Tuesday, September 27, 2005

MAILER AND ME: A MEMOIR OF LUCK GIVEN, LUCK RETURNED

News that Norman Mailer, American novelist, has recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Foundation reaches my ears only one day after I finished rereading, for the first time in years, Mailer’s masterful account of the ‘Rumble In The Jungle’, that epic boxing match whereupon Muhammad Ali regained his Heavyweight Championship belt by defeating the towering force of nature that was George Foreman in his ferocious prime. At last! The luck that Mailer had effortlessly passed on in person to me over ten years ago had been returned. Our psychic paths again had crossed, I thought.

To conceive of this news as some form of coincidence is egotistical at best, delusional at worst; how many others around the globe were reading Mailer’s works when they, too, heard of his recent honor? Just because I finished The Fight, his Ali book, does not mean that any psychic forces were at work, or at play, in the nature of the universe. After all, in my more rational moments, I can rest assured that such a distinction given to Mailer was decided weeks, if not months ago; my recent reading of his words had nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with his honor. To think otherwise is to give oneself a place in the cosmos that is tantamount to a Queen Bee at the centre of the hive, directing minions of masses to do her bidding.

But one cannot be sure. Perhaps our individual souls hold far greater sway in the accounts of others than we at first care to admit. After all, was it not Mailer himself who drunkenly climbed, or attempted to climb, between his balcony and the one next door while staying in the hotel in Zaire all those years ago, before I was born, waiting for the injured Foreman to heal so the fight could finally commence? The sheer momentousness of the fight that loomed before Ali deserved an action of equal daring by Mailer, his fervent supporter. A drunken hop by a fifty-year old man from room to room may not seem rational to you or me as a means of implanting victory in a thirty-year old prizefighter, but Mailer is not you or me, and nothing if not a mystic at heart.

To read Mailer is to believe that there are larger forces at work in the universe, and only authors as talented as he, as daring as he, allow us to consider that we, too, may have the opportunity, if not the obligation, to bend luck towards ourselves and those that we root for and care for and live for. Who else but Mailer could gain fame as the best young novelist in America (circa 1948) for his autobiographical war novel The Naked And The Dead, only to shift spiritual gears completely in the coming decades, helping to create the ‘new journalism’ whereby the reporter himself becomes as central to the narrative as the events he describes? Who else but Mailer could write interpretive biographies of such disparate American icons as Marilyn Monroe and Muhammad Ali and Lee Harvey Oswald, not to mention Pablo Picasso? Who else but Mailer could conceive of such staggering fiction whose range extends beyond the narcissistic confines of a writer’s usual domain – his own psyche, his own life: Ancient Evenings, set in the Egypt of the pharaohs; Harlot’s Ghost, his mammoth attempt to unravel the mythic resonance of the C.I.A. in American life; The Executioner’s Song, his Pulitzer Prize winning ‘non-fiction novel’ of love and murder that obliterated the critics’ view him as a show-boating blowhard by creating a masterpiece of lean, minimalist prose that would even have made his idol, Hemingway, blush with envy. And who else but Mailer, a non-observant Jew, could have the cojones a write a novel like The Gospel According To The Son, told from the first-person point of view of the most famous Jew of all, Jesus Christ. Nobody but Mailer.

To enter into Mailer’s mind is to understand, if only briefly, that the parameters of life of man could be more accurately described as parabolas, whose borders touch us all. So who is to say that my return to Mailer after such a long absence did not, in fact, hasten the award that was announced only hours after I finished The Fight? Absurd, such influence I’m claiming! I concur, and I dare say that Mailer would, too. We recognize our own illogical impulses best in others, simultaneously rejecting then embracing them.

Using such logic, I could very well say that the one and only encounter I had with Mailer himself, at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto in 1995, changed the course of his life. Ridiculous! As mentioned long ago on this blog, after watching Mailer’s presentation of the life of Pablo Picasso, complete with pictorial slides, our intrepid chronicler somehow found the courage to take hold of the microphone during the Q and A to ask: “Did you see any similarities between Lee Harvey Oswald and Picasso?” A question only an unsuspecting nineteen-year old could ask, followed by a response that only a collection of wealthy, pampered prigs could provide. I heard every last one of their titters, felt every single smirk, smelled every grating whiff of expensive perfume and fuck-me cologne. The question did not seem absurd to me; Mailer had recently spent a year immersed in the life of Picasso, and even more years investigating Oswald’s life, even traveling to Russia to investigate the alleged assassin’s past even deeper. Surely there were points in common between the two biographical subjects. (And besides, I thought, you hoity-toity motherfuckers, I had the balls to stand toe-to-toe with Mailer and ask him a question, while you sat in your seats and flicked the lint off of clothes designed to impress the indifferent whims of arrogant strangers. And I at least have read his book!) Mailer answered my question thoughtfully and carefully. Aha! Here is a mind as strange and agile as my own, I thought. (Again, the ego of adolescence! To compare myself to Mailer!)

Later, while waiting in line for Mailer to sign my copy of his book, a kind soul approached me and said: “ Actually, I thought yours was the most interesting question asked.” Somebody had spotted my embarrassment, and thought to console me. Emboldened by such generosity, when my turn came to talk to Mailer I asked him for advice for a young writer. He told me; I listened. (And I still remember it.) He then signed my book, adding a phrase after the scrawl of his signature that I could not recognize, prompting me to ask his assistant to interrupt him in the midst of signing the book of his next fan. “What does it mean?” I wanted to know. “Sverta,” he said. “It means ‘good luck!” (Is it Jewish? Yiddish? No matter.)

So! From his mouth to my soul. If luck is a tangible thing, then it was passed from him to me that fateful night, and perhaps, just perhaps, my recent return to his prose nudged something in the fabric of the universe. Perhaps the luck he passed on had lodged itself carefully into the lodestone of my psyche, and perhaps, just perhaps, I was able to, unknowingly, hand it back to him.
Such are the thoughts one has when encounter Mailer – in person, in prose. If reading is the most intimate act of all – the sharing of one’s private thoughts with another – then reading Mailer is enough to make one believe that such communication not only has a purpose and a trajectory, but also a mystical necessity, a vibrancy, that lies at the core of who we are and what we can become. Luck may not be tangible, nor transferable, but even Mailer’s conception of such a concept, the potential of it, makes me wonder if the Gods that rule us all work in prose.

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