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A Last Interview with Norman Mailer

For my generation of writers, Norman Mailer, who died on November 10th of renal failure, was the ultimate father figure. We measured ourselves against the sweep of his brilliance—for it must be conceded that even his lesser books had the … Read More

By / November 15, 2007

For my generation of writers, Norman Mailer, who died on November 10th of renal failure, was the ultimate father figure. We measured ourselves against the sweep of his brilliance—for it must be conceded that even his lesser books had the sweep of brilliance—our whole adult lives. He was the giant who dared giant leaps and, more than occasionally, giant pratfalls. Thus my drive to his brick house on the very end of Cape Cod in Provincetown, Mass. some months ago had the excitement and dread of a pilgrimage. Beside me on the passenger seat, the author photo on his last novel, The Castle in the Forest, drilled into me with a father’s intensity—equally admonishing and exhortatory—until I finally had to cover it with my hat. But I took my hat off when I entered his house and started asking questions. Whatever else that can be said about it, this new book is written with the vigor of someone half your age. Good to hear. But every time I hear compliments, my feet start doing this [twitching]. You want to run away? I’ve never learned to take a compliment graciously. How come?

Damned if I know. My father, an elegant man, always took compliments very well. But I, being rough hewn, loved messing his hair. Maybe I defined myself in opposition to him. In this book, the relationship between young Adi (Adolph) and his father is very fraught—more moving than I expected it to be. I’ve been thinking about how many of my books have that recurring theme. My relationship with my father was very interesting. Not hostile, but never near. I couldn’t reach him. He was an exceptionally complex man. He was very proud of me after “The Naked and the Dead,” which he must have read ten times. Did he “get” it? Oh yeah. So you were able to communicate on that very deep level. Yeah, he didn’t go in for long speeches, but he would look at me and say,“This is good.”

Was it from him that you got your grit? My father was a very bold man in his quiet way. And my mother was a remarkable woman—not only strong but also loving. You demonize Hitler here, quite literallythe demon narrator is there at the conception. Aren’t you thereby letting mankind off the hook? It seems to me there have been two exceptional births in human history: Jesus Christ and Adolph Hitler. Hitler is the devil’s answer to Jesus Christ.
You like making large statements, don’t you? Drives wives crazy. I can only imagine. I make them for the sheer joy of making them. When you read younger novelists today, are you impatient that they don’t seek to go larger? I don’t read them. Which I think is one of the reasons they’re not particularly in love with me. Whom do you read for pleasure? I find I can’t read good novels anymore—not when I’m working—because they’re too disruptive. I get excited by them, and go off in all sorts of directions. How would I do if I were writing it? And I get off my own work. I’m immensely single-minded, I’d even say dull, about sticking to my own work. For the last ten years I’ve always felt I’ve got one book left, one book left, one book left. If there’s still one left after this one, what will it be? A sequel to this one about Hitler. In this last, after all, I only take him to age 16. I think there’s a little more to him … Are you impatient with some of your contemporaries for not contending with the larger questions? Look, for better or for worse, I have that kind of mind. They have [theirs]. I used to be very competitive. By now I’m sick of it, in the sense that it has no meaning. Either one of us will last, or ten of us, who knows. History can wipe all of us out. I wasn’t expecting to hear such mellowness from you. It’s not mellowness, it’s shared amusement. After competing with someone who used to be a rival, in the end we have a shared conversation. I respect Roth, I respect Updike, DeLillo, Vonnegut, I could name ten of them, they’re all good writers.
Salinger? Salinger I’m pissed off at, because he had such a glimpse into America when he was young, and he didn’t use it. Any theory as to why he went silent? No theory worth airing. At your age [of 83], are you more prudent not to air a theory if it’s half-baked? I’ve gone off half-cocked so many times in my youth that yes, now I’m a little older…

So you’re still actively growing? Better growth than decrepitude. It’s marvelous that you have this capacity… Well listen, we’ll see. But I can guarantee you one thing: At the moment there are 20 writers, male and female, who feel that they are the best living American writer. And I of course am one of them. But that’s as far as I’ll go. You deal in opposites a lot, don’t you? You like the way the world is balanced. Yeah. Oh yeah. So how do you finally measure up on the wisdom scale? I’d probably give myself a very good mark. Care to offer a numerical grade? [Chuckling] No. That would not be wise. As a man, are you ever intimidated? Not anymore. The best thing about old age is that you’re no longer intimidated by anybody. There’s a real cool that comes in with old age.

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NEXT: Read Shvitz post From White Negro to Jewish Hipster: Jews Still Acting Black in 2007, by Eric Goldstein

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Michael Weiss wrote an obituary for Mailer, Abe Greenwald compared him to Bono, and Stefan Beck called him an example of the free pass we give literary rock stars of a certain age.

[This article originally appeared in The Washington Post.]

 

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