Tuesday, 31 October 2000

Norman Mailer: The Naked and the Dead (1948)

Edition: Flamingo, 1999
Review number: 667

Norman Mailer's debut novel is one of the most unheroic depictions of the Second World War in fiction. If tells the story of one platoon in the American campaign to take the fictional Pacific island of Anopopei from the Japanese; these are uneducated, not particularly bright young men, not fighting for any particular reason; they are like the soldiers in All Quiet on the Western Front (a clear influence). Mailer was himself involved in the war in the Pacific, and he writes partly from his own experience; it is tempting to see at least some elements of self-portrait in the literate Lieutenant Hearn.

In this edition, published to mark the novel's fiftieth anniversary, Mailer has contributed a new introduction. It must be a strange experience to comment on something produced by a younger self so many years ago. Mailer finds some shortcomings in the novel. He complains that it reads like the writing of an amateur. By this he means that most things are given stereotypical descriptions (he gives as an example that coffee is always scalding). This is perhaps not so evident as the novel is read, probably because so much literature is lazy in this way.

As you read the novel, what is apparent which is typical of debut novels is the influence of other writers. In this case, the main influence other than Remarque's novel which has already been mentioned is Hemingway. This is partly seen in the subject matter, partly in the prose style (though Mailer is more florid), but mainly comes through in the attitude of the author to the characters. The Naked and the Dead must be one of the most sympathetic if "arts and all" portrayals of the common soldier.

A less important influence is John dos Passos. There are elements taken from his USA trilogy in this novel, with sections in each chapter entitled "The Time Machine" which give a whistle stop tour through the pre-war life of one of the main characters. These are extremely well done, to give an idea of why the war has shaped the particular character in the way that it has. Mailer's use of the device is perhaps rather half-hearted, though; with a bit more experience, I suspect that he would have integrated these sections into the main narrative.

In the other direction, the obvious influence that The Naked and the Dead has had is on later literature about war, particularly Catch 22 and MASH. The war pervades The Naked and the Dead to such an extent that it would be difficult to see how it has affected authors who have not written about the same subject. One way it may have done so is to help shape a particular subgenre of thriller, those gritty novels also pervaded with a sense that everything is pointless, meaningless, by writers like John le Carré. Man in The Naked and the Dead are driven to extreme, heroic effort, but for no real reason and achieving nothing; even their motivation is vague and comes from who they are rather than from their circumstances (a determination not to be the first to break down, for example).

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