Commentary Magazine


Barbary Shore, by Norman Mailer

Lapse of a Novelist
Barbary Shore.
By Norman Mailer.
Rinehart. 312 pp. $3.00.

 

The war gave Norman Mailer a very good novel in The Naked and the Dead. This is not meant to be any reflection upon his talents, which showed themselves in that book to be extraordinary, but only a simple observation of the fact that the situation of war could help the American novelist solve that most drastic of his problems: the attempt to cope with the vast formless and heterogeneous welter of American life and American characters. The war threw all manner of individuals together, bound them tightly in the common life of some military unit, exposed always to the primitive facts of courage, suffering, and death; and the novelist dealing with any such unit could get a cross section of American life that the civilian novelist could hardly hope for. When pushed, the war novelist had always, too, the effective recourse to the excitement and drama of sheer physical action. Thus Mailer made the most of his opportunity and wrote what is, so far as I know, the best novel by an American about the Second World War. After finishing the book, one wondered whether he could go on from this initial success to solve equally well the problems of the civilian novelist.

This, his second novel, gives a dishearteningly negative answer to that question. Barbary Shore is a failure as a novel, and all the more dismal a failure when compared with the virtues of The Naked and the Dead. And yet, paradoxically enough, this is in many respects a much smoother technical performance than The Naked and the Dead, which was often crude and stumbling in its writing. Mailer has here a better control of pace, his narrative moves more smoothly and tightly, and the passages of gauche banality are not in evidence. But that is about all that can be said by way of favorable comparison with the first novel; for where The Naked and the Dead triumphed, despite any crudities of writing, by the sense of raw life that Mailer was able to get across, the failure of the present work is precisely its final deficiency in life. At the end, nothing remains from one’s reading of it; the whole substance of the book evaporates into a kind of ghostly unreality.

Since Mailer has attempted here to write a political and ideological novel, a genre that is fast becoming a dominant one in this century, the reasons for his failure take us into some fundamental questions about politics and literature that it will be worthwhile examining.

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The action of the novel centers around a handful of characters in a rooming house in Brooklyn Heights, where the hero, Michael Lovett, a young man who has been in the war, has settled to write his novel. He remembers the war from time to time only as some vague and unreal nightmare from which he is trying to awaken, and it is characteristic of the ghostliness that Mailer tries to inject into his story that the war should hover so dimly in the background, as if the author himself were also forgetting all the virtues of his first novel. Lovett’s neighbors in the rooming house are: McLeod, an ex-Communist and GPU agent, who has dropped out of the party, gone underground, and finally turns up as a convert to Trotskyism (the real thing, and not the customary Communist version of it); and Hollingsworth, who is discovered eventually to be an agent of the FBI, but who looks, at his first appearance, like any number of those rather weird corn-fed Midwestern youths one can find around almost any metropolitan YMCA. The female complement are: a schizophrenic young bohemian, Lannie Madison, whom Mailer deploys for some vague dramatic purposes as a kind of crazed Ophelia of the Trotskyite movement; and the landlady, Guinevere, an ex-burlesque queen, a woman of ample and lusty proportions, but also narcissistic and frigid, who turns out toward the end of the novel to be the secret wife of McLeod—perhaps a just retribution for his former activities in the GPU. The plot concerns Hollingsworth’s efforts to extract, with the kind of patient inhumanity of the GPU itself, a confession of some secrets from McLeod. The very plain implication of this is, of course, that the United States, as shown by its use of an FBI, is fundamentally no different as a society from Soviet Russia.

Neither these weird goings-on in the rooming house nor the characters themselves succeed in being altogether believable. Mailer wanted to invest his story with all the shadows of melodrama, but it never comes down to earth like good melodrama; and his characters, whom he has tried to make grotesques, never have that richness of life that alone can save the grotesque from being pasteboard caricature. The characters are not without their stirrings of life: Hollingsworth and Guinevere are good ideas for characters, never fully worked out, and at the first appearance of Lannie, I had the shock of recognition of one of those vacuous and haunted faces in Greenwich Village. But these stirrings of life never sprout, something has happened in the author to choke off their growth. The last thing it would seem to be is failure of talent: Mailer gives enough indications that he has a sufficient grip on these people to do something with them. But in this novel he is just too perplexed by the concerns of world history to attend to the novelist’s normal business of giving life to his own creations. The novel itself lets you know in no uncertain terms that Mailer is more interested in his ideology than his people: for the real climax comes, not with any dramatic revelation of emotion or situation, but with McLeod’s long tirade analyzing the present political state of mankind and its hopes for the future.

Now, for the novelist to sacrifice life for ideology is bad enough in any case, but when the ideology is a poor one, the fault becomes nothing short of a disaster. Mailer has, I think, considerably more talent as a novelist than Arthur Koestler; yet when Koestler gives up the novel to ideology, he usually manages to pull off something journalistically brilliant because his politics is intelligent, informed, and relevant. Mailer’s radicalism, on the other hand, is hardly more than an adolescent daydream, and a very misleading one in its own political terms. The world, he finds, is now divided between the two colossi, Russia and the United States, both of which represent something he calls “State Capitalism,” and in the conflict between the two there is no rational ground for choosing either side. The part of political wisdom is to wait for some resurgence of a revolutionary proletariat that will overthrow both giants.

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All of this is the familiar Trotskyite line about a “third camp,” and it is probably out of place in this review to go into any detailed refutation of it. “State Capitalism” is a large empty abstraction that describes neither the economy of the United States nor that of the USSR. The protagonist, who is also the narrator of the story, tells us that he is haunted by a youthful imagination of one moment in history when the proletariat in Petrograd crawled to glory under the belly of a Cossack’s horse. Mailer seems to be remembering here Trotsky’s account, in his History of the Russian Revolution, of the mass demonstration that set off the February Revolution (notice, not the October Revolution). This is the kind of heroic political dream we used to nourish ourselves with when we were kids in the 30′s. The proletariat never crawled to glory except in the pages of Trotsky’s book, which must be judged from what we now know as nothing less than a romance and a falsification of the Russian Revolution. The February Revolution was defeated by the Bolshevik coup of October, and the possibility of political democracy was in turn defeated as early as January 1918 with the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly. After all the totalitarian rule in this century (most of it with a mass base), only a very stubbornly wishful intransigence can permit anyone to go on cultivating the old mystique of the proletariat. The important questions are: who directs the proletariat? under what political form? and with what preservation of decency in the ordinary ways of life?

This last throws an altogether different light on Mailer’s politics. After all, one can’t demand that a novelist (even a political novelist) be an expert in economics and history, but one does require that he have an imagination for the concrete facts of daily life. And from this point of view, surely Mailer must know that there is an abyss of difference between life in the United States and in the USSR, and that it is the worst kind of foolishness to say there is no choice between these two ways of life. It is a mark of the degree to which Mailer has let sweeping abstractions run away with his novelistic gifts that he should never seem to see the problem in these ordinary terms. No doubt, the FBI in some of its current operations needs some judicial and legislative check or review, but it is empty fantasy to assert, or imply, that the ordinary American in his daily life is surrendered to the mercy of this agency in the way that the ordinary Russian lives in the shadow of Stalin’s secret police.

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But all this political argumentation only brings us now to what is, I believe, the central point about the political novel. The risk the political novelist takes is not so much that his politics will be false, as that, to put it rather paradoxically, he will take politics itself too seriously. The greatest political novels have been written by men who were disabused with politics or at least saw in it something partial and subordinate, something that did not exhaust the content of life. (Even apart from the novel, this may be the best way to regard politics if one is to avoid political fanaticism: the great heritage of Anglo-Saxon liberalism is precisely that political democracy is a necessary instrument for securing certain goods, and not a mystique.) Dostoevsky, Stendhal, and Henry James are examples from the 19 th century. In this century the most successful political novelists have been Andre Malraux and Ignazio Silone. Malraux has produced in Man’s Fate what is probably the best of the Marxist novels; yet Marxism was only one ingredient in the work, whose dramatic effect was achieved by a tension between the immense Oriental sense of human destiny and Malraux’s Western and Nietzschean notions of tragic action and tragic courage. (From the beginning there was always more Nietzsche than Marx in Malraux’s thinking.) Silone’s novels were carried largely by a sense of the realities of peasant life which drew their sustenance from an antique Christianity.

The point, in short, is that wherever the writer succeeds in this difficult genre, it is because he finds the sources of feeling in human realities deeper than politics, so that life appears in his pages as life and not a mere political or dialectical blueprint. If Arthur Koestler’s brilliant novels look so thin beside the great examples of this genre, it is precisely because they are intellectual and only intellectual, and therefore have no deep roots in the substance of life that has always been the subject matter of literature. Of course, in this period politics has become the chief arena of human destiny, and our writers will inevitably be drawn into dealing with it. But the political novelist had better have an eye to watching that he is not driven by the same motives that now lead so many people into their political passions and faiths: the age is so emotionally thin and dried up that people switch into politics emotions that should go elsewhere.

Still, no comment on this book should conclude on a purely negative note. The Naked and the Dead was not a freak, and the present work gives abundant indications of Mailer’s talents. Moreover, Mailer has a stubborn integrity, and he can be counted on to escape the American blight of the broad and easy path after an early success. If he is suffering here from the youthful growing pains of integrity, his stubbornness is such that it can push him on to something more mature. The present book may very well be only a momentary regrouping of forces before his reconnaissance moves forward again into the enemy country.

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