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.
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.]
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
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.]
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.
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.
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
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