Magazine article The Spectator

Violence Was His Vocation

Magazine article The Spectator

Violence Was His Vocation

Article excerpt

Norman Mailer: A Double Life by J. Michael Lennon Simon & Schuster, £30, pp. 947, ISBN 9781847376725 Spectator Bookshop, £22

Heroically brave and mad, prodigious in his industry and appetites, Norman Mailer was an altogether excessive figure. Since his death in 2007 there have been several biographies, but this is the big one - big enough to accommodate a triple or quadruple life, let alone a double. It is also the official one, written at Mailer's request by J. Michael Lennon, his friend, collaborator and literary executor, who is respectful and affectionate but not hagiographic.

He calls Mailer a 'genius', which in some ways he was, but does not claim that any of his novels were 'great', which is just as well.

He never glosses over Mailer's habitually appalling behaviour, and though he has the right he never calls him 'Norman'. A Double Life is a judicious and comprehensive portrait of one of the more entertaining monsters of our times.

That title might apply to the lives of any number of writers, but is especially apt of Mailer, whose life positively pullulated with duality. To begin with his parents: a steely and manipulative matriarch, and a shifty gambler and dandy with a dodgy British accent. Mailer grew up in Brooklyn, 'a tearful, bookish momma's boy', given to tantrums and afraid of local Irish gangs. He wrote his first stories aged seven or so, and in 1934, inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs, a 35,000-word novel about a Martian invasion, which showed, writes Lennon, his 'bottomless fascination with war, violence and suffering'.

At Harvard in the 1930s undergraduates were classified as 'white men, gray men and meatballs', and as a Jew in green and blue striped trousers and a gold jacket Mailer was a meatball. He majored in engineering, but his interests remained literary, and in later life he nurtured a 'suspicion of all things mechanical and electronic'. He adopted Hemingway as his guide to violence, and D.H. Lawrence to sex, which may explain his enthusiasm for buggery.

In life, art and politics, sex and violence became his vocations and his gods. The greatest number of entries in Lennon's index occurs under 'Mailer, Norman: infidelities of', covering the ins and outs of his six marriages. 'Smitten by Norris, ' runs a typical summary of his amatory situation, 'he felt a deep attachment to Carol, but was not quite ready to break off with Suzanne. There were other women as well.' In the 1960s he was a star of the permissive society, and in the 1970s, thanks to the misogynistic fantasies enacted in his novels, and to such opinions as 'a little bit of rape is good for a man's soul', he became what Lennon calls 'the pinata' of women's lib.

Violence was the making of him - he underwent his war service in the Philippines determined to write the great second world war novel. He later wrote brilliantly about boxing, and not only the fights but the milieu, as in his description of gangsters at a Sonny Liston fight - 'hawks and falcons and crows, Italian dons looking like little old shrunken eagles, gulls, pelicans, condors'.

In the 700 or so interviews Mailer gave he liked to weave and throw shadow punches, and he saw himself, he wrote in Advertisements for Myself (1959), as 'a slightly punchdrunk and ugly club fighter, who can fight clean and fight dirty, but likes to fight'. He twice head-butted Gore Vidal, and at a party in 1960 - 'drunk', as he recalled, 'and probably on pot' - he stabbed and nearly killed his second wife. …

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