The Mailer Problem
By CLANCY SIGAL
CNN a recent trip to America I stayed too long kfin New York. The hold of the city was enough to impede me; but not enough to inspire. I saw sufficient of the literary gentlemen to under- stand that in these matters New York is much like London, except that it has a higher ingestive rate and such an alarmingly blind and efficient digestive process that any writer who suffers his patience must come to grief. As has Norman Mailer. In this sense, New York, which is not America but its clerical furnace, is death to the writer. And Mailer chooses to make his base there. It has been killing him for years. To go elsewhere, to deprive himself of the most gro- tesque, witty and sleekly violent expressions of American impatience and despair, to deprive himself of the company and poison of lesser men, to remove himself from the hottest (not necessarily the most crucial) part of the furnace, Mailer would not be Mailer. One does not accept him as he is; one is not, after all, a superhuman of love. But one does worry for Mailer as a self-appointed prophet willing himself into prophecy while seeming to regard proportion as dishonour. He has yet to learn that if you will take people into terror, you first lead yourself into sobriety.
I know of no American writer with more courage, more fright, more unfinished adoles- cence and more sheer bloody talent. He is the last of the major public writers in America. His work shows the evidence of a man who has used up language, and who must go on to stake a more serious, lonely claim to the frontier he is on, or go crazy, or die, or become a very had writer.
Life in the United States imposes a fantastic witlessness on the successful only a little less unhappily than on the 'losers.' His, the, America is dying. Mailer knows it. He is afraid of nothing but the steady gaze. He just won't give up on America. You have to, I think, to stand any chance of retaining it. But this is his choice, and his books must be seen in the light of this choice. The techniques of burning are manifold; the path to tempering is accessible. It requires only cowardice and the desire to survive. Mailer is intoxicated by that sweetest of emotions,
Before submitting the following heckling com- ments oti Mailer's latest book,* a word of sum- mary. The Presidential Papers is a collection of articles and essays Mailer has written, mainly for the high-paying American glossies to which his tastes, and time, condemn him. His hope was that the now dead President or his advisers would read all or parts of the book, and that therefore Mailer might have had, and perhaps be seen to have had, some tangible and fairly immediate in- fluence on the national destiny. This is his biggest hang-up.
Many English readers will find the author's self-estimation, and chosen role, inflated and too absurd to talk about. They will have a sound case. But it will be a barrister's case. One further word: when I compare Mailer's fevered assess- ment and cries for attention with the cooler and incontestably more mature assaults of other • THE PRESIDENTIAL PAPERS. By Norman Mailer. (Andre Deutsch, 30s.)
people, including myself, on John Kennedy, it is not we who emerge with the greatest honour.
Mailer seems to think that to know about, and accept responsibility for, literary archness ab- solves the work of the odour of archness. It does not. It merely adds to it a rather offensive dimension.
`Politics is the art of the possible, and what is always possible is to reduce the amount of real suffering in a bad time, and to enrich the quality of life in a good time.' Yes, and the way to do both is to infuse the spirit of reduction and en- richment with conviction, genuine conviction. There is less and less of this in American life, and Mailer's writing. 'Existential politics is rooted in the concept of the hero.' Nobody can say what existential politics is rooted in, or even if as a term it makes sense. Each man makes his own definition. Mailer is crying for papa. He is his own paPa' He should prove it in the quality of his writing. He is being a bad daddy to himself, as Kennedy was to us.
'Once a newspaper touches a story, the faols are lost forever, even to the protagonists.' True. The same might be said of book reviews.
'Since the First World War Americans b5 been leading a double life, and our history b35 moved on two rivers, one visible, the other underground; there has been the history °i ,` politics which is concrete, factual, practical and unbelievably dull . . . ; and there is a subteAt ranean river of untapped, ferocious, lonely and romantic desires, that concentration of ecstasy and violence which is the dream life of Of nation.' In concentrating on the dream Ill Mailer has caught some of the dream life 1111 lost another part. Mailer is not Hemingway, Gide, Genet or Balzac. Mailer is Mailer. This seems intolerable to him. If he wishes he may shop for the cleat" he desires. But he has every right to be judge', on his prose, which is debauched. If he cannot shut up and retire for a while, let him not pretend to us, whatever he may do to himself, that it /5 good. It is not. Mailer is not that good. He is not Dostoievsky. He is the best we have got. 'Once, in the Second World War and in 1-11,13 year or two which followed, the underground river returned to earth, and the life of the pad° was intense, of the present, electric; as a lad)' said, "That was the time when we gave parlil which changed people's lives." ' Mailer has a fe„,, for history but no historical sense. He could IlY higher if he, like Baldwin, had a mass base. He has not. His base, at the moment, is the Atoefl; can college student. And right now that is r. tricky, too tricky, base for an ambitious Wt.° Mailer thinks the Negro wants to kill the NO° man. Mailer is looking for an easy way out 'The bad Negro actor reminds one of nothil; so much as a very bad White actor: he 0011 declaims, stomps, screams, prates, bellows a,11(.1 binds, his emotions remain private to himst his taste is uncertain or directly offensive to t")
meaning of the play, he is in short a bully.' ilk
It is a form of Mailer's heroic dissociation thl• his most acute self-criticisms are made, in, parent good faith, with regard to others. 1, man is amazing for the strength of his streng°' and the strength of his weakness. Can he learn save, receive himself, by being weak in ,,16 weakness?