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
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
“I’m very close to my kids. The grandchildren give me pleasure”
Mailer photographed in 1983 for the JC