Norman Mailer turns 84 years old next week, his knees are shot, and his body is on the way to relinquishing its senses of touch, hearing, taste, and sight, but he can still get it up for a satisfyingly dirty analogy, especially in front of a crowd. Here he is on Tuesday night during an onstage interview with Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of The New York Times Book Review, speaking on the difference between writing a novel and writing a book of non-fiction reporting.
"It's a little bit like the difference between having a sexual relationship that consists of falling in love, as opposed to going to a brothel," he rumbles, to the crowd's delight. "You can have marvellous sex in a brothel -- absolutely marvellous sex in a brothel! But there are certain things that are agreed from the beginning. Which is, it's most unlikely that either you or the whore are going to fall in love, and you're going to pay for it in a very simple way. Whereas, love you pay for in all sorts of unforeseen ways!"
Mailer has been falling in love or having brothel sex, literally and figuratively, for almost six decades now with a parade of semi-mythical figures: Jesus Christ, Marilyn Monroe, Lee Harvey Oswald, Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, the murderer Gary Gilmore -- and himself, of course. He is a consummate lover, a father of nine and ex-husband of five, an elfin man of notorious appetite and verve and ego who still gets a kick out of his own pugnaciously carnal reputation.
He is speaking at the moment of the alleged sexual conquests of Hitler's father, who by Mailer's novelistic account took his greatest pride in bedding three sisters from one family. "There was never a cook or chambermaid who was safe around him," chuckles Mailer. Then, with the delivery of a sly stand-up, he looks out into the darkened auditorium and adds a faux clarification: "This is not myself." The audience of more than 250 laughs indulgently and they continue to indulge Mailer for the next hour and a half as he and Tanenhaus zigzag through decades' worth of starry anecdotes, wry observations and present-day politics.
Superficially, he's here to discuss The Castle in the Forest, his dense musing about Hitler's possibly Satanic parentage and upbringing. His first novel since 1997's The Gospel According to the Son, which grappled with the existential crises of Jesus, it is being hailed in some (though not all) circles as perhaps his greatest achievement. But ever since he was "shot out of a cannon" into the unwelcome glare of the spotlight at age 25 with the publication of The Naked and The Dead in 1948, Mailer has been cannily aware of his role as a public figure. So he recognizes that whenever he sits for an interview these days, he'll be asked to dwell on his legacy, the limits of his future output and the inevitability of his own death. He doesn't mind: He believes in reincarnation. (And he enjoys the attention, besides.)
Much of which we'll get to, but first there's the matter of falling in love with Alois Hitler. Mailer began writing The Castle in the Forest with the notion that it would be a book about Hitler's mother. "She adored Hitler. And I thought, this is really where you begin to find the beginnings of a certain kind of tragedy, when you have a mother who adores a child and the child turns out to be a monster. It's part of the immense demand of life itself that no matter how careful you are and how much love indeed you offer, that doesn't mean that any one element in your makeup can solve the problems of life."
As he wrote, though, Mailer discovered he was more fascinated by Hitler's father. This is what he meant about the unpredictability of love: How could he have known beforehand where the novel was going to take him?
The one thing he did know, the one thing Mailer always knows before he begins a book, is that he can do a better job than anyone else who has handled the material. Castle was spurred by Ron Rosenbaum's 1998 book Explaining Hitler, in which The New York Observer columnist interviewed a host of intellectuals in a bid to understand the Fuhrer's psyche. "It stimulated me into thinking, maybe I have more to say about Hitler than most of these people. Which is what you want when you're writing a novel. You don't want to write a novel if you think, oh, I'm really fifth in a field of 10. You want to be the first. Writers are as bad as athletes. Good writers."
Mailer is sitting now at the head of a boardroom table in the Random House offices in midtown Manhattan. It's late Wednesday morning, and he seems smaller now than he did last night: His chest barely clears the table, his pair of walking canes are propped against the wall a couple of metres away. He hasn't shaved for a day or two, his hair is a soft white down, and in a fleece vest, a pair of dark blue work pants tucked into grey winter boots -- comfort and ease take primacy these days over style -- he looks as if he's out on day leave from a seniors' residence. The famous brawler who mixed it up with the actor Rip Torn and stabbed his second wife with a penknife is now just another figure of literary myth.
His mind and his mouth, though, are still sharper than those belonging to most people half his age. Mailer is Jewish, and though he doesn't believe in organized religion, he is proud of his heritage. Which is why people have often asked why he has never written a long-form work confronting questions about Judaism or Hitler. But just because he's now written about the subject doesn't mean he's making nice with his Jewish readers.
"I think the greatest damage Hitler did after the war is that the average American Jew these days does not think clearly the way they used to. There's much too much of that notion: Is this good for the Jews? The moment something comes up that might be slightly unfavorable for the Jews, all thought shuts down. Political correctness rears its immensely ugly head, and no one can say anything even remotely anti-Semitic any longer without being pilloried. And it's dreadful. It's going to bring on more anti-Semitism than it's going to counter."
"What Hitler succeeded in doing was taking away from many, many Jews -- I hope not a majority of Jews but possibly -- the ability to think clearly. And that's a true damage. And that's what I think he was trying to do -- destroy freedom of thought in civilization. That's why I think he's an agent of Satan." Mailer gives a half smile, pleased with his oblique reference to Castle.
At this point, Mailer doesn't know what his next project will be. The one thing he knows he won't be writing is an autobiography. "It's too late now," he explains. "If you keep being reviewed and half the reviews you see give you a quick description of your life, you do get awfully tired of the details after a while. I mean, I must have read about my life 150 times by now. And it's enough. We don't need the 151st.
"I have no real interest in myself any more, believe it or not. I have an interest in myself as a person but as a literary subject, no," he concludes.
Yes, even Norman Mailer, a man about whom Woody Allen joked in Sleeper, "He donated his ego to the Harvard Medical School for study," is capable of humility. Which brings us back now to a moment near the end of that onstage interview. Someone in the audience asks Mailer if he's accomplished what he set out to do almost 60 years ago when he began writing:
"I wanted to open the consciousness of my time," Mailer replies, and the questioner asks if he thinks he'll have a lasting impact. The great man shrugs. "My feeling is, history is going to tell. Either I will end up -- as I hope I will -- having a considerable effect on thinking in America at least, and maybe a little bit in the rest of the world. Or I may have none.
"History can take turns that wipe you out," he continues. "There must have been some very good novelists in Russia in 1907 who were wiped out entirely by the revolution in 1917. They ceased to exist. Nobody knows about them. They were unimportant because they weren't relevant. And relevance has an enormous amount to do with influence. So either I'll be relevant or I won't."