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Cultural cohesion, p.48
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       Cultural Cohesion, p.48

           Clive James
 

  “The drinking” has not reappeared, but “the joking” is there to make up for it. We hear of an historical period called “the time of Hitler.” “It is of a windiness,” says someone in a German train, and although this might just conjecturably sound like half-translated German, what it can’t help sounding like is Hemingway’s half-translated Spanish. Out-takes from The Old Man and the Sea abound:

  You are good in boats not alone from knowledge, but because water is a part of you, you are easy on it, fear it and like it in such equal parts that you work well in a boat without thinking about it and may be even safer because you don’t need to think too much. That is what we mean by instinct and there is no way to explain an instinct for the theatre, although those who have it recognize each other and a bond is formed between them.

  Such passages read like E. B. White’s classic parody Across the Street and into the Grill, in which White established once and for all that Hemingway’s diction could not be copied, not even by Hemingway. Nor are these echoes mere lapses: her whole approach to moral-drawing is Hemingway’s—the excitations, the pacing and the intensifications, if I may borrow Richard Poirier’s terminology.

  That is what I thought about Aunt Lily until I made the turn and the turn was as sharp as only the young can make when they realize their values have been shoddy.

  Or try this:

  There are many ways of falling in love and one seldom is more interesting or valid than another unless, of course, one of them lasts so long that it becomes something else, like your arm or leg about which you neither judge nor protest.

  Her approach to anecdote is Hemingway’s as well. Not just in the dialogue, which is American Vernacular to the last degree (“You are fine ladies,” I said after a while, “the best”), but in the withholding of information—the tip-of-the-iceberg effect. On occasions this works. She is good at showing how children get hold of the wrong end of the stick, giving their loyalties passionately to the wrong people. The first chapter, set in her childhood New Orleans and dealing with a girl called Bethe, shows us the young Lillian failing to understand that Bethe is a hoodlum’s girlfriend. We are supplied with this information so grudgingly ourselves that it is easy to identify with the young Lillian’s confusion. In other chapters, dealing with characters who entered her life much later on, we are already equipped with knowledge of our own about the relevant period and tend to find the by now less young Lillian’s slowness to comprehend a bit of a strain, especially when the period in question is the Time of Hitler.

  For action, the chapter about a girl called Julia is the best thing in the book. A childhood friend who went back to Europe, Julia was in the Karl Marx Hof in Vienna when the Austrian government troops (abetted by the local Nazis) bombarded it. She lost a leg, but kept on with the fight against Fascism. Apparently Miss Hellman, passing through Germany on her way to Russia, smuggled 50,000 dollars to Julia in her hat. The money was used to spring 500 prisoners. Miss Hellman was in no small danger when engaged on this enterprise and the results unquestionably constituted a more impressive political effectiveness than most of us ever accomplish. She still revels in the nitty-grittiness of it all: she liked 1930s radicalism a lot better than twenties “rebellion”—the twenties were all style and she is properly contemptuous of style in that vitiated sense.

  But with all that said, we are still left with key questions unanswered. Miss Hellman says that she has changed Julia’s name because she is “not sure that even now the Germans like their premature anti-Nazis.” Since they like them well enough to have made one of them Chancellor of West Germany, it’s permissible to assume that Miss Hellman means something more interesting, and that Julia was a member of the Communist Party. If she was, it’s difficult to see why Miss Hellman can’t come straight out and say so. If she fears that we might think the less of the young Julia for it, she surely overestimates the long-term impact of McCarthyism on her readership. Or is she just compelled to be vague?

  For the truth is that the Julia chapter, like all the others, happens in a dream. Despite the meticulously recollected minutiae, the story reads like a spy-sketch by Nichols and May, even down to the bewilderingly complicated instructions (“You have two hours, but we haven’t that long together because you have to be followed to the station and the ones who follow you must have time to find the man who will be with you on the train until Warsaw in the morning”) Julia breathes to Lillian under the noses of the lurking Gestapo.

  To have been there, to have seen it, and yet still be able to write it down so that it rings false—it takes a special kind of talent. But there are stretches of her writing which somehow manage to sound true, even through the blanket of her supposedly transparent prose. She liked Samuel Goldwyn and has the guts to say so. Whether or not it took bravery to like him, it still takes bravery to admit it. She is, of course, perfectly right to admire Goldwyn above Irving Thalberg. Here again her suspicion of Style led her to the truth. Scott Fitzgerald, infinitely more sensitive but overendowed with reverence, fell for Thalberg full length.

  Less prominent this time but still compulsively invoked, the true hero of Pentimento is Dashiell Hammett. Theirs, I think, will be remembered as a great love. The only thing that could possibly delay the legend would be Miss Hellman’s indefatigable determination to feed its flames. In this volume the Nick-and-Nora-Charles dialogue reads as much like a screenplay as it did in the previous one.

  I phoned the Beverly Hills house from the restaurant. I said to Hammett, “I’m in New Orleans. I’m not coming back to Hollywood for a while and I didn’t want you to worry.”

  “How are you?” he said.

  “O.K. and you?”

  “I’m O.K. I miss you.”

  “I miss you, too. Is there a lady in my bedroom?”

  He laughed. “I don’t think so, but they come and go. Except you. You just go.”

  “I had good reason,” I said.

  “Yes,” he said, “you did.”

  I like it now and my mother liked it then, when William Powell and Myrna Loy rattled it off to each other in the thirties. The Thin Man movies, with their unquestioned assumption that man and wife were equal partners, played a vital part in raising the expectations of women everywhere. Such are the unappraised impulses of modern history—when the fuss dies down it turns out that turns of speech and tones of voice mattered just as much as battles.

  On Broadway Lillian Hellman took her chances among the men, a pioneer women’s liberationist. Her plays were bold efforts, indicative social documents which are unlikely to be neglected by students, although as pieces for the theatre they will probably date: they are problem plays whose problems are no longer secrets, for which in some measure we have her to thank. She is a tough woman who has almost certainly not been relishing the patronizing critical practice—more common in America than here, and let’s keep it that way—of belatedly indicating gratitude for strong early work by shouting unbridled hosannas for pale, late stuff that has a certain documentary value but not much more. She says at one point in Pentimento that in her time on Broadway she was always denied the benefits of the kind of criticism which would take her properly to task.

  The New Review, May 1974;

  later included in At the Pillars of Hercules, 1979

  POSTSCRIPT

  Later on it became commonplace to treat Lillian Hellman as a fantasist, but it was a subversive thing to suggest at the time, and if I had tried it in a more established publication the lawyers would have been called in. Luckily The New Review was as blissfully impractical in legal matters as in all others, so I got the chance to be early with the news. I had no personal knowledge. I just guessed from her prose style that she couldn’t lie straight in bed, as we say in Australia. Right to the end, she never gave up on the pretence that she had been a martyr in the defence of liberty. Certainly there was nothing nice about McCarthyism, but in the long view of history it was a love bite compared to the crimes she had endorsed, first by her approbation and la
ter by her silence. Glamour, which knows no politics, eventually wrapped her in a mink coat, as one of the “legends” in an advertising campaign. I would have liked to have been wearing that coat when I finally met her socially, at a dinner party in London towards the end of her life. She gave me the shivers. Like Winifred Wagner, who looked back on Hitler with the same fond understanding Hellman bestowed on Stalin, Hellman spoke as if the pre-war past had been her personal fiefdom, and unless you had been there you couldn’t know the ins and outs. She had been there all right, but had missed the point completely: a gift that can masquerade as integrity if it survives long enough to attain legendary status, whereupon small furry animals are slain in its honour, and their pelts are sewn together at the edges to keep it warm.

  2003

  32

  MAILER’S MARILYN

  “She was a fruitcake,” Tony Curtis once told an interviewer on BBC television, and there can’t be much doubt that she was. Apart from conceding that the camera was desperately in love with her, professional judgements of Marilyn Monroe’s attributes rarely go much further. It would be strange if they did: there’s work to be done, and a girl blessed with equivalent magic might happen along any time—might even not be a fruitcake. Amateur judgements, on the other hand, are free to flourish. Norman Mailer’s new book, Marilyn, is just such a one.

  Even if its narrative were not so blatantly, and self-admittedly, cobbled together from facts already available in other biographies, the Mailer Marilyn would still be an amateur piece of work. Its considerable strength lies in that limitation. As far as talent goes, Marilyn Monroe was so minimally gifted as to be almost unemployable, and anyone who holds to the opinion that she was a great natural comic identifies himself immediately as a dunce. For purposes best known to his creative demon, Mailer planes forward on the myth of her enormous talent like a drunken surfer. Not for the first time, he gets further by going with the flow than he ever could have done by cavilling. Thinking of her as a genius, he can call her drawbacks virtues, and so deal—unimpeded by scepticism—with the vital mystery of her presence.

  Mailer’s adoration is as amateurish as an autograph hunter’s. But because of it we are once again, and this time ideally, reminded of his extraordinary receptivity. That the book should be an embarrassing and embarrassed rush-job is somehow suitable. The author being who he is, the book might as well be conceived in the most chaotic possible circumstances. The subject is, after all, one of the best possible focal points for his chaotic view of life. There is nothing detached or calculating about that view. It is hot-eyed, errant, unhinged. Writhing along past a gallery of yummy photographs, the text reads as the loopiest message yet from the Mailer who scared Sonny Liston with thought waves, made the medical breakthrough which identified cancer as the thwarted psyche’s revenge and first rumbled birth control as the hidden cause of pregnancy. And yet Marilyn is one of Mailer’s most interesting things. Easy to punish, it is hard to admire—like its subject. But admire it we must—like its subject. The childishness of the whole project succeeds in emitting a power that temporarily calls adulthood into question: The Big Book of the Mad Girl. Consuming it at a long gulp, the reader ponders over and over again Mailer’s copiously fruitful aptitude for submission. Mailer is right to trust his own foolishness, wherever it leads: even if the resulting analysis of contemporary America impresses us as less diagnostic than symptomatic.

  Not solely for the purpose of disarming criticism, Mailer calls his Marilyn a biography in novel form. The parent novel, we quickly guess, is The Deer Park, and we aren’t seventy-five pages into this new book before we find Charles Francis Eitel and Elena Esposito being referred to as if they were people living in our minds—which, of course, they are. The permanent party of The Deer Park (“if desires were deeds, the history of the night would end in history”) is still running, and the atom bomb that lit the desert’s rim for Sergius O’Shaugnessy and Lulu Meyers flames just as bright. But by now Sergius is out from under cover: he’s Norman Mailer. And his beloved film star has been given a real name too: Marilyn Monroe. Which doesn’t necessarily make her any the less fictional. By claiming the right to launch vigorous imaginative patrols from a factual base, Mailer gives himself an easy out from the strictures of verisimilitude, especially when the facts are discovered to be contradictory. But Mailer’s fantasizing goes beyond expediency. Maurice Zolotow, poor pained scrivener, can sue Mailer all he likes, but neither he nor the quiescent Fred Lawrence Guiles will ever get his Marilyn back. Mailer’s Marilyn soars above the known data, an apocalyptic love-object no mundane pen-pusher could dream of reaching. Dante and Petrarch barely knew Beatrice and Laura. It didn’t slow them down. Mailer never met Marilyn at all. It gives him the inside track.

  Critical fashion would have it that since The Deer Park reality has been busy turning itself into a novel. As Philip Roth said it must, the extremism of real events has ended up by leaving the creative imagination looking like an also-ran. A heroine in a 1950s novel, Lulu was really a girl of the 1940s—she had some measure of control over her life. Mailer now sees that the young Marilyn was the true fifties heroine—she had no control over her life whatsoever. In the declension from Lulu as Mailer then saw her to Marilyn as he sees her now, we can clearly observe what is involved in dispensing with the classical, shaping imagination and submitting one’s talent (well, Mailer’s talent) to the erratic forces of events. Marilyn, says Mailer, was every man’s love affair with America. He chooses to forget now that Sergius was in love with something altogether sharper, just as he chooses to forget that for many men Marilyn in fact represented most of the things that were to be feared about America. Worshipping a doll was an activity that often came into question at the time. Later on, it became a clever critical point to insist that the doll was gifted: she walks, she talks, she plays Anna Christie at the Actors’ Studio. Later still, the doll was canonized. By the time we get to this book, it is as though there had never been any doubt: the sickness of the 1950s lay, not in overvaluing Marilyn Monroe, but in undervaluing her.

  . . .

  Marilyn, says Mailer, suggested sex might be as easy as ice cream. He chooses to forget that for many men at the time she suggested sex might have about the same nutritional value. The early photographs by André de Dienes—taken before her teeth were fixed but compensating by showing an invigorating flash of panty above the waistline of her denims—enshrine the essence of her snuggle-pie sexuality, which in the ensuing years was regularized, but never intensified, by successive applications of oomph and class. Adorable, dumb tomato, she was the best of the worst. As the imitators, and imitators of the imitators, were put into the field behind her, she attained the uniqueness of the paradigm, but that was the sum total of her originality as a sex bomb. Any man in his right mind would have loved to have her. Mailer spends a good deal of the book trying to drum up what mystical significance he can out of that fact, without even once facing the possibility of that fact representing the limitation of her sexuality—the criticism of it, and the true centre of her tragedy. Her screen presence, the Factor X she possessed in the same quantity as Garbo, served mainly to potentiate the sweetness. The sweetness of the girl bride, the unwomanly woman, the femme absolutely not fatale.

  In her ambition, so Faustian, and in her ignorance of culture’s dimensions, in her liberation and her tyrannical desires, her noble democratic longings intimately contradicted by the widening pool of her narcissism (where every friend and slave must bathe), we can see the magnified mirror of ourselves, our exaggerated and now all but defeated generation, yes, she ran a reconnaissance through the 50s. . . .

  Apart from increasing one’s suspicions that the English sentence is being executed in America, such a passage of rhetorical foolery raises the question of whether the person Mailer is trying to fool with it might not conceivably be himself. If “magnified mirror of ourselves” means anything, it must include Mailer. Is Mailer ignorant of culture’s dimensions? The answer, one fears, being not
that he is, but that he would like to be—so that he could write more books like Marilyn. As Mailer nuzzles up beside the shade of this poor kitten to whom so much happened but who could cause so little to happen, you can hear the purr of sheer abandon. He himself would like very much to be the man without values, expending his interpretative powers on whatever the world declared to be important. Exceptional people, Mailer says (these words are almost exactly his, only the grammar having been altered, to unveil the epigram), have a way of living with opposites in themselves that can be called schizophrenia only when it fails. The opposite in Mailer is the hick who actually falls for all that guff about screen queens, voodoo prizefighters and wonder-boy presidents. But his way of living with it hasn’t yet quite failed. And somehow, it must be admitted, he seems to get further, see deeper, than those writers who haven’t got it to live with.

  In tracing Marilyn’s narcissism back to her fatherless childhood, our author is at his strongest. His propensity for scaling the mystical ramparts notwithstanding, Mailer in his Aquarius/Prisoner role is a lay psychologist of formidable prowess. The self-love and the unassuageable need to have it confirmed—any fatherless child is bound to recognize the pattern, and be astonished at how the writing generates the authentic air of continuous panic. But good as this analysis is, it still doesn’t make Marilyn’s narcissism ours. There is narcissism and there is narcissism, and to a depressing degree Marilyn’s was the sadly recognizable version of the actress who could read a part but could never be bothered reading a complete script. Mailer knows what it took Marilyn to get to the top: everything from betraying friends to lying down under geriatric strangers. Given the system, Marilyn was the kind of monster equipped to climb through it. What’s debilitating is that Mailer seems to have given up imagining other systems. He is right to involve himself in the dynamics of Hollywood; he does better by enthusiastically replaying its vanished games than by standing aloof; but for a man of his brains he doesn’t despise the place enough. His early gift for submitting himself to the grotesqueness of reality is softening with the years into a disinclination to argue with it. In politics he still fights on, although with what effect on his allies one hesitates to think. But in questions of culture—including, damagingly, the cultural aspects of politics—he has by now come within an ace of accepting whatever is as right. His determination to place on Marilyn the same valuation conferred by any sentimentalist is a sure token.

 
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