Sunday, November 11, 2007

Kulchur Update: Remarks on the Life & Work of Norman Mailer

Image: Norman Mailer

Paris Review: You know, Thackeray says at one point that the novelist knows everything. He is like God, and this may be why he could write in the third person.
Norman Mailer: God can write in the third person only so long as He understands His world. But if the world becomes contradictory or incomprehensible to Him, then God begins to grow concerned with His own nature. It’s either that, or borrow notions from other Gods.
Paris Review Interviews Norman Mailer, 1964

AMY GOODMAN: I asked Norman Mailer about his thoughts on this lead-up to the November election.
NORMAN MAILER: The people who are, who hate Bush, like myself, are heating up one end of the stick. We're getting it red hot, but we're not reaching the middle at all. ... and my argument is that unless Kerry is elected and God knows Kerry is not Jesus Christ nor is he Joan of Arc, he's a man slightly to the left of the middle, who will play with the corporations and work with them. But nonetheless, he will have to have more of an open ear to us than the Bushies. So, our first need at this point is not to keep heating one end of the stick, it's to reach the middle. It's to reach those conservatives who don't know what we're talking about. The immediate need is to defeat Bush. ...
Democracy Now! Interviews Norman Mailer, August 2004

Kulchur Update: Remarks on the Life & Work of Norman Mailer

By Richard Power

I understand the life and work of Norman Mailer better than most people; certainly better than the literary critics who will shape the "conventional wisdom" on his legacy.

Like Bob Dylan's, Mailer's voice has been with me since my adolescence -- in the early years, speaking for me, sometimes articulating what I did not yet have the strength to articulate, and in later years, speaking to me, often warning me of some inner turmoil or silent loss lurking just around the next bend in time.

Now Mailer has abandoned the mortal coil in his eighties. Dylan is in his sixties. I am in my fifties.

Here is some of what important to know about Mailer's life and work:

The Great American Novel has many strains, e.g., the Thomas Pynchon strain, the Ernest Hemingway strain, the Toni Morrison strain, etc.

Mailer evolved out of the Hemingway strain, but Mailer's challenge was not to write the Great American Novel, the ones he could have written had already been written by Hemingway. What Mailer did was to turn Hemingway inside out.

Hemingway brought journalism into the novel, Mailer brought the novel into journalism.

Hemingway's novel as journalism belonged to the industrial age, it was retrospective, it delivered the world to you, between its covers, imbued with some redeeming meaning.

Mailer's early novels (e.g., "Naked and the Dead" and "Barbary Shore") constitute a homage to the tradition in which he was suckled.

Mailer's journalism as novel belonged to the era of transition from the industrial age to the information age. The work he produced at the height of his power (e.g., "Armies of the Night", "The Fight" and "Executioner's Song") delivered the world in real-time instead of retrospection, and imbued it with meaning improvised in the moment, like some Eric Dolphy solo.

In "The Fight", Mailer wrote of Muhammed Ali: "There is always a shock in seeing him again. Not live as in television but standing before you, looking his best. Then the World's Greatest Athlete is in danger of being our most beautiful man and the vocabulary of Camp is doomed to appear. Women draw an audible breath. Men look down. They are reminded again of their lack of worth. If Ali never opened his mouth to quiver the jellies of public opinion, he would still inspire love and hate. For he is the Prince of Heaven - so says the silence around his body when he is luminous."

Aesthetically, Hemingway's prose is like a Man Ray nude, i.e., its great power comes from its starkness and its immediacy.

Mailer's prose is like Picasso's Maids of Avignon, its great power comes from its flamboyance and impulsiveness.

And, yes, like Hemingway's life, Mailer's life highlighted how the worst in a man's personality can sometimes be inextricably bound up with the best in his work.

Here are the opening paragraphs from two of my favorite Mailer works, the novel "An American Dream" and the biography "Picasso: Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man" --

"I met Jack Kennedy in November, 1946. We were both war heroes, and both of us had just been elected to Congress. We went out on a double daue and it turned out to be a fair evening for me. I seduced a girl who would have been bored by a diamond as big as the Ritz."

"Picasso, delivered at 11:15 p.m. in the city of Malaga, October 25, 1881, came out stillborn. He did not breathe; neither did he cry. The midwife gave up and turned to the mother. If it had not been for the presence of his uncle, Dr. Salvador Ruiz, the infant might never have come to life. Don Salvador, however, leaned over the stillbirth and exhaled cigar smoke into its nostrils. Picasso stirred. Picasso screamed. A genius came to life. His first breath must have entered on a rush of smoke, searing to the throat, scorching to the lungs, and laced with the stimulants of nicotine. It is not unfair to say that the harsh spirit of tobacco is seldom absent from his work."

, , , , , , , ,