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BOOKS | Wednesday, 14 November 2007

The end of a literary era

Last week, veteran American novelist and journalist, Norman Mailer, passed away at the age of 84.
Dr Ivan Callus talks to Raphael Vassallo about his often misunderstood contribution to world literature

Norman Mailer was, and in a sense still is, a divisive figure in world literature. Among the most prolific writers of the 20th century, the author, journalist and one-time political aspirant has challenged conventional attitudes ever since his first novel, The Naked And The Dead, appeared in 1948.
For Dr Ivan Callus, head of the English department at the University of Malta and a lecturer in the Contemporary American Novel, Mailer deserves a place among a handful of writers who somehow defined their own era.
“The passing away of a great writer can appear to leave an entire culture bereft, suggesting that an epoch has come to an end. It takes a quite particular kind of writer to create that effect,” he explains. “We can perhaps understand this quality if we think of other novelists whose work was similarly expressive of their cultural moment: Dickens, Zola, Sartre…”
And Norman Mailer certainly was a particular type. Along with Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe, he redefined fiction writing in the early 20th century, moving away from the tradition of the “Great American Novel” to embrace non-fiction as a major influence. As Callus puts it, “His writing, which spanned many genres, drew inspiration from the way he perceived America’s plagues and ills. The Naked and the Dead (1948) and The Armies of the Night (1947) – the former inspired by his part in the Pacific campaign and the latter by the famous 1967 Peace March on the Pentagon – are among his better known texts, and exemplify one of the enduring qualities of his writing: the ability to capture the signature moments of his age with inimitable energy and robustness.”
Callus also observes that Mailer’s heroes were actually anti-heroes: “Essentially upright but fallible outsiders, perplexed and resentful hipsters, existentialist victims of anomie trying to maintain self-knowledge and direction and moral bearings in a disorienting world driven by questionable politics.”
“Mailer was perhaps not so much an aesthetic as a stance: a posture that is never an imposture, but which rarely allows you to forget that he was constantly performing himself."
Like many literary giants, Mailer was also debunked in his own lifetime. His death last Saturday cast a shadow over contemporary literary criticism, which has all too often glossed over his extraordinary contribution to the 20th century canon. Ivan Callus questions his treatment at the hands of the literary establishment: “What do we hold most against Mailer? It is perhaps that we recall him through anecdotes about his opinions and his attitudinising, rather than through quotations and remembered episodes from his work…"
But Callus also points out that Mailer himself would probably have been amused to read many of his own obituaries. “Doubtless he would have chuckled at the report that he led a notoriously colourful private life and was a serial controversialist: famous for being famous, an irascible opinion-monger and would-be Mayor of New York who gloried in political incorrectness, who made a cult of literary machismo and who sneered and snarled his way through many an interview and polemic. But, being Mailer, he would have been interested to know what our reservations might be (and no doubt have been rude about them).”
In the final analysis, Callus concedes that Norman Mailer has left an indelible mark on world literature. “The fact that we do feel, this week, that literature as well as America are somehow diminished by his death, attests to his power, influence, and uniqueness.”


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‘The Naked and The Dead’ (1948):
Based on Mailer’s own experiences of WWII, the novel focuses on the psychological profiles of a platoon of air squadron riflemen in a reconnaissance mission over the South Pacific. His first published novel, it remains his most successful work and has been praised for its detached assessment of the absurdities of warfare.
The Naked and The Dead also added a new word to the lexicon: “fug”, which is how Mailer’s publishers finally convinced him to spell the classic “four-letter-word” normally denoted by asterisks. Mailer himself later admitted to being hugely embarrassed by the neologism; but it served a useful purpose anyway, providing 1960s garage band The Fugs with the inspiration for their name.

The Gospel According To the Son (1997)
Like Rushdie before him, Norman Mailer inflamed passions by taking a casual dip in religious waters: the resulting “Gospel” was duly scourged and crucified by the critics, who deemed it “arrogant” and “provocative” for daring to try and tell the story of Jesus Christ from his own perspective as Son of God. Mailer – a Jew – was even charged with “impersonating a Christian” with his evocative and surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of the Messiah. But iconoclasts, conspiracy theorists and devotees of Dan Brown may well be disappointed: for all the furore, Mailer’s Christ is remarkably orthodox, performing all the miracles attributed to him by the four evangelists, and even rising from the dead on the third day.

The White Negro (1957)
If Norman Mailer were starting out today, he may well have been interested in Hip-hop culture: in particular, how a quintessentially Afro-American form of expression could be embraced and colonised by white culture, producing such eminent “white negroes” as Eminem. As it was, however, Mailer’s seminal 1957 critical essay confronted the issue of young, white American intellectuals who abandoned their own cultural baggage to adopt the mannerism of jazz and swing music: two traditionally black art forms.


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