(some proofing 6/03/09)
[First: to all the people who have arrived at this link looking for Mailer: THERE IS A REVIEW HERE PEOPLE, GODDAMN IT. JUST SCROLL DOWN IF YOU DON'T WANT TO HEAR ABOUT THE WORD 'TOME' and its associaton with WALLOW.")
Two years ago, coming to the end of a 5-week trek around Western Europe, I found myself sitting on the balcony of a small, stylish, Berlin bachelor pad talking to a wealthy young German in what was – alas -- mostly a phatic register. The conversation took place in English (my German correctly having been deemed inadequate for conversation with anyone over the age of 4), and had started rolling along at that basic, slightly dull level wherein all parties nod politely at each other, when I suddenly confounded my interlocutor by my use of the word “tome”.
The speaker, despite the sophisticated and even idiomatic English which so many Germans seem to pull off with the same irritating ease that child prodigies complete binomial equations, had never come across this word. He thus asked me whether I either knew the German equivalent or could venture an explanation of the word in English. My first reaction, after shaking my head sadly at the prospect of supplying the German, was to make an expansive hand-gesture implying vastness and saying something inane about ‘bigness, and especially thickness in the book department.’
This prompted my interlocutor to say a word in German that I (
To my delight, my acquaintance then went on to inform me that said word, which I have now stupidly forgotten: came from a German verb meaning “to wallow”. Actually, my acquaintance didn’t know the word ‘wallow’ either, but he did provide about as good a ‘rolling about gleefully in the mud’ simulation as it is possible can do while sitting in a chair and eating a strawberry-banana-honey combination that was his upper-middle class equivalent of my more pedestrian breakfast cereal.
Although I was quite delighted that there was a German word for a big-fat-book-in-which-one-wallows (indeed, I vowed to remember it!) I wasn’t quite sure that this word actually counted as a good synonym for ‘tome’, because ‘tome’, to my mind, has connotations of portentousness that didn’t, I thought, seem to go particularly well with the idea of wallowing.
The problem was that I tend to think of a “tome” as implying something of a grimoire-like quality in a book. If we consult the always helpful guidebook of cliché, a tome, we find is something that one ‘pores over’. We open the tome carefully and then slowly search for arcana caelstia amidst its crumbling vellum. We do not -- so the story goes -- simply flick pages with increasing rapidity as the revelation of the murderer’s identity approaches.
Thus: Spengler’s “Decline of the West” is a tome, as is Hegel’s “Science of Logic” . The Bible -- being a book suffiently tome-like to be referred to by the Latin word for 'book' plus definite article is indeed a tome amongst tomes. But when someone refers to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire as “tome-like” this would seem to me to involve at least a modicum of irony on behalf of the speaker – there is at least the vague implication that one is wasting time by allowing the latter the same forest-felling bulk as the former one is treating a mere divertissement as if it were the Zohar.
“Harlot’s Ghost” is Mailer’s second-to-last novel and also the one that was apparently best-loved by its author. It is a 1400 page "tome" that is definitely – and in the best sense -- something to wallow in. I do not, of course intend to demean the novel by this comment; on the contrary, I wish, precisely to elevate it to the tables of the Mighty, hoping that it would not cause the table to buckle.
The book is brilliant, thrilling, extravagant, and on many occasions reveals the hand of a master craftsman caught in the middle of showing a few of his apprentices just what experience, effort and a great deal of (possibly desperation fuelled) chutzpah can do over a span of decades, especially when the later is restrained by a 7 year-daily cycle of work.
I was leant the novel a few months ago, by a person with whom I’ve only recently become friends, and who – along with two others I met in the same milieu -- delighted me by seeming to possess a set of genuine literary passions developed outside of and thus unspoiled by the more tawdry vagaries of academic life. All three of my acquaintances lacked (and presumably still lack) the furtive look that young academics get in their eyes when talking about books. It’s a gleam that always implies that “one day I’ll get a journal article/grant application out of this; then EVERYONE will want to sleep with me."
So, anyway, this guy and I had been talking about Borges. We had discovered that we liked many of the same authors and thus generally had a good time talking cabbages and Kings. I did, however, blanche slightly (and, alas, I suspect visibly) when this person offered me (on the occasion of our next meeting, which was his brother’s buck’s night no less) Mailer’s 1400 page novel as something that I might enjoy. When was I going to get the time to scale this particular Kilimanjaro?, I asked myself, proving that I too am capable of thinking like a good academic hack. (c.f. "Hacks of Academe")
What would happent to all those journal articles that I had been busily not writing over the last few months?
I had never previously read anything by Mailer, although I did have an impression of the guy's gaudy beach-ball of a reputation.
In my mind Mailer's name invoked (in no particular order): ego; self-promotional tendencies stemming from ego; outrageous comments about women leading to periodic accusations of sexism if not misogyny; and -- above all else -- alimony payments sufficiently astronomical (did he have six wives or I am just getting confused with Henry VIII) to revive the fortunes of NASA or to conduct a small war in which troop transports are replaced by yachts. And all this while saying outrageous things in the name of a political position that seemed vaguely left-wing, but with idiosyncratic aberrations that emphasised the vagueness.
Added to this, I also had the impression of an author who wrote about incredibly macho things: boxing (I had seen, when I picked up the novel "When we were Kings"), war and so on. Because of this I had in my mind the distinctly snobbish idea – preposterous given that I have never actually read more than a couple of short stories by Hemingway – that our Norm would be, at best, some kind of embarrassing Hemingway manque who would be best left killing deer with automatic weapons rather than writing novels.
I was also dimly aware that Mailer was a 60s “liberal” (the American sense of the word comes, as I’ve said, uneasily to me, but I’m getting used to it) who had written a book called “Armies of the Night” about the March on Washington. I knew as well that he had made his name with a (first) novel based on his own experiences in the Second World War called “The Naked and The Dead.” (Mailer’s titles have, I note the peculiar characteristic of being evocative without being evocative of anything in particular...”The Naked and the Dead”? “Ancient Evenings?”, “Armies of the Night” -- all these strike an unfamiliar chord as if it were a familiar one. “Tough Guys Don’t Dance” , is a notable exception here, in that it at least seems to contain a recognizable (albeit, dubious) proposition.
But, anyway: the main impression I had of Mailer was of someone whose periodic bouts of public outrageousness got him more attention than his actual literary output.
Not having read his work, I wasn’t sure whether this was good for his literary reputation or bad.
I also got the feeling that he was someone who the press could count on to generally stir things up – either by making a fool of himself or by making a fool of someone else – but either way, someone who could be counted on to debate William F. Buckley Jr, when someone wanted to bait conservatives, or Gloria Steinem if they wanted to bait feminists.
The following passage from a review by Martin Amis of The Essential Mailer interspersed with some particularly ludicrous Mailer quotes:
“…On the next page we’re offered one of Mailer’s mayoralty speeches, an example of the lulling accents of suasion:
‘You’re not my friend if you interrupt me when I am talking ‘cause it just breaks into the mood in my mind. So f*!k you too. All right, I said you’re all a bunch of spoiled kids…I’ll tell you that, I’ll tell you that. You’ve been sittin’ around jerkin’ off, havin’ your jokes for twenty-two years. Yeah!”
And he still can’t understand why he came nowhere in the race.
‘For every lion of our human species there is…a trough of pigs, and the pigs root up everything good.’ Or in ‘verse’: You pick the bull back/far back along his spine…You will saw the horns off/and murmur/…ah, that the bulls are not/what they once were.’
The lone lion, the wounded, goaded bull – why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?
In a Playboy interview featured here, Mailer is invited to give his views on God: “I can see Him as someone who is like other men except more noble, more tortured, more desirous of a good that He wishes to receive and give to others – a tortuous ethical activity at which He may fail.” Now wait a minute: doesn’t this remind you of somebody.”
Amis brings it all out here: the ego, the clowning, even the alimony payments hover over these descriptions.
In a different review (of Mailer’s ‘Oswald’s Tale’) Amis, mentions that he regards “Harlot’s Ghost” as an unjustly underrated masterpiece. This is an opinion that seems to also be shared (“on the record”) by Amis’s close friend: the journalist, political pugilist, and self-proclaimed reincarnation of St. George (Orwell), Christopher Hitchens. It also seems to be shared by THEIR (Hitchens’ and Amis’s) (equally talented) MUTUAL friend Salman Rushdie.
It’s this kind of thing, this noisy public agreement amongst talented friends that has made more than a few resentful British journalists snipe at these writers for constituting (along with Ian McEwen) a kind of all-powerful Gang of Four whose imprimatur is alleged to be an indispensable condition for an author flourishing in the Sceptr'd Isle.
Doubtless, however, the kind of person who believes that her books would take over the world were it not for the hegemony of the English literary-mafia is likely to be something of a ressentiment fueled non-entity, and thus not particularly worth listening to. I imagined sour-grape mentioning schoolboys still smarting over an incident in which one of Our Boys publically pointed out a few solecisms in their first novel.
At any rate, I mention all this literary gossip Saftige or not because where “Harlot’s Ghost” is concerned, I’m going to have to put myself firmly – and delightedly -- on the side of the (ostensible!) British literary Mafia.
“Harlot’s Ghost” is a novel is about the CIA that lays an impressive claim to being, as the jacket of my friend's copy says, “a spy novel that dwarfs them all.”
At the beginning of the novel, we meet Harry Hubbard. Hubbard is in his late 40s and married to the beautiful Hadley Kittredge Gardiner. “Kittredge” is an alumnus of Radcliffe as well as a brilliant and original psychological theorist. Both Harry and Kittredge (the daughter of an English lecturer and renowned Shakespeare specialist) are attractive and accomplished products of the same patrician New England milieu from which most of their fellow CIA operatives -- in contrast to the more blue-collar FBI run by J. Edgar Hoover -- hail.
Returning one night from a guilty assignation, Hubbard returns to the island-cottage he shares with Kittredge to find his much adored wife locked in her room, refusing to see her husband and apparently speaking to the ghost of her ex-. He also finds a more than decorous number (i.e. three!) of armed CIA operatives lurking in the Hubbard shrubbery.
Moving from the shrubbery to one of his more comfortable sitting rooms, Harry encounters an old crony from his days of spy-training -- one Rosen -- who tells him that he and the aforementioned armed goons, are lingering with ambiguous intent at the Hubbard cottage because Hugh Trevor Montague a.k.a. “Harlot”, counter-intelligence luminary, and “grand old man” of the CIA is dead. But that then again, he might not be.
At any rate a body has been found, and Montague has disappeared, a fact which lights up the sky with all kinds of signs and portents that are likely to shine irrespective of which explanation plucked from the vast needle-stack of ensuing speculations proves true.
We soon find out that “Harlot” is Harry’s godfather, his lifelong mentor and also the ex-husband Kittredge who divorced Harlot 10 years ago in order to marry Harry.
As events unfold, and Hubbard speculates with Rosen on the implications of Harlot’s apparent death (is it murder? Suicide? An elaborately staged-fake allowing Harlot to disappear to retirement…or to Moscow?), we find out about Hubbard’s affair with Kittredge, begun some 10 years earlier while Kittredge was still married to Harlot.
Tragically, the beginning of the long-deferred affair between Kittredge and Harry was immediately succeeded by a mountaineering accident in which, Christopher – Harlot and Kittredge's 10 year old son plummeted to his death, and Harlot himself broke his spine.
With the accident, Harlot is transformed from a man fit enough to use mountain- climbing exploits as a means of questioning God as to the rightness of his many Byzantine counter-intelligence causes, into a wheelchair-bound picture of Nemesis-restrained who spends the first few years after Harry’s marriage to Kittredge sending his betrayers ominous (if cryptic) T.S. Eliot quotations (“I shall show you fear in a handful of dust”).
A few years before the incident of Harlot’s apparent death, but after his ‘accident’, Harlot and Harry have apparently undergone some minor form of reconciliation, at least such that Harlot has brought his former protégé in on a super-secret project involving the mysterious “High Holies”. Who or what the “High Holies” are is never really explained, except that we get a distinct sense that they are the subject of Harlot's final and most secretive counter-intelligence operation -- one that seems to involve every tantalizing thing about the CIA that we might care to imagine: Watergate and the Kennedy assassination; the suspicious death of Dorothy (wife of Watergate burglar and CIA man) Hunt. But at any rate we know that the "High Holies" are a shibboleth for mega-secrets, the secrets which would serve as keys to which all other secrets are simply doors. The discovery of the 'high holies' secrets would, we realise, illuminate everything if their light didn’t seem precisely responsible for casting the shadows that obscured the truth in the first place.
The reader is told about all the things I have just mentioned, within the first hundred or so pages of the novel, which purports to be a manuscript written by Harry Hubbard called ‘Omega’. By the end of the ‘Omega’ section, we have seen Hubbard speculate on whether they have really found the body of Harlot or whether he has staged his own disappearance to defect to the Soviets. We then follow Hubbard, in the year 1983, starting his own journey to Moscow, leaving Kittredge (who has admitted to having an affair with a man who may be Harlot’s murderer) behind at the cottage.
The purpose for Harry’s journey is not disclosed until the end of the novel, but in a way the purpose is both obvious (and finally, ambiguous) enough for us to already know what Harry is up to without the final (two page or so) vignette in Moscow.
Safely ensconced in a dilapidated Moscow hotel, Harry starts to read over a manuscript that he has brought with him in microfilm, a manuscript that has been written over the last decade breaking any number of oaths of office. The manuscript is an autobiography, which details his life from his boyhood in the 1950s through to 1965, a few years before the beginning of his affair with Harlot’s wife and before Nixon, Watergate, and the assassination of Bobby Kennedy.
Harry’s autobiographical manuscript (entitled “Alpha” or “The Game”) is then offered to us in the form of the next 1200 pages of the novel.
As we pass through this veritable forest of paper, we get to see the initially jejune Harry Hubbard, growing up destined for a career the CIA. Harry’s father “Cal” is a tough, womanizing, rugged OSS man (he is later reported to challenging his son to a series of athletic feats whenever they meet) who claims freindship with Hemingway and Dashiell Hammett. His mother is an embittered former beauty, divorced by their father, who has little more than a cameo in the novel. We see Harry in the midst of a childhood skiing accident (which becomes – because it is the incident of a rare display of paternal affection on behalf of Harry's father -- the occasion of his favourite childhood memory). From here, we see Harry's formative years at St. Matthew’s boarding school, where the body and souls of the various boys are trained towards the sunlight of patrician toughness finished with patrician refinement.
Harry’s education is all cold-showers, Episcoplain Christianity, and (we infer) Latin declensions, the aim of which is to produce someone who has the same easy-confidence in wandering through the whispering gallery of Western Culture, as they might have skating, dancing, ordering the best vintage in a New York restaurant or running across a football field heading for the line.
Later, we catch a glimpse of Harry at Yale, absorbing Great Books and other accoutrements of civilization; his training at the “Farm”; his introduction and to the legendary, mercurial, Jesuitical, and seemingly omniscient Harlot. Harry's first assignment is to West Berlin in the late '50s, where he is watched over by Harlot. His second assignment sees him attempting to lay the foundation for a counter-revolution in Uruguay, after which he returns, several years later to Washington. After this, he spends a stint in Miami training Cuban-exiles for the Bay of Pigs Invasion, before finally taking over an operation to assassinate Castro.
Along the way, Harry is ineluctably drawn (in classic spy novel form) into a life of such complex (not to mention constant) betrayals that his life looks as if it is run by fidelity to an unknown party.
In Berlin, Harry ends up deceiving his first boss, the magnificently portrayed William “Wild Bill Harvey”, first because of a farcical incident involving a telegram and then because Harry’s constant contact with Harlot, his godfather and mentor, leads to a situation where Harry has to leave Berlin to escape Bill Harvey’s infamously incandescent ire. (Last sentence sounds like it's from the annoying second-last chapter of Ulysses, but I'm nothing if not imperfect -- I mean check out that last double negative.)
Later, the pattern repeats, and Harry simultaneously finds himself working for Harlot and for his official boss Howard (yes, that Howard) Hunt, who is portrayed as capable, determined, competent, snobbish, and something of an ideologue (at what point he confesses himself more right-wing than Richard Nixon.) Harry, throughout his time in Montevideo is never sure exactly what is going on, but reveals in encounter after encounter (with his own double-agents, colleagues, multiple-boss-figures and lovers) that his first instinct is to duplicity.
When Harry meets Kittredge, just before his CIA training and shortly before her marriage to Montague, she is an extravagantly beautiful, flirtatious and already the author of a thesis on the duality of the human soul (‘alpha and omega’) that is so intricate and original it has come to the attention of the gouty CIA director Allen Dulles who thinks she has something that will knock Freud (a "plumber" of the psyche according to the young Kittredge) into a cocked hat.
In Berlin and then Uruguay, Harry starts a correspondence with Kittredge that will – with stops and starts – last two decades and add another element of betrayal to the already overflowing alembic. The correspondence between Harry and Kittredge is full of indiscreet revelations as to professional secrets that neither of them are (of course) supposed to tell anyone else and also because it is a correspondence that serves as a kind of substitute for a physical consummation of their love for each other conducted behind Harlot's (Harry's mentor and Kittredge's husband) back.
Later, in the early ‘60s, at a time when there is one of several hiatuses in the Gardiner-Montague/Hubbard correspondence, Harry gets a job reading transcripts of conversations with a woman who is having affairs with Frank Sinatra, Jack Kennedy and Sam Giancana and who Harlot calls upon him to seduce and thus turn into a reservoir ofinformation.
One on the real strengths of the novel is its unforgettable characters who are all touched by a magic of incidental detail that is always promised and never delivered in biopics:
Thus, there is Chevi Fuertes, Harry's first agent in Uruguay, who starts working for the CIA out of hatred of his more successful wife, a scientist and high-ranking member of the Uruguyan Communist Party. Chevi, who Hubbard meets at two different points in his career, about a decade apart, is someone whose sense of meaning, beauty, and justice is tied up with the Communism he has learnt as his first fighting creed, his first expression of an existential attunement. Communism for him is irrevocably tied up with youth, poetry and love such that he never loses his ideological phrases about the dirty mediocrity of capitalism and the wind-swept nobility of its enemies. However, Fuertes is an open and avowed hypocrite who also admits to Harry hat his personal venality draws him to enrich himself at the expense of what he cannot help thinking of as the wrong cause.
There’s “Wild Bill Harvey”, whose speech is one of Mailer’s great achievements: somehow a languid drawl inter-bred with the rapid-fire staccato delivery of a caffeine-addict, Harvey scorns most articles and many prepositions. He is a wonderful explosive mix of bile, malice, wry humour and suspicion, who also teeters constantly on the edge of barely restrained fury (he likes to point guns at people while talking to them.) His torrent of foul-mouthed speech is delightfully musical – a combination of sober, avuncular, “this-is-how-it-is-kid” analysis with flashes of madness around the edges that are quickly ignited and quickly doused. The scenes in which Harry sits in Harvey’s armour-plated car, while wild Bill is driven around still ruined Berlin swigging from his cocktail shaker (he never spills a drop) and playing with his pistols like some mad, overweight, tribal warlord en route to being appointed the Treasurer of some corrupt military oligarchy -- are some of the novels best.
Kittredge, who for most of the novel is Harry’s obscure object of desire, originally gave me cause for worry. In her first appearance in the ‘Omega’ section, I thought that her main distinguishing feature was excessive use of the word “darling” (in a way that – the word’s canonical status as a marital sobriquet notwithstanding – I thought served to ram home an impression of her as an upper-class, Grace Kellyish-type with the expected quality to her voice.) In the "Alpha" manuscript, when she first appears at about the age of age of 20 (affianced to Harlot) Mailer does a fine job of making her attractiveness leap off the page and flirt outrageously with the reader. He does this so well, in fact that it is difficult not to feel as disarmed and ensorcelled as the besotted Harry. I completely believed that Kittredge was brilliant, minx-like and devastatingly attractive, but precisely because this worked so well, I very much doubted that she would make the transition between (convincing) fantasy-object and actual character. But I was proved wrong. In the long course of the epistolary exchange between the two-not-quite lovers, Kittredge is revealed as a wonderfully complex character (a scene involving Lenny Bruce is a particular highlight) even if there is perhaps excessive emphasis on her sexiness long after the reader (by which I mean, I) had accepted this as an axiom.
Boris Masarov, the KGB agent whose wife Zenia is also a poet of some talent is a wonderfully lugubrious philosopher, who has read all of the classics of American literature (loves Melville and from memory Dos Passos) and is regarded by Harlot as extremely dangerous. The scene with Harry and Masarov in a restaurant outside of Montevideo recalls some of the high-points of "Crime and Punishment."
The Kennedys (Jack and Bobby), though they have a (mercifully)off-stage role are drawn with wonderful vividness (largely through the anecdotes of other characters). The brothers remain at once impressive authorial creations and recognizable mélanges from books and file footage –Bobby Kennedy is particularly like my image of Bobby Kennedy: sensitive, arrogant, unfailingly sharp. There is also a particularly wonderful scene involving most of the Kennedy clan listening to the dull positivist A.J. Ayer.
Mobster Sam Giancana is another stand-out, as is the tragic-beauty, air-hostess and lover of Giancana, Jack Kennedy, Hubbard and Sinatra “Modene Murphy”.
Another blessing is that despite the fact that having a character like “Wild Bill Harvey” must tempt him enormously, Mailer mainly avoids what I think would be a too-easy turn to the picaresque. I say this, incidentally as a died in the wool "Bring me Beethoven's symphony for kazoo, or Bring me death” Thomas Pynchon fan – so this does not come from a hostility to that particular literary mode.
Nonetheless, it would have been far too easy for a ‘liberal’ talking about the CIA to take the whole Dr. Strangelove/Catch-22 angle and to throw in some surreal but ribald ventures into the Pynchonesque for good measure. As soon as one starts writing a spy-novel deliberately contrary to the model of an American James Bond defending the Great Republic or Team America: World Police: it must be hard to avoid the temptation to fill the novel with Dr. Strangeloves and sundry characters from Apocalypse Now. But this a road so well-travelled that it's overall affect could only be soporofic: all these mad besuited types sipping champagne, praying, and then ordering the bombing of Cambodia or the assassination of Allenede to the sounds of “The Flying Dutchman" or "St. Matthew's Passion."
Even worse, the novel could have remained at the oddly insipid level of Robert De Niro’s recent “The Good Shepherd”, or it might even have ended up recalling the – mercifully – deleted scene from Oliver Stone’s “Nixon” in which CIA director Richard Helms stares with Satanic black eyes at his Orchids while belting out, his face, "blank and pitiless as the sun" Yeats’s “Second Coming”, as if the poem were a confession of private ambition.
One of the main reasons, that Mailer manages to avoid such horrors, is, I think, by stopping the memoir – the “Alpha” section of the novel – almost immediately after the assassination of Kennedy. This is a point where he can restrain himself from indulging waxing gratuitously Jim Garrison, as well as sparing the reader (what, from another persepctive might have been juicy) rants about Nixon, Watergate and Vietnam disguised as fiction.
Preposterously, the novel (as Amis noted in his review) ends -- after about a page returning to where we left Hubbard in Moscow over a thousand pages ago – with the words “To be continued”. This is could be risible and even offensive after so many thousands upon thousands of words, but it surprisingly did not induce me to throw the book across the room or to find an effigy of Mailer for the purpose of burning it. It also didn't make me long desperately for a sequel, but this was neither because I had my fill of explanations nor because I had become indifferent to them.
Instead, I felt content (as I assume most people will) at the end of the book to find my own situation as a reader parallel to Hubbard’s. And Harry's world is marked by the excessive intimation of answers over their palpable presence. This is not to say that the novel is frustratingly devoid of answers like an 'infinite jest': it’s just that every answer is also shadowed by something like the palpable presence of absence -- things that should be there, but aren’t and things that shouldn’t be here, but are -- in a word it is a world of ghosts.
The title of the novel, I should mention here, refers partially – and obviously -- to the fact that “Harlot”, Harry, Kittredge and indeed the vast majority of the characters are “spooks” (spies). As ghosts by profession it is perhaps not particularly surprising that they are haunted as much as they haunt. On this note, another prominent codename for Harlot/Montague is “GHOUL” – which suits his ominous and ill-defined role in the Agency.
The motif of ghosts also, of course, suggests the presence of the unquiet dead, who -- as it were -- feature prominently in the novel.
First, obviously there is the case of Harlot himself at the novel’s beginning? Is the ‘ghost’ an image of his legacy, or (the lingering presence of one supposed to be dead after his death), or does it go so far as to call into question that his death has occurred (to see allegedly dead as alive is to ‘see a ghost’). Just in case we miss the point, we are treated, early in the novel, to the information that Harry and Kittredge’s home (formerly Harlot and Kittredge’s marital home – but owned originally by Harry’s ancestors) is allegedly haunted by the ghost of Augustus Farr, a late 18th century pirate cursed by a member of his crew who intriguingl shares the same name as the man who may be either Harlot’s murderer if he is not his accomplice (Dix Butler).
There is a suggestion here,(a clue that leads to a dead-end if taken too far) that much of the action may in fact involve the playing out of an ancient curse – as if the action of the novel is a mere epiphenomena of something set into motion by the sins of America’s founding generations.
The truth (or otherwise) of this ‘ghost story’ remains, of course, wonderfully ambiguous, as does not all history, sometimes feel as if it is a ghost story – as if what we call ‘events’ are mere afterglows from the raising and exorcising of specters that stay forever and do not die? (I could say something about Jacques Derrida and Marx here, but won’t).
But this like many things in the novel is never asserted definitively as much as insinuated alongside other insinuations that contradict it.
It all – perhaps surprisingly – works remarkably well: and the novel is – haunting -- throughout – while managing to be as fast-paced and readable as a thriller.
Throughout, Mailer does an admirable job of conveying a sense of an institution that itself haunted – replete with unfinished business, with skeletons in closets and by spectres that were raised precisely by attempts to exorcise them for good. (Think Watergate!)
If we never know what a current event bodes for the future (as a truth of human condition), in Mailer’s CIA we never know if a current event is the result of older forces long since forgotten. We are constantly moved to suspect conspiracies and then to suspect that those conspiracy-theories themselves may have something to do with aspects of history, that should have – but haven’t -- gone quietly to their rest – things that move about long after they have been declared dead rendering every death suspicious, every life a haunting.
But the real strength of the novel is the adventurous quality of Mailer’s prose, which recalls a gymnast who keeps by trying new things risks injuring herself – which she does – for a few moments of making the judges drop their pencils in awe. One of the most memorable of these, for me, is Harry’s first kiss with Kittredge.
“It was like picking up a great novel and reading the first sentence. Call me Ishmael.”
Or this from the inimitable Bill Harvey:
“There’s a General for you. General Asshole. Stays at the Suh-voyyy.’ He said it as if he were trundling an English accent over a notable bump.”
Or this (simile-free) extract from a conversation between Harry and high-ranking KGB agent Boris Masarov:
“Uruguay is like small corner of Russia. Nondescript. To my liking.”
When Nature grows awesome, man turns small.’ He lifts his mug. ‘Homage to the Swiss!”
I found myself struck on numerous occasions by the remarkable sensuality of some of the prose. This is, I happily, confess, an expression, that I would not only avoid like a seminar on post-colonial theory, but also would consider a definitive marker that the person employing it was a pretentious cretin.
By “sensuality”, I do not, of course, only mean descriptions of sex – although these, admittedly, abound. Mailer has, I believe, won a ‘bad sex’ award for his last book “The Castle in the Forest” which I hope to God does not involve – although I think it might -- either Eva Braun or – angels and ministers of grace preserve us ! -- Hitler’s conception. And indeed, it is easy to imagine that Mailer was awarded this prize JUSTLY, as literary sex, in perhaps-too-boldly departing from the tawdry tedium of pornographic cliché is often sufficiently embarrassing to make even the most hardened defender of ‘erotica’ wish for a Hayes’ code moment where the screen goes black and we cut to a much later scene in which the protagonists share a post-coital cigarette.
However, Mailer shows throughout a particular knack for describing physical things: the early description of mountain climbing (an activity totally unfamiliar to me) is stupendously evocative, and we are treated throughout to a cavalcade tastes, smells and sundry sensations -- descriptions of bodies, of food, of landscapes, that seem have emerged from Mailer stretching the arm of his imagination out to the horizon and then dipping his hand into the deep sea of the English language’s unconscious in the hope of finding an apt, but also original simile to bring out impressions that are particularly vivid to him.
As my friend correctly informed me upon first presenting me with the novel, Mailer does not always succeed in this (the highest simile hit-ratio that I’ve ever seen is, incidentally, the Moncrieff-Kilmartin translation of Proust to which Mailer doesn't come anywhere near), but the ones that work, make you more than forgive all the ones that don’t.
For those who like spy-novels, “Harlot’s Ghost” is comparable to Le Carré at his best, despite the fact that both the writing and the tone give it a very different feel. Harvard and Yale vs Oxford or Cambridge may seem nugatory distinctions, but they’re really worlds apart, especially given that one of the joys of Mailer’s book -- at least for my Antipodean self -- were the incidental details (of tone, temperament and taste) that he brings to his portraits of the New England upper-crust. Le Carré does something similar with his endless parade of aging public school boys, but in a way he does so less ostentatiously Mailer: it’s not only that his books are shorter (with the exception of the inexplicably and unjustifiably vast "Honourable Schoolboy") it’s more that they take for granted the class of people involved, whereas Mailer is obviously writing as someone trying to imagine what it’s like to come from the “Establishment”.
Another obvious contrast with Le Carré, is that Le Carré’s Smiley, is a pudgy, myopic, cuckold, “one of London’s meek who do not inherit the earth”, Le Carre says in "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" (an aspect of Smiley's character that makes him a wonderful antidote to Bond)– whereas there is much emphasis in Mailer’s characters on their mental and physical discipline: Hubbard (and his fellows) are all carrying St. Augustine in their heads, only managing to push him to the back of their minds via lots of physical training, and thinking about the nobility of their calling. They are all from an elite that, for better or for worse, has the (what Europeans would call ‘very American’) pretension that a democracy can also -- if with some effort -- be a "meritocracy" -- that the word "aristocracy" once suggested before it meant an 'oligarchy'. Virtue, for these men and women, can and will prevail, as long as a democracy is sufficiently well-defended by its best men (and sometimes women) against its enemies. Such is the ethos, that Hubbard, we think carries from cradle to grave.
In contrast to this, Le Carré’s novel's are full of jaded protagonists (superseded by the U.S. in the aftermath of the Second World), all born to a rule a non-existent Empire.
Also, Le Carré’s tends to suggest a similarity between his characters on opposite sides of the Cold War that is never really effectively disguised by their defensive ideological spats. Mailer’s Harlot (who is obsessed with KGB legend Dzerhzinsky) , does think something like this, but he is an exception in Mailer’s cosmos, whose average representative is Harry who still thinks of the “Agency” as a kind of natural extension of his family, school and (in the form of Kittredge) love-life. Of course, Mailer's perspective is not Harry's (who he we see as a kind of perpetual ingenue), but the choice of Hubbard as a lens for the novel's actions, as opposed to Smiley and his intimates means that Mailer's novel never has the grim, tired 'chill-of-old-age' feel that Le Carre brings to his best work. And the effect of this too, is that "Harlot's Ghost" is more generally exciting, more "Bourne Supremacy" without being as fatuous.
The men and women who mean something to Harry are all agents, the higher ranks of agents composing his mentors and heroes; the young pavernus are his peers. So, with all these differences the comparsion with Le Carré is only to suggest that as a spy-novel, Harlot’s Ghost has a level of depth, that reveals we are definitely not in Tom Clancy territory anymore.
Having said that, one of the merits of Mailer's book is precisely its restraint of highbrow pretensions. Allegories and other such things which could abound at any moment are held in check by an authorial discipline that seems to keep Mailer’s mind fixed on the unfolding of the story. The occasional forays into theorizing (Harlot’s wonderfully paranoid vision of ‘sophisticated religious fundamentalism’ and Kittredge’s ‘Alpha and Omega’ theory of the psyche) are in themselves fascinating, but they are 1) treated with restraint (Mailer doesn't spoil our sense of Kittredge's brilliance by outlining her theory in such detail that we could start to fault it) and 2) further justified by the way that they work as expressions of their character’s minds and not simply the automaton-like slogans regurgitated by authorial mouthpieces.
For those who don’t normally like spy novels, I would suggest that "Harlot's Ghost" should be the one that you read. Best to encounter a genre through its exemplar, after all. And it will help you know whether you should bother with any of the others.
Another point: I also saw very little evidence in the novel of the infamous Mailer sexism. The only case that I think that can be made for the prosecution is that the repulsive (but also very believable character of Dix Butler) -- a psychopathic cocktail of machismo, efficiency and megalomania -- is portrayed as being basically irresistible to the opposite sex.
However, it would be unfair to say that Mailer really goes so far as to suggest that Dix is the answer to the question ‘what women want?”. Harry – who is rather an ingénue for most of the novel is, for the most part, gallant and sweet, if slightly prone to what might seem Madonna/Whore contrasts when dealing with women other than his beloved Kittredge. But there is little reason, in context, to think that this is rank anti-feminist propaganda as much as passable psychological characterization.
Overall: the book has everything that is fun about a spy novel, with many of the things (adventurous cliché-avoiding prose, 3-dimensional characters, complex interlocking themes and so on) that one might get out of a more self-consciously literary work. In fact, “Harlot’s Ghost” pleasingly recalls the literature of an epoch before literature started to (perversely) turn into another kind of genre with its own genre cliché’s (lyrical prose + breathy meditations on the unbearable ‘lifeyness’ of life’) . The sense of 'literature' as transcendently good genre fiction pervades this novel which is a pleasing that is also a quality that also is perceivable in author’s who constitute my friend’s other passions: Borges, Conrad et cetera.
In the end, if one wallows in this book, than the mud in which one wallows is at
once honest-to-goodness, old-fashioned, down-on-the-farm MUD and the nutrient-rich grey-black stuff that rich women pay a premium for at expensive resorts.
Better: it’s a feast. Certainly, it’s not all haute cuisine, but neither is it all hamburgers – it’s more like some vast Italian buffet where every aspect of our palettes (the desire for sweet and sour coarse things and refined;) will be satiated because everything has been put together out of love of food in contradistinction to BOTH crass indifference (KFC buckets) AND fussy meditations on diet (GI measurements).
I highly commend “Harlot’s Ghost” to anyone who has a spare month or two, in which they want to spend not writing articles or even (not) doing more useful things.
-Love to you all,
Monday, March 2, 2009
(some proofing 6/03/09)