Jewish Journal

My friend, Norman Mailer

by Mashey Bernstein

Posted on Nov. 15, 2007 at 7:00 pm

Norman Mailer in 1948

Norman Mailer in 1948

No writer on the American literary scene could get people steamed up the way that Norman Mailer could. Nearly every special interest group, none more than feminists, had a gripe against him. Literary aficionados treated him as a sort of writer's Richard Burton, someone who squandered his talent in futile projects or never quite fulfilled the promise of his first novel, "The Naked and the Dead," written at the age of 24. Jews have never considered him one of their own, as they have Bellow, Malamud, the once-pariah Roth or even the skeptical Woody Allen. I think they are mistaken on all counts.

Mailer was a deeply religious writer. Like Hawthorne and Faulkner, he was concerned with God and the Devil, Good and Evil. While not particularly concerned with matters Jewish, he obsessed over the implications of the Holocaust. It plays a prominent role in "Advertisements for Myself," written in the mid 1950s, and in his final novel, published earlier this year, "The Castle in the Forest," which deals with the Devil's machinations in the birth of Hitler. This novel probed the world almost the way a medieval mystic might. Not only that, writing it seemed to bring Mailer back to his Jewish roots. Mailer encapsulates his own attitude to Judaism very succinctly in an interview he gave earlier this year.

When asked, "What role has your being Jewish played in your being a writer?" Mailer replied emphatically, "an enormous role."

He picked two aspects of the Jewish experience that influenced him -- the sense of history that makes it "impossible to take anything for granted" and also the Jewish mind: "We're here to do all sorts of outrageous thinking, if you will ... certainly incisive thinking. If the Jews brought anything to human nature, it's that they developed the mind more than other people did." Not surprisingly, Mailer continues in the interview to bemoan the loss of this ability due to what he terms "cheap religious patriotism." None of these ideas surprise me nor will they any reader of Mailer's work, as they have always been part of the core of his philosophy.

Mailer's ideology as an American writer and social commentator stems from the activist or prophetic side of Judaism. Despite the sometimes-outrageous subject matter and highly charged sexual content, Mailer's novel and essays reflect a highly moral approach to life. His concerns for the individual override all else. Like a Jeremiah, he rails against the capitulation of modern man to the demands of the mediocre.

I first met Mailer in the spring of 1978. I began reading him in earnest while preparing for my doctorate at UC Santa Barbara. My field was American-Jewish literature, in which Mailer plays a very small part, but soon I was so enthralled that his work took over my thesis. Through a friend, I got Mailer's home address and wrote a note to him about my ideas. He replied almost by return mail, and so began our correspondence. Mailer did not like writing letters, and although they were brief, they encouraged further contact. Eventually, we met in New York. Ironically, we looked a little like each other: stocky Jewish types, about the same height with curly hair -- his a grizzly version of mine. He greeted me warmly, and I discovered that, contrary to newspaper reports, he had an ingratiating personality, was quick to laugh and did not hold himself with any airs. The rapport was instant. We spoke of many things, including his Jewish upbringing, his grandfather who was a rabbi and his distance from the faith -- though he had never written anything negative about Judaism, as he had promised his mother he would not. He was at heart "the nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn."

When the time came to part, Mailer told me that he had gotten a good feeling from me from my letters and now our conversation and that "we would be friends for life."

He was true to his word.

Our friendship lasted from that day till his death last week. Over the years, whenever I got to New York or he to Los Angeles, we met. There are wonderful memories: a seder I conducted in his then-home in Brooklyn Heights (his first since his childhood) where he still remembered enough Hebrew to read a few words. Seeing him with his children (eight from six different marriages) was to see a person so different from the public persona. He was truly a family man, and his marriage to his sixth wife (artist Norris Church) -- they were married by a rabbi -- which lasted 27 years, till his death, was an unending love affair. Nor was I the acolyte at the feet of the master; his friendship was a two-way street. He encouraged my literary pursuits, got me an agent, read my manuscripts and put me in touch with several of his literary and non-literary friends. Mailer told me that I was his unofficial rabbi. He even initiated a correspondence between myself and murderer Jack Abbott, who, for a time, considered converting to Judaism. (Mailer always regretted the debacle of the Abbott release.)

As happens over the years, when he moved to Provincetown and I got to the East Coast less frequently, our contact dissipated, though at my birthday I always received one of his hand-drawn self-portraits. Knowing that time was short, I went down to Los Angeles in March when he came to discuss "The Castle in the Forest." Mailer by then was weak, he walked with two canes, was hard of hearing and could not see well -- but his mind was as astute as ever. He spoke like he wrote -- in ornate, somewhat opaque sentences, the ideas probing deep into the psyche of America. He kept us enthralled for over an hour. After he finished, I went up to greet him.

"Hello Norman," I said. "Who is that?" he asked, like the aged Isaac in the Bible when Jacob comes for a blessing.

"It's Mashey," I said, leaning in so he could see me more clearly.

He grabbed my arm and held on: "Mashey, Mashey, how wonderful, how wonderful that you came."

His eyes glistened with tears, and mine did, too. We talked for a few minutes and made plans to meet later that year when I was to come to Provincetown for the annual meeting of the Norman Mailer Society, one of the few such societies devoted to a living author. Alas, it was not meant to be. He took ill a few days before I arrived. And now he is gone.

Writing on Henry Miller, Mailer once noted that "a writer of the largest dimension can alter the nerves and marrow of a nation."

I think it is an apt appraisal of Mailer's own contribution to America's literature and consciousness. Like a true prophet, Mailer was not always appreciated in his own time -- he was dropped by the Norton Anthology of Literature in its latest edition -- but he will always be someone whose work speaks to what it means to be an American. I will miss my friend dearly.

The Jewish Journal obituary notices will return in next week's issue.

Mashey Bernstein teaches in the Writing Program at UC Santa Barbara. Some of Mailer's letters to Dr. Bernstein will be published next year in the "Collected Letters of Norman Mailer."

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