Ri­vals, In­flu­ences, & Affini­ties: A Se­lec­tion of Letters

New England Review - - Literary Lives - Nor­man Mailer

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


Sweet Baby,

[. . . .] 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

Nor­man Mailer

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

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