Been there, done that, wrote the book

The Time of Our Time by Norman Mailer Little, Brown pounds 25
It is 50 years since the publication of The Naked and the Dead, and Mailer is 75. This book, a look back at the last half-century as it appeared through the prism of Mailer's writing, gives the reader the impression that the important matters of the time are the ones that Mailer was present at or observed closely, and that he had his finger peculiarly on the pulse of the world.

So we start off in Harvard, where Mailer was a student organising a party for Somerset Maugham. We take in the Second World War - Mailer was in the Pacific - work through the Cold War, the Kennedy presidency and the Bay Of Pigs; we consider a Mayoral campaign in New York (Mailer was a candidate), and so on up to the present day. This is not a bad way to tackle the sweep of history, and Mailer is a prodigious talent with something interesting to say on all these matters.

Mailer mercilessly plunders his back catalogue for this narrative. We see him interweaving his contemporary journalism and his later reflections on the same matters, with extracts from his novels where they have taken in historical events. And it is fairly seamless. In Mailer's case there is less difference between these disciplines than with other writers. He is at his best when fictionalising real events, at his worst when philosophising on them, or developing his strange mystical sense of the immanence of sexual forces. But watch him turning the raw material into fiction, and he is matchless. Be it the 1968 political Conventions, or the career of the murderer Gary Gilmour, he is carried away by his own imagination; he can see them in his own mind's eye so much more vividly than they appear in the flat light of day.

He gave the game away in Harlot's Ghost when he responded to criticisms that the CIA he depicted was not some documentary portrait of that organisation as it really is. Sure, he said, it was his own, fictional CIA, but it was as real as the real one. And, of course, since the novel was very good, he was right.

So what is the nature of Mailer's reality? Well, there is his idiosyncratic definition of existentialism, by which he means causing situations of which the outcomes are unpredictable and preferably uncontrollable. Connected with this is a quasi- Nietzschean strain which leads him to admire criminality and violence. He is famous for his part in springing from jail a convicted murderer who went on to commit murder again. More intelligent than Hemingway, Mailer is nonetheless obsessed with manliness and with, as it were, punching his literary weight. Remember his exhausting meditation on Lee Harvey Oswald. He says somewhere that to be a short story writer you have to be good on the day; but to be a novelist you have to be good every day. And the struggle to be as good today as he was yesterday has driven Mailer to write an enormous amount. This current volume checks in at 1,300 pages.

With one or two lapses, Mailer has been first- rate for 50 years. The Naked and the Dead is actually one of the weaker Mailer books. It owes too much to John Dos Passos, and has an eye too closely on the inevitable Great American War novel which Mailer knew must come out of the Second World War. But The Time Of Our Time contains material from most of his 30 books, and many of them have been marvellous. The case for Mailer's greatness is unarguable.