The subject was old age. Norman Mailer said there was a grace in aging. He didn’t feel as angry or self-involved as he once did; he wasn’t wrapped up in his disappointments. He had set out to be a “major historical figure,” like the literary matinee idols of his youth, Steinbeck and Hemingway. That hadn’t happened. He accepted that he was a writer.
It was shortly after his 84th, and last, birthday, in January, and he was having dinner in the Upper East Side apartment of author-activist-patron Jean Stein. Even hobbling around on two steel canes, wearing high black Uggs that his skinny crooked legs vanished into, Mailer radiated a sense of fullness. His famous Brooklyn-British baritone was richer than ever, the eyes bluer. He spoke of his former friend Norman Podhoretz, how much he had enjoyed him in the 70’s, and someone said, “You’re 84, why don’t you reach out to Podhoretz now and rediscover that affection in one another?”
It was the one unpleasant moment. “No. No. It would be no use. Because I would have to bring up the Iraq war. I can’t forgive him for it.” And then in turn he would have to talk about Podhoretz’s attachment to Israel. The overture wouldn’t help anyone. …
Mailer’s Jewishness was a doorway to the world. He gave his talents to mankind and felt no special obligation to the people from whom he came. He wasn’t a self-denier, he knew the marvels of being Jewish—“My Jewishness was a great asset in my work, because it gave me a certain sensitivity to the world. It is not easy to be a Jew without thinking about the world a great deal of the time, given the classic situation of Jews in history,” he said in an interview I did for The Observer. But he was a universalist, and saw all people as having special qualities. That dinner at Ms. Stein’s, we had talked about the cabala and its insights into the unconscious, but Mailer had waved it away. He was impatient with cabalist obscurities. The same spiritual wisdom was possessed by “Christians … and Muhammeddans.”
Mailer’s Jewish life upsets some Jews. On jewlicious.com, they are already attacking him for never having visited Israel, and for straying away from his spiritual roots. Maybe someone will count up the Christian wives and the Jewish ones, and give us a bottom line.
But Jewish history is filled with assimilation, especially by literary stars from Spinoza to Heine to Nathanael West. Assimilation is older than any other Jewish social dream, older than Zionism, communism, or, today, neoconservatism. Mailer said once that being a bookish Brooklyn kid felt like a limitation to him (in very much the way that V.S. Naipaul once told the 92nd Street Y that staying in Trinidad felt like a curb on his imagination), and certainly he rebelled against it. Mailer wanted—like the Zionists—to be a man of action, and for a while, the writing was dwarfed by the extravagant life: the marriages, offspring and fights (on the Town Hall stage with feminists, and on the Hamptons turf with Rip Torn).
There was a lot that was Jewishy about the book that made him a celebrity: The Naked and the Dead, published in 1948. Mailer did not experience much combat in the South Pacific; but in one World War II reminiscence (sorry, no citation; my books are packed for a move), I read that Mailer the young reporter used to pop into other guys’ tents and ask questions, listen to the stories. In the novel, Mailer’s ego is parceled out, like cabalist shards of the godhead. Goldstein the Jew from Brooklyn is a smaller character than the book’s hero, Lieutenant Hearn, a gentile who went to Harvard.
The mixing of Jewish and gentile American personae took place again in the book described as a sequel to The Naked and the Dead, An American Dream. You remember, the one that begins with the violent, exploitative sex (all right: the rape scene) with the maid on the balcony, where Rojack, a half-Jew, goes back and forth between two holes.
Mailer wasn’t apologetic about this half-Jewness. He was granted tremendous freedom by his early success to speak to Americans, and could channel American voices. In The Spooky Art, he wrote that it is necessary for a writer to put on airs, but also to take them off. His accent seemed more 02138 and SW10 than Brooklyn Heights. The obits say he once married English nobility. That is also an American experience: He tried things on and saw what fit. He was ambitious and enlarged himself. In his last novel, The Castle in the Forest, he enlarged himself so much that he wrote about Hitler from a Black-Forest-lithographic-metaphysical perspective, Hitler the handiwork of centuries of efforts by the devil.
Charles McGrath wrote in The Times that Mailer never wrote the great American novel, and this must be conceded, though he died trying. He told Charlie Rose earlier this year that he waited three years to write the sequel to The Castle in the Forest. But “I know enough about being 84 to know that if you’re a ping-pong ball you can roll off the table at any second.” Maybe he felt that he had wasted some of his literary juice in all the pugilistic-action-figure stuff. And he rolled off the table before he could finish the Hitler’s-rise book.
From the time he was in South Pacific tents, the journalism and novels bled into and out of one another, but my generation was more turned on by the journalism. When Mailer was tied down by fact and his own experience, it made the work more alive. We were electrified by the journalist insisting on his own experience in The Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago—trying to breathe the hot air in Miami and saying it was like making love to a 300-pound woman who decided to get on top. It was a lot harder to follow the thread in the long novels. Why Are We In Vietnam was short but a stunt. I tried to read Harlot’s Ghost but wondered how well-informed it actually was about the intelligence business. In one of his best books, The Spooky Art, Mailer himself dismissed The Naked and the Dead as being derivative and mimetic. Dos Passos and Faulkner were among his youthful influences as he struggled to birth the big book and become like Steinbeck and Hemingway. And even in The Castle in the Forest, which was dignified by Mailer’s old-man religion and packed with the smells of infancy and shit and mud, the story didn’t get past Hitler’s adolescence—the author couldn’t get his story to arc. Meantime, Podhoretz actually became a historical figure: He shaped the history of our time more than Mailer did.
Jewlicious.com is judgmental of Mailer for abandoning his Jewish identity; and there is a shadow of a truth there. He wrote his books by developing a persona outside himself. The devil in The Castle in the Forest. The American street/barracks/cot argot of The Naked and The Dead. “There are two kinds of ways for novelists who have some talent to go,” he said in my interview with him for The Observer. “One is to use their experience as their private gold mine, and they search more and more deeply into that gold mine. That is one way to be a serious novelist. Another way was to use your personal experience as a springboard to go quite a distance into the outside world. That was my preference. … But I have never wanted to write about the near things. My personal experiences are crystals to beam my imagination into far off places.” On Charlie Rose he said that personal writing is confusing because ego and all the personal craziness comes in.
I wish he had tried to integrate those experiences more, the personal life of being a rabbi’s grandson, then an American celebrity with all the women and children. He emulated Tolstoy, but Tolstoy seems to have injected more of himself and his life into his novels. He said he never went to Israel because he knew he’d have to write a book about it. So he turned away from vital material. Mailer wanted to wrestle more with history than with himself.
In that realm, no one can question Mailer’s brilliance. In an interview in The American Conservative, he explained what it meant to be a left-wing conservative: dubious of human nature, hateful toward totalitarianism, in America, too. “We are a Christian nation. The Judeo in Judeo-Christian is essentially a grace note. … And the idea, if you really are a Christian … was that you were not supposed to be all that rich. God didn’t want it. Jesus certainly didn’t. You were not supposed to pile up a lot of money. You were supposed to spend your life in reasonably altruistic acts. … If there is not a new seriousness in American affairs, the country is going to go down the drain.” Grand in his dismissal of masturbation—it limited engagement, grand in his dismissal of birth control—like a cabalist, he spoke of the astral body in sex, he was also grand in his dismissal of post-Holocaust Jewish consciousness. He told The Conservative that Israel should have been accepted by the Arabs, but after it wasn’t, Israel’s response had diminished Jewish character. He told Nextbook that the great Jewish tradition of thinking had been crunched down to one question, Is it good for the Jews:
“If the Jews brought anything to human nature, it’s that they developed the mind more than other people did. It was extremely important for them to develop that mind. And [now] to deaden it and stultify it, to flood it with cheap religious patriotism, I consider that part of the disaster that Hitler visited upon us.”
Mailer was more American than Jewish. He was granted a passport out of his Harvard/Brooklyn petri dish by two great democratic experiences, Army service in World War II and the celebrity that followed from that. He made his own choices in Jewish and American history, and he didn’t look back.
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