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Newsmaker: Norman Mailer

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  • Author Norman Mailer died aged 84 of renal failure
  • He won two Pulitzer Prizes and helped found the Village Voice
  • He stabbed his wife at a party but she declined to press charges
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By Brigid Delaney
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- When author Norman Mailer died on Saturday of renal failure aged 84, it was as if one of the last great literary giants had been felled.

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One of the last literary giants: Norman Mailer

On publishing the news of his death, The New York Times described him in a headline as a "Towering Writer With Matching Ego." His achievements included publishing 30 books, helping found The Village Voice newspaper and twice winning the Pulitzer Prize.

But it was his character and his lifestyle that was to make his reputation, and it was the details of his colorful life which gave his obituary writers so much material to work with. As one wryly observed, "they don't make them like Mailer anymore."

According to The New York Times: "Mr. Mailer belonged to the old literary school that regarded novel writing as a heroic enterprise undertaken by heroic characters with egos to match. He was the most transparently ambitious writer of his era, seeing himself in competition not just with his contemporaries but with the likes of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky."

His life ambition was to write the "Great American novel" and although this ambition went unrealized, it wasn't for want of trying.

Mailer found success young with his first novel, "The Naked and the Dead" published in 1948.

Based on his experiences as a soldier in the Philippines, it sold 200,000 copies and was acclaimed by critics, many of whom regarded it as one of the finest novels of the post-war period.

It put Mailer within striking distance of his idol Ernest Hemingway who also wrote about his experiences in war and was preoccupied by questions of masculinity.

Mailer grew up in New York. He was a precocious child, doted on by his mother. He wrote his first novel aged 11 and attended Harvard at the age of 16 to study aeronautical engineering. After studying he was drafted into the army, where his experiences formed the basis of "The Naked and The Dead."

At the time of publication, Mailer had enrolled to study at the Sorbonne and was newly married to his first wife. Yet success caused Mailer to go off the rails. He soon divorced his first wife, married a second and began living a bohemian lifestyle (drinking and smoking marijuana to excess) in New York's Greenwich Village.

According to The New York Times: "For much of the 1950's he drifted, frequently drunk or stoned or both, and affected odd accents: British, Irish, gangster, Texan."

In one incident after a drunken party, he stabbed his wife twice with a penknife. She refused to press charges but they later divorced.

In all he had six marriages and nine children. In this environment, Mailer's fiction stagnated and his follow-up novels to "The Naked and the Dead" were attacked by critics. Yet his essays had more impact -- particularly "The White Negro: Superficial reflections on the hipster."

It outraged many readers as it indicated Mailer's tolerance of violence including rape and murder. Through his essays Mailer was at the vanguard of the New Journalism movement. Like Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" he used novelistic techniques to describe real events such as anti-Vietnam War marches.

Mailer was a writer that embodied not only a decade, the 1960's, but also a type of literary superstar that has long disappeared in the age of television.

According to the UK's Independent newspaper; "His essays and novels provided commentary on most of the major events of the past 60 years, from feminism to the Iraq War."

Says author Christopher Hitchens: "The Kennedy years (with a detour for Marilyn Monroe and a long excursus for the assassination), the Cuban revolution, the agony of Vietnam, the Apollo mission and the dark shadow of Richard Nixon: all of these were chronicled or encapsulated by Mailer episodes from The Deer Park, The Armies of the Night, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Of a Fire on the Moon and many fine but lesser texts written either for glossy magazines or for the 'alternative' papers (Dissent, The Village Voice) that he helped to found and energize."

These books and his journalism received greater success -- and greater advances than his fiction work, so he concentrated on work that could assist in paying his large alimony and child support bills. But some works were hastily composed -- such as a biography of Marilyn Monroe, and did little to add to his reputation.

According to The New York Times: "He was also the least shy and risk-averse of writers. He eagerly sought public attention, and publicity inevitably followed him on the few occasions when he tried to avoid it. His big ears, barrel chest, striking blue eyes and helmet of seemingly electrified hair jet black at first and ultimately snow white made him instantly recognizable, a celebrity long before most authors were lured out into the limelight."

Hitchens wrote this week: "I remember admiring Mailer's audacity even as I slightly whistled at his promiscuity. And I suppose that no appreciation of the man is possible without taking a comparative survey of both those capacities. I find I have to add that it's quite surprisingly difficult to picture the cultural scene without him."

Mailer kept writing, even when his health failed him. His last published book was 2007's "The Castle in the Forest" -- a fictionalized account of a young Adolf Hilter. He was working on a sequel at the time of his death. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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