Sunday, November 11, 2007


"I had a quick grasp of the secret to sanity. It had become the ability to hold the maximum of impossible combinations in one's mind."

-- Norman Mailer

There is no tragedy in the death of an old man, the famous saying says, but the death of American writer Norman Mailer at the age of 84 sure as hell feels like one to me.

He was the first writer I ever read that showed me what good writing could be, or what it should be; he was the first writer that seemed to endorse the necessity of having interests that were not only voracious in their velocity but almost random in their application. That randomness was symptomatic of his roving imagination, for here was a man who wrote novels and non-fiction about Hitler and Marilyn Monroe, Picasso and Jesus, Lee Harvey Oswald and the C.I.A., ancient Egypt and World War II, Muhammed Ali and executed killer Gary Gilmor, and only last year completed the first of a projected seven (!) volume fictional examination of Adolf Hitler's childhood, as narrated by a minion of the devil. He allowed his interests to go everywhere and seek everything.

I had the great good fortune to have him autograph his book on Picasso for me in the mid-nineties, when he dropped by the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto for a lecture and a signing. During the Q and A, I asked him if there were any similarities between Picasso and the subject of his previous book, Lee Harvey Oswald. The snooty artistes in the crowd snickered at this twenty-one year old kid's rather inane question, but I've never forgotten the fact that Mailer himself took it quite seriously, and answered it quite seriously. When I lined up and got him to sign my copy of his book, I asked him for some writing advice: "Write from the gut," he said. "And if you tell yourself that you're going to write in the morning, get up and write in the morning." He scrawled something illegible above his signature, something I couldn't recognize, so I meekly made my way back to the table and asked his assistant for clarification. She couldn't make it out, either, so she gently tapped him on the shoulder, and he looked at what he wrote, and he looked at me and smiled and said: "Sverte! It means 'good luck'," he said. (In Yiddish? I'm not sure.)

He was not only an American original but an original, period. He directed independent films and ran for mayor of New York and ran a few miles with Muhammed Ali in the early morning chill of an African morning. But everything that emerged from the man came from the core of his writing, from his stated desire to write the big book that would make Tolstoy and Faulkner and Hemingway and Stendahl his worthy compatriots.

Whenever I feel bound in by the arbitrary restrictions of life, I remember the boundless roaming of his imaginative ardor, his ability to push his own artistic talent to its own unreachable limits. He not only demonstrated what good writing could be, but also what we could be, too -- us, humans, those existential warriors he chronicled so tremendously well, and so consistently. If only we were reckless and brave enough to follow through on the courage of our own convictions, we might approach something worthy of ourselves.


Tom said...

suerte = "luck" in spanish
pronounced "swear-te"

stephanmorrow said...

Dear Scott, In the blizzard of acrimony about him, I liked what you said about Norman very much. Here's a short piece I wrote I thought you'd appreciate. There's a longer piece I have about working with him and if you'd like to read it let me know. All best, Stephan Morrow:
I had the good fortune to work with Norman on his play ‘Strawhead’ at The Actor’s Studio in New York, his film ‘Tough Guys Don’t Dance’ and recently a staged reading of his play ‘The Deer Park’ which I directed and performed in, and I would like to add a personal note about the kind of character he had.
When I visited him on Oct.26 at Mt. Sinai it was pretty grim, but I was still hoping for a miracle. He couldn't speak because of the tubes but gestured for me to return when he got a little better. So I kept my hopes up. He had sounded so strong on the phone just a month before. Alas, sometimes old soldiers just fade away.
But I want to shout this from the rooftops: For me, Norman was living proof that there is some justice in the world. And I mean in the arts. Last June when he called me to ask if I would help him direct the film of "The Deer Park" and do one of the characters, I was of course, moved and thanked him. It had been a lot to take on, acting and directing it at the same time, but he seemed pleased during the discussion afterward and it seemed like everything had turned out well. Even though we had had a bit of a rocky start - the actor who had the opening line had disappeared for some mysterious reason. I had planned a Sax solo for an intro to the play and had the musician continue to play while we tracked the actor down, which we finally did. He was under the impression the play was scheduled to begin an hour later. These things happen in live theater. Anyway, the performance then continued without a hitch, and maybe even had a little more zing because of the near disaster we had skirted by.
So I was especially thrilled by the phone call from Norman. And like I said, when I thanked him for his kind words, he quickly countered with, "I don't want you to confuse this with kindness. I'm not being kind here, I just liked what you did with my play. I’ve seen it done badly too many times" It should be pointed out here that in the Byzantine channels of producing or casting, that kind of thing is rare in the arts: choosing to work with someone just based on the merits of their work - and why he's always inspired me. And finally, why I’ll miss him so much. His greatness as a writer goes without saying and he may have brought rambunctiousness to a new level on the tube, but to copy a phrase I’ve heard him use, ‘he was a stand up guy’ as well. I think people should also know that about him...
So Cheers to you Norman.
Stephan Morrow, New York City