Waugh and Norman Mailer: “The Naked and the Read”

This week’s TLS has an article (“The Naked and the Read”) about Norman Mailer’s library. This is by J Michael Lennon, Mailer’s archivist and authorized biographer. Mailer seems to have been a book accumulator rather than a book collector like Waugh. He possessed over 7,000 volumes scattered over four locations: two in Brooklyn and two in Provincetown. He spent over $1,000 a month on books but was not interested in first or rare editions, only in their contents. Indeed, according to Lennon, if there was a passage or section to which he wanted to refer at some event, he would rip out the relevant pages. This was true whether the book was a signed first edition or a mass market paperback. Sometimes he taped the pages back into the book, sometimes not.

His main interests were American and French literature (he had a working knowledge of French) but he also included British writers in his library. According to Lennon:

… his favourite authors [were] those he listed on seven published surveys. They were: Dos Passos (on all seven), Tolstoy (six), Spengler, Thomas Wolfe and Marx (five), Dostoevsky, Stendhal, Hemingway and James T. Farrell (four), as well as Malraux and Steinbeck on three occasions. Several other writers are listed twice, including Melville, Borges and E. M. Forster, the only English author.

His interest in British writers extended beyond Forster, however, as we noted in a previous post where he mentioned admiring Waugh during an interview by William F Buckley. Lennon goes on to explain the extent of Mailer’s interest in British literature:

Mailer may have been more influenced by French novelists than British ones, but he nevertheless admired the skills of the latter. During a visit to London in the autumn of 1961, he told an interviewer, “Sentence for sentence, the good British authors write better than we do. I’m thinking of people like Amis, Waugh, Graham Greene. Some are bad: I’ve never been able to read Joyce Cary”…. On the other hand, he owned most of Forster’s novels. Forster was not “one of the novelists I admire most. But I have learned a lot from him” […]

His best-loved British novelist was Graham Greene; he once said that The End of the Affair was the best anatomy of a love affair he had ever read (the fact that Greene wrote to him to say that he was “moved and excited” by the “magnificent” Advertisements for Myself did no harm to their relationship). […] Speaking on the BBC programme Omnibus in 1971, Mailer praised Nineteen Eighty-Four for its “profoundly prophetic vision of a world filled with dull, awful, profoundly picayune little wars . . . that would kill the world slowly”. Orwell admired Mailer’s work, and said in a letter in 1949 that The Naked and the Dead was “awfully good, the best war book of the last war yet”, a comment that appeared on paperback copies of the novel for decades. Some of the other British books on the shelves are The Mill on the Floss, Women in Love (discussed at length in The Prisoner of Sex, 1971), The Good Soldier and Cyril Connolly’s The Missing Diplomats, a non-fiction examination of the scandal surrounding the Cambridge spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, which Mailer probably consulted for Harlot’s Ghost. The earliest book by a British writer is Charlotte Brontë’s final novel, Villette (1853), a Folio Society edition which shows no dog ears. There is nothing by Austen, Dickens, Trollope, or Hardy.

Waugh and Mailer met at least once, in 1961 (probably during the visit mentioned above), at a party in Somerset given by a Mrs Kidd. Waugh told Ann Fleming in a 23 September 1961 letter that one of the horses “bit an American pornographer who tried to give it vodka.” This was Mailer, accompanied by Mrs Kidd’s daughter, Lady Jean Campbell (whom Mailer later married). Waugh’s letter continues:

I had never met Lady Jean Campbell and was fascinated. She came to us next day bringing the bitten pornographer. He might have come straight from your salon–a swarthy gangster just out of a mad house where he had been sent after an attempt to cut his wife’s throat. It is his first visit to England. His tour is Janet Kidd, Randolph, Ian Argyll. He will be able to write a revealing pornogram of English life.

Mailer responded to this description, apparently in response to a letter of enquiry from Mark Amory:

The horse did bite me on the finger but I was not feeding him vodka, just patting his nose…I did not cut my wife’s throat…Jean Campbell asked me what I thought of him [Waugh] and I said ‘Lots of fun. Much sweeter than I expected.’ Letters, 572-73.

The archives of both writers have come to rest in the same building at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas.

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