Was Norman Mailer the last tough guy?

Mailer married six times and had nine children; there were innumerable affairs, parties and arguments. He published 44 books. He never stopped. After one of his children is born, he leaves the hospital and that night begins an affair with his sister-in-la

Norman Mailer: a Double Life
J Michael Lennon
Simon & Schuster, 960pp, £30

Norman Mailer spent the summer of 1997 rereading the books he had written over the previous 50 years: novels about the Second World War, Hollywood and ancient Egypt; literary journalism on US politics, anti-war demonstrations and space exploration; polemics against feminism and biographies of Marilyn Monroe, Lee Harvey Oswald and Picasso. There were short stories, screenplays and poems. Mailer was approaching his 75th birthday and the 50th anniversary of the publication of the novel that had made his reputation, The Naked and the Dead.

To mark these two occasions, he was planning a book. This was published the following year as The Time of Our Time, a huge anthology of pieces taken from across his career. The extracts are arranged not in the order of their composition but according to the year of the events they describe: so a scene from Mailer’s 1991 novel about the CIA (Harlot’s Ghost) is presented alongside an essay that he wrote in 1959. In doing so, Mailer reshaped his many writings into an idiosyncratic biography of the US in the 20th century.

J Michael Lennon’s new biography of Mailer tries to tell the whole story of the writer’s life. This is no humble ambition. Mailer married six times and had nine children; there were innumerable affairs, parties and arguments. He published 44 books. He never stopped. After one of his children is born, he leaves the hospital and that night begins an affair with his sister-in-law. He is commissioned to write 20,000 words for a magazine article and given a month deadline. He writes 90,000 words instead, which the magazine, Harper’s, publishes – “the longest piece ever published in an American magazine”, according to Lennon – and which then wins the Pulitzer Prize. Mailer was maximal. He ran for mayor of New York twice. He was interviewed 700 times.

Mailer lived his life in order to gather material. He was 19 when the US entered the Second World War and he wondered whether a better novel could be written about the Pacific campaigns or the war in Europe; he started planning his war novel before he was called up in March 1944. During basic training, he took notes “on the sex lives of the other soldiers”. He fought in the Philippines and listed the names of the soldiers he met; they turn up in The Naked and the Dead.

This hunger – to get life into literature –was a constant. He followed The Naked and the Dead with two more novels but soon became frustrated with the restrictions of fiction. In the late 1950s, after an unhappy period in Hollywood trying to write screenplays, he turned to journalism and non-fiction. The so-called New Journalists of the 1960s –Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion –made their pursuit of the story part of the story and wrote themselves into their reports. Mailer’s innovation was an extreme version of this.

In October 1967, he participated in a demonstration at the Pentagon. His account of the march and its aftermath, in which he was arrested and briefly jailed, was published the following year as The Armies of the Night. In it, Mailer uses what he called the “third-person personal”: he refers to himself as “Mailer”. This became his signature technique. In The Fight (1975), his superb account of the boxing match in Zaire between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, he is “Norman”. In the book’s most moving and revealing scene, “Norman” goes for a midnight run with Ali and his frank, funny account of his pride and nervousness at exercising with the boxer makes Ali seem both greater and more human.

This technique dissolves the barrier on which literary biography depends – between a writer’s life and works. The colourful, confessional presence of Mailer in his books suggests that the writer’s personal life is one more part of the performance and this in turn puts his biographer in an impossible position. Mailer asked J Michael Lennon (his amanuensis for On God) to write this biography and was interviewed frequently by him. The result is that this book reads at times as a weird paraphrase of the story inside Mailer’s head. We are told, for example: “He had the feeling that he’d be busy when he got home in August.” Here, the biographer is the spokesman for Mailer’s inner life; elsewhere, Lennon falls into a pastiche of Mailer’s mannerisms and obsessions. Strangest of all, Lennon refers to himself in the third person: he quotes himself and then identifies the speaker as “Lennon” or “Mike Lennon” without noting that this is himself. This biography, then, is Mailer as rewritten by a lesser Mailer.

Mailer did not write only about himself. His finest book is The Executioner’s Song (1979), which describes the crimes and subsequent execution of a murderer called Gary Gilmore. Mailer does not, however, appear in it. Instead, the book is 1,000 or so pages of beautiful, subtle ventriloquism, as he inhabits the perspectives of the killer, his victims and his lover and then the lawyers and journalists who swarm around the trial. It is possibly the greatest work in all American non-fiction but it reads so like a novel that it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

This was Mailer’s gift: in shaping and compiling the great mess of experience and daily life into powerful stories that thwart simple categorisation – or biographical analysis.

Daniel Swift is a senior lecturer in English at the New College of the Humanities

Fighting spirit: Norman Mailer at a New York gym in 1978. Image: Michael Brennan/Corbis

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

Show Hide image

Ukrainian cooking shakes off the old Soviet fur coat

Forget the stereotype: Ukranian cuisine is about more than just borscht, as a new cookbook shows.

“Potatoes,” Olia Hercules fumes. “Everyone thinks I’ve written a book about bloody potatoes.” It must be said that there is the odd spud in Mamushka (Mitchell Beazley), her surprisingly colourful celebration of Ukrainian food (after all, how could you have an eastern European cookbook without borscht?), but potatoes are far from the only thing to thrive in the country’s famously fertile black soil.

In fact, Hercules – young, slightly built and rarely seen without a slick of dangerously red lipstick – bears as much resemblance to the archetypal babushka as her homeland does to the bleak, grey landscape of the popular imagination. Born close to the Crimean border, she spent many holidays at the beach by the Sea of Azov, “the shallowest in the world”, where the kids ran around smothered in kefir to soothe their sunburn and everyone feasted on mountains of home-made apricot doughnuts.

Southern Ukraine, it turns out, is a land of plenty – during its long, hot summers anyway. There are prickly cucumbers picked straight from the vine, “aromatic and warm from the blistering sun”, sour cherries that “just drop off trees in the streets in June”, and the best watermelons you’ve ever tasted: “huge, firm, stripy beasts”, Hercules says.

What isn’t eaten straight from the garden will be preserved carefully to see the household through the region’s mild winters. The conserves include some rather intriguing fizzy fermented tomatoes that promise to blow your mind and your taste buds. In Ukraine, she says, “Tomatoes are king!” Fresh curd cheese and barbecued catfish, warm, flaky pumpkin bread and saffron-spiked rice all sound a blessedly long way from that old Soviet favourite, herring in a fur coat.

Nevertheless, this sunny childhood was still spent under the rule of Moscow, with its power cuts and queues, and Hercules retains to this day a nostalgic fondness for margarine, a legacy, she says, of the USSR’s “perpetual credit crunch”. A family favourite of slow-cooked goose brings back memories of bribes her surgeon uncle received to grease the creaking wheels of an ageing Soviet health system, while the home-made silky egg noodles underneath were a necessity, at a time when the local shop stocked only the occasional packet of grey macaroni.

The Soviet Union can also take some credit for the diversity of Hercules’s family, and hence the food on which she grew up. When you have a Siberian grandmother, aunts from Armenia, an Uzbek father and relatives in Azerbaijan, impossibly exotic asides such as “My grandmother picked this recipe up when she lived in Tashkent” just come naturally.

In answer to my geographic puzzling, Hercules snorts that “Ukraine basically is eastern Europe”, but the country’s culinary horizons stretch far further – there’s even a significant Korean population in the south, which, in the absence of Chinese cabbage for kimchi, has contributed a pickled carrot dish to her book.

For most of us, thanks to long memories for those tales of endless queues and dismal canteen cooking, the curtain is yet to rise on the culinary delights of the former Soviet bloc. The television producer Pat Llewellyn, the woman who discovered Jamie Oliver and was
food judge for the 2015 André Simon Awards, described it as “a much-underrated food culture” when praising the shortlisted Mamushka (the author’s childhood nickname for her mother, which has come to signify, she says, “strong women in general”).

It’s anyone’s guess whether that means we’ll get to see Hercules, resplendent in one of her signature knotted headscarves, showing off her Moldovan giant cheese twists on screen any time soon. But we’ll be seeing a lot more of her beloved “mamushka cooking”, one way or another. Just don’t mention the P word.

Next week: Richard Mabey on nature

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle