A JC au­di­ence with Amer­ica’s an­gry old man

In one of his last in­ter­views, Mailer talked to the JC about faith, fam­ily and get­ting old

The Jewish Chronicle - - News - BY SUE FOX

IT IS hard to rec­on­cile the hate fig­ure for fem­i­nists of the ’60s and ’70s with the man com­fort­ably sit­ting at home in Province­town, sur­rounded by pho­to­graphs of his 11 grand­chil­dren as well as paint­ings by his artist wife, Nor­ris Church Mailer, and by two of his daugh­ters. “When I was young,” he says, “I used to say, ‘I’m never go­ing to get mar­ried. I’m never go­ing to have chil­dren.’ So I end up mar­ried six times with nine chil­dren. I’m very close to my kids. The grand­chil­dren give me plea­sure.”

Un­like many men of 84, even in velour slip­pers, Mailer does not look heart­break­ingly old. This con­tro­ver­sial, Pulitzer-prize-win­ning writer, who once ran for the of­fice of Mayor of New York, re­veals that “old age is not sim­ply a set of dis­as­ters. It has its pos­i­tive el­e­ments. You get very calm and fi­nally have that elu­sive, and much un­der­rated word, wis­dom — which, in the case of achiev­ers and over-achiev­ers, means that, fi­nally, you know what you can and can’t do.”

De­spite this op­ti­mistic note, it is hard not to see the whole of this imp­ish oc­to­ge­nar­ian’s life in­deli­bly etched in his face. More­over, he has a bad cough and walks with dif­fi­culty. Di­ag­nosed with mac­u­lar de­gen­er­a­tion, he has to avoid bright day­light and sits with his back to the breath­tak­ing ocean view from his win­dow. Through the glass, At­lantic waves sparkle in the sun, the sky a per­fect blue.

“This is my town,” he says. “I’ve been com­ing here since I was 19 and look­ing at the view for 65 years. The beauty never dis­tracted me from writ­ing. Now I can only look at it for five min­utes at a time.”

Norman Mailer grew up in Brook­lyn. “Be­ing Jewish was im­mensely im­por­tant. My mother was a wo­man with won­der­fully deep in­stincts. She was not prodi­giously well-ed­u­cated but she had an in­stinct from the word go that Hitler was an ab­so­lute dis­as­ter for the Jews.” Mailer’s novel, The Cas­tle in the For­est, pub­lished ear­lier this year and his first for a decade, imag­ines Hitler’s early life, con­veyed from the point of view of a devil cul­ti­vat­ing Hitler’s evil po­ten­tial. The book is ded­i­cated to Mailer’s grand­chil­dren.

“I don’t think there is any ex­pla­na­tion for the Holo­caust with­out posit­ing a devil,” Mailer ar­gues, “be­cause I find the op­po­site to that philosophi- cally odi­ous and ob­scene. God was test­ing us? God was pun­ish­ing us? Those are odi­ous ar­gu­ments. What my book is about is that, just as God cre­ated Je­sus, which I be­lieve is per­fectly pos­si­ble — if you’re a God why can’t you do that? — so the Devil spent 2,000 years in a fury over Je­sus. He fi­nally de­cided to cre­ate his own larger-than-life fig­ure — Adolf Hitler.”

Mailer’s God, he says, is one that “strives and does not see the end as a set of laws… a cre­ator with a vi­sion, try­ing, like us, to do the best he or she can against great ob­sta­cles.

“With all the bur­dens God car­ries, I find the no­tion of pray­ing, of ask­ing, ‘God, please give me this, or make that hap­pen’, de­testable.”

He is in his stride now, and turns to pol­i­tics: “I can’t talk about Iraq with­out froth­ing at the mouth and be­com­ing ob­scene. Even the best of wars have prodi­gious amounts of stu­pid­ity and waste­ful­ness in them, but Iraq abuses that priv­i­lege. They call it ‘fight­ing for democ­racy’. I’m all for that. You al­ways need a high mo­tive for a low deed.”

In a speech in Syra­cuse, Mailer lamented Amer­ica’s moral state. “There was that hideous hour at Vir­ginia Tech when 32 stu­dents and teach­ers were killed,” he said. “This coun­try’s been in mourn­ing ever since. But what about Bagh­dad? Two, three times a week, 30 or more peo­ple are killed with a bomb. Do we even care? There’s this numb­ness, this in­abil­ity to think about any­thing but our­selves.”

So what about Is­rael? “Is­rael and Jews have al­ways had a tough time. Af­ter the Holo­caust, here was this lit­tle tiny land, Is­rael, in the midst of those end­less deserts filled with oil, and yet the Arabs wouldn’t even give them that space. They hated them from the word go. That lack of com­pas­sion, of any kind of hu­man char­ity, has kept the Jews pretty up­set about the Arabs. I can un­der­stand that.

“How­ever, rage and a sense of in­jus­tice doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily make you clear-minded. Now, of ne­ces­sity, they’re be­sieged — locked into a set of agree­ments with Amer­ica that make them hated through­out the world.”

Does Mailer think there will be a wave of an­tisemitism in Amer­ica? “I don’t think we’re in any dan­ger of that, but if things turn very bad here it be might be some­thing to worry about. The fact is the Jews of New York are in the same po­si­tion as the wealthy Jews were in Ber­lin. We do have great con­trol over press, pub­lish­ing, the arts and de­part­ment stores.” A longer ver­sion of this in­ter­view was pub­lished in our is­sue of June 29, 2007

PHOTO: SUE FOX

“I’m very close to my kids. The grand­chil­dren give me plea­sure”

PHOTO: KEN SHARP

Mailer pho­tographed in 1983 for the JC

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