The sexual revolution? I'm too old for it now, says Mailer

Edinburgh Festival: As trenchant as ever, the grand old man of American letters can still get a crowd that many performers would kill for
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The Independent Online

His books don't exactly fly out of stores any more, his sales figures are more respectful than sensational these days, but Norman Mailer, the grand old man's man of American letters, can still pack them in.

His books don't exactly fly out of stores any more, his sales figures are more respectful than sensational these days, but Norman Mailer, the grand old man's man of American letters, can still pack them in.

A mid-morning slot in a huge tent in a square in the heart of Edinburgh's New Town is sold out. Most acts on the Fringe would kill for a crowd this size. But an appearance in person by the man who introduced a familiar Anglo-Saxon demotic style to literature in 1948 with The Naked and the Dead, and who hasn't hesitated to offend in the intervening years - once being stabbed by his own wife - is a rare occurrence.

Leaning back in a crumpled blue blazer and fawn slacks, the grey-haired author easily bats away a question about discovering the truth, which the old bear compares to "getting to know a woman well", unintentionally sounding like The Fast Show's Swiss Toni.

He is soon into his stride, though, as the interviewer leads him on to more loaded subjects, such as his own influence on the New Journalism ("pernicious", but he qualifies it); and the sexual revolution ("I'm older now, so I no longer see myself as a protagonist").

His trenchant views on the forthcoming American presidential election are incisive.

"What we're going to learn ... is whether America is more or less anti-Semitic," this strictly non-observant Jew states baldly, referring to Al Gore's choice of the more orthodox Joe Lieberman as his running mate. "And I want to know the answer."

His dissatisfaction with the political process seems more or less complete. "In American life it's important to keep the illusion that the presidency is important," he explains, though in fact he sees it as no more significant than the role of a European constitutional monarch while forces of corporate strength ("highly tuned mediocrity") hold the upper hand.

Bruised by his initial belief in Bill Clinton as an agent of change, Mailer now admitshis error. "The moment you have enthusiasm in politics, you're advised to become cynical," he offers, though his fanciful self-comparison with the President's "non-horizontal affair" with Monica Lewinsky is telling. "I felt sorry for him. It was the kind of thing I might have done," he says.

His amiability is all the more delightful in view of his reputation for being touchy. Not that he has ever been too protective of his privacy.

"If you're not defending yourself, it gives you the sanction to attack others," he boasts. But he doesn't, even when some of the questions must strike him as inane.

A query about whether he felt his drug use could have interfered with the brain he has so long relied on provokes an obvious retort about his experiences in boxing, an even more sure-fire way of damaging synapses, not to mentionhis sometimes prodigious drinking.

A man who describes the New Testament as "abominably written in places ...obviously written by a committee", and considers himself one of the world's best 50 or 100 writers, can afford magnanimity. No wonder this confessed Jewish mother's boy felt capable of improving on the Apostles with The Gospel According to the Son - told in the first person.

He is his own contradiction, a self-proclaimed "leftish conservative". A local conspiracy theorist, familiar with his work about Lee Harvey Oswald, elicits a response that the likelihood was that Oswald had acted alone.

"This urge to be extraordinary was powerful within him," Mailer replies. He could be talking about himself, obviously, and it is apparent he knows it.

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