From the New Yorker, Norman Mailer’s True Fiction, by Richard Brody:
There’s a superb and insightful piece about Norman Mailer by Jonathan Lethem at the Los Angeles Review of Books (that site is one of the instant jewels of the Internet). Lethem starts off by discussing his own lifelong love for Mailer’s writing and fascination with Mailer’s persona:
Challenged once by a friend to name a single immortal literary character from postwar fiction—someone to rival Sherlock Holmes or Madame Bovary in terms of bleed-through to popular consciousness—I blurted out “Norman Mailer!” I was halfway serious.
The list of works by Mailer that Lethem would take to his own personal desert-island library are mainly essays and reporting—and the magisterially reflexive composite “Advertisements for Myself”—rather than novels. And his essay addresses why this is so, offering a brilliant hypothesis regarding what I think is indeed the key question on the subject of Mailer’s literary life: why he never managed to slay the white whale and write the Great American Novel, and why he will most likely be most passionately remembered for his nonfiction.
The reason Mailer couldn’t arrive at a satisfactory postmodern style… was because postmodernism as an art practice extended from modernism, to which Mailer had never authentically responded in the first place. This might have been Mailer’s dirty secret: He was still back with James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan in the soul of his aesthetics, even as the rest of his intelligence raced madly downfield, sometimes sprinting decades past his contemporaries.
I wonder, though—first, whether a postmodernist style is itself comprised of modernist elements; second, whether it’s right to say that Mailer didn’t
develop one; and, third, whether Mailer was indeed not inspired by literary modernism. Mailer matched himself up with and against Ernest Hemingway as the heavyweight he had to overcome to win the championship. But rather than contending with Hemingway’s pared-down, sculptural, quintessentially modernist prose, he fought with the essentially postmodern assumption behind it: that what was written first had to be lived—and picked up on the essentially modernist, existential core of the experience that Hemingway lived and wrote, which is the presence of death.
Now, one argument regarding Mailer is that he spent an awful lot of time and energy pursuing that experience and, in the process, alienated himself from his true self and never wrote the one book that everyone wanted and expected him to write, and that he alone could have written—the novel about his Brooklyn Jewish experience, his personal bildungsroman, the story of the young Norman Mailer. This, rather, is the identity that Mailer fled from, into a series of tough-guy adventures that often seemed less like explorations than like masks. And yet his writing of them—his writing of himself into his reporting, his collection of literary fragments and his meditations on them into a book, and, of course, the very self-creation as the character whom Lethem exalts—is a quintessential postmodernist achievement.
But I think that there’s another side to the story. Mailer may well simply have been, by temperament, more of a philosopher than a fictioneer (Lethem likens one of the young Mailer’s insights to those of Zizek), a writer whose ideas and whose own voice—and whose need to assert that voice—take precedence over the flowering of otherness, over the full realization of a world in fiction. He couldn’t get outside himself long enough and inside someone else’s mind and heart completely enough to set the novelistic machine into a self-sustaining orbit.
And here’s where a useful artistic comparison comes into play, with a filmmaker who is also in the grip of a philosophical temperament and a brilliant, distinctive, irrepressibly florid voice—a filmmaker whose interviews, no less than Mailer’s, are themselves works of art that deserve to stand on their own, and who fills his movies with characters who all speak as he does: Jean-Luc Godard. Yet Godard has—and continues to make—films that, for all their essayistic manner and philosophical divagations (and, for that matter, for all Godard’s devout literary and artistic classicism—his novelistic cynosure is Balzac) are astonishingly realized, modernist and postmodernist fictions. And the question is why he has done it and Mailer didn’t.
The difference is that of the cinema itself from writing. There is an intrinsic documentary side to the cinema. It suffices to film a variety of people in a variety of places to evoke a profuse and ambiguous world—and only the limited perspective of a narrow-minded, self-righteous director can shrink that world and strip it of its automatically reportorial revelations. Godard gives free rein to his speaking voice, whether he delivers it himself or transfers it to other characters. He films and assembles his footage to yield a focussed set of ideas and to develop substantial theses; and yet they escape from his authority to take off on their own power. The fact that they do so is not just a mark of Godard’s own artistic power, but also of the nature of the cinema itself, which does for Godard (who recognizes it and has always worked and reworked that aspect of the medium) what writing couldn’t for Mailer.
Mailer did, of course, make some movies; he also knew Godard a little, and worked with him on Godard’s “King Lear” in the mid-eighties. I spoke with Mailer about it, in 2000. He recalled:
I had seen him two or three times in earlier years, when I was making my three underground films. We walked together for a block or two at one point, we were going from, I think, from one party to another, and he said, “I hear you’ve made a forty-five-hour film,” and I said, “Yes, the problem’s gonna be to cut it down,” and he said, “No, don’t cut it down, show all of it.”
(Of course, Mailer did no such thing.) Their collaboration on “King Lear” (for which Mailer wrote a script that Godard never used) didn’t go well. Godard wanted Mailer to play a character called Norman Mailer, and
at the end of the day’s shooting I said to him, “Look, I really can’t say these lines. If you give me another name than Norman Mailer, I’ll say anything you write for me, but if I’m going to be speaking in my own name, then I’ve got to write the lines, or at least I’ve got to be consulted on the lines.” So he was very annoyed and he said, that’s the end of shooting for the day. We’d only shot for about three hours at that point.
The two men had a dispute and agreed to end the collaboration after the first day of shooting, but Godard included his two takes of Mailer at the beginning of the film as a sort of pentimento and personal account of the project’s genesis. (His films, after all, have been hybrids and composites from the very start.) And “King Lear” turned out to be one of Godard’s supreme achievements (a sort of collective gasp of long-delayed exhilaration arose last year at Film Society of Lincoln Center when this rare treasure was displayed—may it now arrive soon, for all to see, on DVD).
In 2000, I also spoke with Godard about Mailer. He praised Mailer’s nonfiction writings, in particular, his accounts of the Chicago Eight, as well as a more recent French collection of occasional pieces (“he’s talented as a reporter”). Godard said that he had considered adapting
Mailer’s book “Why Are We In Vietnam?,” but that “he’s not a good novelist” because “he’s only interested in dead people, or in people who are dying…it was always death,” and cited the title of Mailer’s first book, “The Naked and the Dead.” He said that “Ancient Evenings” was “not bad, because it was a total failure”—and said that it fit into the schema, since it was about “the civilization of death and so forth.” He also praised “The Executioner’s Song” but then added: “He always did things on that subject, always. Marilyn… always. But I don’t know if he himself is aware of it.” Or he may have been all-too-aware—may have been The Man Who Knew Too Much.