m. c. de marco: To invent new life and new civilizations...

Norman Mailer

The New York Times eulogizes Norman Mailer (1923-2007); I heard once that the obituaries of famous men are written ahead of time and kept on file, and the swiftness of this one (he only passed away this morning, and today’s a Sunday) makes me believe it.

I remember Mailer for Ancient Evenings, which I read part of when it came out (until my mother took it away). Ancient Egypt was far more interesting to me than whatever prurient content my elders expected from Mailer. Perhaps I should finish it now, because he also remembered it fondly:

In an interviewin September 2006, Mr. Mailer said his favorite novel, if not his best, was “Tough Guys Don’t Dance,” a mystery thriller he wrote, under extreme financial pressure, in just two months in 1984. He was in tax trouble, he explained, and needed to crank something out quickly. “I was prepared to write a bad book if necessary,” he said, “but instead the style came out, and that saved it for me.”

His best book, he decided after thinking for a moment, was “Ancient Evenings” (1983), a long novel about ancient Egypt that received what had by then become familiar critical treatment: extravagantly praised in some quarters, disdained in others. About the book that many critics consider his masterpiece, “The Executioner’s Song,” he said he had mixed feelings because it wasn’t entirely his project.

The obituary closes on an ominous note for aspiring writers:

Shaking his head, he added: “In two years I will have been a published novelist for 60 years. That’s not true for very many of us.” And he recalled something he had said at the National Book Award ceremony in 2005, when he was given a lifetime achievement award: that he felt like an old coachmaker who looks with horror at the turn of the 20th century, watching automobiles roar by with their fumes.

“I think the novel is on the way out,” he said. “I also believe, because it’s natural to take one’s own occupation more seriously than others, that the world may be the less for that.”