Thursday, 11 September 2008

Norman Mailer's Spooky Art

Today, owing to an unfortunate necessity, I had to forsake my desk at home and go work in the local library, only 5 minutes' walk away, but a drag nonetheless. Waiting for some dogged daily newspaper scanner to give up one of the few writing tables with a plug-point adjacent, I wandered around the stacks awhile and was pleased to happen on a copy of Mailer's collection of thoughts on the writing process, The Spooky Art (2003). Browsing through it at least made the waste of time feel a good deal less vexing, even medicinal.
For a while I read from the index back and found Mailer very good on the affinities and disparities of the Russian masters: basically, that Dostoyevsky went down to depths that Tolstoy couldn't penetrate, but lacked Tolstoy’s panoptic sense of perspective and so tended toward hysteria; consequently from Dostoyevsky we come away with memorable individuals, and from Tolstoy entire societies.
Elsewhere: he's generally thoughtful about bad reviews, albeit occasionally desirous of knocking some picky little toerag's roof in.
He's bracingly self-critical about most of the books, as well as his much-advertised personal failings.
He sounds friendly enough about old Gore Vidal, to whom he is undoubtedly superior IMHO.
You get that sense that he wasn't ever as mad about The Executioner's Song as the book's ardent fans, for all that it's so alive to something fundamental in the big centre of American life, just because it was less his invention.
He makes a useful critique of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections as a self-consciously big and well-upholstered novel that doesn't feel large or truly lived.
He expresses a touching love for the novel on the ground that it is 'the form best suited for developing our moral sensitivity - which is to say our depth of understanding rather than our rush to judgment.'
I nodded grimly in reading another version of his view that writers must discipline themselves 'to do a good day's work on a bad day.'
More grim nods when he volunteered that 'working on a book where the plot is already fully developed is like spending the rest of your life filling holes in rotten teeth when you have no skill as a dentist.'
Then there is the rub: ‘I remember saying in 1958, “I am imprisoned with a perception that will settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time.” And I certainly failed, didn't I? At the time, I thought I had books in me that no one else did, and so soon as I was able to write them, society would be altered. Kind of grandiose…’
Still, searching around some reviews tonight I was satisfied that a fair few writers are properly sympathetic to Mailer's readiness to dare and risk failure.
Thomas E. Kennedy: ‘Perhaps the greatest works are inevitably flawed for they reach toward the unreachable in comparison to small works satisfied with small accomplishment.’
Richard Poirier: ‘At his best [Mailer] seeks contamination. He does so by adopting the roles, the styles, the sounds that will give him a measure of what it’s like to be alive in this country.’
Wilfrid Sheed: ‘Mailer follows the Chestertonian principle of exploring the psychosis proper to the group, the identifying madness, and letting it enter him, like an exorcist opening himself to the devil.’
Quite. Like the demon of his last wondrous production The Castle in the Forest, Mailer gave himself the right to inhabit men's minds. Spooky indeed.

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