The Aesthetics of Norman Mailer

Miami and The Siege of Chicago

by Norman Mailer
New American Library, 223 pp., $.95 (paper)

Norman Mailer
Norman Mailer; drawing by David Levine

There have been times when writing was considered an act of grace, a form of almost supernatural intervention in the ordinary affairs of the human imagination. The modern masters, however, have made it clear that the merely inspired soon perish and that the writer and his book are best, if not entirely, sustained by an act of will. James, Flaubert, Joyce, Mann—their testament can be seen as much in the persistent struggle to create a disciplined and meaningful language as in the worlds and characters that they left us. One need not be acquainted with their biographies to understand that a long battle of attrition once took place to ferret out of the rough matter of inspiration a strong, polished, personal idiom. Indeed, again and again readers have discovered that, at its best, the modern novel often deals with the adventure of its own making and that, while celebrating itself, it more than insinuates that its real hero is its creator, whose passion and agony we, for convenience, simply call his “style.”

To many, Norman Mailer may seem far removed from these aesthetic preoccupations, but he is in fact one of the very few writers in the last decade or so who has really understood the hard lesson that the modern masters have taught. He has certainly grasped the act of will—the style—necessary to the writer-as-protagonist, and he has insisted stubbornly on exercising it again and again for its own sake as well as for the periodic re-creation of himself as a writer. He has done this, of course, without the aid of the faith in aesthetic form which sustained his predecessors; nor does he conceal his literary strategy and self-awareness by using an ironic and formal mode of expression. Rather he spreads everything out for us so that we may see to the bone and muscle of the writer’s determination to survive. For all his pose as an activist and his well-advertised involvement in public life, Mailer’s response to the controversy in which he is so much engaged is almost completely stylistic, and one soon realizes that his literary manner is in itself a dramatic dialectic. Mailer seems to be intellectually exhilarated by language and I honestly believe he would much rather narrate for us the way he has tracked down the proper, self-revealing adverb than give us sagas of how wars are won or analyses of the tactics of political revolution.

Many of his critics have misunderstood the purely literary quality of Mailer’s work, its unabashed, almost precious, obsession with itself. They have taken part of the author’s public style as a clue to his intentions and have been pleased or exasperated accordingly. But no matter how diligently Mailer insists on creating a persona in the thick of political and social joustings, a persona part demagogue, part clown, part visionary, one cannot help feeling that his forays into the community…

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