Bonnie Greer: Farewell to a feisty, fearless keeper of the flame

Click to follow

The idea of the heroic writer can be seen as impossibly archaic. The notion that a writer takes a position in society has been often replaced by the flaccid interior journey, "accessibility", "relevance" and charm.

I am of an age to remember Mailer on television arguing with Gore Vidal; Mailer running for mayor of New York City; Mailer making movies in the style of Warhol and John Cassavetes; Mailer joining the hippies and peaceniks outside the Pentagon at the height of the Vietnam War. Her wrote Armies Of The Night, arguably his finest book because siding with those against received opinion was where any writer worth anything was supposed to be. He wrote The Executioner's Song because the idea of an inmate walking out to meet death with no flinching and no apology was what a good writer does every day, every moment.

Mailer intervening, Mailer provoking, Mailer ridiculing the powers-that-be. So he wrote books that were not good. So he was, to some, a "one-book wonder" who said himself that he missed desperately the attention The Naked And The Dead had given him. The guy believed that telling the truth was the only thing a writer could and should do. What else was writing for?

The period in which I knew Norman was in the Eighties, when I lived in New York City and we were both members of the Actors Studio Playwright And Directors Unit. In that "holy of holies" of American theatre, a writer could bring her work in and fashion it under the gaze of some of the seminal creators of post-war theatre. It was a scary place to be, sitting beside Elia Kazan, Joe Mankiewicz, who had worked with Bette Davis and Brando, and everyone in between.

Norman was there at every session and he took notes and watched, like all of us. He had always wanted to write theatre and he wasn't afraid to expose his weaknesses, his muddled thoughts and just plain bad work.

One day he brought in the beginnings of his play about Marilyn Monroe: Strawhead. He had written extensively about her and thought he'd try his hand at making her live onstage. In its early incarnation, the play was a galloping assemblage of MM clichés, written by a man clearly obsessed with her and convinced that if only he had been her lover instead of the jerks she had saddled herself with, he could have sorted her out. Poor old MM ended up giving the clearly autobiographical guy in the play a blowjob, a fairly cringe-making exercise in wish-fufilment.

We all sat there, not knowing where to look. Out of the silence exploded the late, great Shelley Winters. She flew off the bleachers and yelled at the top of her lungs that Marilyn Monroe was an act and she should know because she had been MM's flatmate. Mailer took it, went home and brought the rewrite back.

Included in the new version was a burly Maileresque feminist who burst into the play from the audience and berated him about his misuse of women, and how bad, in general , the play was. That bit was both offensive and oddly touching. He had torn himself up in front of us because, in his eagerness to write, he had written badly. What Mailer put on stage ultimately was not Monroe but himself. He chronicled all his life The Great, White, Male Heterosexual, "Big Daddy", "The Man."

He always told us younger writers that a writer had to have a bullshit detector – for the bullshit that is published and called great and most of all, for the bullshit one puts out oneself. Yet he was competitive, wrote not great stuff, and did stupid things.

In the early Eighties, he championed a miscreant called Jack Abbott who had written a bit in prison and shortly after his release, stabbed a young waiter and was promptly thrown back inside. Mailer was called to account. This time he had gone too far. His championing of the underdog had backfired in horrific fashion. He subsequently took to the Manhattan dinner party circuit , the epitome of his hated bullshit which later, he told me, had given him gout. Be he attempted to chronicle the venality of those soirees in his big, fat and not very good novel Ancient Evenings. He saw the job of the writer as definitely biting the hand that feeds you.

Norman saw the writer as a person who steps into the ring to confront and strip away that mask we call reality, and face the void in which real writing begins. Above all, he was never afraid.

And the good night into which he has entered must surely be full of his raging.