The Mailer Review/Volume 2, 2008/From Monroe to Picasso: Norman Mailer and the Life-Study

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« The Mailer ReviewVolume 2 Number 1 • 2008 • In Memorium: Norman Mailer: 1923–2007 »
Written by
Michael K. Glenday
Abstract: Mailer found an authority of visual presentment in the Picasso’s work that gave a new imperative to his own culture-readings. In his relationship with the lives of Marilyn Monroe and Pablo Picasso, Mailer gives us an example of what he has sometimes referred to as “an imaginary memoir.” Readers will either find them legitimate, or will accept, even relish the prospect of encountering not just the memoir, but also the vitality of interaction between Mailer’s imagination and his subject.

1. “What I have to say about Picasso may not be so dull.”[1]

Readers of Norman Mailer’s Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man: An Interpretive Biography(1995) are in the Preface directed to one of the book’s main sources, Mailer’s 1966 essay collection Cannibals and Christians. There, in the quirky, sometimes amusing “imaginary dialogues” that give form to such pieces as “The Political Economy of Time” and “The Metaphysics of the Belly” (from which latter dialogue the opening quotation above is taken), those readers will find an early indication of what was to become a lifelong concern with Picasso. “The Metaphysics of the Belly” was published in The Presidential Papers(1963), where, in Appendix B, Mailer tells us that it “is part of a longer manuscript on Picasso which was worked on in June and early July 1962, in Provincetown. It was never submitted for publication.”[2] Contracted by Macmillan in 1962 to write a biography of the artist, Mailer in his Preface to Picasso yet offers little in the way of an explicit rationale for his eventual failure to complete the project at that time. For though he acknowledges that both of the above dialogues were “done consecutively as two chapters of a projected book on Picasso.”[1] that book was not to be completed for a further three decades. One main reason may well be that exposure to at least fifteen thousand of Picasso’s artworks in the “eight happy weeks”[3] he spent in the library of the Museum of Modern Art was an experience so radical in its effects upon his own imagination that Mailer found it difficult to achieve any biographical “distance” from his subject. So much, at least, is suggested by the results of that exposure: “my mind was left one hair unhinged.”[3] If this description suggests the typology of the wild artist, as exemplified by the visionary of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” with “his flashing eyes, his floating hair,” then we may not be surprised to find that having absorbed the thirty-three volumes of Christian Zervos’s Pablo Picasso, Mailer was indeed released into a fundamental reappraisal of his own relationship with reality: “after such immersion, one can hardly sustain one’s previous view of existence.”[3] The life-studyist was forced to study his own life. Washed clean and able to achieve that frank reorientation, he suddenly felt absolved of any biographical responsibility, even seeming to recollect “giving back my advance to Macmillan.”[3] Yet the new balance sheet had little reciprocity about it, since although “the ambitious dialogues”[1] in both The Presidential Papers and Cannibals and Christians owe much to the stimulating influence of Picasso’s art, still they “contain hardly a word about Picasso.... [O]ne had insights into the extremities of one’s own thinking but few biographical perceptions about him.”[3]



  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Mailer 1965, p. 261.
  2. Mailer 1963, p. 308.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Mailer 1995, p. xi.

Works Cited

  • Brassaï (2002). Conversations with Picasso. Translated by Todd, Jane Marie. Chicago: U of Chicago P.
  • Bremner, Charles (17 May 2003). "French Saw Picasso as an Enemy of the State". The Times. p. 16.
  • Flam, Jack (1986). Matisse: The Man and His Art 1869-1918. Ithaca: Cornell UP.
  • Mailer, Norman (1959). Advertisements for Myself. New York: Putnam.
  • — (1965). Cannibals and Christians. New York: Dial.
  • — (1973). Marilyn: A Biography. New York: Grosset & Dunlap.
  • — (1980). Of Women and Their Elegance. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • — (1995). Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man: An Interpretive Biography. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.
  • — (1963). The Presidential Papers. New York: Putnam.
  • — (2003). Lennon, J. Michael, ed. The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing. New York: Random House.
  • — (1959). "The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster". Advertisements for Myself. New York: Putnam: 337–358.
  • — (2003). Why Are We at War?. New York: Random House.
  • Manso, Peter (1986). Mailer: His Life and Times. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin.
  • Mills, Hilary (1982). Mailer: A Biography. New York: Empire.
  • Poirier, Richard (1972). Mailer. London: Fontana.
  • Steiner, George (1980). On Difficulty and Other Essays. Oxford: Oxford UP.