In 1968 Norman Mailer, in what may be his best book, The Armies of the Night, would write about the anti-war march on Washington. The tableaux include a portrait of Robert Lowell, who famously dealt with public issues in his poems and whose appearances in Mailer’s book I wrote about in a previous section. The subtitle is History as a Novel, the Novel as History. The progressive movement was a house with many rooms, in one of which lived James Baldwin, who spoke of ‘the fire next time’, the eponymous title of his incandescent book. In different ways we all believed, as I no longer do, that ‘deep in my heart, we shall overcome some day’. I used to think that Mailer was an old bruiser, and he liked to give that impression, yet, while he packed a punch, at his best he was a surprisingly graceful and subtle writer, think Cassius Clay rather than Mike Tyson. The only bite Mailer took out of or rather put into your ear was a sound bite, unless you were married to him.
He was an educated emotional intelligence projecting into language the evidence of his (im)pulses. Among his non-fiction books are Cannibals and Christians (where he tells us that the writer he learned most from technically was E.M. Forster) and Advertisements for Myself (an erotic story, The Time of Her Time’, was omitted from the UK edition). James Baldwin in Nobody Knows My Name concludes an essay on his friend : ‘He has a real vision of ourselves as we are, and it cannot be too often repeated in this country now, that, where there is no vision, the people perish.’ Mailer’s novels on my desk include An American Dream, with its beguiling opening paragraph: “I met Jack Kennedy in November 1946. We were both war heroes, and both of us had just been elected to Congress. We went out one night on a double date and it turned out to be a fair evening for me. I seduced a girl who would have been bored by a diamond as big as the Ritz.’ A rival candidate for the most striking opening paragraph is Anthony Burgess’ Earthly Powers: ‘It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.’
Silent Conversations; A Reader's Life by Anthony Rudolf