Mailer, Norman (Vol. 28)
Norman Mailer 1923–
American novelist, essayist, filmmaker, and journalist.
Since the 1948 publication of his first novel, The Naked and the Dead, Mailer has been regarded as one of America's most prominent contemporary writers. A prolific and highly controversial literary figure, Mailer resists identification with current writing movements and is usually viewed independently. According to many critics, Mailer's fiction since The Naked and the Dead is of uneven quality. But most critics agree that he has consistently produced outstanding works of nonfiction in a style frequently referred to as New Journalism, a blend of factual and dramatic, usually highly subjective reporting, which is often unsympathetic to traditional attitudes.
In the 1950s, Mailer's work became more radical. His gravitation to a leftist philosophy began when he associated with Marxist intellectuals while studying in Europe. His novels Barbary Shore (1951) and The Deer Park (1955) began the social attack which typifies Mailer's later works. The main character in The Deer Park is a sociopathic hipster, a figure Mailer comes to celebrate, mythologize, and identify with in his first non-fiction works. In the late 1950s, Mailer published two works which defined and advanced the "Mailer Myth." His essay "The White Negro" (1957) defines his philosophy of "hip" as a combination of rebelliousness, violence, primitive sexuality, and existentialism. "The White Negro" appears in Advertisements for Myself, a 1959 collection of essays in which Mailer plays the role of an American artistic and cultural critic.
In the late 1960s, the Vietnam conflict was the focus of Mailer's most celebrated argument in the New Journalistic style. The Armies of the Night won both the Pulitzer Prize in fiction and a National Book Award in 1968. In this work he narrates his involvement in contemporary events from a third person view-point, referring to the central character as "Mailer." Leo Braudy has commented, "The Armies of the Night gains much of its power from the perfect melding of the public author and the private foolish individual, the public event and the limited individual perspective. All of Mailer's impotent and weak heroes culminate for a moment in the 'Norman Mailer,' whose double consciousness … can understand the Pentagon march, both in its immediacy and its history, its moment-to-moment nature and its ultimate meaning."
During the 1970s Mailer tended to focus on celebrated individuals whose lives were emblematic of the conflict between public and private life. Two of these books were about the late actress Marilyn Monroe: a novelized biography entitled Marilyn (1973) and Of Women and Their Elegance (1980), a fictional interview between Mailer and Monroe. His most acclaimed biographical work is The Executioner's Song, which received both the Pulitzer Prize in fiction and a National Book Award in 1979. While The Executioner's Song relates the events in the life of convicted killer Gary Gilmore, it also examines the dynamics of American society, which Mailer contends simultaneously fosters and condemns aberrant behavior.
While he was producing his biographical novels, Mailer was working on a novel which he has described as the most am-bitious project of his career. This novel, Ancient Evenings, which is set in Egypt during the reign of the pharaohs, was the object of much critical anticipation and speculation long before its publication in 1983. Critical reception of Ancient Evenings has been mixed, with the majority of critics finding the work too long and unnecessarily laden with shocking sexual content. However, most critics praised Mailer's thorough historical research and evident knowledge of Egyptology.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 11, 14; Contemporary Authors, Vols, 9-12, rev. ed.; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 16; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 3.)
One of the major obstacles to a proper understanding of Norman Mailer's work is his series of pronouncements on the nature of his ambitions. If these remarks are taken quite literally then Mailer's achievements can easily be distorted. Dotted throughout his writing since 1959, when Advertisements for Myself was published, is a thinly veiled longing to embody the conflicting currents of thought in the twentieth century just as Melville did in the nineteenth. The response to this has often been to regard Mailer's novels as noble but failed efforts and to settle for his journalism as a frequently brilliant but comparatively second-class literary activity. His forays into politics, poetry, biography, literary criticism, the theatre and filmmaking are then relegated to the amateur efforts of a versatile man. This kind of pigeonholing tends to miss the essentially innovatory nature of Mailer's talent.
In The Armies of the Night (1968), Robert Lowell makes the same mistake when he assures Mailer, '"I really think you are the best journalist in America".' Mailer irritably replies, '"Well, Cal,… there are days when I think of myself as being the best writer in America".' The point is that throughout his career, Mailer has attempted to transgress and transform the boundaries between literary genres in order to realise and maintain a major premise first defined in Advertisements for Myself: 'one may even attempt to reshape...
(The entire section is 2120 words.)
[There] can be little doubt that in some important respects "Ancient Evenings" is a triumph of technique over what for many writers would have proved forbiddingly intractable material. By a simple and altogether plausible use of mental telepathy, Mr. Mailer is able to compress into one narrative voice, speaking over the course of a single, albeit interminable, evening, an account not only of the 19th and 20th dynasties of ancient Egypt (1320–1121 B.C.), but also of the four lives of a heroic figure who manages to reincarnate himself three times over the course of 180 years.
What's more, by achieving this technical victory, Mr. Mailer has created a world ideally suited to many of his pet theories and fixations—psychic darts, single combat, staring contests, mindreading, vibrations of evil and virtue, all manner of magic and sorcery, the rich possibilities of sex in all its forms, the mysteries of excrement and, above all, the curious fantasy that one can literally reconceive oneself by dying in the act of sexual intercourse, and thereby defeat death and live forever. Such theories and fixations have often seemed preposterous in Mr. Mailer's writing on contemporary subjects, but they fit seamlessly into his conception of ancient Egypt, which may well explain why he was attracted to the subject in the first place.
But alas, for all the rounds he has won in this historical novel, Mr. Mailer appears not to know what...
(The entire section is 629 words.)
Here it is at last, more than a decade in the making,… Norman Mailer's long-awaited "Egyptian novel." For months the publishing trade press has hummed with reports of responses to the work, and the range of compliments already on file is striking. The most recent compliment came from Mailer's alma mater, Harvard; usually reserved in its relations with famous sons and daughters, the university put his photograph on the cover of its alumni magazine this spring and filled pages with an interview probing the meanings of "Ancient Evenings." Nobody doubts the newsworthiness of memoirs by government officials or biographies of film stars by their embittered children, but pre-publication interest in imaginative writing is invariably more limited. For a novel set in Egypt before the birth of Christ to rouse levels of excitement on the order of those inspired by "Ancient Evenings" is astonishing.
Not more astonishing, though, I found, than the excitement stirred by the book's opening chapters—an excitement unrelated to hype. Swiftly "Ancient Evenings" pulls its reader inside a consciousness different from any hitherto met in fiction. A soul or body entombed is struggling to burst free, desperate not alone for light and air but for prayer and story—promised comforters that have been treacherously withheld or stolen. Dwelling within this consciousness we relive the "experience" of an Egyptian body undergoing burial preparations, sense the...
(The entire section is 1872 words.)
[Ancient Evenings] is hands down the most surprising work Mailer has ever offered. It really is set entirely in an alien long ago, just as the author had been promising during the decade he took to write it. Yet no amount of advance speculation proves adequate to the thing itself: an artifact of evident craftsmanship and utterly invisible significance.
A lengthy journey begins with the agonies of death ("Volcanic lips give fire, wells bubble. Bone lies like rubble upon the wound"). Surviving this fiery purgation is the ka (diminished soul) of an Egyptian named Menenhetet II. After experiencing the mummification of his discarded body, this ghost meets the kindred spirit of his great-grandfather Menenhetet I….
The book is already some 230 pages old when Menenhetet I eases into this narration, and none of the characters seems in any hurry to pick up the pace. Worse, Mailer shuns the devices that can make long pieces of fiction irresistible. Suspense is banished: everything has already happened in Ancient Evenings, not only historically, but also in the lives of its people. Nothing is surprising, except perhaps how polymorphously perverse and consistently swinish the ancients were, according to their newest historian….
Language might yet have made Ancient Evenings a page turner, and the novel does offer brief, poetic passages. The shimmer and heat of the Nile, the blaze of...
(The entire section is 558 words.)
[In Ancient Evenings] Mailer has gone back to the ancient evenings of the Egyptians in order to find the religious meaning of death, sex, and reincarnation….
[There is] spiritual power in Mailer's fantasy (it is not the historical novel that it masks itself as being) and there is a relevance to current reality in America that actually surpasses that of Mailer's largest previous achievement, The Executioner's Song. More than before, Mailer's fantasies, now brutal and unpleasant, catch the precise accents of psychic realities within and between us. Ancient Evenings rivals Gravity's Rainbow as an exercise in what has to be called a monumental sadoanarchism, and one aspect of Mailer's phantasmagoria may be its need to challenge Pynchon precisely where he is strongest. Paranoia, in both these American amalgams of Prometheus and Narcissus, becomes a climate….
Thomas Mann proudly remarked of his Egyptian novel, Joseph and His Brothers, that "as the son of a tradesman I have a fundamental faith in quality…. The song of Joseph is good, solid work." Mann gave his life to the book for sixteen years, and its quality is durable. Mailer has given Ancient Evenings a decade, and it is wild, speculative work, but hard work nevertheless. Its quality is not durable, and perhaps does not attempt to be. Mailer is desperately trying to save our souls as D. H. Lawrence tried to do in...
(The entire section is 2003 words.)
We learn, in [the 709 large pages of "Ancient Evenings"], a great number of things. Most of all we learn how much Egyptology Mailer has learned in the past 10 years. Gold mining, magical ceremonies, priests and eunuchs and concubines, the moods of the Nile, crocodiles, the character of Queen Nefertiti and her son Amen-khep-shu-ef—the whole of ancient Egypt is set before us, complete with its odours and its sexual ecstasies, these two last being given about equal billing. And the secret of power, which the book is chiefly about? This lies in magic, and magic is essentially control of the lower human functions. In a word, magic is anal.
The anus is here sometimes called the ass or the asshole. This is a pity. The word should be arse, which has an ancient ancestry, whereas ass is an Americanism of puritanic provenance. A pity because a novel about ancient Egypt must not sound as though it is written by an American, and this is the only verbal area where Mailer's careful stylistic neutrality breaks down. It is the most difficult thing in the world for the speaker of a new language to mimic an old one, and Mailer has, for the most part, done admirably. Never (except for ass and, I would say, cock) is there a breath of anachronism, but the timelessness of the narrative idiom, avoiding slang, Freudianisms, and various forms of hindsight knowingness, inevitably bores a little until it flares into lurid life with cannibalism and buggery…....
(The entire section is 642 words.)
[Ancient Evenings is] the strangest of Norman Mailer's books, and its oddity does not in any important way have to do either with its Egyptian setting or with the exotic career—exotic even by ancient Egyptian standards—of Menenhetet, its protagonist-narrator whose four lives, including three reincarnations, span 180 years (1290 to 1100 BC) of the nineteenth and twentieth dynasties (1320 to 1121 BC). What is remarkable here is the degree to which Mailer has naturalized himself as an ancient Egyptian, so that he writes as if saturated with the mentality and the governing assumptions, some of which he revises rather freely, of a culture in which the idea of the human is markedly different from what it has been in the West for the last 1,500 years or so. Mailer has never before tried anything so perilous, and the prodigious demands he makes on the reader are a clue to his ambitions. This is at once his most accomplished and his most problematic work.
Of the twenty-three books Mailer has written so far, only Ancient Evenings achieves the magnitude which can give a retrospective order and enhancement to everything else. Up to now it has been possible to think of him as perhaps a great writer, but one who had yet to write his major book. Many commentators have mistakenly credited him here, and in his last novel The Executioner's Song, with a new degree of self-effacement. Looking back from the new book one can see...
(The entire section is 2047 words.)