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Genius and Lust

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

A reader who comes upon Norman Mailer’s latest book, Genius and Lust: A Journey Through the Writings of Henry Miller, is likely to shiver in anticipation of another literary disaster by the writer who has managed to squander his considerable abilities in trivia such as Marilyn or murky polemic such as The Prisoner of Sex. Fortunately, however, Genius and Lust is not only free of the crankiness of the recent Mailer, but it is also a book that is informative, useful, and thoughtful. It manages to enhance our understanding both of Henry Miller and Mailer and to shore up their shaky literary reputations. The thought of Norman Mailer as a literary critic may be frightening to professional academics, students, and custodians of culture, but they have nothing to fear. Mailer has surprised us once again.

Mailer divides Genius and Lust into nine essays on various aspects of Miller and a copious selection from Miller’s major works. It might be called a modern “Life and Works” where the work of a lifetime is condensed into one volume, and the writer is evaluated rather than routinely praised. The book seems, on the surface, to be unbalanced; there are seventy-five pages of Mailer and five hundred pages of Miller. But this imbalance is only superficial, not real. Mailer and Miller are united by their art, their lives, and their relationship to the public. So we must recognize that the book is more than a “journey” through Miller’s works, more than a homage to an aged writer. It is a reevaluation of the fabled, and often misread or unread, author of “Dirty Books”; and that reevaluation contains a study of sex and personality and their intimate connection with art. It is a meditation on the role of the artist and the relationship of his art to society. It is a study of the American writer, the mythical creature who is inevitably corrupted and thereby diminished as an artist. It is, finally, Mailer talking of and defending himself in the guise of talking about and defending Miller, a method that is more successful than that of Advertisements for Myself. It is, not least of all, a book that is filled with some of the most energetic, alive prose that we are likely to see in a fading century where the fantasies of Vonnegut and the satires of Barth are celebrated as superior fiction.

Mailer begins with a necessary task, the reevaluation of Henry Miller. Such a reevaluation is difficult in the light of Miller’s reputation as a writer of “Dirty Books,” but Mailer does offer a balanced view. Mailer cunningly starts with the minority view, the praise that Miller has received from such “literary maharajahs” as T. S. Eliot and Edmund Wilson. But for all this praise, Miller is somehow ignored by the literary establishment, by critics, and by universities. (What would a thesis director say to a graduate student who wished to work on Henry Miller?) This dual view leads to one of Mailer’s typical insights: “Miller has only been written about in terms of adulation or dismissal.” There seems to be, then, no way to deal with such a writer. And Mailer adds to the problem by vastly overestimating Miller’s influence and rises up to deliver a questionable paean: “one has to take the English language back to Marlowe and Shakespeare before encountering a wealth of imagery equal in intensity.” Mailer does, however, calm down and get closer to our inability to judge Miller’s work. First, he suggests that to read Miller without prejudice is to discover that he is a better writer than one thought. This is, of course, a central aim of the book, the placing of Miller’s best work before the reader. Then Mailer acknowledges that there is something different about Miller. Miller is described as a “force” and a “value”; he is an element that we fear or one that we refuse to make a part of our conscious life. Finally, Mailer describes him as an “enigma,” an “ogre,” a “monster.” Mailer makes us take Miller more seriously than we...

(The entire section is 1,900 words.)