Aging Mailer recognizes god; Hitler was the devil

By Gisela Ostwald, DPA

New York : Minutes pass after the doorbell rings. Norman Mailer, the aging, outspoken giant of American literature, finally appears and greets his guest.

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Pale, thin, fragile, a shell of his former vibrant self, Mailer, 84, who is suffering from congestive heart failure and is recovering from surgery to removed scar tissue from around his lung, was receiving several German journalists.

His weight rests on two crutches. He slams shut the door with one, then nods toward the veranda where the others are gathered. He apologises for his ailments, saying the humidity on the Cape Cod beach where he lives gives him “a lot of trouble breathing”.

“I am having attacks of what they call congestive heart failure,” he says.

Seeing the round of worried looks, Mailer diverts attention to one of the journalists who is pregnant, asking when she is due.

The heart problem “is not as serious as it sounds. It is less bad than asthma”, he says, demonstrating his shortness of breath with a quick intake of air.

Although it’s 30 degrees Celsius, Mailer wears a knitted vest over long-sleeved shirt, his long pants tucked into soft, knee-high house boots. His famous lion’s mane is snow white and thinning. But his intense, blue eyes glow, as though age has passed him by, and his voice is strong.

“Come a little closer,” he urges. “My hearing is dreadful.”

Mailer published two books this year: “The Castle in the Forest”, based on the fictitious Adolf Hitler as a young man with his family; and “On God, an Uncommon Conversation,” a dialogue with his biographer, Michael Lennon.

The Harvard-trained aeronautical engineer burst onto the literary scene in 1948 with “The Naked and the Dead”, based on Mailer’s experiences as a rifleman in the South Pacific during World War II.

His 1968 Pulitzer Prize was for his highly personal account of a protest march on the Pentagon, “Armies of the Night”, where he was arrested. His second Pulitzer 13 years later was for “The Executioner’s Song”, about convicted murderer Gary Gilmore.

But he is perhaps best known as a co-founder of the counter-culture Village Voice weekly newspaper, and along with Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote and Joan Didion, as a pioneer of New Journalism – a style that combined actual events and characters told in novelistic form.

Last week, Mailer was passed by for the Nobel literature prize, but his presence as a “possible” was attributed to his angry attacks on the political establishment and his outrage over Bush and the war in Iraq.

“This is the worst war this country has ever been in, absolutely the worst,” Mailer said. “We never had a leader who has been as stupid …”

After a life-long advocacy of Marxism and atheism, Mailer has found his way to faith and come to believe in god and the devil in his twilight years.

“My connection to religion is inner and personal,” Mailer said. “I believe that god exists, because I lived for years as an atheist and found it very difficult to explain to myself philosophically how we could come into existence ex nihilo (from nothing.)”

The Hitler theme in “Castle in the Forest” dovetailed with one of his rare recent public appearances alongside German writer Guenter Grass in New York in June where he defended Grass’s fictional admission that he had served in Hitler’s Waffen SS in “Peeling the Onion”.

Had he been in Grass’s shoes, Mailer said at the symposium, he, too, would have ended up in the Waffen SS.

Mailer said he had felt empathy with the young Hitler during the writing, and yet could only understand Hitler “through the rages of the devil having chosen him”.

In the book, Hitler “is a child and I want to understand what a child’s feelings are.”

The US novelist criticised German and European attitudes that make Hitler’s youth taboo.

“We can’t do that. It is like having a family, a good big healthy family and one member of the family is a crazy killer. So you spend the rest of your time in the family never talking about that one member. What does that do to the health of the family?”

Hitler, along with Joseph Stalin, was one of the worst things ever to happen to humanity and “we have to deal with him”, Mailer insists.

Mailer’s belief in the power of evil and the devil came from his Marxist roots.

“Having started as a Marxist, I am a great believer in force and counterforce, thesis and antithesis,” Mailer said. “It is much harder for me to believe that God exists without a devil.”

He said he imagined the devil would have been “absolutely infuriated about god’s coup” in creating Jesus Christ.

“So the devil’s answer to Jesus Christ became Adolf Hitler,” he said.

Born Jan 31, 1923, in New Jersey, Mailer grew up in Brooklyn, where his father was a bookkeeper. His mother came to the US at age 2 when her parents fled a wave of anti-semitism in Lithuania.

Mailer’s popular essays described the violent police crackdown on anti-war activists at the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination convention, the civil rights movement and the political assassinations of the 1960s. He wrote a book about the legendary boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Forman.

Mailer married a succession of six women, fathered nine children and has 10 grandchildren. He provoked feminists in 1971 with “The Prisoner of Sex”, where he charged that women used contraceptives because they hated men and their sperm.