TOPICS > Nation

Literary Experts Look Back on the Dynamic Life of Author Norman Mailer

November 12, 2007 at 6:40 PM EDT
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, that man, Mailer. Jeffrey Brown has our story.

JEFFREY BROWN: Norman Mailer burst onto the literary scene in 1948, as a 25-year-old veteran of World War II, with his first novel, “The Naked and the Dead.” Earlier this year, he described his literary start this way to PBS’s Charlie Rose.

NORMAN MAILER, Author: I thought I’d been shot out of a cannon. I’d lost all sense of my own identity. I didn’t know who I was anymore. I didn’t know if I was destined to be a major writer, a great writer, or whether I was just a flash in the pan, all of that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mailer would write more than 30 books, both novels and non-fiction, including “Advertisements for Myself” in 1959; “The Armies of the Night,” an account of an antiwar march against the Pentagon, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1968; “The Executioner’s Song” in 1979, about the life and death of killer Gary Gilmore, which won mailer a second Pulitzer; “Ancient Evenings” in 1983; and “Harlot’s Ghost” in 1991.

For nearly six decades, in fact, Mailer was rarely off center-stage. When he wasn’t writing, it seems, he was making himself a public figure, the writer as man of action, known for his combative and outspoken style.

NORMAN MAILER: We’re supporting the federal government. Get that straight.

JEFFREY BROWN: He ran unsuccessfully for mayor of New York City in 1969 and talked about the tough issues facing the city with Robert MacNeil in 1975.

NORMAN MAILER: In other words, the people of this city have been giving the federal government something like three or four or five dollars for every dollar that comes back to the city.

JEFFREY BROWN: He loved sports, boxing especially.

NORMAN MAILER: I will strike him with my jab. Boom, boom, boom.

JEFFREY BROWN: … and traveled to Africa in 1974 to write about Muhammad Ali’s epic championship fight with George Foreman.

NORMAN MAILER: No one ever hit it the way Foreman did. At the end of 15 minutes of pounding the heavy bag, there’d be a hole in the heavy bag.

JEFFREY BROWN: He also served as president of PEN American Center, the writers’ organization, and spoke out in 1989 on behalf of writer Salman Rushdie.

NORMAN MAILER: But now the Ayatollah Khomeini has offered us an opportunity to regain our frail religion, which happens to be faith in the power of words and our willingness to suffer for them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mailer’s health had declined in the ’90s, but he continued to write. His last novel, “The Castle in the Forest,” an imagined life of Hitler as narrated by the devil, came out just this year. Speaking of that book, Mailer told Charlie Rose how he distinguishes the novelist’s role from the historian’s.

NORMAN MAILER: The novelist creates a structure, an imaginary structure.

CHARLIE ROSE, PBS Host: An imaginary…

NORMAN MAILER: And he doesn’t even have to or she doesn’t have to obey the facts. What they have to do is come up with an imaginative structure that says to the reader, “This is what life is like. This need never have happened. It doesn’t have to happen.”

“I’m saying,” says the writer, “this is how it could have happened.” And the way in which it could have happened will tell us more about the relations between human beings and their lives than trying to find out what the facts are.

Ambition and influences

Philip Gourevitch
Editor, The Paris Review
I think that the idea that one puts oneself out there as a personal performer of one's own existence usually leads many people in this country -- and he was fascinated with this process -- to phoniness.

JEFFREY BROWN: Norman Mailer died this weekend in New York of renal failure. He was 84 years old.

And joining me now is Gay Talese, who knew Norman Mailer for more than 50 years, and is himself a best-selling author of many books on a variety of subjects, including his latest, a memoir titled "A Writer's Life."

And Philip Gourevitch, an award-winning author and journalist, he currently serves as editor of the Paris Review.

Well, Mr. Talese, take us back to that early period. Was Norman Mailer thinking big from the beginning, aiming for what was always called the great American novel?

GAY TALESE, Author: He certainly had the effect over my generation as being the great American novelist. Coming in that post-World War II period, writing that very, very successful and somewhat controversial book, "The Naked and the Dead," when the very language that Mailer used was censored. The word beginning with "f" was never allowed in those days to be in print, so Mailer was missing a few letters in his work as a not obscure, obscene person, but one who was willing to take risks with languages.

He was willing to take risks with just about everything. His life was a risk-taking life. And he was throughout his life -- and I've known him for 50 years -- the man who I thought represented most particularly an exponent of free expression, a willingness to take chances, and not much concern about what the results were, as long as he was honest to himself, and I think he was.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Gourevitch, the literacy model seemed to be Hemingway. Do we know where the ambition came from?

PHILIP GOUREVITCH: Well, I think that there's this notion that it's Hemingway and Dos Passos. Norman Mailer was a deeply serious writer and novelist and working novelist for 60 years. He read enormously.

I think one of the great influences somewhere back there had to also be Andre Malraux, the French writer who was also an adventurer, who also got himself into scandals, who championed causes, sometimes better causes than other causes, liked to be out where the fighting was.

Mailer combined an idea of physical courage and intellectual courage. I think that the idea that one puts oneself out there as a personal performer of one's own existence usually leads many people in this country -- and he was fascinated with this process -- to phoniness.

And somehow, for him, it was a way of never being able to assume a mask. And he did the same in his writing. He was brave in the way that involves also being willing to try things that don't work and to push them out there.

JEFFREY BROWN: And let me stay with you for -- I'm sorry. Go ahead.

PHILIP GOUREVITCH: Oh, I was just going to say that, last year at the Paris Review, we gave him an award, and I was able to speak with him about his influence.

He said the artist that really influenced him the most and that he felt most kind of immediate kinship to was Picasso, because he said Picasso was somebody who had no end of different styles and his subject was reality. He was trying to scale the un-scaleable mountain of reality, and he would use whatever it took.

JEFFREY BROWN: And another man who clearly thought very, very big, right?

PHILIP GOUREVITCH: Yes, and had many loves, and many lives, and thought very big, and seemed quite unafraid of anything that allowed him to express himself.

Mailer's style and later years

Gay Talese
Author
I think there was another man that was of the era that, at least in the 1960s and '70s, that Mailer felt close to, and that was Muhammad Ali, another man who took chances and who could be knocked down and get up and knocked down and get up.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Talese, tell us a little bit more about the writing. What themes and style? What about the style stands out for you?

GAY TALESE: A dazzling style, an attention-getting style, a love of language, a robustness, a kind of energy which Mailer had from the time of his youth to the time of his age.

I happened to be with him -- a year ago at this time, I was in Texas with Norman Mailer. He was in Austin. The University of Texas had a Mailer symposium, and his work, his papers were bought by the University of Texas.

And I was there with some other friends of his. And the Mailer that I knew as a young man and as a middle-aged man was not the man that I was with a year ago in Texas. This was a man in a chair, a man who could not maneuver through the streets of Texas or up and down the steps, had to be given assistance in doing that.

It didn't seem to bother Mailer. The head was the same. The eyes were as fiery. Yes, he couldn't move well at all, but I did not feel there was any self-pity, any sense of restriction. He was the same powerful figure, the same magnetic figure in front of these 500 people in the audience at the University of Texas, a very prideful man.

Philip mentioned the influence of Picasso. I think there was another man that was of the era that, at least in the 1960s and '70s, that Mailer felt close to, and that was Muhammad Ali, another man who took chances and who could be knocked down and get up and knocked down and get up. And he was a man of great belief in himself.

So Picasso before Mailer, Muhammad Ali after Mailer are personalities that just dominate the opposition and are also people that we admire for many reasons beyond what their main talent was.

Blending the novel and non-fiction

Philip Gourevitch
Editor, The Paris Review
I think that he regarded, in a very deep way, the purpose of a writer as an attempt to grapple with something very essential about the human condition in their time, broadly speaking and specifically speaking.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Mr. Gourevitch, one thing he was certainly part of was this mixing of genres, playing with genres, and mixing the novel with non-fiction. Tell us a little bit more about his writing and how he experimented.

PHILIP GOUREVITCH: Well, I think he understood that the novel was always mixed with non-fiction. And I think that he regarded, in a very deep way, the purpose of a writer as an attempt to grapple with something very essential about the human condition in their time, broadly speaking and specifically speaking.

So that he would think, "Well, where did I learn about the world?" Did I learn about the Battle of Waterloo by reading a history book filled with what he called often unreliable facts, filtered through agendas, that are impossible to scrutinize and take apart? Or does one look at Standal writing about Waterloo?

And, similarly, I think he felt very much that the novel was a way of achieving truthfulness that facts themselves were almost failed to have access to. And yet he was drawn into the real world. He always wanted to be in the midst of things.

So at a certain point, he was writing a kind of non-fiction account of current events where he was center-stage, at "The Armies of the Night" and the siege of the Pentagon. It's important that he called "The Executioner's Song," which many think is his masterpiece and a non-fiction book, a novel, though it was based on factual research.

And I think he felt very much that our subject is, as he said, reality. It's grappling with a kind of, on a very large scale, American themes of identity as America, but also with American language. And he was full of words. And I think it's crucial to remember how much fun he had and how full of humor he was, with his books and his presence.

Mailer's controversial character

Gay Talese
Author
I felt that what he hated was having something that was neutral, a Mailer that was in a draw.

JEFFREY BROWN: Staying with you, what about the over-the-top Mailer, oh, the many marriages, the fistfights with other writers and critics? You could go on and on with lots of stories. Did he seem to almost think of this as part of being a writer? It wasn't just what he wrote on the page; it was the fullness of life, whether it angered a lot of people or not, I guess?

PHILIP GOUREVITCH: I can't speak for that. I mean, I think he lived very, very, very fully and he lived very intensely. He was at the center of things around him for a long time. He was enormously productive through all of that. There was a kind of vital force in him.

You know, when he died, I was actually sort of reminded of that ending of "A Touch of Evil," the Orson Welles film, where Marlene Dietrich comes in and says, "Well, that was a man."

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Talese, what do you think about -- you knew him well. How did he think about his front page, the celebrity, and all of that?

GAY TALESE: I think he no doubt reveled in it. He was an academician. He was a man of intellect who went public. He liked being public. He liked being in the forefront of the public audience that was always, he thought, focused upon him.

I remember, when I was a young man, I was a reporter at the New York Times. And one time in 1962, I was in Chicago, and there was a debate between Norman Mailer and William F. Buckley. I went to the place where the debate was. And I thought it was well -- I thought it was interesting, but there's no way I could judge the debate, so I wrote a story for the Times in which I said the debate was a draw, Buckley-Mailer, draw.

The next day I was at an event, and Mailer, in a large crowd of people, and people were having drinks. And Mailer came across the room, and he was carrying this drink. And he walked up to me, and he looked at me, and he was so -- it seemed to be so angry, and it seemed to me, moreover, he was going to throw that drink on me. And he said, "Draw? What do you mean draw? There was no draw. I annihilated him. I wiped out Buckley." I said, "Listen, Norman, I wasn't being that serious." "But it wasn't a draw."

And I felt that what he hated was having something that was neutral, a Mailer that was in a draw. I mean, he could have taken Mailer seriously or I should taken him as being knocked down, knocked out, but not one where it was a draw. He hated the word. I thought, "That's Mailer."

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, well, that's a great story to end on. Gay Talese and Philip Gourevitch, thank you both very much.