The Teller and the Tape

Mailer: His Life and Times

by Peter Manso
Simon and Schuster, 718 pp., $19.95

The “oral tradition,” if that is a suitable slot in which to deposit the large number of books arising from the taped interview, is a labor-saving curiosity in which our country leads the world. The exuberant exploitation of the possibilities of this “vampire capital” are just beginning and, indeed, the whole enterprise has about it a limitlessness in all its aspects.

We have here a “literature” of remarks, a fast-moving confounding of Gertrude Stein’s confident assertion that “remarks are not literature.” Sometimes remarks are called a novel, sometimes a biography, sometimes history. An author, working with his own words in the gloomy absence of remarks by himself or others, might well feel as retrograde and unproductive of print as those peasants, lacking a bulldozer, who must trundle the earth from one side to another to make a trench.

Bulk, the sheer bulk of it all.

“The transcript totaled twenty thousand pages.” (Mailer: His Life and Times by Peter Manso. “A major biography.”)

“For the third time, Cathy Zmuda transcribed hundreds of thousands of spoken words—perhaps millions in this instance….” Working by Studs Terkel.)

“It is safe to say that the collected transcript of every last recorded bit of talk would approach fifteen thousand pages.” (The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer. A novel.)

Quite a lot taken down, but why not more? What is to deter? Of the making of remarks there is no end. The “pages” each of us produces in a lifetime would outpace all the libraries of the ancient and modern world. First-person narration, this stratospheric memory bank floating freely in the universe, idling there, waiting for the button and the circling tape, is of a simplicity quite beautiful in shape. Like a bank account under prescription, it can be “attached” by the collector, in print known as the author, and drawn upon in circumstances of great variety and for purposes strange or banal or merely useful. To ponder the field, scan the prospect of effortless remembering and remarking, opens up a prodigiousness on the loose, a monumentality of retailed play-back.

Calculation, practicality put the remarks at last into one’s hand, bound as it were from exhaustion. But as in “hearing voices”—an affliction—the sounds go on and on, outside and beyond the record. The great weight of utterances does not satisfy and there is still more to be said. The truth of this enterprise, the publishing enterprise, is that the idea is its own execution. If you would know, ask, and you will be answered. And there, with little strain on anyone, will be something.

Philanthropic aura.

Give voice to the voiceless, remember the neglected and the isolated. Sometimes the starting point is the awareness of the impending ending; we are always at a point where the time is running out for those who have lived through this or that, significant or even insignificant. Slave narratives, old soldiers, superannuated craftsmen, Indians, Appalachian folk, immigrants, blacksmiths—a bond of mutuality arises between the instrument and the voice, the…

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