March 8, 2007
Books: Mailer scrutinizes evil in form of young Hitler
Of all the Jewish American writers who have shaped our culture these past 60 years, none has been so controversial or "outside" society as Norman Mailer, who recently published his 36th book, "The Castle in the Forest," his first novel in a decade. An immediate commercial and literary success at 25 with the publication of his war novel, "The Naked and the Dead," in 1948, Mailer became famous overnight. He was nearly a decade younger than Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud but already better known. Philip Roth, who was 15 at the time, was not to win acclaim for another 11 years, when he published his first book, "Goodbye, Columbus."
By 1959, Mailer had already written two other novels, "Barbary Shore" and "The Deer Park," and had just come out with his first grand compendium, "Advertisements for Myself," which consisted of fiction and nonfiction and included his sexually charged story, "The Time of Her Time." There seemed little doubt then that of all the post-war American Jewish writers, he occupied center stage.
Nevertheless, it was Bellow, Malamud and Roth who became "our" Jewish American trio: The writers with whom the synagogues, Jewish organizations and readers identified, although not always with glee nor without complaint. They were "our" authors, like it or not, but all three resisted the identification, even though Jewish themes dominated much of their writing.
Mailer, however, with little effort, avoided the embrace. He seemed not part of the tribe.
"Is he Jewish?" a friend asked me at the time.
It was a logical question, for Mailer had barely written a word about the Jewish experience in America: not about growing up Jewish in an America where anti-Semitism was ubiquitous nor about attending Harvard (1939-1943) when it maintained an unofficial quota system.
Mailer, one of the accepted 10 percent, was naturally enough given two Jewish roommates his freshman year, for segregation was the assumed custom of the day. It is not difficult to imagine the riffs that Roth would have played on that life passage.
But none of this is present in Mailer's fiction or his reportage, either.
When a Jewish voice surfaces briefly in "The Armies of the Night," a third-person portrait of Mailer as guide-protagonist of the 1967 Washington protest march against the war in Vietnam, he flicks us a comedic account of his encounter with an anti-Semite.
Mailer, one of the leaders of the march, is arrested along with a young American Nazi protester. Mailer is delighted. The two men begin to eye one another in the police paddy wagon:
"'You Jew bastard,' he shouted. 'Dirty Jew with kinky hair.'
"They didn't speak that way. It was too corny. You could only answer.
'You filthy kraut.'
"'Come here you, you coward,' he said to Mailer, 'I'll kill you.'
"'Throw the first punch, baby,' said Mailer, 'you'll get it all.'"
That parody aside, Mailer's books read as though all the autobiographical themes and experiences of his life, his journey from child to man, have been purged, as though he had succeeded in pole vaulting over his own life, landing on the other side, his imagination and literary sensibility rushing forward to engage with the present and future experiences of his life in America.
Part of this we know from his writing has to do both with his ambition and his narcissism. Mailer had written in "Advertisements for Myself" that he hoped to succeed Ernest Hemingway as the greatest writer of his generation and that his goal, above all, was to create a revolution of his time in the consciousness of his readers; it was America he wanted to capture, not the fractured experience of Jewish America, not the voice of a minority scratching at an open wound. That was too modest a dream for him, too provincial a pennant to capture. He had no time for being cosseted by a Jewish identity. That was irrelevant.
Thus he wrote in 1959, at age 36, "I have been running for president these last 10 years in the privacy of my mind, and it occurs to me that I am less close now than when I began.... The sour truth is that I am imprisoned with a perception that will settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time. Whether rightly or wrongly, it is then obvious that I would go so far as to think it is my present and future work which will have the deepest influence of any work being done by an American novelist in these years. I could be wrong, and if I am, then I'm the fool who will pay the bill...."
The consciousness of our time! What could be more grand or grandiose than to affect the revolutions in our century's culture -- sexual, political and popular; to be present and to bear witness to nearly everything -- power, violence and the CIA; Hollywood, boxing and our national political conventions; the march on Washington and the execution of a mass murderer; Picasso and Marilyn Monroe?
But nothing about growing up Jewish in Brooklyn. No Jewish demons or humiliations. And nothing about Israel. Indeed, Mailer told an audience at The Writer's Bloc last month in Los Angeles, that when he published "Harlot's Ghost" in 1992, he had never visited Israel.
And yet Mailer appears to have maintained strong ties to family and roots. His was not a religious home, but it was decidedly a Jewish one. He was the adored son of a strong-willed Jewish mother, the Jewish prince named Norman Kingsley Mailer, who remained close and warm to parents, younger sister and relatives all his life. This included Friday night family dinners at his mother's home, at times with several of his six wives, along with a mix-and-match collection of his nine children. And while he was not shy about his sexual exploits, love affairs and the explosive role of sex in his life's theology, he also was determinedly a family man, though none of this finds its way into his books.
Power, politics and sex. War and violence. What more could he write about, you might well ask. Now, just turned 84, he has published "The Castle in the Forest," which attempts to engage and scrutinize the nature of evil personified in the life of the young Adolf Hitler. He -- Hitler as a youth -- ostensibly is the subject of the novel.