Twelfth Round: An Interview with Norman Mailer
Robert J. Begiebing
Ten years in the writing, Ancient Evenings will be published in May. For Norman Mailer, who turned sixty in January, this new book marks an important transitional point. After more than a decade of nonfiction, a big novel — the first of a planned trilogy — brings Mailer back to the literary genre in which he made his name.
Pulitzer Prizes in 1969 and 1980 for Armies of the Night and The Executioner’s Song (not to mention additional awards for these and other books) have affirmed Mailer’s standing in contemporary American letters. His public posturing and activist politics have colored his reputation, but two dozen books, three films, a play, and countless articles bear witness to his energy and resourcefulness.
Born in Long Branch, New Jersey, in 1923, Mailer grew up in Brooklyn, graduated from Boys High School, and entered Harvard at sixteen. Although he took his degree with honors in engineering sciences, he was already bent on becoming a writer. In college his output had included more than thirty short stories and two unpublished novels and plays; “The Greatest Thing in the World,” written under Professor Robert Gorham Davis, had won Story Magazine’s annual award.
Mailer was drafted in 1944. He ultimately served in the Philippines as a headquarters clerk and infantryman. Based on his war experience and published in 1948, his novel The Naked and the Dead made him suddenly famous at twenty-five. So began one of the most important, notorious, and mercurial careers in postwar American literature.
Mailer appears to date himself from that 1948 success. (Of an unpublished novel — set in an insane asylum — which he began at Harvard, he later said: “I do not know the young man who wrote this book. I do not like him very much.”) Indeed, it would be hard to imagine a more extreme personality shift. The amiable, bright Jewish boy from Brooklyn was to become the ranting, hallucinating, brawling “General Marijuana” of the Village Voice in the Fifties. The next decades would bring Mailer’s televised invective against the Vietnam War and General Westmoreland, his skirmishes with radical feminists, his wrangles with fellow authors Gore Vidal and William Styron. Thus embattled, the self-appointed Jeremiah got himself in trouble with his literary audience as well as the general public. But it was trouble Mailer wanted. He is nothing if not a disturber of bland uniformity, convention, and complacency — of what he sees as the “cancer,” the totalitarianism, the spiritual death of our times.
Yet Mailer today is a gray and courteous eminence. Meeting him — a stoutish, five-foot-eight man who looks at first glance as if he might be vacationing in safari suit from regular stints on “Wall Street Week” — one is taken aback. Can this be the bold excursionist who has struggled with the nature of existentialism, the unconscious, God, and the devil?
The conversation that follows suggests that the appearance does indeed deceive, perhaps as much as Mailer’s “media image.” It also offers fresh background on the first twenty-five years of Mailer’s life, and clues to his current work — about which Mailer has been reticent since the mid-Seventies, when he made his much-publicized million-dollar contract with Little, Brown to complete “a certain big novel.”
Talking with Mailer, one sees that the journalist, revolutionary, and holy fool are still alive in the man — but that other, and older, personae have returned. For his capacious personality now seems to accommodate the disciplined worker, the self-effacing novelist, and the scholar. There is even a wink from that earnest young man from Brooklyn who got good grades and went to Harvard to study engineering.
You once said that you started writing at about seven — a long, 300-page story about a trip to Mars. Then you quit. You began again about the time you were at Harvard. If your high-school interests weren’t particularly literary, what were they?
I built model airplanes all through high school. I wanted to be an aeronautical engineer — that was my prevailing interest. The books I read in high school were certainly not literary. I wasn’t a literary man in any way. My idea of good writers was Jeffrey Farnol, Rafael Sabatini. My favorite book was probably Captain Blood.
I’d assumed I’d go to MIT. The only reason I applied to Harvard was that my cousin had gone there. I thought, well, it might be nice. And then, I lived in a very simple part of Brooklyn. It wasn’t ethnic on the grand scale. You didn’t have to fight your way to the candy store — we didn’t have gangs. We were just quiet, middle-class kids. In those days there was so little traffic we used to play touch football and roller hockey in the streets. Just a quiet street with small, what the British call “semi-attached villas,” which meant real small, two-family homes. And small lawns in front, so small that when you were playing roller hockey, if you body-checked somebody hard they’d go flying across the sidewalk, and you had to go scrambling up a lawn that was banked. If that ever happened to you you’d come out with fire in your eyes and your skates full of dirt.
So street sports and engineering were your early interests?
Right. . . . very conventional. And in my senior year the girls would ask, “Where did you apply to college?” I’d say M.I.T. and it wouldn’t register at all. Then I’d say Harvard and they’d look at me, “Whew!” So I thought, well, there must be something wonderful about Harvard.
You’ve mentioned that rather than the summit of your experience, high school was not a good time. And you felt deprived for thirty years thereafter. Why?
I went to Boys High School in Brooklyn, which is very much a boys’ school. I was a year and a half younger than the average student. High school went by in a blur of work and doing one’s homework as quickly as possible and getting out in the street to play. And there was no high-school life as such. Later I began to realize that for many people high school was the prime experience of their lives. It was during the dating period and all that. In Brooklyn one went out with dates however one could. I felt straddled between my friends who were my age at home and were two years behind me at school. So I didn’t feel I belonged particularly in one life or another. I’d say high school was really the equivalent of college for somebody who was working at a job and going to night school, and was bitter afterwards because he felt he never had any college life.
You’ve never written about that stage of your life. Is it something you can’t deal with in writing?
I’ve always had the feeling that it doesn’t make much sense to write about something when you know that others can write about it at least as well as you can or maybe better. I never felt I had that much to say about my childhood that was so special it was worth recording. It may mean that writers do play games with themselves — it may mean there is something I’m concealing from myself. I find over and over again that I hide what I can write about because it’s risky to know that you can write about something. You can plunge into it before you’re ready to give it proper commitment. This sounds very odd to people who never write, to see the unconscious as a vast area where military campaigns go on. I think it’s the only metaphor that works because I discover over and over again that the unconscious will disclose to me what it chooses and when it chooses to. When I am working on a long book, for instance, I almost never have a thought about it when I’m not working. And I’ve come to recognize every year that it’s highly impractical to think about it because you can lose it. I happen to have one of those memories that’s virtually psychopathic in its half-life. I forget half of everything I think unless, in about four seconds, I write it down. It’s overspecialization for about thirty or forty years.
You were close to your parents? You felt no sense of needing to break away? I didn’t have a problem trying to break away in the manner that so many writers do. I didn’t have to convince my parents that I should be a writer. It often takes up half a young writer’s energy. They were soon pleased that I wanted to be a writer. They loved reading my work, as only parents can.
How did you find being at Harvard? Did you feel like an outsider?
Harvard, I think at least in those days, had solved more delicate social situations than any institution that could call itself truly part of the establishment. For instance, my freshman year, I’d say that eighty percent of the people that I was close to were from the same background I was from — they were Jewish, middle class, from small towns, some were from the city. But we all grouped together very much as young black students would today. The difference being that it never occurred to us that we were in an incredibly subtle ghetto. Over the four years at Harvard I don’t think I ever felt it once.
Part of this was my innocence. But Myron Kaufmann was a classmate of mine; he wrote a marvelous novel called Remember Me to God, and in it the young man is Jewish and he is acutely aware of every social discrimination. That passed blissfully over me. I had no idea at all that I really was very much a part of an out-group; in fact the word didn’t exist to me. I had the experience of sitting next to a young man who was dressed in a particular way. I might have sat next to him a whole year. We might have exchanged as much as three lines of conversation such as, “My God isn’t old so-and-so stuffy today?” There was that sense that there was this other world, but I think that part of the brilliance of the way Harvard solved that problem was not having fraternities. Fraternities really burn it into you just which little group you belong to because the fraternities all have their status. Everyone in college is aware of it. The Dekes are better than the Upsilons. You are acutely aware of where you belong in that scheme. If you don’t get into any fraternity, you’re down at the bottom — it breeds such misery.
At Harvard the opposite was done. A few people got into the clubs. Somehow after your first week at Harvard it was clear to you that certain people never get into clubs, and that you were one of them didn’t matter. There was a certain scorn for the clubs. Who’d be so sleazy as to get into a club and get three C’s and a D and all that? But we never thought of ourselves as being out of it. That was marvelous. That’s the way the establishment should work. Never got a chance socially speaking, and never ached once. That takes three centuries of careful elaboration of the study of people’s feelings.
Were you aware of anti-Semitism at Harvard?
No. I never felt it directly. The nearest example I could find — I couldn’t even say it was anti-Semitism. I remember I went up to Harvard wearing this jacket and pants I bought of my own assistance. My mother didn’t know a great deal about all this. . . . I bought a gold and brown jacket and had green and blue vertical striped pants and saddle shoes. I saw my faculty advisor in the engineering department. He was a crusty old man. He didn’t think too much of a lot of things, and he immediately told me that I should take a speech course. I said something about wanting to take German and he said, no, you don’t need it. And I remember getting just salty enough to say to him, “Well, sir, if I can pick up German in the course of a year or two, I don’t see why I can’t learn to speak English.” He was very aware that I came from Brooklyn. I’d say that was the strongest single example I can think of. If people were anti-Semitic at Harvard in those days, and I’m sure some were, they were incredibly well bred about it. I didn’t feel it was something that impinged on me. The way I felt it was only by comparing that comfortable, middle-class world I had been in — somehow I hadn’t taken enough things in, it just wasn’t a wide enough horizon. There was a tremendous amount to learn.
But it came to you at Harvard that there was an “establishment”? That’s a theme that comes up again and again in your work.
In the part of Brooklyn I came from . . . in the public school I went to, even at Boy’s High, there was no feeling at all of an establishment. But by the time I got to Harvard I had to realize that an establishment was immense, was subtle, did not have a face, you couldn’t even feel it particularly. The only way you were aware of it was that people were terribly serious about their education. And in Brooklyn I was always ashamed of being smart — somehow you weren’t manly if you were smart. At Harvard it was the other way around. You were ashamed because you were maybe not smart enough. There were always people who were more brilliant than you, and that was admired, vastly admired.
I have to separate the Harvard establishment from other establishments. I’m not sure that you shouldn’t have an establishment, that establishment isn’t necessary. The question is one of my obsessions, if we define obsession as a matter to which one always returns. And each time one returns to it with a different point of view about it. When we speak about something being obsessive it’s because we don’t end up with a fixed opinion. We could argue that certain obsessions are filled with hatred, but they are the exact opposite of what I’m saying — in such obsessions one always goes back to hate in the same way. I’m talking about the other kind of obsession, where one can’t make up one’s mind. I’ve pondered the question of an establishment all the time. Is it good? Is it bad? Should we have an establishment as such? After all, what you are talking about is the manipulation of people by other people. That’s the side which you have to question, the manipulation. Is it finally an absolute evil or a partial evil or a human necessity?
If we accept the idea of an establishment, then no question Harvard has the best establishment I’ve ever encountered, certainly better than the military establishment, better than the Washington establishment, better than the New York publishing establishment.
What teachers influenced you? You’ve mentioned Robert Gorham Davis in English A — you became a friend of sorts.
Yes, we’re friendly to this day. Theodore Morrison was another who had a certain influence. I remember Dr. [Henry A.] Murray in abnormal psychology. . . . for his geniality, for the charm he brought to a subject normally considered charmless. Robert Hillyer was kind of marvelous. I’m one of the few people who ever took four years of writing courses at Harvard. . . . Hillyer I remember for his exquisite manners. That was probably a crucial part of my education at that point. If you’re talking about shockers, the shock was simple. One grew up with rough and ready manners, and you just never measured people by their manners. You measured them by their athletic ability, their loyalties. You considered your parents and their evaluation of people by how much money they made, how good they were as providers. These measures were strong, crude, and serviceable.
At Harvard you ran into a spectrum of manners, and it was as if the manners were the morphology that revealed to you the social pattern behind. In other words, the degree to which one had social imagination, one could begin to conceive whole areas of society by the manners. That’s a lifework. After all, it takes a life to know how a third or a half or even a fraction of the country works, socially speaking. But through others’ manners you can imagine projections into what these people’s lives are really like. It enlivens literature. I think the rich appreciation of literature is difficult without having some sense of the style of the people who go through the books. In that sense the professors I tend to remember are not necessarily the ones I studied with, but the ones who had manners that were memorable. I never took a course with F.O. Matthiessen, but I heard him give a few lectures, and they were memorable because there was something in his manner that was tragic. He had one of the most grave and dignified manners.
How about students? Any friends that particularly influenced you?
Thirty or forty or fifty, but I think just to name them would distort the reality of it. We influenced each other a lot.
As I think of it, meeting Bowden Broadwater was an extraordinary experience. Because Bowden had more style than anyone I’d ever met. He dominated the Advocate, his personality. When I came on as a sophomore, I think he was then a junior or senior — he was Pegasus and he had high style. I remember when I read Brideshead Revisited, I kept chuckling as I read it. It wasn’t that Bowden looked in any way like Sebastian Flyte or that we were close friends. On the contrary, we were on opposite sides. There were two factions.
Would you say that was the high point of your Harvard years?
Oh, yes. The Advocate was probably what I enjoyed most about Harvard. I think it comes through in the article I wrote for Esquire.
What was your worst experience at Harvard?
There wasn’t anything terribly onerous, nothing that makes me writhe with anger. There were a few silly experiences. Mostly my first year. Going up to Harvard, I managed to go over all the literature that was sent to us. Phillips Brooks House sent something that said when you get here, please drop in and visit us. Somehow I had the idea that the first thing you did when you got to Harvard, before you even went looking for your dorm, was to go to Phillips Brooks House. As I was driving up with my future roommate, Martin Lubin, and his father, I said when we get there, we’ve got to find Phillips Brooks House. We were looking at the map of the Yard, and I directed the car through traffic, and I went in with Marty. It was deserted, of course. It was Freshman Week, and a few juniors and seniors had come up to work, and there was one fellow there. He was a very tall senior and handsome — handsome as a Princeton man — literally smoking a pipe behind a desk, and he hadn’t seen anyone in two hours. I realized I had made an error. I remember looking at him and saying, “Well, we’re here.” It just changed his day. He had to come up out of whatever he was thinking about . . . probably something pleasant. The moment I said it, all I wanted to do was get out of there. Of course he was feeling he wasn’t doing his duty, so he was pulling us in and we were pulling away. Finally, we got out and I was perspiring behind my ears. So that was an embarrassment.
Once we were trying to get into the Old Howard. And they asked us how old we were. The others all said eighteen, and I, without thinking, said seventeen, and I was sixteen then. I thought I had to lie, so I said seventeen, and the guy said you can’t get in, you have to be eighteen. I said I’m eighteen, I’m eighteen! I’m a freshman at Harvard; you’ve got to be eighteen to be a freshman at Harvard. The guy looked at me at the door and said: “All right, kid, go in.” And so all through freshman year whenever I would be winning an argument with my roommates, they’d jump up and start waving their identity cards yelling: “I’m eighteen! You’ve got to be eighteen to go to Harvard!” And probably the bitterest blow freshman year was going out for crew, and working and working at it and realizing at a certain point that far from not making the team, the coach never even looked at me. And I realized why. Someone took me aside and told me, look, you could be good but it wouldn’t matter, your arms are too short. You throw off the entire rest of the crew. That experience of working one’s manful best each day at those oars and never being looked at by the coach. . . .
As you see, I just don’t have memories of real unpleasantness. I doubt if there have been four less painful years of my life.
What happened that you went to Harvard an aspiring aeronautical engineer and came out heading for the Pacific and wanting to write the great American war novel?
I think really the main influence was English A, because we were given Studs Lonigan to read. And that turned me on my head because Studs Lonigan grew up in a much tougher environment than I did, but there was still a similarity. He talked the way my friends and I talked in Brooklyn. And I realized you could write about those kinds of experiences and that was almost endlessly exciting. Dos Passos, Hemingway, Fitzgerald I also read in my freshman year. By the time that year was over I wanted to be a writer. It just took another year before I was so certain I wanted to be a writer that I knew I’d never be an engineer.
There wasn’t anything in particular that was acting on you from outside, influencing you, changing you? It was a process of self-discovery? Yes. That is not at all an unnatural development for writers. Certain books stimulate them and make them know that they want to become writers. I did take a course, now that I think of it, with Howard Mumford Jones in American literature that meant a lot. In fact, I still remember one of his phrases. He was talking about Dreiser. Howard Mumford Jones used to talk with great bombast, and I’m not deriding it. People use bombast, and it’s dreadful, but he made it great. He said, “You know Dreiser was a great writer, but when it came to style, he was abominable. His style reads like a streetcar wheel with one flat side. It goes KA-BLUNK, KA-BLUNK, KA-BLUNK.” He’d walk up and down the classroom doing that and we’d roar. But we’d be interested in Dreiser.
When I think of Harvard I don’t think of it really in terms of influences. I think of it more as a matter of nuances and moods and modes, as if everything were connected to everything else. There was a fine filigree to one’s stimulation. The art of it was you couldn’t trace it out afterwards. Harvard changed me profoundly, but I couldn’t say this was the reason or that was the reason. It was all of it. And after you got out of Harvard?
I went into the Army nine months after I graduated. I think my draft card fell to the back of a file. There is no explanation for it because I should have been drafted after two months. And I didn’t go to the draft board to ask because I was working on a novel and kept hoping that I’d have that much more time to finish it.
You mean Transit to Narcissus?
Yes. That got written in the nine months before I went into the Army. But then there were two years in the Army and that was a great change. And so was the success of The Naked and the Dead. In effect I encountered three sizable shocks during the period from 1939 to 1949. In those ten years of my life I was transplanted three times. It was really not a shock of brutality or tragedy. There was nothing designedly cruel about it. It was the kind of shock that a plant would feel if lifted from one bed and put into another.
Are there things that you are aware of that happened to you that would help explain the dramatic change from your studious, disciplined boyhood self to what, starting in the early and mid-Fifties, is your infamous self, the “General Marijuana,” the renegade, the ranting critic of American institutions — that self?
We’re getting into questions now that I can’t answer short of writing a novel. To talk about it in an interview wouldn’t work. It would just be confessional. I think the change that took place around ’53, ’54, ’55 was so drastic and so thoroughgoing that we’d really have to pursue it to all the roots I have. Not only the biographical roots, but even, if you will, the karmic roots. I’m a great believer in karma. I do believe that we’re not here just one time, and I don’t have any highly organized theology behind that — it’s just a passing conviction that keeps returning. Karma tends to make more sense than a world conceived without it, because when you think of the incredible elaborations that go into any one human being, it does seem wasteful of the cosmos to send us out just once to learn all those things, and then molder forever in the weeds. It doesn’t make as much sense as the idea that we are part of some continual process that uses us over and over again, and indeed uses the universe over and over again. There is some sort of divine collaboration going on. So in that sense, since I believe in it and for me it’s psychologically true, it’s hard to give an explanation. But if I were to give one, the roots are also karmic. There are arguments that can’t be accounted for by one life.
Did the 1949–1950 screenwriter period produce shocks that caused change also?
We’re giving a picture here of someone who is not terribly adaptable. My father was a terribly fussy, punctilious man. A marvelous man. A lot more of a gentleman than his son turned out to be. I remember one point when he was unemployed during the Depression and looking for work. He went out every day wearing spats in the heart of the Depression. He had marvelous manners — he came from South Africa, was very English as only a South African can be. I think that probably some of his rigidity is in me. That’s why each of these occasions came as a great shock.
Hollywood must have made a pretty big impact, because you were writing Barbary Shore there and later The Deer Park, and in those books your political vision seems to change. What was it about Hollywood?
Well, it wasn’t Hollywood as such. I’m not one of the champions of Los Angeles. It’s not a place I’d enjoy living that much. I suppose there are two recurring subjects in my life that just fascinate me over and over again. One of them is what we’ve already discussed, the establishment. The other is identity. And movies fascinate me inordinately because the question of identity is so vivid in them. Movie stars fascinate me. Their lives are so unlike anyone else’s. You could almost postulate they come from another planet. The way of life of the movie star speaks of another order of existence. The lack of connection between a movie star’s life and our lives is greater than the points of view we have in common.
Does that work into The Deer Park at all?
In The Deer Park I’m just beginning to contemplate the problem. Think of the character Lulu Meyers, the movie star. She’s my first attempt to deal with that question. Of course I go at it hammer and tongs with Marilyn Monroe. But my Egyptian novel is also a study of identity. You see, I think there have been periods in history when no one has contemplated the problem of identity. Because we weren’t necessarily far enough removed from the animals. We reacted to things that impinged upon us in the way a beast does. We fled, we attacked, we ate, we went to sleep. I think generations went by of that sort — and then there were periods where no question was more critical to anyone alive. Certainly in my early years at Harvard the question of my identity was paramount. The most interesting question to many of us in those days was, what do you really think of me. I remember once having a long talk with my roommate Marty Lubin, and I primed him — I wanted to come back with some fish. So I talked for about half an hour, analyzed his character in great detail. He listened, and when I got all done I said, “Marty, what do you think of me?” He paused and then he said, “Ah gee, Norm, you’re just a good guy.” At which point I was ready to throw him out the window from the fifth floor of Dunster.
Speaking of identity — do you think the notorious publicity, the People side, the Enquirer side of your identity has hurt the public and critical acceptance of your work?
Well, it certainly hasn’t done it any good. . . . I do believe that when people buy a hardcover book these days, to a slight extent it’s a sacramental act. Very often the price of the book is such that people are making a choice between that or getting something else. To be crude about it, between the book or getting the baby a pair of new shoes. So you have to respect the author. If the author is somehow unsavory — and I don’t see how anyone could run through People five times and not be wholly unsavory — then they may not buy your book. And there’s a crude notion that if you get a lot of publicity, you sell books. Nothing could be more untrue. The authors who sell well, that is the good authors who sell well, get very little personal publicity. We don’t read much about Saul Bellow, John Updike. We didn’t used to read much about John Cheever. . . . But my image can’t be changed. So I’ve just said the hell with it. I’ll go ahead and do what I want to do. I don’t think there is any way I could change that media point of view about me because of the mechanics of the media. When they run a story about somebody, they go to the clips. There’s no way I’m going to get those clips out of all the media organs.
Let’s talk about artistic identity. I see an apparent change toward more self-effacement in your writing, in narrative technique, in the last five years. Do you see a new maturity in your writing?
Maturity comes of its own accord. You don’t ever say to yourself, well, now I’m going to be more mature. You get older, so your point of view shifts and compromise takes on a bit more luster. A fixed point of view begins to seem harsh. The result is greater maturity in the writing. But I may well go back to writing in the first person. I don’t have any feeling about it as such. I just don’t like to be bored when I’m writing. I often think by now I have much in common with a dentist who’s been working for forty years. I’m sure he looks for a new way to make a hole in a tooth. Because otherwise he’d go mad.
It’s interesting that the two books that you got the Pulitzer Prize for, Armies and Executioner’s Song, are two extremes — the presentation of the self on the one hand, and the reduction of self on the other. So the reaction has been positive to either side of your artistic identity.
Well, I think they are also two of the best books I’ve written. If I had five favorite books those would be two of them. I don’t think there was any larger point of view in the choice of those two. I think it just happened that Armies of the Night was a pretty good book, and it came along in a year when let’s say the Pulitzer Committee was sympathetic to that sort of book. The Executioner’s Song, in its period, probably, well . . . that sentence finishes itself.
In Joseph Elroy’s writing class at Columbia, you were talking about Why Are We in Vietnam? And you said that if there are any forces in the cosmos that “step in and give a writer a helping hand, I got it right there.” Do you find there are such moments of inspiration?
I can lay out a speculation for you.
All right, lay out a speculation.
If a god or a devil or some demiurge is looking for a writer or has need of one . . . or an angel or an ogre or whatever . . . if there’s anything up there or out there or down there that is looking for an agent to express its notion of things, then, of course, why wouldn’t they visit us in our sleep? Why wouldn’t we serve as a transmission belt? Just in the same sense, although this is gross, that a coach might look for a wide receiver who really has great speed of foot because he has designed some very long passes via a quarterback with a particularly powerful arm. So it might be that your own abilities would be one of the factors behind the ogre’s choice of you. That’s a possibility. The only book I truly felt that on was Why Are We in Vietnam?
Did it play any role in the Egyptian novel?
No, that was just hard work, every step of the way.
Do you have any desire at this point in your life to nurture another side of yourself?
If my eyes hold up, I think I would like to start reading seriously again. There have been years when I’ve had a great deal of eyestrain and I couldn’t read as much as I wanted to. And then there were years when I didn’t feel like reading. I was too unsettled to read. I think twenty years went by where I haven’t been reading as much as I’ve wanted to read.
Do you see any young writers coming up that you admire? Any who might take the place you’ve talked about so many times, and maybe at one time tried to fill yourself, as “the champ”?
I have a confession to make. In the course of not reading enough in the last twenty years, I’ve not read the young writers. I’ve read them hardly at all. I remember when I came along, I thought, oh boy, now I’ll be able to talk to Hemingway and Dos Passos, Farrell, all the writers I care about. They’ll read my book and we’ll be able to talk about it. My dreams will be realized. But I never met Dos Passos or Hemingway. I met Farrell once for lunch. I never met J. P. Marquand or Steinbeck. I sent Hemingway The Deer Park but it came back marked “Addressee unknown.” I always felt he gave it to somebody at the post office to stamp it that way and send it back. It seemed to me that would be his sense of humor. At any rate I corresponded with Hemingway ten years after The Naked and the Dead came out.
At the time I was shocked that older authors didn’t read younger authors. And I didn’t understand it. I was furious. And I’m sure young authors feel that way now. You know: Why doesn’t Mailer read me? I grew up reading him and he influenced me in part and he owes it to me to read me. Why doesn’t he? The reason is simple. I know now why they weren’t reading me, and I know that because I don’t read the young authors. One gets locked into one’s own continuing concerns. I haven’t used any prize-fighting images up till now, so I guess I had better use one. Whether you’re fighting for a championship or not, you’re fighting a fifteen-round fight. And by the time you reach your sixties, you feel as if you’re in the twelfth round and you’re battered. I don’t say this self-pityingly — you’re just not as good as you used to be in an awful lot of ways. . . . And your powers to protect yourself from distraction are much smaller. You really have to concentrate on those last few rounds. And so there’s much less loose generosity in you. . . . You tend to isolate yourself because the odds that a young writer would come along and write something that can teach you something is not likely, although it might delight you, and you might say, gee, what talent. . . .
I’ve seen young writers that I think are good, some are damn good, and there seems to be more and more felicity all the time. And technique gets more and more elaborated. But I can’t think offhand of any young writers who are philosophically disturbing at this point.
Czeslaw Milosz, in Bells in Winter, writes about poetic inspiration as if the poet were a living room with its doors wide open, visitors come and go — all he can hope for is that the visitors are forces of good rather than evil.
I think to the degree that you dare the prevailing winds you set yourself up for some incredible gusts.
It may be that part of remaining a writer is to learn how to expose yourself less and less over the years and ring yourself around more and more with various protections. The price of that, of course, is that inspiration enters the door much less often. But at the same time you can carry out your projects. It seems to me that if there is any lesson I can draw from my working, it is that it has taken me close to forty years to learn to write long books. The Naked and the Dead came early and that was to a certain extent a gift. I was a simple young man and I didn’t understand the difficulties. If I had known the difficulties, I wouldn’t have gotten into it. It would have taken me ten years.
You said in 1981 that things are sinister but not in the way you used to think they were sinister. What did you mean by that?
In the Sixties I used to see it as the FBI, the CIA being sinister. I had a sort of paranoid vision of the invisible government. Now I suppose it has moved over to the idea that such things as television and plastics are probably doing us much more harm, and getting us much closer to totalitarianism than the FBI or the CIA ever would.
What’s the force behind that?
Well, there you get into dreamland, don’t you? I sometimes think that there is a malign force loose in the universe that is the social equivalent of cancer, and it’s plastic. It infiltrates everything. It’s metastasis. It gets into every single pore of productive life. I mean there won’t be anything that isn’t made of plastic before long. They’ll be paving the roads with plastic before they’re done. Our bodies, our skeletons, will be replaced with plastic. It’s some absolute vanity. It’s human vanity that I might assume is devil inspired, but it doesn’t have to be. It could come right out of man. . . .
On the one hand we, all of us, consciously or unconsciously, contain an adoration of the universe. We also have this great animus toward the universe. It’s larger than we are and that’s intolerable to us. The ego, or the twentieth-century manifestation of it, flames up in us. We have to do something to that universe. We have to score it. We have to literally score on it, and plastic is a wonderful way to do that because we create something that the universe can’t digest. We literally make those carbon chains, these protein chains, that are put together in a way that they just won’t break down — “non-biodegradable” — that marvelous little new word.
The artifacts of this civilization will go on forever.
They’ll go on forever, some of us hope and some of us don’t hope. But those who do are capturing the world. You say, well, where does it all come from? What’s the origin of it? And then, of course, one’s past philosophy runs out in outer speculation. . . .
But I do think that plastic tends to deaden people. It deadens their nerve ends. And when the nerve ends are dead, the mind is much more susceptible to manipulation. Because, finally, the senses are always our objective correction against having our minds manipulated too far in a direction that’s not natural.
So plastic becomes an effect as well as a cause?
Well, put it this way. If you wanted to convince someone of something that would be very hard for him to swallow, wouldn’t it be a good idea to half anesthetize him first? And plastic does that. It just deadens us. Now we get it from infancy on. I think one of the reasons cocaine is so widespread now is that people’s nerve endings are so deadened they need something to absolutely jack up those nerve ends. So that’s one thing. And of course television is another. It’s as if a great dragon called entropy has come into aesthetics. And television is the final reduction of all art into fifteen-minute slugs of pap. The natural tendency of television is to reduce all entertainment to the level of a commercial. When the commercial is as interesting as the television, then you’ve got perfect television. . . .
Robert Frost once said there was something immodest in a man who believes that he is about to go down — or that we are about to go down — before the worst forces ever marshalled against us in the universe. In your work the point seems to be that we may very well be going down before just such forces.
Well, I never said Robert Frost was going to approve of me.
But do you think we may be at such a crisis?
I don’t think I’m the only one who thinks that. An awful lot of people are worried. . . . The world is now going through an apocalyptic time — I think the Eighties are going to be an incredible decade, with more surrealistic, fantastic, incredible change even than in the Sixties. . . . There are certain signs that we are in a period that’s not like other periods. One of them, and I think this is incredible, is that in the last twenty years or certainly in the last ten years, we’ve come to a point in this country where people no longer believe the president knows the answers. I think part of Regan’s vast popularity in the media is because he’s probably the most relaxed president we’ve had since Lord knows when. Maybe there was never a president as relaxed as Ronald Regan. So people feel, well, he seems secure. Maybe he does know the answers. You know there’s nothing more disconcerting to the average American than the thought that the president doesn’t know the answers, doesn’t really know where we’re going.
Maybe that’s why he is so relaxed, because he knows he doesn’t know.
That could well be. Maybe you’ve come up with the first explanation of Ronald Regan. That makes sense. It makes him rather a nice man. There is this humility before the imponderables that is a mark of grace.
Let’s turn to the work you’ve been doing recently — your Egyptian novel, Ancient Evenings. Do you feel good about the completed work at this point? You announced the book as early as 1972, in Existential Errands, so it’s been a long, probably difficult road.
If I say I feel good about it, it’s like saying my child is wonderful. It’s not seemly. I will say it’s the most ambitious book I’ve ever worked on. It’s by far the most unusual work I’ve done, and it’s out of category. I can’t think of any other novel that’s remotely like it. . . . My hope is that it’s very good indeed. But how good I don’t have a clue. I think when it comes out it will be the usual story. I hope it will get some wonderful reviews, and I’m sure it will get some terrible reviews.
If I were an unknown author, the book could be read a little more easily. But the trouble is everybody is going to be reading it and saying, “How the devil does Norman Mailer get himself up to start writing about Egyptian pharaohs? I mean that’s really going too far.” But it has nothing to do with the fact that that’s my name. I’m an author. I have a right to imagine a work, and to write a work of the imagination. If I had any name but my own, people could read the book without too much suffering.
If it is indeed good in the artistic sense, maybe it would not have been published. It’s not a blockbuster, a bestseller sort of book.
I certainly think it’s good enough that no matter who had written it, it would have been published. And I think it’s good enough that no matter who had written it, it would have received attention. Because if you spend ten years writing a book it should be good. Spending ten years on a book is like being married to someone for ten years. You wouldn’t want to say at the end of those ten years that half of the time was worthless.
There were a lot of expectations, and at times earlier on you seemed to feed those expectations — that this would be your masterpiece. If that was ever the goal, did the process of writing the book change the goal?
Well, it deepened. It started as an excursion into Egypt. I was going to dip into Egypt for a chapter or two, then get out, move on to Greece and Rome, then the Middle Ages. I was thinking a sort of picaresque novel. That was in the first half year of working on it. But I began to realize at the end of that half year that I was in Egypt for the long haul. So I started studying, and I’ve learned about ancient Egypt these ten years.
Was there any fear of the risk? You’ve used the word risk yourself several times.
Well, there is always fear in writing a book. If I had tried to write the book in a year, the fear would have been so great it couldn’t have been written. But over ten years, you can carry the fear. Writing a book is the fear. That’s why there are many more people who can write well than who do.
And there are other reasons for it. Some people can’t take the meanness of the occupation. There’s nothing very attractive about going into a room by yourself every day and looking at a piece of paper and making scratch marks on it. Doing that day after day, year after year, decade after decade, is punishing through the very monotony of the physical process. . . . Just the act of writing as a physical act is less interesting than painting. I never feel sorry for painters. I feel sorry for writers.
Obviously the emoluments of a profession and the spiritual satisfactions are quite different from the mean daily details of the work. In that mean sense, writing is not a comfortable or attractive profession day to day. Then you add to it the fear. There is always fear in writing. Most people take pride in the fears they can endure. It’s obvious that you can’t be a professional writer for as many years as I have been without taking a certain pride that I can endure those fears. I would say that writing is like all occupations that have some real element of risk. You really don’t want to write a book in which you’re not taking on some risk . . . especially a long book. You can write a book quickly in two months, six months, or a year in which the risks are minimal. But to do a long book, you would want to take risks. Why not? How dignify it if large risks aren’t being taken? And I will say that I’ve taken more risks with the Egyptian novel than any book I’ve ever written. It’s the most, dare I say it, audacious of the books I’ve done.
You’ve said all we can ever know is whether we have worked as hard as we can. Do you believe you’ve done that on this book?
Yes. I think I’ve used up every bit of inspiration I’ve had on this book. If the book is not good enough, then I’m not good enough. I feel that kind of peace about it.
Did it take you places you have never been before. Creating new ideas?
Yes. It also gave me an understanding of certain things. I think people are going to be immensely confused by the book. They are going to say, why did Mailer write it? What is he saying that means something to him? The man we know. What is in this?
Well, I think I’ve come to an understanding of the wealthy I’ve never had before, dealing with Egypt, its gold, and its pharaohs. . . . There’s that marvelous remark of Fitzgerald’s that the rich are not like you and me, and Hemingway’s answer, which was much applauded, but which I’ve always thought churlish, you know, yeah, they have more money, and everybody roars like crazy. The fact of the matter is that Fitzgerald was trying to say something, and Hemingway was trying to keep him from saying it. The very rich are not like you and me. Just as movie stars are not like you and me. In fact the very rich and movie stars have much in common. They no longer have a trustworthy relation to the society around them. In the most umbilical sense, they can’t trust anyone.
That’s a good partial answer to my next question. Why Egypt? You’ve mentioned elsewhere that the beginning of scientific technique is a perversion of primitive magic, and you’ve also said that we went astray when we separated ourselves from “the dire discipline of magic,” which might enable us to communicate with the cosmos. Is Egypt your subject because it represents a turning point from primitive dread, from magic, toward technology and the abuses of technology?
I don’t know enough about history to be able to answer that, and I don’t know if that’s the point. I don’t have a clue. Egypt was one of the places — I think it was definitely one of the places where magic was being converted into social equivalence, in effect used as an exchange.
That’s what interested you, at least in part?
What interested me was that I made one assumption that certain people will argue with and others will find natural. The assumption is that the Egyptians had minds that are easily as complex and interesting as our minds. They had an intellectual discipline that was highly unscientific from our point of view. But I suspect no farther off the mark than ours. Now these are assumptions. So the book has an immense preoccupation with magic as such. I tend to end up writing the best novel on subjects no other good writer has ever written about. I can name a number of subjects that I’ve written the best work on, where there’s no competition, a subject no other writer would tackle. For instance, I’d say I’ve written the best biography of a movie star that’s ever been written — Marilyn. Again there’s no competition. I’ve written the best book about a heavyweight prize fighter that’s ever been written, The Fight. Again, no competition. Now I think I’ve written the best novel about magic that’s ever been written. But where are the others who have been writing about it? I don’t know of a serious writer who’s devoted himself to writing about magic. I mean, Aleister Crowley has written a novel about magic. Dion Fortune has written about magic. Other people have written magical novels, but they are not writers who are highly regarded. But I will say once again, that I’ve taken a field — I’m a bully — where there’s no competition.
Are you writing about the rich? What we know of Egypt is mostly the testament of the rich, isn’t it?
Yes. Of course, that’s always your problem. There are very few characters in the novel who are not well born. Most of them are nobles of the highest rank.
Do you think that these people whom you are writing about, that in some way God’s will was not kept from them? That they had a sense of what God’s will was? Unlike as you’ve said, we may have lost touch with whatever God’s will might be?
One has to keep reminding oneself that this is before the Judeo-Christian era. We’re dealing with pagans. The pagan mind is fascinating, but I found while I was writing the book that when I went through it I had to keep making certain that there wasn’t a single Judeo-Christian idea in it. Actually I think the Egyptians had a tremendous influence over the Hebrews. Much of the Old Testament you find in Egyptian prayers. Some of it’s startling. The early pages of Genesis, the first page of Genesis could be taken from certain prayers to Ammon and the ways in which he created the universe.
Is it safe to look at Hebrew culture as a competing minor culture at the time? It wasn’t even quite a minor culture at the time. They were still a race of tribes and barbarians. They weren’t taken seriously. Not at this period. Later they were. This is 1100 B.C. In fact, Moses appears in my book for about a page. He’s seen as some sort of guerrilla who kills some Egyptian guards, and takes the Hebrews to a certain town with him across the desert to escape. The idea is to immerse yourself in another point of view when you are writing. Because when you do a lot of things come to you.
You said you wished nothing in the book to be contemporary. In what sense is there a connection between ancient Egypt and today? In other words, what’s in it for modern readers?
Well, I’ve failed if we start reading the book that way. And I think that’s going to be one of the difficulties for people, because most historical novels perform a service or pretend to teach us something about today. And I will have failed if that’s the way people react to my book.
The attraction then is not that there is a connection — the attraction is the lack of connection?
The lack of connection. I want people to realize, my God, there are wholly different points of view that can be as interesting as our own. In other words, probably a social evening in Egypt — and this is one of the reasons I ended up calling the book Ancient Evenings — in that period three thousand years ago was as interesting as an evening in New York today. Not more interesting, necessarily, but as interesting . . . for altogether different reasons.
Not much happens in the sense of action, I believe you’ve said, in the sense of a typical wide-canvas, panoramic, historical novel.
Well, no, a lot does happen, but it doesn’t happen immediately. The book certainly has the most complete architecture of any book I’ve written. It’s in seven parts. Each of its parts, I would say, has a separate existence. The book continues from part to part, most definitely. But the nature of the book discloses itself part by part. When you’ve read part one and part two, you won’t have any clue at all what part six and seven are going to be like. It’s as if the book moves in a spiral.
You’ve said you’re planning a trilogy. Will the other books be ten year projects?
My hope is to do the next two books in three or four years each. If they each take ten years, I’d be celebrating my eightieth birthday.
My last question — people criticize you for presenting your existence, your life, your work, in a way that seems you want other people to believe as you do or be like you or live like you. How do you respond to that criticism?
I think I’m truly misunderstood there. I’m right and I’m wrong so often, so many times of the day, that I have no interest in having people think the way I think. What I’m interested in is that however people think they get better at it. That’s what’s important about one’s work. In the work of good authors, if a book is good enough, you cannot predict how people are going to react to it. You shouldn’t be able to. If it’s good enough, it means it’s not manipulative. If it’s not manipulative, everybody sort of goes off in a different direction. One of my favorite remarks is that it’s not that I’m for the cops and not that I’m for the crooks, but that I’m for the cops getting better and the crooks getting better. I have a notion of society as an oven where some fabulous dishes are being cooked, and in order for the banquet to take place, every ingredient has to be in it.
I don’t think it’s an accident that I’m a novelist. Novelists have a wicked point of view — wicked as opposed to evil. They are interested in upping the ante. They’re interested in more happening, not less. One of the reasons that I detest television is that it reduces our possibilities. Television was welcomed as something that would help us understand the world. But I think, quite the contrary, it takes away from us any possibility of ever comprehending the world because it deadens our senses and because it gives us false notions, periodically, systematically, and intensively.
So presenting your ideas with force is a way of saying these are my beliefs and this is my life and they are meant to stimulate you into whatever it is that will be your ideas and your life.
Yes. Once Ralph Ellison and I were out in Iowa together many years ago, back in 1959, and we worked like crazy. We had a lively audience, and the symposium went on for three or four days, for Esquire. At the end of it, it suddenly seemed a little absurd to me that we really worked that hard, got in so many arguments with students, talked back and forth, and even argued with each other as lively as hell. But when it was over, there was a little bit of sadness that something that had been truly exceptional was over. So I said to him, “Why the hell did we do it?” He said, “Ah, shit, man, we’re expendable.” I’ve always loved that remark. Because in a certain sense one’s ideas are expendable. If the best of my ideas succeed in changing the mind of someone who’s more intelligent than myself, then that’s fine. I’m a great believer in the idea that if you advance an idea as far as you can and it’s overtaken by someone who argues the opposite of you, in effect you’ve improved your enemy’s mind. Then someone will come along on your side who will take your enemy’s improvement of your idea and convert it back again. I’m nothing if not a believer in the dialectic. And to that extent one does the best one can. And that’s the end of it. The thought of everyone thinking the way I do is as bad as any other form of totalitarianism.
- From Begiebing, Robert (2015). The Territory Around Us: Collected Literary and Political Journalism, 1982-2015. The Troy Book Makers. Reprinted by Project Mailer with permission of Robert Begiebing. (83.10)