US:Time finally ran out. The death of US writer Norman Mailer at the age of 84 leaves a silence, Eileen Battersbysalutes Norman Mailer, a consummate American author and definitive public man who was his own soap opera
Never one of the finest stylists, he was nevertheless a presence, the epitome of the writer as public man. It was Norman Mailer more than any other major 20th century writer who proved that the life was all too often as big, if not bigger, than the work.
But in addition to his status of the writer as the definitive public man he was also the writer as prize fighter. Mailer was never content to rest. He fought virtually to the last moment.
Yesterday morning in Vienna, while attempting to read the arts section of an Austrian newspaper, I found myself yet again hearing Mailer, albeit in German, defend his latest book, The Castle in the Forest. The novel, which is based on the early life of Adolf Hitler, caused quite a fuss when it was published in the US and Britain last spring. Many critics felt that Mailer had pushed his talent too far this time. To others, myself included until I read the book, it seemed here was a marriage made in heaven. Tough, feisty Mailer taking on Hitler.
All of this was going through my mind before I realised that Mailer had actually died. It was announced on a Sky News programme as I was eating breakfast. Suddenly reading about Mailer's latest antics changed from amusement to regret. After all, Norman Mailer the writer could be aggressive, tenacious, bull-headed and often wrong. But he was a great character with tremendous passion and energy. Here was a man who had decided he wanted to be a writer and nothing was going to stop him.
He was born into an ordinary working-class background in New Jersey. There was nothing fancy about his youth, apart from the fact he was physically small and liked fighting. He was in the marines during the second World War. He was not officer material.
His wartime experiences gave him the material for an explosive literary debut, The Naked and the Dead. It was published in 1948 and turned Mailer into exactly what he wanted, a major international literary figure.
It is not a beautiful book, it is not lyrical, it doesn't even attempt to be profound because it is real and written in rage and anger. It is a young man's book and it gave Mailer the ammunition to punch his entry into the closed world of US literary society.
He was always a man for causes. He took on the dilemma of mass murderer Gary Gilmore, in a major book, The Executioner's Song (1979). Mailer called upon all his energy, aggression and consummate humanity in trying to figure out Gilmore.
He also never missed a chance to criticise what he saw to be sick and dishonest in US politics.
Sure, he was his own greatest fan - there was a massive ego - but there was also a big heart. He was his own soap opera. He married six times, and liked the idea of himself as a macho man. If Truman Capote was the artist, Mailer was the brawler. More times than it should ever have happened he went on TV and let his mouth run away with him. He could be feisty in print but he all too often lost an argument on television through his natural aggression and hot temper.
True to the tradition of many great American writers, he loved sport - baseball, football and boxing - and chronicled Muhammad Ali's final battle against George Foreman in a long essay-type account, The Fight (1975), which ultimately told more about Mailer than it did about either fighter. Many of his books are inordinately long and possibly ill-advised.
Ancient Evenings was a rather blundering excursion into the history of ancient Egypt. His 1990s project Harlot's Ghost pulled no punches in voicing his views about the CIA. He was also interested in religion, and decided to write about Jesus in a novel called The Gospel According to the Son (1997), which is far superior to his foray into the early life of the Führer.
Mailer the writer tended to over-engage in research and for him the research often became the book and the narrative became lost and top-heavy.
In person he was great company. I met him when he was 75. He was waiting in a Dublin hotel and told me I was brave to cycle through the Dublin streets. He became animated on describing how "Some guy had almost driven up on the sidewalk and narrowly missed" him.
Even in old age, Mailer the elderly man battling against various physical ailments and a deafness he sorely resented, invariably clenched his fists when making a point. He kept his boy's smile and could even, in the height of a rage, suddenly give the impression he was only kidding. So time ran out for him.
The Castle in the Forest did not amount to the final great legacy. It is a crude, at times, silly piece of bravado that leaves one with the impression that Hitler was merely the product of a dysfunctional family not all that far removed from The Simpsons. It is ultimately an irrelevant, wilfully perverse book that is also capable of offending just about everybody for the various positions he takes on a number of sensitive issues. By demeaning Hitler and reducing him to a vulgar, cold child responsible for the death of his younger brother, he is also by default demeaning Hitler's millions of victims.
One of his best books, and a most underrated one, Tough Guys Don't Dance (1984), shows all the humour and pathos that always lurked behind the bravado and aggression. He was no Saul Bellow, no Philip Roth, no Joseph Heller. No one will claim that Mailer was the great American Jewish writer - or even a great American Jewish writer - possibly because he was a consummate American writer, aware of the close link between journalism, campaigning polemic and literary fiction.
He certainly never approached the deft, stylish grace of a John Updike either, but many readers have in Mailer the essential voice of the guy in the street who wanted to be heard.
So the tough guy no longer dances but he did weave and duck a lot longer with a lot more fire than many of his peers.