January 22, 2003
Norman Mailer Ruminates on Literature and Life
ROVINCETOWN, Mass., Jan. 16 ó Not five minutes into the interview, Norman Mailer put in his hearing aid. "I'm a little deaf," he said. "If I'm at all vague in my replies, it means I didn't hear you. I'm usually not vague."
Vague, no; loquacious, yes; and cannily charming, as he proceeded to ruminate and postulate, looking very much the lion in winter, while evoking the tomcat of his youth and middle age. His eyes cannot stand the glare from the sun that pours through the window of his beachfront house here, about a mile from the center of town, and his arthritic legs require the support of canes, but the mind remains frisky.
That was evident in Mr. Mailer's vivid and elaborate theorizing on writing, aging, technology and politics; on why, as he put it, "if we don't go to war with Iraq, George W. Bush is going to feel ill."
Turning 80 on Jan. 31, Mr. Mailer has comfortably assumed the pose of grand old man of American letters, assessing his place in the literary pantheon with little of the braggadocio that has become his trademark.
"I'll last or I won't last," he said regarding future evaluation of his body of work, which began in 1948 with his novel "The Naked and the Dead" and includes two Pulitzer Prizes. "It's the one thing you really can't predict, because history takes turns. There are certain writers who are so great you can never throw them off. I'm not in that category. I may last or I may not last."
For this birthday he and his wife, Norris Church, are planning a small party for friends at their house in Brooklyn, now chiefly occupied by various Mailer offspring. Mr. Mailer and Ms. Church have lived primarily in Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod, for several years. This intimate gathering is a big contrast to the gala at the Rainbow Room given by his publisher, Random House, for his 75th birthday, also celebrating publication of his anthology "The Time of Our Time."
While he is not sentimental about round-numbered birthdays, Mr. Mailer said, he does like having the publication of "The Spooky Art," his new book, coincide with his 80th.
"It occurred to me it's a wicked notion," he explained, his blue eyes twinkling, making him look dangerously like the kind of sweet old coot he says he disdains. "I would classify myself and half the people I know as wicked. Gamblers. People just upping the ante."
The digression had an endpoint, which is Mr. Mailer's fascination with the relationship between authors and reviewers. "There are so many reviewers who have been good to me over the years and so many who have been bad over the years," he said, adding that it would be fun to see if his 80th birthday would soften those who did not like him.
Now he appears to be the amiable paterfamilias, surrounded by paintings by Ms. Church, an artist, and his daughter Maggie Mailer, and tables crowded with photos of children (nine) and grandchildren (eight). But this is the same Mailer who used to stagger onto lecture stages infirm from liquor not arthritis, hurling curses at his audiences.
He famously carved his displeasure into one of his five previous wives with a knife and routinely avoided writer's block by indulging in drugs. Even in his prime he wasn't a big man, though lack of size did not stop him from brawling, or from grandiose ambition, manifested, for example, in his hapless New York mayoral campaign in 1969.
He recalled the legends that he helped to create around himself, with journalists' compliance. "The newspapers built it up enormously," he said, referring to the bad-boy image. "I half liked it and half disliked it. I half liked it because it made me sound tougher than I really was. I half disliked it because it meant the ante was upped. It isn't that something would happen every time you went to a bar, but maybe one in 20. It becomes a little like Russian roulette: one bullet, six chambers. If you pull the trigger, the odds are five to one in your favor, but you feel as if it's even money."
Yet he plows ahead, writing several hours a day, even as he expresses fear for the survival of the serious novel. "If you grew up as I did going to college in 1939 and 1940, you had the feeling that writers are the marrow of a nation, the nutrient," he said, "if you start with Tolstoy and Dostoevski and add to that the great English novelists of the 19th century (Dickens and Thackeray) and certainly add the French (Zola, Balzac, Proust) and look at the effect Joyce had on Ireland. In the course of my life I've seen everything else take over. The novel now rides in a sidecar."
Which does not mean he thinks there are no good novelists anymore. In the interview and in his book he praised Jonathan Franzen as a writer, while bemoaning the limitations of ambition in "The Corrections," his much praised and best-selling novel. "With talent like that, he should have tried for much more," said Mr. Mailer, who was never accused of not trying for everything. "I think it's almost paradigmatic of what's going on with the talented writers right now. They're probably more talented now than they ever were in America, but they're doing less and less."
Still, he cannot resist the public life, taking time last year from the novel he's been laboring on for years ó and isn't sure he will ever finish ó to give a series of interviews on the political situation after Sept. 11. He has been refining his hypothesis of American empire, namely that by the end of the cold war certain forces in the United States felt that America should be the dominant military power in the universe. Because of its oil and its location, Iraq is the linchpin in that plan. In this simple thought, he comes close to the views of his old rival and sparring partner Gore Vidal.
"It doesn't matter what they're up to in Iraq," he said. "It doesn't matter if they have nuclear bombs or not or whether they're ready to do chemical warfare. They're not a danger, but they are absolutely a position in the world we need militarily. Dominate Iraq, dominate the Near East, and then get China in a position to make China the Greece to our Rome."
"Sept. 11 was the `open sesame' to the path to world empire," he said. "It doesn't matter for Bush if things turn out well or badly in Iraq. If they turn out well, they can start to think of the next step. If they turn out badly, that's still good for him because of American patriotism. Who's going to be against George W. Bush when he's mourning the deaths of our boys? Either way he won't have to face the increasing problems here with the American economy and the scandals, with the breakdown in belief in two huge systems: corporate leadership and the priesthood."
Mr. Mailer's writing has never been better than when he acted as journalist, in his account, for example, of the protests against the Vietnam War, in "Armies of the Night." Who better to analyze why protest now is comparatively muted, at least in the United States?
"Two things numb a protest movement," he said. "One is 9/11. That moved Americans to thinking that something has to be done about this. The second thing is Saddam Hussein himself. You have to go back to melodramas in the 1850's where a villain with a great big mustache leaped onto the stage to defile the maiden before you get someone as good as Saddam Hussein as an enemy. Ho Chi Minh had that wonderful saintly look that made life much easier for a good protest movement."
But Mr. Mailer does not expect to be writing about this war, he said; he has a novel to finish, whose subject he won't divulge and whose completion he would not take bets on. "If I can bring it off ó the IF by now is in capital letters ó it will be the biggest thing I've ever done. But at my age you can't approach it with the confidence you once had. Illness can deter you, affliction can stop you, breakdowns can occur."
He invokes a favorite metaphor, of the athlete. "An older one who's been around for years almost always measures his chances against his physical stamina. A quarterback, if he has any choice on calling plays, may think, No, I'm not going to go for that long pass because I've gotten whacked the last two times. As a professional, he's always measuring possibilities. The same is true in writing, you measure what you can and you can't do."
Mr. Mailer also spoke about the change in publishing that discourages risk. "People are always complaining in sports about how much money these athletes get," he said. "At least those athletes can answer, `I'm getting that money because I'm the best in my field.' In literature it's exactly the opposite. It's the mediocrities who make the mega-sums. That was always true to a degree, but it's intensified considerably."
While good-humored and not past offering the occasional unprintable sexual reference, Mr. Mailer spoke with a palpable sense of resignation if not disappointment. He's clearly had to shrink expectations to a size far more human than the larger-than-life scale by which he once measured his ambition.
"The notion that what you put into a book is going to have powerful effect is a notion that's harder and harder to maintain," he said. "Part of the ability to keep writing over the years comes down to living with the expectation of disappointment. It's the exactly opposite of capitalism. In capitalism you want your business to succeed, and to the degree it does your energy increases, and you go out and buy an even bigger business. In writing it's almost the exact opposite. You just want to keep the store going. You're not going to do as well this year as last year probably, but nonetheless let's keep the store going."
Then, a fine Mailer moment, that neatly packaged his strength and weakness as a writer. "I don't like this image much," he said, waving his hand as if to vanquish the earnest shopkeeper he had conjured. "It doesn't offer as much as I thought when I embarked on it. The only fun in working images is that, as you elaborate on them, they always turn out either better or worse than you'd hoped. The alternative is to say the same thing you've been saying over and over."