Friday, November 16, 2007

Norman Mailer 1923-2007

Novelist Norman Mailer died last weekend, and if you haven't caught up on the obituaries the best place to start is probably with Charles McGrath in The New York Times.
Mr. Mailer belonged to the old literary school that regarded novel writing as a heroic enterprise undertaken by heroic characters with egos to match. He was the most transparently ambitious writer of his era, seeing himself in competition not just with his contemporaries but with the likes of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

He was also the least shy and risk-averse of writers. He eagerly sought public attention, and publicity inevitably followed him on the few occasions when he tried to avoid it. His big ears, barrel chest, striking blue eyes and helmet of seemingly electrified hair — jet black at first and ultimately snow white — made him instantly recognizable, a celebrity long before most authors were lured out into the limelight.
The New York Times also has an extensive archive of Mailer-related articles.

In The Guardian, Mark Lawson argues that Mailer's greatest legacy was the invention of 'faction'.
When I interviewed Mailer in January, for Radio 4's Front Row - his knees and breathing going, but his mind ferociously and provocatively intact - I pointed out that his major books all had a slab of fact behind them, whether billed as fiction (his second world war novel of 1948, The Naked and the Dead, or 1991's Harlot's Ghost: A Novel, about the CIA) or as non-fiction (1995's Oswald's Tale, which applied to Lee Harvey Oswald the techniques perfected on Gary Gilmore).

Mailer's reply was that he would rather spend his energy on prose than plotting, but he also acknowledged a deeper reason: that he had lived through a century in which a writer's greatest stories were as likely to come through his eyes as his mind's eye.
However, in the same paper, Joan Smith sounds a dissenting note.
More grand reactionary than great writer, Mailer was a faux-radical who used the taboo-breaking atmosphere of the 60s as cover for a career of lifelong self-promotion.

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