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.