So, the world is one week deeper into factionalist chaos, and more importantly, the old fugger is dead. That will teach him to go licking Chinese toys, won't it? No doubt we'll have our fair share of laments and threnodies, not just for a man, but for an era that he may, or of course may not, have represented. To me he represents only that whole worthy crowd of modern American penmen whom one is supposed to admire. The old fugger has that aura—the one that makes latterday Trillings spill prose all over their pants in the NYT, LRB or TLS. I could have admired them. If I had done my MA in American literature at Oxford in 2003, I would have admired them, and would admire them still. After all, there is so much to admire. But I made my choice. I've read hardly a novel, hardly anything post-war of artistic significance for five years—and my admiration has cooled, inevitably, though I daresay not irrevocably. Our modern literature says nothing to me, despite all its bravura. It was lucky, in a way, that I read Cur Vietnam?, the fugger's best book, and for some reason the one never mentioned by commentators (here, for instance), back when I was still charmed by the modern line, back when it could still speak to me.
Mailer is one of the last Western writers to create a self-contained intellectual universe out of strong, idiosyncratic convictions about the relationship between spiritual, psychic and social existence.Amazingly, this sentence was written before Mailer's death. It comes from a long, adulatory piece by Lee Siegel in the New York Times, only nominally about Mailer's last book, The Castle in the Forest. I'd dearly like to see someone slip it out again, under cover of dark, as part of obituary, altering only 'is' to 'was'. It could have been written at any time, and about any author. One might change 'Mailer' to 'Shakespeare' and attribute it to Harold Bloom, or slot in 'Joyce' and give it to Cyril Connolly in 1929. In 1929, Connolly wrote an opinion piece on the fragments of Finnegans Wake then appearing in Eugene Jolas's little magazine for rebels and misfits, Transition. In Connolly's opinion,
Literature is in essence a series of new universes enforced on a tardy public by their creators.That is how one defends Joyce, and it is, I think, the only serious way of doing so. Connolly is praising experimentation against the 'bucolic and conservative' literature being produced in his England. He mentions E. M. Forster. (I once heard a snatch of Where Angels Fear to Tread on the radio, not knowing it, and took it for a child's dabblings. Connolly has a review essay called 'Where Engels Fears to Tread', wittily.) Connolly goes on to say of the Work in Progress that
This one may be a fake, but it is not from a writer who has previously given us fakes; it may be a failure, but it surely an absorbing one, and more important than any contemporary success.I do not know whence comes the 'x's failure is better than others' successes' trope. Do you? Siegel, who hates bloggers, has this to say of Norman Mailer:
This restless vastness of Mailer's ambition (''In motion a man has a chance'') is such that his ''failures'' are seminal, his professional setbacks groundbreaking. His willingness to fail—hugely, magnificently, life-affirmingly—expands artistic possibilities.Personally, I loathe this sort of writing, but then, it is cultural criticism in an age almost entirely lacking in serious culture, or serious criticism. I was once recruited by a young, clean-shaven Argentinian—practically the Anti-Conrad—to rewrite his application to a Harvard MBA programme. At the head of his personal statement he'd put his life motto, apparently cribbed from Norman Vaughan: Dream big, and dare to fail. I thought this was the most offensive thing that could possibly begin a personal statement. But padded with a tricolon of Disney adjectives in a New York Times mushdrip, it is, naturally, far worse. How bucolic and conservative have we become?