Things had started promisingly enough: the audience had entered the auditorium to a blast from a gospel choir, and Melvyn Bragg, interceding toothsomely on our behalf with Stormin' Norman Mailer, that Grand Old Pugilist of American Letters, had reminded us of his interviewee's impeccable credentials: "You were hoping to bring about a revolution in people's consciousness when you started writing," said Melvyn. "But what exactly drove you to write?"
The word, when it came, was endearingly human. "It used to be a desire to meet beautiful women," said Norman, knocking over the microphone for the second time, "but in the last few years I've paid the price for being happily married. I've turned to blubber." He clearly wasn't referring to his intellect.
Mailer had set things going with a couple of readings at the lectern, a mock-obituary of himself in which Truman Capote called him "so butch", and "After Death Comes Limbo". The voice sounded 100 per cent proof: gravelly, with a gallon of phlegm washing around in the throat. Five feet four, stocky as a bull, and with grizzled grey curls, Mailer was wearing the same clothes he'd worn six years ago at the UK launch of Harlot's Ghost - grey flannels, blue blazer with twinkling brass buttons - a sometime street-fighter now turned bizarrely preppy. There was just one thing new: a kipper tie in a dazzling aquamarine.
All that death and afterlife stuff was intended to turn our minds towards Mailer's new book, The Gospel According to the Son, a re-telling of the New Testament tale. Mailer recognised that this was a very un-Mailerish sort of subject. "It's the sort of book I wouldn't have looked at 40 years ago." He'd wanted to publish it anonymously, he said, but the American publishers had stamped on that idea.
Some critics have wondered whether he knew enough to re-write the gospels. Mailer's touching description of his own unpreparedness was as cunning as it was bizarre: "Some books you come to, knowing little," he said, "with a sense of innocence." Still, whether or not innocence actually means ignorance, Norman hadn't held back. He knew the original's limitations like the inside of his fist. "It's a classic," he said, "but not always well written. It's a great story waiting to be told."
So Norman told it, although it had taken him a little time to get the style right, toning it down, tuning it up...
But why in heaven's name, Bragg asked, hadn't he dug into Jesus like he dug into Marilyn Monroe or Muhammad Ali all those years ago?
All of a sudden, Norman turned Messianic. "I wanted to tell the story, I wanted to reach people," he said. "I wanted to point out the compatibility between Christ and Marx, to re-emphasise the notion of caring. I believe in karma, an afterlife. I believe that we pay for our sins. I'm talking about Judaeo-Christian socialism here..."
As Norman walked up the side aisle to sign a few books, the music came surging again. This time it was the "Hallelujah Chorus".