman’s house that specialised in oysters. He liked to collect the shells. I have one here as I write: he drew on them with a pen to reveal the faces of Greek gods in their crevices.

Norman knew everybody in the place and he asked for a kind of vodka punch. He always drank horrible drinks: at one point, back at his house, he asked me to make him a rum and grapefruit and another time he asked for a red wine and orange juice. When we sat down he said something nice about a book of mine. It was a trick he got from Kennedy: always praise the book by an author that other people find difficult. ‘I’ll never win the Nobel Prize, you know,’ he said.

‘Why are you so sure?’

‘Because I stabbed my wife.’

‘Oh.’

‘No, they won’t give it to me.’ He wanted to talk a lot about age and he told me I should look after myself. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘when you get to my age you have to pee a lot. And there is no distance at all between knowing you want to pee and then just peeing. I was at Plimpton’s funeral in St John the Divine not long ago, and they sat me near the front, you know. Suddenly, I had to go. I knew I wasn’t gonna make it all the way down the aisle so I spotted a little side door and I got the canes and nipped in there. Halfway down the corridor, I was looking for a john and who do I see but Philip Roth. “Hey, Philip, what you doin’ here?”

“Oh, I had to pee,” Roth said.

“Happens to me all the time,” I said. “You just have to pee.” The previous week I went to see my daughter in Brooklyn and I couldn’t make it up the hill and had to stop in a telephone kiosk to pee.

“Oh, that’s happened to me,” Roth said. “I’ve done the kiosk thing.”

“Well, Phil,” I said. “You always were precocious.”’

We spoke about London. We’d met there once upon a time, at the Savoy Hotel, where he gave me the end of a bottle of whisky and wanted to figure out Fitzgerald. ‘We’re talking about the art of fiction in this interview, OK?’ I said during the Michael Shay dinner. ‘So I’m not going to be asking you anything about stabbing your wife.’ This was a big concession, journalistically, since I’d met Adele Mailer a few years earlier, to interview her for a BBC programme about Jack Kerouac, and she filled my ears with information about Norman and told me to come and see her again at Henri Bendel, where she worked the scarves concession.

‘You’re a gentleman as well as a scholar,’ Norman said. ‘As a reward I’m going to let you hear my impersonation of Lord Beaverbrook. My ex-wife Jeannie Campbell was his daughter and he hated me. We just didn’t see eye to eye.’ He then impersonated the great English press baron at length.

‘I wouldn’t know,’ I said, ‘but I think that’s quite good.’

‘Yeah, he hated me. But we were crazy. When I first met Jeannie we stared at each other full of murderous rage for an hour without blinking, then we got married.’

Halfway through our second interview the next day Norman asked me if I was tired. I’ve spent time with elderly people and I know what that question means: he was tired. So I said yes and followed him to a room with two single beds. We lay down and it was odd to think of it, the two of us lying there, 45 years between us, the wind and rain howling outside the house and the beams creaking like the ones in an old ship. ‘What you thinking about?’ he said.

Moby Dick,’ I lied.

‘Me too,’ he said. It was only when he fell asleep that I noticed how dark the house was. The storm was evil out in the bay. You could feel stranded out there on that finger of land. I got up and looked at a bookshelf in the hall outside the room. It had books of Norman’s going all the way back to the first Rinehart edition of The Naked and the Dead. This is what a writer’s life comes to, I thought, slightly spooked: a few rows of books, the writer working and sleeping in the house alone.

We spoke on the phone sometimes about Dwight MacDonald and essayists he knew and loved. And one time we had a conversation by satellite at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Norman had a way of delighting audiences and he worked them, playing the old roué, then next minute the fierce political commentator. Despite hating plastics and most machines, he agreed to some long-distance signing of books using a strange device invented by Margaret Atwood called the Longpen, where he signed them on a tablet and a mechanical arm in Edinburgh followed his scrawl. He said he had fond memories of Edinburgh, having taken part in a famous literary scrap organised there in 1962 by John Calder.

*

I loved Norman Mailer at school and was always writing letters to Time magazine saying he should win the Nobel Prize. They never printed any of them but they sent a nice typewritten postcard to the school saying sorry, and my English teacher, Mr Campbell, wondered why I was so keen on outlaws. I told him Mailer had the courage to put his bad character on the page and Campbell said I’d probably get an A in the exam. Other kids who liked books were obsessed with the Holocaust, or serial killers, Stephen King, gangsters or Flowers in the Attic. My poison was Mailer. His writing popped off the page and in Advertisements for Myself I saw everything I felt a writer could be, a cosmonaut of psychic space who could find the pulse of their time in themselves.

Literary heroes are often father figures, which might explain why our affection is steeped in half-dislike. In U & I, Nicholson Baker’s hilarious account of his admiration for John Updike, you get the sense that the older writer’s style is so bossy the novice has to take only those parts which will help him establish a rival camp. The same could be said of Mailer’s response to Hemingway, writing him ‘fuck you’ letters while admiring all he wrote. I grew up liking the idea of Norman and the fire in his prose as well as feeling uplifted by the bigness of his questions, and though I didn’t agree with many of his answers, I see they left a residue. I’m glad he found violence so fascinating and feminism such a challenge. His views raised the stakes and plumbed the depths, and he himself became like an Emersonian over-man, pitting civilisation against nature in ways that could be astonishing. He was a character in the fiction of the 20th century itself, raised and ruined by the media and by his own ambition. At his height he had a wonderful talent shot with psychosis.

I came to him via Marilyn Monroe. I was always reading about her and trying to work out why her story felt so personal to so many of the people I knew. ‘She was every man’s love affair with America,’ Mailer wrote. I remember reading that sentence and going to Kilwinning library for more books. They had Ancient Evenings, his vast Egyptian tome (I read the first ninety pages) and The Naked and the Dead, which was filled with the word ‘fug’ and seemed both plain and good. The others came in quick succession, half-read, skimmed or devoured, and his book about the killer Gary Gilmore, The Executioner’s Song, became for me a book that defined good taste in journalism. I read some biographies in between and quickly saw how far, in many ways, he was from the writers I considered my favourites. He didn’t do location or quiet suggestion; he didn’t do family history, grace, silence or epiphany. He didn’t do the human heart or the things that are left unsaid. Mailer was a celebrity who knew what he wanted to say and who wasn’t afraid of the loudhailer and the truncheon. He was never a subtle writer and never a complete novelist but as a navigator it seemed to me he was one of the heads of the profession. In any event, he was an intellectual who wanted to deal in headlines not footnotes, which wrecked him for some but made him a hero to me.

In Henry James’s ‘The Lesson of the Master’, Henry St George, the older novelist, offers the young writer Paul Overt a demonstration in self-sufficiency. He tells him a writer would do better not to marry, to put his passion into his work. Then marries the girl they both admire. That doesn’t stop Paul Overt offering an encomium to his elder and better.

‘Your talent’s so great that it’s in everything you do, in what’s less good as well as in what’s best. You’ve some forty volumes to show for it – forty volumes of wonderful life, of rare observation, of magnificent ability.’

‘I’m very clever, of course I know that’ – but it was a thing, in fine, this author made nothing of. ‘Lord, what rot they’d all be if I hadn’t been a successful charlatan,’ he went on – ‘I’ve been able to pass off my system.’

Most of this could be said of Mailer, whose talent was in everything he did and who was a successful charlatan. The doubleness referred to in the title of Lennon’s ample and very loyal biography may have something to do with that: the sense – Virginia Woolf’s sense, as well as Robert Louis Stevenson’s, and Dostoevsky’s – that nobody is simply one thing. Some people write biographies, you suspect, as a way of not writing about themselves. Lennon’s book is good in that way, in the fresh, clarifying, non-Boswellian way of letting one big ego rule the roost. I won’t rehearse the story of Mailer’s life – the instant fame, the pot-smoking, existential heroism, the stabbing of Adele, Vietnam protest, the women’s movement, the big magazine pieces, the Pulitzers, the affairs – as this official biography does all of that with dedication and a fair quantity of brio. The picture that emerges is of someone glorious in the using and abusing of his talent. When it came to fiction, he really couldn’t finish things, and the great, original American novel he wanted all his life to write remained beyond his grasp. To Mailer, that would be the harshest thing to say of him, but he knew it was true, and as my fascination with him in my teens developed into a friendship in my thirties, he remained like Henry St George, tangled in self-interest, yet just as keen to offer some kind of lesson to writers coming after.

Lennon implies that no place was ever so becoming to an author as Cape Cod was to Mailer. Like an old Nantucket sea captain freshly disembarked from the Pequod, he latterly seemed to carry the strange attitude of the place with him. In evoking it, Lennon quotes from the prologue to a novel Mailer never completed, ‘Advertisements for Myself on the Way Out’:

It was the kind of house in which the dogs barked insanely in bad weather, and the nurse could not rest, and the baby awoke in hysterical terror at one in the morning while the mother would feel dread at the hundred rages of her husband beside her in marriage sleep, and the house shifted and swayed to the wind like a ship in the north Atlantic seas, yet it seemed to contain every emotion that had died a frustrated death in its rooms and walls through a hundred New England winters.

Anybody who thinks Mailer was nothing as a stylist should read that paragraph again. In fact, it was as a stylist that he excelled, even when his argument was bonkers. Who else could have persuaded his readers that the American hipster had anything to do with the Bomb and the horror of the Holocaust, as he did in ‘The White Negro’? Who else could have turned a series of ego-acrobatics and monumental self-ridicules into a tour de force of modern historical inquiry as he did in Armies of the Night? He never focused on a single subject over several books, never made characters or houses or towns that people remember: he lags behind Bellow, Roth and many others as a maker and breaker of new fictions. Yet, by bending the parameters he incited new revelations, and he was exceedingly brave with his talent, not only capturing the American century but exuding a number of its excesses.

So that’s why he was heroic. Previous biographies have made it plain how reckless he was, how selfish at times and mad as hell, but the present biography gives us a Mailer much easier to love. The sage of Brooklyn Heights, Mailer had the virtue of taking the whole thing seriously, the whole effort to write your heart out, and he became indispensable as a guide to what American letters could aim to be, and how a single mind could confront the silencing inevitabilities of the military-industrial complex. Updike was pleasing and revealing but you never felt he’d taken risks on your behalf. He stayed wise. That is advisable, of course, yet, to a minority of us, Mailer was the better writer, because more fully animated by the energies of his times. Career novelists tend to build a warm little domicile for themselves in the world of letters, and they furnish it carefully, tastefully, while keeping their voice down at night. It’s a profession where one gains higher marks as a speaker for saying less: Mailer burned a hole in the ground with every book and sometimes it happened to be the ground beneath his feet.

Lennon’s biography is dense with careful detail. The Mailer archive at the Harry Ransom Centre in Texas is said to be the largest of the holdings in the collection, and Lennon, who was Mailer’s archivist for years, deploys the material to give us more of Mailer than we’ve had from anyone other than Mailer. He uses the journals to show us how Mailer filtered his manias and the interviews with people high and low give us new stuff about his affairs, though Mailer, like many a pig in a three-piece suit, did himself no great honour in the lifting and laying of women. Lennon keeps himself out of the story, a most un-Mailerish trait, but it’s clear he loved his subject as Boswell loved Johnson, seeing Mailer through a thousand eyes, but leaving the field clear for the rest of us who only have one pair.

My last evening with Norman was decisive. When the Paris Review appeared containing the interview we worked on together, an event was arranged at the New York Public Library. To tell the truth, Norman wasn’t well enough to do the event but he liked the idea of it, a joint event with Gunter Grass, which I chaired. Grass had just published a memoir called Peeling the Onion, an ill-judged little book in which he speaks of his youthful membership of the SS. The night before the event, Grass and the rest of us attended a supper. Grass isn’t tall, about five foot six and severely attached to his moustache, which in turn is severely attached to a brittle little pipe. He has that wonderful writerly disdain for everything that isn’t directly related to his own pleasure, and the host was exhausted trying to please all her guests.

‘I was always threatening to bring my grandmother to the West,’ Grass said. ‘And then one day she said to me: “But it is so much more beautiful in the East.”’

‘Ah, that is beautiful, Gunter,’ said one of his party.

‘Most remarkable,’ said another.

I admit I wasn’t at my best. I disliked Grass on sight and realised I could forgive him nothing. (Mailer, on the other hand, could have been a mass murderer and I’d still have found him charming.) I was troubled by how Grass, a man who scolded everyone over their Nazi past, could be so defensive about his own secret. ‘Admiral Prien,’ I said, ‘the German U-boat captain, who you say in your book was the hero of your youth, is the man who may have torpedoed, among many British ships, the HMS Forfar, the ship my grandfather Michael O’Hagan went down on in December 1940.’

‘Would you pass the butter?’ he said.

Coming down the corridor, backstage at the Public Library the next evening, Norman had the two sticks and the Ugg boots but he seemed very thin, even more so than when I’d seen him in the spring. His wife Norris was with him and also his sister Barbara. ‘The car service didn’t turn up,’ Norman said. ‘And they said it was outside but they were fucking lying and that’s the worst thing, the lying.’

Gunter nodded noncommittally when Norman greeted him with a ton of the old Mailer panache. ‘Last time I saw you it was a PEN conference,’ Grass said, his eyes drained of colour.

‘That’s right,’ said Norman. ‘We had an argument. Some had said we didn’t have enough women at the conference, and that fucking scourge Betty Friedan decided to resurrect her miserable career by making big accusations.’ Grass said nothing.

I told Norris I had been happy to have a nap in one of her guest rooms in Provincetown. ‘Creepy though, up there,’ I said. ‘With the storm outside. I don’t think I could live there.’

‘Well, I couldn’t,’ she said. ‘After I was ill, I just couldn’t do it any more. He loved it up there but I wanted to be in New York. I thought if I came back here he would just follow me but he didn’t.’

They told me Grass had enough English to do the interview, but, as it turned out, he brought a translator who was showing him my questions backstage. Grass stood beside me. ‘You’re going to ask me about the Nazis I denounced,’ he said, ‘but they had been grown-up men when they became Nazis. It is different.’

I still thought there was something fundamentally dishonest about his past. Plus there was the thing about my grandfather.On stage, I decided to go in with the difficult questions early in the hope that he would open up and address the audience’s interest in the new book by engaging with its difficulties, but it was clear he just saw the whole thing as book promotion and I was disgusted. He kept saying that he had been very young and was only in the SS for a few months. ‘People can judge me,’ he said. I told him judgment was indeed the issue. He’d been the judge and jury of a whole generation.

Mailer came up on stage and defended him. The veteran of many a worthless battle, Mailer, to his credit, was able to see Grass in larger terms. He was aware that, by this stage, Grass wasn’t a fighting man and he took up the cudgels for him. ‘Every writer has something they’re ashamed of,’ he said. He went on to say that stabbing Adele had been the thing he had always been ashamed of and that he hadn’t been able to talk about in public. He did great honour to Grass and the evening was saved. There was a clash of motivations in the room and Mailer always enjoyed that. We shrugged about it afterwards, though Grass didn’t, and one of his assistants later sent me a letter saying he himself had agonised over the revelations in Peeling the Onion but it was wrong of me not to be nice.

Norman Mailer was the most believing of men, which is hard to believe, given how famous he was in his middle years for bearing down with his fists on other people’s beliefs. But what he loved most was the opportunity to enter people’s imaginations. He was willing to take risks with himself to find things. He believed in God and he believed a person such as he was should take every opportunity to tell it his own way, whatever harm it might do his reputation, his liver, or his standing with his analyst. ‘I had nothing less than a vision of the universe which it would take me forever to explain,’ he wrote in his journal. But at the end of his life he was still fighting his corner. When James Wood wrote a devastating review of his Jesus book in the New Republic he was wounded but still on his feet, until he saw the cover, a cartoon of him wearing a crown of thorns and the headline, ‘He Is Finished’. When he bumped into the magazine’s publisher, Martin Peretz, outside a Provincetown restaurant and Peretz grinned at him, Mailer promptly bopped him on the nose.