Vi­o­lets

New England Review - - Explorations -

A brisk sunset walk home: Lafayette Ave. Af­ter weeks straight of triple lay­ers and dou­ble gloves, the day has inched enough out of the freeze that I get around just fine with­out my hands jammed in my pock­ets and my eyes half shut against the cold. I switch­back real quick and yank a twig jut­ting out from a trash can just for kicks. I get go­ing again, swing­ing the stick as if I’m con­duct­ing this mis­er­able choir of pi­geons at my feet. A good block to go, I’m about to pick up the pace when I catch a small flash of dusk out the cor­ner of my eye, not from the skyline but from the bit of branch I’m hold­ing; a small flash of welts, a clus­ter of indigo—another vi­o­let’s just sprouted from my fist, which seems to hap­pen in ev­ery sea­son. Mat­ter of fact, some­times I look down the street and vi­o­lets are spilling out the doors, down the stoops, into corners and lots. They are pool­ing at ev­ery curb and moth­ers hang their heads out the win­dows in hor­ror. I carry the vi­o­lets one by one in­side my apart­ment. I head straight to my kitchen and lift the blos­som to the light, roots and all, shak­ing dirt loose to take a good long look at these squares of Je­sus-pur­ple. I hold it to my nose, say grace, and clamp my lips down to pop a petal free. I close my mouth around it, I pull it onto my tongue to feel its cool silk and push it against my teeth. I chew and chew some more and I say why not, for we live in the on­go­ing Amer­i­can epoch in which a man can shoot a child in the eye or the back and not be con­victed of mur­der.

Who’s got what magic now? Most days I am one of the hun­dred mil­lion who sim­ply watches the vi­o­lets mul­ti­ply. Then some nights, I sit in my kitchen eat­ing this one per­fect flower. Stupid, I know. But I’ve held things in my mouth with more sugar and felt less blessed. If you want to know, this vi­o­let tastes of the slightly rot­ten whiff of a late April rain, the muddy musk of old pi­ano keys, a dusty box emp­tied of nickel cas­ings and old colognes. It tastes a lot like the small twitch of fog my breath makes against my lover’s belly. This flower in case you’ve for­got­ten has sprouted from my own fin­gers, maybe even deeper—from my spleen. Turns out, rage is a flower like this one, like that one, like this. My body’s the right mulch for it. Some­times a man is only as lucky as his hands.

June 4, 1945

Oc­to­ber 30, 1945

what was the bedrock of your book and went off on a se­ries of rather fan­tas­tic ex­cur­sions, so at the end one has found in three hun­dred pages, a sum­ma­tion of psy­cho­an­a­lyt­i­cal schools, a the­ory of history (in twenty pages) a pre­scrip­tion for the world’s ills, a sin­gu­larly bom­bas­tic at­tack on Marx­ism, a call to ac­tion which must apol­o­gize for its penury, and pages and pages of—to be bru­tally frank—the sort of ex­hor­ta­tive prose that one as­so­ci­ates with such books as Peace of Mind. The worst of all is that when you are done, I for one had no idea at all of what one is sup­posed to rebel against. It’s all very well to talk about the lim­it­ing tri­an­gle, but re­bel­lion as a way of life con­sists of choos­ing a thou­sand cour­ses, each for some­thing spe­cific. How one can speak of re­bel­lion with­out speak­ing of so­ci­ety is ut­terly be­yond my com­pre­hen­sion. For ex­am­ple, one must fi­nally be­lieve that Amer­i­can so­ci­ety is ei­ther ca­pa­ble or not ca­pa­ble of con­tin­u­ing to func­tion, or think that the op­ti­mum so­ci­ety for man must be equal­i­tar­ian and lib­er­tar­ian (my conception of so­cial­ism) or that such dis­tinc­tions and such goals are ill-founded. One must feel that a so­ci­ety which warps, cor­rupts and “ad­justs” its mem­bers must ei­ther be de­stroyed, or to the con­trary mod­i­fied.

To be a rebel with­out ever pos­ing these prob­lems, is like be­ing an an­a­lyst with­out study­ing Freud. I was a lit­tle aghast that a book which calls it­self Pre­scrip­tion for Re­bel­lion and ful­mi­nates against ad­just­ment, never at­tempts to give more than a few pass­ing ep­i­thets to the so­ci­ety which de­mands ad­just­ment. It seems to me that you come out by the same door as all the ad­just­ment an­a­lysts. “Arise ye wretched of the earth—you have noth­ing to lose but your toi­let train­ing.” Let me make this clearer. What is your rebel’s view to­ward mar­riage? To­ward sex? To­ward fam­ily? To­ward cap­i­tal­ism? To­ward so­ci­ety? To­ward war? To­ward all the ter­ri­ble and very def­i­nite prob­lems of such things as Korea, the de­fense of the West, etc. etc? I don’t ask that you write a po­lit­i­cal or a sex­ual trea­tise, but I won­der why there is no win­dow in your view which in­cludes such mat­ters. I don’t even know how you can dif­fer­en­ti­ate your­self from so many of the an­a­lysts I know, in­tel­li­gent lib­eral men, whom you would claim pro­mul­gate the ad­just­ment fal­lacy. It seems to me they would be quite jus­ti­fied in say­ing, “So far as I can make out what Lind­ner is say­ing, his idea of re­bel­lion is the same as our idea of ad­just­ment. We, too, want peo­ple to be spon­ta­neous, healthy, con­struc­tive, tense, crit­i­cal, etc. etc.”

There’s no get­ting around it. If you are re­ally a rebel, and you re­ally preach re­bel­lion you’ve got to end up with some­thing a lit­tle more star­tling and un­palat­able than “let’s try to im­prove the level of school teach­ers.”

More­over, I re­sented the am­bi­tious­ness of your book. A the­ory of history if it is to be some­thing other than cock­tail party talk must be more than grandil­o­quent and con­fined to twenty pages; an at­tack on Marx­ism if it is to be other than fash­ion­able has to be a lit­tle bit more pre­cise than (I quote ap­prox­i­mately) “his eco­nomic the­o­ries have long been dis­proved.” How have they been dis­proved? By whom? By what eco­nomic data? If you’re go­ing to be truly se­ri­ous and truly am­bi­tious, you owe it to your­self to study eco­nom­ics, and to be able to dis­prove a book like Das Kap­i­tal con­cretely and not con­de­scend­ingly.

Nor­man Mailer

be of most use to you but I am very busy now, and so I hope the lit­tle I give you will be of use.

In the past the writ­ers who in­flu­enced me most were prob­a­bly the ma­jor Amer­i­can nov­el­ists of the 20s and thir­ties, par­tic­u­larly Dos Pas­sos and Far­rell, at least so far as The Naked and the Dead is con­cerned. How­ever, Tol­stoy (es­pe­cially Anna Karen­ina) was per­haps the big­gest sin­gle in­flu­ence on that book. Bar­bary Shore was in­flu­enced very much by the ideas of a rel­a­tively un­known French nov­el­ist named Jean Malaquais (that is to say, his per­sonal ac­quain­tance rather than his works), and my last book The Deer Park which is to be pub­lished some time in 1955 has been di­rectly or even in­di­rectly in­flu­enced by no par­tic­u­lar au­thor I could name. Per­haps a vague link to Stend­hal, another to [Al­berto] Mo­ravia, a lit­tle to [An­dré] Gide, a lit­tle to Proust, but even in nam­ing them I think I un­der­line the con­nec­tion too much.

At present the two con­tem­po­raries for whom I feel the great­est affin­ity are Wil­liam Sty­ron and James Jones. Not that I think the work of any of the three of us can be com­pared re­ally, but they are good friends, and I be­lieve it would be safe to say that our literary val­ues as op­posed to our themes and styles are of­ten sur­pris­ingly sim­i­lar.

The men­tion of Melville is well-cho­sen. I was think­ing con­sciously of the moun­tain in Naked as a sort of sym­bolic equiv­a­lent to the white whale, and of Croft to Ahab, but the sym­bolic “ideas” were prob­a­bly in­flu­enced by a book by the late F. O. Matthiessen called as I re­mem­ber Amer­i­can Re­nais­sance which treated the themes of Melville, Emer­son, Poe, Hawthorne, Whit­man, and Thoreau. I hope this is of some use to you. Yours cor­dially, Nor­man Mailer TO EI­ICHI YA­MAN­ISHI [Ei­ichi Ya­man­ishi (1899–1984), NM’S Ja­panese trans­la­tor with whom he cor­re­sponded for more than thirty years, also trans­lated Charles Dick­ens and Leon Trot­sky.]

Dear Ei­ichi,

So many things to write about. You must for­give me for tak­ing so long to an­swer, but we have moved back to New York from the coun­try, and what with work­ing hard on my book of col­lected pieces, there has been no time to an­swer mail for weeks, and even months. Now I will try to an­swer some of your ques­tions and re­quests. But first con­grat­u­la­tions to Kumiko and her daugh­ter Yu­miko. I am happy to hear that she is so healthy and laughs so much. My younger daugh­ter Danielle is that way, and has a charm­ing smile and laugh.

The new novel, “Ad­ver­tise­ments,” will take many years and so I would

Nor­man Mailer

merit. Any pub­lisher who put out such a list would com­mand the Amer­i­can writ­ing of the present I be­lieve, for I have listed the writ­ers who have molded the in­de­pen­dent mind of the best read­ers in this coun­try, the most dis­crim­i­nat­ing and in­di­vid­ual.

I hope this is of help to you. In two or three months, per­haps a lit­tle longer, there may be gal­leys to send you of the new book of col­lected pieces. My best to you and your fam­ily. Warmly, Nor­man TO DIANA TRILLING [Diana Trilling (1905–1996), a literary critic, re­viewer, and au­thor of We Must March My Dar­lings (1977) and other books, was mar­ried to literary in­tel­lec­tual Lionel Trilling and was a close friend of NM’S.]

Dear Diana:

Most an­noy­ing. I can’t find your long let­ter at this mo­ment I want to write you back, and I know if I de­vote a half-hour to dis­cov­er­ing it, the im­pulse will pass. Any­way, I think I re­mem­ber it well enough to an­swer—it had af­ter all its tacit the­sis.

But first, be­fore I for­get, let me men­tion that there was no pro­duc­tion of The Deer Park. If there had been, of course I would have in­vited you, but I got caught in rewrit­ing it and the prime weeks went by, and then I de­cided I re­ally did want the sum­mer to think about it, so it’s now prob­a­bly to be done in the Fall, and you and Lionel will get your en­graved [in­vi­ta­tions]. Be­tween us, I’m a bit ex­cited about it. Some­thing hap­pened to the play in the last re­write and it’s now free and clear of the book, and the things it says are so dif­fer­ent that I feel as if in a way I’ve writ­ten a new novel, per­haps the novel The Deer Park should have been to make it un­de­ni­able. Since you’re noth­ing if not per­verse (I? Per­verse? says Diana), it is a mis­take of the first cat­e­gory to say that I think the play of The Deer Park will come upon the theatre the way The Naked and the Dead came upon the war novel. You’ll be bound now to dis­like it, but I said it any­way be­cause I could not re­sist the pos­si­bil­i­ties of this ef­fort­less tran­si­tion to the next para­graph af­ter the galumph a la [Pierre] Bezuhov of the first para­graph to this one.

Yes. You say in ef­fect I thought you were a very good and tal­ented writer, but now I read The Naked and the Dead and I re­al­ize you could be a great writer if only . . . if only you would stop pos­tur­ing, if only you would quit that most un­re­al­is­tic and self-dis­torted first per­son and go back to your mod­est and much more tal­ented third. And I throw up my hands. Be­cause for years I have been aghast at the pe­cu­liar vi­sion of the critic. You, all of you, are for­ever as­crib­ing pow­ers to us we don’t have, and mis­read­ing our crip­plings as our strengths.

Nor­man Mailer

it his art, and mir­a­cle of cre­ation, the in­fir­mity has be­come the chal­ice of the courage it­self. He stood his ground, and made his five passes be­cause a long time ago he sur­ren­dered his will to the in­fir­mity. The in­fir­mity was more Faus­tian than him­self. And the truth of it all, I think, is that there is no pas­sion a woman can know like the pas­sion a man has to achieve the great­ness he senses within him­self. When a man loses that pas­sion, as al­most all of us do, he be­comes com­pre­hen­si­ble again, and so de­spised by women.

What then of our Nor­man? (If only you dear drear dead­beats would re­al­ize that I am just as much the cu­ra­tor of my jewels as any of you—) Our Nor­man has ev­ery­thing, in mod­est mea­sure of course, but he is re­ally so promis­ing. His style may well be durable for there is po­etry to mine in it, his ideas are bold if dis­tress­ing, his knowl­edge of peo­ple is hard, his grasp is war-like, his in­tel­li­gence is not al­ways miss­ing, he has ev­ery prom­ise but def­i­ni­tion.

And here Diana will say: Oh God, is he go­ing to ad­vance lack of def­i­ni­tion as his in­fir­mity? And Nor­man will. Leave it to Nor­man to say af­ter all it must be re­mem­bered that he is a Jew and that be­ing a ma­jor nov­el­ist is not a nat­u­ral ac­tiv­ity for a Jew. (Please hear the voice as ade­noidal now—the smug lov­ing tone of a young J*w*sh in­tel­lec­tual who was loved by his mother.) The novel came into ex­is­tence, he will claim, as the avatar of so­ci­ety at the mo­ment so­ci­ety de­vel­oped roots too sub­tle for the his­to­rian to trace. The novel was the life of its so­ci­ety up from its roots. And for a long time there were no Jewish nov­el­ists be­cause the Jews had no roots suf­fi­ciently deep to sup­port a hero. Daniel Deronda (“Ech mir a gi­ant,” the other Nor­man [Pod­horetz] would say) was the at­tempt of a good Chris­tian lady to ap­plaud how our poor cousins live, and in all of the Nine­teenth Cen­tury is there another He­brew hero in the novel? No, the ma­jor Jewish nov­el­ist came in the door af­ter the Sec­ond World War, and only in Amer­ica, what? For good cause. Be­cause the con­ven­tional big novel, the novel of man­ners and roots, no longer had to con­cern it­self with roots. The Twen­ti­eth Cen­tury had ripped up all the roots, and so the Jew was in his el­e­ment be­cause he never had his own per­son­al­ity, he never had known the gen­teel se­cu­rity of re­lax­ing in a habit be­cause all the as­pi­ra­tion of the class, the caste, the cult and the fam­ily was art­fully de­posited in the habit; the Jew was al­ways a bloody schiz­o­phrenic, his par­lor man­ners greasy and his as­pi­ra­tion in­can­des­cent. “Pass the kugel, Rifke, I want to tell Moishe my new the­sis on Schopenhauer.”

But now the world was schiz­o­phrenic: H-bombs and P.T. A. com­mit­tees. The Jew—those who were left—could be the first to swim the di­vided wa­ters. Need roots? do the re­search. Un­der­stand man­ners? have a good ear for di­a­logue. That’s just fruit salad. All you have to do to be a nov­el­ist is to be with­out skin, that epi­der­mal Protes­tantism of re­li­able habit, dig the present, there is no mean­ing but the present. So of course I could do The Naked and the Dead. I had no past to pro­tect, no habits to hold on to, no style to de­fend. My in­fir­mity is that I had no emo­tional mem­ory (still don’t—a dead love is never deader than with me). I was psy­cho­path­i­cally ma­rooned in the present.

Three days later

TO BETTE ROTH [Bette Roth Young (b.1937) is the au­thor of Letters (1995).]

Dear Bette Roth,

Nat­u­rally I had to keep think­ing of [Henry Adams’s] The Ed­u­ca­tion of Henry Adams all the while I was do­ing The Armies of the Night, but the odd­est as­pect of it all is that I didn’t read any­thing of Adams’s since I was in Har­vard thirty years ago, and he was cer­tainly never one of my fa­vorites then, which may en­large the no­tion of literary in­flu­ence be­cause if ever one book was cre­ated by another, one would have to say The Armies of the Night came out of The Ed­u­ca­tion of Henry Adams and yet how? All the while I was writ­ing Armies, I kept say­ing to my­self “I never even knew I liked Adams, I don’t re­mem­ber a word of his and yet it is now ob­vi­ous I love him.”

In the face of such in­flu­ence I won­der if we shouldn’t sub­scribe to the idea of the wave­length. It at least of­fers us a pic­ture of Adams writhing in ce­les­tial bonds, “I have got to [help] that damn up­start for he is the only one around.” Well, good luck, Nor­man Mailer TO JORGE LUIS BORGES [ Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986) wrote in many forms but is per­haps most renowned for his col­lec­tion of sto­ries ti­tled Fic­ciones, first pub­lished in Ar­gentina in 1944 and then in English trans­la­tion by An­thony Ker­ri­gan in 1962.]

Dear Senor Borges,

Just a word to tell you how pleased I was when Dwight Mac­don­ald sent me Doc­tor Brodie’s Re­port with your in­scrip­tion. I have such re­gard for what you do in your work that it would be em­bar­rass­ing to say it all at once. I can only tell you that there are many in this coun­try who have a vast re­gard for one of our writ­ers, Thomas Pyn­chon, who plays of­ten with con­sid­er­able skill on the trans­mo­gri­fi­ca­tions pos­si­ble in the work­ings of a plot and I al­ways say to them, “Do you re­al­ize that Borges does more in five pages than Pyn­chon does in five hun­dred?” Yours, and cor­dially, Nor­man Mailer

TO JEFFREY MEY­ERS [Au­thor of nu­mer­ous bi­ogra­phies, in­clud­ing Hem­ing­way: A Bi­og­ra­phy (1985) and Scott Fitzger­ald: A Bi­og­ra­phy (2014), Jeffrey Mey­ers (b. 1939) also wrote and edited sev­eral books on D. H. Lawrence.]

Dear Pro­fes­sor Mey­ers,

Lawrence’s main in­flu­ence on me was Lady Chat­ter­ley’s Lover. I had the plea­sure and priv­i­lege of read­ing back in 1941 in the un­ex­pur­gated edi­tion. That was in the Trea­sure Room of Wi­dener Li­brary. Har­vard, in those days, used to have its perks and one of them was pre­cisely that you could read the un­ex­pur­gated ver­sion of Lady Chat­ter­ley’s Lover. In any event, it changed my sex life, or rather, ac­cel­er­ated it into a di­rec­tion it was pro­ceed­ing on nicely by it­self. I ac­cepted Lawrence’s the­sis about un­tram­meled and il­lim­itable rights and lib­er­ties and plea­sures of sex­ual love and the union be­tween the two. I don’t think any­one had ever be­fore, whether in literature or per­sonal life, stated it so force­fully for me, that one could not have sex with­out love, or love with­out sex, pe­riod. Now, as we know from the other side over the in­ter­ven­ing 40-plus years, that is an ex­tra­or­di­nary the­sis, and can be half-right, or all wrong, as well as ab­so­lutely so. For that rea­son, Lawrence’s hy­poth­e­sis has lived with me as my own, with all the ex­cite­ment of the on­go­ing hy­poth­e­sis that you can never quite con­firm or deny (hy­pothe­ses are so much more life-giv­ing than ob­ses­sions!). At any rate, that is my es­sen­tial debt to Lawrence. His other works I ad­mire, and I think he was a great writer, for even among the most im­por­tant of the writ­ers in our lives, cer­tain of their books stand out more than oth­ers, ob­vi­ously.

As for the rest, you may be in­ter­ested in a chap­ter I once wrote about Lawrence in my book The Pris­oner of Sex. I think it’s one of the best pieces of literary crit­i­cism I ever did, and if you’re not fa­mil­iar with it, you might find it use­ful to your pur­poses. I hope this is again of use. Yours sin­cerely, Nor­man Mailer TO STEPHANE HASKELL, NEW YORK TIMES MAG­A­ZINE [Stephane Haskell is a por­trait pho­tog­ra­pher and doc­u­men­tary film­maker.]

Dear Stephane Haskell,

At first I was to­tally op­posed to your idea be­cause I couldn’t think of a fa­vorite char­ac­ter. Then it came to me: Ahab, in Moby-dick.

How­ever, there are dif­fi­cul­ties. Can you sup­ply the cos­tume? For I can­not.

Nor­man Mailer

More­over, he had a peg-leg, and while we could fake one for the pho­tog­ra­pher, and hide the rest of my leg, pre­sum­ably, we could hardly do it for long since I’m get­ting arthritic these days and sus­tained bending of the joints be­comes too in­ci­sive a mis­ery. At any rate, we have some­thing to talk about so I’ll wait to hear from you. Cheers, Nor­man Mailer TO DON DELILLO [Win­ner of the Na­tional Book Award, the Pen/faulkner Award, and the Pulitzer Prize, Don Delillo (b. 1936) is the au­thor of four­teen nov­els, in­clud­ing Fall­ing Man, Libra, Un­der­world, and White Noise, and three plays.]

PS: [. . .]

142 Columbia Heights, Brook­lyn, New York

De­cem­ber 14, 1998

Dear Don,

I’m de­lighted you en­joyed The Time of Our Time be­cause Un­der­world had me ob­sessed for weeks. I liked so many parts of it, ar­gued with other parts, ad­mired your treat­ment of time, warred with it; moved up and down with the book, ad­mired sheer hell out of it, and have been telling peo­ple to read it ever since. I guess we’re two of the few Mo­hi­cans who still think you can do some­thing about Amer­ica in a novel. Look for­ward to see­ing you. Merry Christ­mas, Nor­man

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.