Centenary of the writer Norman Mailer, disappointed husband of America

IN THE TELERAMA ARCHIVES – The author of “The Executioner’s Song” was the rebellious conscience of the United States, his adored country but for which he forgave nothing. On January 31, he would have been 100 years old. A great opportunity to (re)read this portrait published in our columns when he died in 2007.

He was perhaps not the most remarkable writer of this country, the United States, which has so many, and such great ones. Whether Norman Mailerwho died on November 10, 2007 at the age of 84, nevertheless occupied a special place, imposing, in the foreground, it is not so much because of his longevity (sixty years of writing) as by virtue of the very special relationship , passionate, fusional and conflictual, that he maintained with his country. “I’ve always seen my relationship to America as a marriage. I love this country, I hate it, it charms me and it disgusts me,” he explained (1), spinning with wrathful irony the conjugal metaphor.

Thus Norman Mailer, this stocky colossus with clear eyes and an angry temperament, saw himself as the disappointed and surly husband of an America he diagnosed as sick, morally dilapidated, hypocritical, mean-spirited, unbearable – in short, unlivable. Since the First World War, he analyzed in an essay written in the 1960s, “Americans lead a double life, and our history sails on two rivers, one visible, the other underground. There was the history of politics, which is concrete, factual, practical and incredibly dull if you ignore the consequences of the actions of some of these men; there is also a secret river of untapped, fierce, lonely and romantic desires, that concentration of ecstasy and violence which is the dream life of the nation” (in America, ed. Plon, 1999). A dream life in his eyes has become a real nightmare, because having yielded to the most negative impulses: collective fear, paranoid fantasy, the temptation to withdraw into oneself, moral mediocrity, mercantile greed, nihilistic drift.

Psychological acuity and narrative power

This severe and morose diagnosis, Norman Mailer worked his whole life to bring to light and to fight it. To do so, seizing head-on American reality. With energy, sensuality, sometimes brutality. Writing was his weapon – both unique and multiple. Novelist, essayist, journalist, pamphleteer: Mailer has tried all genres, and all have succeeded. He even willingly mixed them, putting at the service of his reports on American political and public life – the Republican or Democratic conventions, the corridors of the White House, the gatherings of the Kennedy clan in Hyannis Port… – all his psychological acumen, his historical intuitions, his narrative power as an epic novelist. Drawing on reality to find the most striking of his characters: Marilyn Monroe (Marilyn’s imaginary memoirs, 1973), muhammad ali (The fight of the century 1975), criminal Gary Gilmore, who died in the electric chair in 1977 (The Executioner’s Song, 1979 Pulitzer Prize), or even Lee Harvey Oswaldthe assassin of JF Kennedy (Oswald, an American Mystery, 1995)…

History as a novel; the novel as history: this is the subtitle he gave to his book The Armies of the Night (Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award 1968), a gripping report on the side of peaceful demonstrators marching towards Washington and the Pentagon, in October 1967, to protest against the American presence in Vietnam – a text often considered as the founder of the “new journalism”.

Born in 1923 in New Jersey, into a family of the Jewish lower middle class – originally from South Africa by his father, from Lithuania by his mother – and raised in Brooklyn, Norman Mailer entered Harvard in the late 1930s. He is studying to become an aeronautical engineer but, at the same time, it is for Steinbeck, Dos Passos, Hemingway and Dostoyevsky let him get excited. He was 20 years old when the United States entered the war against Nazi Germany. He then enlists in the army, and dreams of fighting in Europe in order to feed this experience into a novel which is in some way the equivalent of Farewell to Arms, that Hemingway devoted to the Great War. Disappointment: Mailer was sent to the Pacific, landed in the Philippines. He will nevertheless nourish a great book, his first: The Naked and the Dead (1948), which earned him immediate recognition, when he was only 25 years old.

The young Mailer saw then, in a way, the nuptials he dreamed of with America: he is the young prodigy, the gifted child. Brilliant but rebellious: during the 1950s, Mailer became involved in journalism, founded the magazine The Village Voice (1955), sympathizes with communism, stays in Paris, where he frequents existentialist circles. He becomes an intellectual clearly and firmly anchored on the left, but terribly unconcerned with well-meaning, even actively working to shape the image of a macho boaster who will never leave him – drinker, reveler, willingly belligerent, lover of excess of all kinds, married a total of six times, also accused in 1960 of having stabbed his wife at the time…

Terrifyingly ambitious

His journalistic activity intensified during the following decade: Mailer immersed himself in American public life, wrote for the press – in his articles, he willingly put himself on the stage, in the third person –, and at the same time published mixes essays, stories and novels (Tough Guys Do not Dance, 1984, Harlot and its ghost, 1991). His declared enemies: at the very top of the list, Richard Nixon, Eisenhower’s vice-president who in turn became master of the White House in 1969, when the United States was bogged down in Vietnam; then Ronald Reagan, and later the Bushes, father and son together, from whom Mailer vomits “cocardious neoconservatism”.

A cantankerous polemicist and prolific writer – hence, certainly, a work of unequal value – Norman Mailer, make no mistake about it, is also terribly ambitious, always inhabited by the conviction that“he was in competition not only with his contemporaries, but with authors such as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky”, pointed out last week a critic of the New York Times. This means that having placed America, its heroes and its demons, at the heart of his reflections and his work, Mailer certainly did not see himself as the prosaic chronicler of this story. But much more as the explorer of its myths and its most intimate impulses – the original savagery of this American civilization, the part of violence that constitutes its essence.

A decryptor inhabited by a permanent ethical concern: “Everything I write conceals concerns of a spiritual order, even if I have no religious ties, strictly speaking,” he underlined, defining himself as a “Non-practicing Jew marked by Christian heritage” (in an interview with The cross, April 1998), passionate about the question of Evil, which ultimately inspired him to write a fictionalized biography of Hitler, A castle in the forest, haunted by the figure of the Devil (Plon edition). A controversial work, programmed in three volumes, but which his death will leave unfinished.

(1) In the DVD Norman Mailer, Stories of America, ed. Montparnasse.

Article originally published in the Telerama No. 3019 of November 24, 2007

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Centenary of the writer Norman Mailer, disappointed husband of America