Wednesday, February 14, 2007


It does not reflect well on my character but of course I am irresistibly drawn always to the "more in sorrow than in anger" type of scathing review (I do not like the really vituperative ones, a calm tone is best although a barely veiled irritability is clearly justified by certain books), and there is a very good specimen of this sort in this week's TLS.

They are most enjoyable to read when they are leveled against inferior productions by major writers (I am thinking Banville-McEwan), in this case it's Stephen Abell on Norman Mailer's latest:

Regrettably, some of the flicker of intellectual excitement caused by such a novel concept is extinguished by the novel itself. The problems begin with the narrator, who, from his Melvillean opening (“you may call me D.T.”), unnecessarily intrudes into the narrative at regular intervals: “to bring, therefore, a first explanation of the sinuosities, salients, dead ends, and recesses of our war, I am obliged to offer an outline of the forces we look to exert now on human society”. In contrast, say, with the “diabolical ventriloquism” of C. S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters (1942) – that sustained performance of ironic malice – Mailer only offers the devilish equivalent of a middle manager, full of humdrum humanity, as if determined to make paranormal creation as unexceptional as possible. So, D. T. is constantly concerned with fussing over his words (“be it said”; “be it understood”; “so to speak”) and musing over his metafictional status: “if it be asked once again how I can be aware of such a reaction when Alois is, after all, not my client, I will reiterate that on occasions we can enter the thoughts of humans who are closely related to one of our charges”.

This intended wordiness can have damaging consequences for the quality of the prose. Mailer once said that his style resided in the “tensile strength of the sentence”; The Castle in the Forest, alas, feels artificially bulked-out with writing that has been merely lengthened not strengthened over the course of its composition. Take these examples of inelegant variation, which appear in adjoining paragraphs: “the sound of wailing was still in their ears, a cacophony of whimpering, howling, bawling, blubbering, sorrowing and lamentation”; and “so many were sick in heart, sick in soul, sick in stomach, slime clinging to their spirit, lost in the vortex of a dream”. At such moments, the finished novel feels like an accidental palimpsest of all of its previous drafts, in which rejected phrases have reasserted themselves in the text like stubborn stains.

Mailer is also fond of euphemism, a technique that itself represents the substitution of length for strength. Sex is “traffic with the vulva”, “carnal ore”, “a nice wet surprise”, “a priapic gift”; Alois’s restless penis is variously “the Hound”, “a proud bulge ready to speak for itself”, “an upsurge in the happy region below his navel” and a “happy, blood-filled organ”. This is perhaps inevitable given the novel’s lingering preoccupation with penetration, or that “ham-handed naturalness of the most agreeable work of all – that hard-breathing, feverish meat-heavy run up the hills of physical joy”. Such regularly ham-fisted attempts to capture carnality are testament to the author’s desire to grab hold of the material reality within the “lodes of perversity to be found in the human flesh”. They form a series of indigestible, “meat-heavy” sketches on the subject: from “the meats, body slaps and fats of the occasion” to the “wonderful array of meats and juices – such a panoply of flesh in miniature – this offering of archways and caverns and lips”.

Such heaped loads of perversity not only allow Mailer to show us how unembarrassed (and therefore embarrassing) he can be, but also represent a too straightforward means of fleshing out his fictional world. The author is guilty of a facile Freudianism, in which sex is used as a shorthand for real life itself: “breasts, penis, anus; powerful stuff; integral”, as the boxing promoter Don King says in The Fight (1975). This is also true of the constant references to the “excretory dramas” of young Hitler, which again focus on the tangible aspects of his existence: the “monumental turd . . . dark, doughty, and as forbidding as a primeval club”, etc. Mailer would probably argue that there is some benefit in the fact that the narrator “engages caca itself” in this manner: it reduces the “monster” of history to the common denominator of a physical process; it gives us the anality of evil, as it were. And it may, rather subversively, make us conscious of the “guts and smear” of the man who went on to create what the author has termed the “worldwide sewer of the concentration camps”.

Mailer’s failure comes, then, not necessarily in being potty-mouthed, but being so relentlessly po-faced about it; we cannot take this writing as seriously as it takes itself.

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