'Norman was a working man. Lord, did he work'
Norman Mailer would probably not have wanted an old man’s death. He would have preferred some other way—an accident, a bar fight or a lover’s brawl—so that his death, like his life, could inspire or appal or, above all, make people talk.
But Mailer, a giant of American literature and one of the English language’s greatest writers, died of renal failure on Saturday in a New York hospital bed.
He was 84.
A few months earlier he had had an operation on his lungs to remove scar tissue.
It was a quiet end to one of the loudest and most controversial voices in American letters. In a career that ran from World War II to the “war on terror”, the name of Mailer—novelist, writer, journalist and film director—was never far from controversy.
There was an avalanche of tributes. “He was a great American voice,” said author Joan Didion. Others celebrated his ability to outrage and inform in equal measure on almost any subject. “He had such a compendious vision of what it meant to be alive,” said his friend William Kennedy, author of Ironweed. “He had serious opinions on everything there was to have an opinion on, and everything he said was so original.”
One of Britain’s leading literary critics, Al Alvarez, said Mailer was a “hugely influential figure who really did capture the spirit of the age—particularly the Kennedy age”.
He said that, while Mailer would be rightly celebrated as a novelist, “I think—and he’d hate me for saying this—that he’ll be most remembered for his essays, his reporting, his journalism. Things like his writing on the march on the Pentagon, the Democratic National Convention and Muhammad Ali’s ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ are wonderful, miraculously good journalism.”
Mailer, born in New Jersey, was renowned for hard living, womanising, drugs and fist-fights. He had nine children by six wives, including one whom he stabbed, nearly fatally, in a drunken fight at a party. His career took in such bizarre incidents as running for mayor of New York City in an attempt to make his beloved metropolis the 51st state and biting off part of the ear of actor Rip Torn.
Jimmy Breslin, author, journalist and Mailer’s running mate when Mailer ran for mayor, said: “When you talk of Norman Mailer, right away I see Van Gogh’s work boots.
“Norman was a working man. Lord, did he work. From one end of his life to the other, he sat in solemn thought and left so much to read, so many pages with ideas that come at you like sparks spitting from a fire. He leaves them to a nation that has surrendered all its years to converting truth to an untruthful excuse for killing.”
Mailer’s reputation spread beyond the boundaries of his land. French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Saturday: “It is a giant of American literature who has disappeared.”
His books include The Naked and the Dead, one of his greatest novels, set in the Pacific during World War II and inspired by his experiences as a soldier. That work led him to be hailed as a new Hemingway. His subsequent books had a chequered reception.
As the 1960s and 1970s played out, Mailer’s public persona became one of a leader of “hipsterdom” in New York. He dabbled in avant-garde culture, black power and drugs, and was a co-founder of the New York alternative newspaper the Village Voice.
He wrote superbly about the politics (sexual and governmental) of his day. His 1968 account of a peace march on the Pentagon, Armies of the Night, won him a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. But perhaps his greatest work was his 1979 epic The Executioner’s Song, about the life and death of a criminal, Gary Gilmore. It is seen as a masterpiece of reportage, fiction and stylistic writing and won him a second Pulitzer.
Author EL Doctorow said: “He was really the great chronicler of his time, the champion of personal reportage. His output was prodigious, his range of interests very wide, from Marilyn Monroe to Picasso to the art of graffiti to extreme forms of crime. His vaunted life as a public figure may have actually impeded serious critical attention to much of his work. Presumably, it will be possible now.”
Mailer kept writing to the end. Before he died he was working on a follow-up to his last novel, The Castle in the Forest, a fictionalised account of the life of Adolf Hitler. That had been his first novel in a decade and was well reviewed. His last book, On God: An Uncommon Conversation, was published last month.
But it was for his public persona as much as his publications that Mailer was best known. He outraged feminists with his attacks on women’s liberation. He disdained the impact of technology and wrote with a pen. He brawled and drank and smoked pot. In 1960, he was committed to a psychiatric ward for 15 days.
But his greatest and most damaging controversy concerned his “literary adoption” of a prisoner, Jack Henry Abbott. Mailer and Abbott exchanged letters and Mailer spotted a degree of talent in the convicted murderer’s writings. Mailer helped persuade the Utah parole board to free Abbott and he became a sensation among left-wing literary circles. However, Abbott killed again a month after leaving prison, causing widespread condemnation of Mailer’s role in setting him free.
Unlike his hero, Hemingway, Mailer did not die a violent or dramatic death. His health gradually got worse: he suffered from arthritis and deafness and used a walking stick. His prodigious work rate declined from 10 hours a day to three or four hours in the afternoon.
“He never thought the boundaries were restricted,” said author Gay Talese. “He’d go anywhere and try anything. He was a courageous person, a great person, fully confident, with a great sense of optimism.”—Guardian Unlimited Â