Norman Mailer has died. I’ve not really got on well with his work, aside from The Fight – the tale of the Rumble in the Jungle. Martin Amis wrote of him,
“No one in the history of the written word, not even William McGonagall or Spike Milligan or DH Lawrence, is so wide open to damaging quotation. … On every page Mailer will come up with a formulation both grandiose and crass. This is expected of him.” (The War Against Cliche p 267)
And yet that little book, The Fight, takes you up close to the greatest sportsman of the twentieth century – there during the training (later heavywieght champion Larry Holmes cameos in the early passages about Ali’s sparring partners), at ringside during the fight, and the only journalist in the dressing room immediately afterwards. A book that played to his strengths (Amis describes Mailer’s private thesaurus of key-words as “ego, bitch, blood, obscenity, pysche, hip, soul, tears, risk, dare, danger, death” (War Against Cliche p 268) and illustrates this with Mailer’s description of book reviewing as “Brutal-coarse, intimate, snide, grasping, groping, slavering …”
Mailer seemed aware of his limitations, of his defining characteristics – and to a degree played up to them. In The Fight he is a visible presence throughout – not quite a passive observer. He introduces himself in chapter 3,
“Now our man of wisdom has a vice. He wrote about himself. Not only would he describe the events he saw, but his own small effect on events. This irritated critics. They spoke of ego trips and the unattractive dimensions of his narcissim. Such criticism did not hurt too much. He had always had a love affair with himself, and it used up a good deal of love. He was no longer spo pleased with his presence. His daily reactions bored him. They were becoming everyone else’s. His mind, he noticed, was beginning to spin its wheels, sometimes seeming to repeat itself for the sheer slavishness of supporting mediocre habits. If he was now wondering what name he ought to use for his piece about the fight, it was out of no excess of literary ego. More, indeed, from concern for the reader’s attention. It would hardly be congenial to follow a long piece of prose if the narrator appeared only as an abstraction: The Writer, The Traveler, The INterviewer. That is unhappy in much the way one would not wish to live with a woman for years and think of her as The Wife.
“Nonetheless, Norman was certainly feeling modest on his return to New York and thought he might as well use his first name – everybody in the fight game did. indeed his head was so determinedly empty that the alternative was to do a piece without a name. never had his wisdom appeared more invisible to him and that is a fair condition for acquiring an anonymous voice.”
Norman Mailer – 1923 – 2007