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Books you need to read this February

BY James Walton

6th Feb 2023 Book Reviews

Books you need to read this February

Salman Rushdie weaves history and magical realism together in Victory City, while Richard Bradford explores the controversial life of Norman Mailer

Victory City by Salman Rushdie 

If there was a competition for the best pastiche of the opening words of a Salman Rushdie novel, a pretty good entry might be: “On the last day of her life, when she was two hundred and forty-seven years old, the blind poet, miracle worker and prophetess Pampa Kampana completed her immense narrative poem about Bisnaga.” By coincidence, these are also the opening words of Victory City, a book Rushdie finished shortly before last summer’s tragic stabbing. 

From there, he goes on to retell the events laid out in Pampa’s poem—and to prove all over again that nobody else writes novels quite like this, where history and magic realism are perfectly intertwined.  

Bisnaga, for example, was a real Indian city that between the 14th and 16th centuries became one of the grandest in the world. On the other hand, it seems a safe bet that it didn’t come into existence, as it does here, when a goddess-inspired prophetess told two cowherds to scatter seeds on the ground. Or that once these instantly grew into an urban wonder, she whispered to the newly fledged inhabitants the stories of their lives and families, and of the city’s past. 

"For those of us who are fans, this is Rushdie at his full-strength, high-tar best"

Either way, soon afterwards, one of the cowherds crowns himself king and Bisnaga’s cycle of greatness and decline begins. Among much else, Rushdie gives us talking monkeys, people transformed into birds and Pampa’s own ability to live for centuries without much aging. But we also get plenty of recognisable politics as the city flourishes when at its most tolerant and falls apart whenever a ruler decides that religion means only that “we are good, they are bad”. Meanwhile, for all the strangeness of the magic bits, Rushdie is as impressive as ever at such traditional literary satisfactions as beautiful pacing and vivid, unforgettable characters.  

I appreciate that his work is not to everybody’s taste. (You could, for instance, certainly make a strong case that Victory City is completely bonkers.) Yet, for those of us who are fans, this is the man at his full-strength, high-tar best—with his deeply humane worldview, his brilliance at set-pieces and, above all, the thrilling wildness of his imagination on irresistible display.

Victory City Salman Rushdie

Buy Victory City by Salman Rushdie (Jonathan Cape, £22) 

Tough Guy: The Life of Norman Mailer by Richard Bradford

Norman Mailer, it’s fair to say, isn’t as fashionable as he once was. For much of his life he was considered a towering figure of post-war American literature. By the end of it, though—and especially since his death in 2007—he’s more often been regarded as a regrettable macho relic, with his taste for booze, fighting and philandering his way through six marriages. 

Most notoriously, in November 1960, when optimistically standing for Mayor of New York, he drunkenly stabbed his second wife Adele, almost killing her. This, not surprisingly, ended his mayoral campaign—but such was Mailer’s ego that he continued to think of himself as an important political force, whose advice would surely be sought by President Kennedy.

"Norman Mailer, it’s fair to say, isn’t as fashionable as he once was"

But of course, while all this (and plenty more) might well make him worthy of disapproval, it certainly doesn’t make him boring—as Richard Bradford’s new biography exhilaratingly proves. 

Born in 1923, Mailer grew up in Jewish Brooklyn, entered Harvard at 16 and scored a huge bestseller with his first novel The Naked and the Dead (1948), based on his army experiences in the Second World War. From there he was soon launched into a level of literary superstardom that’s hard to imagine now—and into that unfailingly rackety adult life of his.

To be honest, Bradford’s book isn’t without flaws. For my money, it rather overdoes the moralistic finger-wagging—and seems unwilling to admit that Mailer ever wrote anything worth reading. There are also some factual errors, including a confusion between Republican and Democrat candidates in presidential elections. Fortunately, the story itself is so gripping (even jaw-dropping) that it easily triumphs over such shortcomings. Take, for example, this typical passage…

Richard Bradford author

Richard Bradford, author of Tough Guy: The Life of Norman Mailer

“In mid-March 1961, when Mailer and Adele were still attempting to rebuild their marriage, they were invited to a party at Gore Vidal’s New York apartment. Adele was feeling unwell and Mailer went alone. He was talking with the lawyer and politician Jacob Javits and his wife, Marion, who introduced him to a woman standing nearby, Jeanne Campbell, or as she added wryly, ‘Lady Jeanne Campbell’. He knew nothing of her past, but as they talked she disclosed a background that fascinated him. They then had sex in one of Vidal’s spare bedrooms. 

Jeanne’s maternal grandfather was Lord Beaverbrook, the millionaire newspaper proprietor, and her father was the 11th Duke of Argyll. Marital problems of various sorts resulted in her being raised mainly by Beaverbrook, who sent her to the best boarding schools and thereafter allowed her to live in whatever way she wished, with generous provisions of money. She boasted of having had affairs with John F Kennedy, Randolph Churchill (Winston’s son; she had, she confessed, set her sights on Churchill himself, but age was a problem), Ian Fleming, Nikita Khrushchev, Fidel Castro and Oswald Mosley. She was honest in her pursuit of sexual diversity, political and otherwise; when Vidal asked her later, once she and Mailer had become a couple, why she’d become involved with him, she answered, ‘Because I never slept with a Jew before.’ 

We do not know who informed Adele of the liaison, but the fact that Mailer had tried to keep it secret confirmed her suspicion that he was still the unfaithful figure she had barely managed to tolerate before he tried to kill her. 

Mailer and Jeanne were married in April 1962, following her discovery that she was pregnant. The marriage lasted only eighteen months and the relationship as a whole just over two years. This was habitual. He was a serial fornicator. Commonly one relationship would begin sometime before the previous marriage had ended. Jeanne replaced Adele in much the same way that the latter took over from Bea. There were always overlaps, but what would not change was the perverse singularity of Norman Mailer. One might have expected that he would decrease the obsessions that preceded the attack on Adele, but quite the opposite occurred. He became even more bizarre. 

Barely a month after meeting Jeanne, he published an open letter to Kennedy, addressing him as ‘Dear Jack’ and reprimanding him for the recent failed attempt by exiles to invade Cuba. The Bay of Pigs was a disaster, but Mailer was unconcerned with military tactics; rather he held ‘Jack’ to account for following the advice of the CIA when his old friend Norman Mailer would have provided more judicious counsel. He reminded the president of the piece he’d written in November 1960 when he assumed that his mayoral campaign would earn him an advisory role at the White House, and he reiterated his point that Kennedy and Castro would be able to find common ground with the assistance of Norman Mailer.”

Tough Guy by Richard Bradford

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