Rivals, Influences, & Affinities: A Selection of Letters
From The Selected Letters of Norman Mailer,
edited by J. Michael Lennon TO BEATRICE MAILER [Beatrice Silverman (b. 1922) was NM’S first wife. Much of his first, bestselling novel, The Naked and the Dead (1948), was taken wholesale from the hundreds of letters he wrote to Beatrice while overseas.]
through another man’s mind I do not feel bothered by the necessary variance with the actual thought. I’m not interested in coherence or logic or proof—i think the value and meaning of thought ends with its creative flight. The last thing I care about is whether an idea is true—ideas for Ideas sake, that’s me.
And while Thoreau is important, I don’t give a damn. His nature is alien to mine. Any man who is a vegetarian and preaches asceticism is failing to account for the double-faced coin of man’s nature. I suppose really the only main thing that excites my mind is paradox—there is something thrilling, dramatic, aesthetic, what have you about fundamental opposites in a basic interdependence. The awe-terror exaltation mood that comes so rarely and so intensely out of the dust of war rests of course on the bedmates of life and death—the roiled bodies and the crickets in the bright green grass, the smoking charred tank with the black stiff corpses like articulated wire dolls and the scarlet peas lying sweet and clean near the turret.
You feel a God spirit at times like that, but I guess it is always a God in your own image. I know I never think of God as all good—i see a being who is excited by the fascinating dualities he has created and very often sits back to see how the play will come out while at other times he must be the author and director. He is utterly without compassion; he is an artist. He would be in a way like a very intense Somerset Maugham. [. . . .] I love thee, Norman
TO BEATRICE MAILER
[. . . .] I’ve been reading Anna Karenina, as I believe I told you, and I must confess, dear little schnoog, that “naïve” was a particularly poor word for Tolstoy. Anna is really a great book, a much greater one than War and Peace, although I wonder at that now for I read it so long ago and perhaps in the wrong way. But in Anna Karenina, there is far more of the great and necessary sympathy that sees all people in their own eyes, and refrains from dismissing them. And nearly always the knowledge of man goes so deep. There is again that feeling one gets of Time as man’s enemy, as the solvent that slowly dissolves his most noble actions until he has returned to the old level of his character. Poor Man—you grieve for yourself and all the other poor beasts not because you are incapable of nobility, but because you cannot sustain it, because vision always fades and is replaced by irritability.
And that curious insight you get from both Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, the way most of their characters turn to the bad after they have been most good, as
41 First Avenue, New York, New York
November 18, 1952
320 East 55th Street, New York, New York
November 16, 1954
hesitate to sign a contract now for the firm might be weak in five or ten years. The book will take all my efforts and must be enormous or else it will fail. Enormous in intention (but also enormous in size—perhaps a thousand pages). Before this, however, there will be my book of collected pieces [ Advertisements for Myself ] which has sixty or seventy pages of new material which have not been printed anywhere else. As soon as there are galleys on that, I’ll send it to you— perhaps it has a chance in Japan, although I am not optimistic.
Now on [Boris] Pasternak’s early work, I’m not familiar. Nor can I help you on detective story novels for I rarely read them, and do not know the literature at all well. Also, the kind of book you mention on modern American literature which is both serious and journalistic does not really exist. There is one book [ American Moderns: From Rebellion to Conformity] by a man named Maxwell Geismar, but he is stupid, in bad repute with the critics and so sloppy that he calls Barbary Shore Barbary Coast in some of his comments on it. I cannot in all conscience recommend him, nor can I remember the name of his book.
For the ten or fifteen best novels, I find that I go back to 1943 for two of them, and that I do not include the works by Hemingway or Faulkner or Steinbeck or [ John P.] Marquand or John O’hara since that time for they are probably on the State Dept list. If not, you could add Hemingway’s The Old Man of [ sic] the Sea (1952), Faulkner’s A Fable (1954), Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952), any Marquand novel, or O’hara’s Ten North Frederick (1955), but I do not really like any of those novels. They were all, however, best sellers, and would probably do well in a new series. The books I choose are more literary, and some (those starred like this *) were best sellers or sold well. But for a literary picture of America by writers of talent, they are exciting and good I believe. Whether they are the best is for the next hundred years to decide. Where I can I give you the approximate date of publication and publisher. My own books I leave off the list, but Naked would of course belong, and perhaps The Deer Park.
Other Voices, Other Rooms— Truman Capote, 1948 Random House The Gallery— John Horne Burns, 1948 Harper’s End as a Man— Calder Willingham, 1947 Vanguard The Adventures of Augie March— Saul Bellow, 1953 Viking From Here to Eternity— James Jones, 1951 Scribner’s Lie Down in Darkness— William Styron, 1951 Bobbs-merrill The Man with the Golden Arm— Nelson Algren, 1949 Doubleday The Catcher in the Rye— Salinger, 1951 Little, Brown The Recognitions— William Gaddis, 1955 Harcourt Brace On the Road— Jack Kerouac, 1957 Viking The Violated— Vance Bourjaily, 1958 Dial The Wall— John Hersey, 1950 Knopf The Company She Keeps— Mary Mccarthy, 1942 Simon & Schuster The Ox-bow Incident— Walter Van Tilburg Clark, 1940 Random House The History of Rome Hanks and Kindred Matters— Joseph Stanley Pennell, 1943 Scribner’s
They are listed as I thought of them, and I intend no particular order of
Faulkner’s long breath, Hemingway’s command of the short sentence, Proust’s cocoon, Steinbeck’s earth. The only one any critic ever got right in his infirmities was [Thomas] Wolfe, and that was because Wolfe gave the show away. Faulkner writes his long sentence because he never really touches what he is about to say and so keeps chasing it; Hemingway writes short because he strangles in a dependent clause; Steinbeck digs into the earth because characters who hold martini glasses make him sweat; Proust spins his wrappings because a fag gets slapped if he says what he thinks. Don’t worry—i am not becoming the Westbrook Pegler of world letters—what I work up to saying is that these men, saving Steinbeck, became great writers because of their infirmities, and what separates Hemingway from that every good writer in three who can’t be comfortable with a long sentence, is that Hemingway did not tailor his aims to suit his lacks and so become, let us say, a good sports writer, but he took his infirmity and made it a weltanschauung like a one-legged man who decides not only to be the world’s greatest skier but convinces himself that one leg is better for skiing than two because each leg can betray the other leg, but when there is only one limb the secret is only to develop it to enormous power, cultivate exquisite balance and then ski like a genius because the possibility to betray oneself is no longer there. So with Faulkner. If you are incapable of saying what you mean, then never stop speaking and you will create a furnace of possibilities. If only you dare. And Faulkner dared. And so on with Proust, with Joyce (who was as incapable of drama as Lillian [Hellman] was capable of narrative introspection). And so with Stendhal who did not read the Code Napoleon every morning on the throne because he wished to write in a dry style, but on the contrary did his reading to justify the dryness of his style which was dry to the bone after twenty years of failed passions and now juiceless loins; [Henry] James was incapable of measuring the proportions of things (no wonder he admired [Emile] Zola, since Zola knew everything about proportion and nothing about manner) so James created a world in which manner was the proportion of everything including lust, and so became the first writer to anticipate the fall of lust from the last mannerless emotion to the first of the new manners. I could go on and on. You get the idea by now. A great novelist is like a great bullfighter—the day after an heroic faena the bullfight critics say Manolo was superb, it was the quintessential exhibition of calm, never has a matador so dominated a brave bull, whereas Manolo as the other bullfighters know has a physiological infirmity, his face cannot shift its expression and he can perspire only through the skin of his testes. Like any genius he has therefore made “calm” his style since catatonia is the fate from which he fled into the comparative valley of the bullfight, and as the other toreros also know Manolo was saying to himself at the end of yesterday’s heroic faena, “If I pass that stinking rhinoceros once more, he will get my brown on his horn. The time has come to run.” In fact, Manolo doesn’t run, he passes the rhinoceros five more times, and three of the passes are unbelievable even for him, he is a great matador, but his greatness is existential, unwilled—he has not made the aesthetic decision to promulgate a new regime of “calm” in the corrida, he has instead taken his infirmity, made
But you make a mistake (yes, now I’ve found and reread your letter) if you think that my “power ploys . . . stances and dances” are “misplaced and miscalculated as well.” Because so many of them were ridiculous and ill-fitted they gave no doubt an illusion of having been chosen with a foolish detachment, but in fact they were rabid, the desperate and often inadequate hurly-burly of an amateur. But they were necessary. Necessary to defend my gift and not to defend me because they fatigued me as much as a man with an Italian accent trying to do Hamlet but if I had not gone in for them, the decline in my reputation would have gutted my liver. Remember the first time we met at Lillian’s, and the extreme of what I did? the hostility? You see your opinion then of me was not all the same as it is now, but my books were the same, and the lack of attention given them by the people I felt should be the first to read them was almost maddening. You can say why? Why be so weak? And I can answer first that that unhappily is the way I am, or I can underline the nice thesis that people without roots receive their first profound excitement about life the moment they acquire a little power, and their desperation is unlike others when they lose it. My stunts of the last five years were inevitable, and I think they succeeded in recapturing a part of the audience which was torn (most unfairly I think) away from me. So I set out on a war to capture attention and to some extent I succeeded, and God knows what I lost, because you blunt your brain by living too hard especially when drugs become the psychic fuel, but it was inevitable, this you must see Diana before you give me pep talks.
Besides the activity made its own kind of sense. After Naked I could not dispense with manners and roots in my work nor could I fake it any longer—the sense I had of complexity demanded a life which could go out into situations in a world which was now at once exceptionally mannered and extraordinarily without mooring. So my infirmity became my sanction; what was altogether different was that the infirmity of the other writers I mentioned enabled them to find a classic simplicity (classic in the sense of being characteristic in style and consecutive in development)—my infirmity demanded that I give myself up to changing as rapidly as possible, surrendering all hope of style or sequence, and so looking instead for an existential purity—to wit, that at any moment I would be what I would be, and be aware of it, so that my mood would reflect my mood of the present and be true to that rather than to a private aesthetic or a loyalty to the previous work. The answer is not for me to go back to an earlier, simpler, healthier and less self-conscious way of working, but to learn how to strip the fats of unliterary indulgence, save myself for the work (which may still involve certain kinds of stunts) and let the work take care of itself.
I am depressed that I did not finish the letter the other night, because I had much the same things to say but I would have said them more sharply. Best to you and Lionel, Norman
May 20, 1981
September 20, 1995