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Novelists at Arms
January/February 2012

This must have been in 1961, when our paths briefly crossed. I was appearing, live, on an ITV arts programme run by Kenneth Tynan, interviewing Clement Attlee. Shortly before transmission, Tynan came to me in a panic, saying one of his interviewers had let him down. Could I do Norman Mailer as well? I reluctantly agreed. I did not know much about Mailer, less well-known in those days than he later became. Indeed I confused him with James Jones, a natural mistake then. I did not know much about him either, but I had heard about him attending a school for writers, which struck me as odd, though interesting. Mailer had not flourished as a war novelist either. His real war was not against a national enemy but against women — his wives. He was eventually to marry six. He had then just parted from Number Two, having knifed her during a fight and, after being sent briefly to a psychiatric hospital, received a suspended sentence for assault. The experience still smarted.

I began by asking "James Jones" about his spell in the writer's school. Unfortunately I did not know its name. "Did you find being in this — er — institution helped your writing?" Mailer, surprised, hesitated, then asked aggressively: "No — why should it?" I said: "Well, I thought that was the object of going there." Still more aggressively, Mailer said: "That's not what the judge said." I then realised something was wrong and hastily changed the subject. Mailer calmed down, but afterwards said: "Don't ever think you can take liberties with me, Mister Fancy-pants Englishman."

Thus the Americans. What of the English? A number made the attempt. But only three, it seems to me, were really significant: Olivia Manning, Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh. They were markedly older than Mailer and Jones, closer to Hemingway's generation. He was born in 1899, Waugh in 1903, Powell in 1905, Manning in 1908. But unlike Hemingway, they had missed the First World War completely. Each had published novels before the war: Manning one, Powell and Waugh five. But Waugh had produced other books: he was an established, almost a famous, writer. The wars of all three were very different and their methods of fictionalising them radically so. That of course is all to the good, for us the readers.

Manning had what she regarded as an appalling childhood with an elderly, impoverished naval father, and a mother from Ulster, daughter of an American slave-owner. Her early years described in her novels are "screams of pain and wounds remembered". She earned her living from her teens as best she could, and sometimes starved. She had to drop her plans to be an artist (something she shared with Waugh and Powell, which perhaps helps to explain the acute visual capability of all three). Her career as a novelist was a struggle against desperate odds. She sold the copyright of three novels for £20 each. At the beginning of the war she married Reggie Smith, a British Council official, to whom she clung with despairing affection, much intensified by the death of her only brother — the only member of her family she loved — in 1943. Unfortunately Smith never recognised the nature of her anxieties and pursued a dangerous career on the frontiers of the war with a reckless disregard for his wife's feelings, conscious only of an "overwhelming duty" to serve English literature.

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Seamus Dolphin
February 2nd, 2012
9:02 AM
An interesting and enjoyable article. I am surprised that there is no mention of Catch 22 or any appropriate non-UK European novels. Surely there must be some?

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