July 01, 2009

From Norman Mailer's typewriter

I find author relics almost always entertaining. An example of an exception could be John Ruskin’s umbrella, sorry, that's John Ruskin's last umbrella, which I saw at a little museum in the Lake District where we had gone looking for the original Amazon from Swallows and Amazons, which was supposed to be there but was not.

But I'm enthusiastic about a trip to Duchcov Castle in Bohemia, where Casanova lived out his final years. There were local boys in period costumes sword-fighting in the courtyard and, inside, a somewhat dusty dignitary in mufti who, when he heard that my sister was a Casanova scholar, insisted he must show us the very chair Casanova had died in. He then led us carefully into a room where, bowing from the waist, with a sweeping gesture he indicated one of four absolutely identical chairs.

Now the TLS reports that the Harry Ransom Center in Texas, the Emerald City of literary archives, has just acquired an Ezra Pound collection which contains, besides mere unpublished poems, a walking stick (but no umbrella) and a lock of Pound’s baby hair. From the “Personal effects” page of the HRC website where I went looking to find out more, I learned that the HRC holds lots of author relics, including such gems as George Bernard Shaw’s letter opener, which may have opened 100 letters a day, and a pair of Arthur Conan Doyle’s underwear, special characteristics unknown.

It also houses a perfect replica of Perry Mason author Erle Stanley Gardner’s workroom where “one can view the desk, chairs, cabinets, artifacts, and slightly suspicious decorations from Gardner's 1960s study”. I’d love to have any suggestions as to what those might have been.

And Norman Mailer’s typewriter. Yes, Mailer fans, typewriter fans, Norman Mailer’s archive at the HRC, a huge collection initially begun by Mailer’s “friend and biographer” Dr. Lucid (I kid you not), contains the typewriter Norman Mailer used to type his novel The naked and the dead, my favourite, the one that starts out at night (how many books do that, think about it), throbbing with tension, soldiers trying to sleep who the next day will climb onto assault craft to be landed on a Pacific atoll, and never lets up. War is hell.

Could Mailer have used that same typewriter four years later to write the letter to Lillian Ross, published earlier this year by the New York Review of Books in a three-part selection of Mailer letters (at the Central City Library or online), which contains these lines about The old man and the sea, which had just come out:
“I thought it was good and would have been better if it hadn’t been so full of shit. I thought the best thing about it was the conception of the story, but I just can’t bear his prose. It sets my teeth on edge. At least Hemingway’s prose of 1952 which has lost all of the simplicity it used to have. I think if he had written the story twenty years ago it would have been half as long and twice as good.”

Alongside this intrepid opinion which I regret wasn't available to me when they made me read The old man and the sea in school, Mailer retained a great respect for Hemingway at his best, the person who made us see "as no one else ever has, what the potential strength of the English sentence could be". Mailer said that in an interview in the Paris Review in 2007, the year his last book, The castle in the forest, was published and the year he died. (You can read it online, or get Paris Review Interviews Vol 3 from the library and you can read interviews, too, with John Cheever, Jean Rhys, etc. We have all three volumes and I highly recommend them.) The 84 year old Mailer also says, then, “I almost wouldn’t trust a young novelist who doesn’t imitate Hemingway in his youth”.

I once read an article about insects in the old Encyclopedia Britannica which said that from an evolutionary point of view, men have an excess of energy compared to male insects whose purpose is done once they have mated, which they use for making war, betting on horses, and writing literature. Hemingway and Mailer both. Oh, and don't forget boxing. They both loved boxing, too.

I recommend: Norman Mailer's great novel about World War II The naked and the dead and his account of the Ali-Foreman Heavyweight Championship fight in Zaire, The Fight.

Ditulis Oleh : tosca // 03:30


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