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The armies of the night: history as a novel: the novel as history
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“His genuine wit and bellicose charm, and his fervent and intense sense of legitimately caring, render The Armies of the Night an artful document, worthy to be judged as literature.”—Time
“Only a writer steeped in American life, with all his wits about him, and with a genuinely compassionate social vision, could have produced a work so acute in its historical insights and so moving in its portraits of contemporaries.”—The Nation
“Some time in 1969 in Paris, I first read Armies of the Night, Norman Mailer's account of the anti-Vietnam war march on the Pentagon… It was mesmerising, and to re-read it today is to experience an additional punch: the one that verifies that history repeats itself as (malignant) farce. Page after page you have the impression that he is commenting not on Lyndon Johnson's shameful war, but George Bush's corporate-powered skulking towards another self-serving war… supports the theory—more resonant now than then—that perhaps the most ruthless and prolonged jihad in history has been that of the American fundamentalist Christians, which began towards the end of the second world war.”—Peter Lennon, The Guardian
“Just as brilliant a personal testimony as Whitman's diary of the Civil War, Specimen Days, and Whitman's great essay on the crisis of the Republic during the Gilded Age, Democratic Vistas. I believe that it is a work of personal and political reportage that brings to the inner and developing crisis of the United States at this moment admirable sensibilities, candid intelligence, the most moving concern for America itself. Mailer's intuition in this book is that the times demand a new form. He has found it.”—Alfred Kazin, New York Times
“Mailer's feints and bell-donging around his fellow ‘Notables’ is a late night popcorn joy, and there is much that is stylish and shrewd… this is an important and passionate pilgrimage.”—Kirkus --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
About the Author
Born in Long Branch, NJ, in 1923, and raised in Brooklyn, Norman Mailer was one of the most influential writers of the second half of the 20th century and a leading public intellectual for nearly sixty years. He is the author of more than thirty books. The Castle in the Forest, his last novel, was his eleventh New York Times bestseller. His first novel, The Naked and the Dead, has never gone out of print. His 1968 nonfiction narrative, The Armies of the Night, won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. He won a second Pulitzer for The Executioner’s Song and is the only person to have won Pulitzers in both fiction and nonfiction. Five of his books were nominated for National Book Awards, and he won a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Foundation in 2005. Mr. Mailer died in 2007 in New York City. --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
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Instead, I offer, as usual, what I believe is perhaps the book in a nugget, what the novel is all about—a passage from the chapter, “Why Are We in Vietnam?”:
“Mailer had been going on for years about the diseases of America, its oncoming totalitarianism, its oppressiveness, its smog—he had written so much about the disease he had grown bored with his own voice, weary of his own petulance; the war in Vietnam offered therefore the grim pleasure of confirming his ideas. The disease he had written about existed now in open air: so he pushed further in his thoughts—the paradox of this obscene unjust war is that it provided him new energy—even as it provided new energy to the American soldiers who were fighting it.
“He came at last to the saddest conclusion of them all for it went beyond the war in Vietnam. He had come to decide that the center of America might be insane. The country had been living with a controlled, even fiercely controlled, schizophrenia which had been deepening with the years. Perhaps the point had now been passed. Any man or woman who was devoutly Christian and worked for the American Corporation, had been caught in an unseen vise whose pressure could split their mind from their soul. For the center of Christianity was a mystery, a son of God, and the center of the corporation was a detestation of mystery, a worship of technology. Nothing was more intrinsically opposed to technology than the bleeding heart of Christ. The average American, striving to do his duty, drove further every day into working for Christ, and drove equally further each day in the opposite direction—into working for the absolute computer of the corporation” (188).
“Christians had been able to keep some kind of sanity for centuries while countenancing love against honor, desire versus duty, even charity opposed in the same heart to the lust for power—that was difficult to balance but not impossible. The love of the Mystery of Christ, however, and the love of no Mystery whatsoever, had brought the country to a state of suppressed schizophrenia so deep that the foul brutalities of the war in Vietnam were the only temporary cure possible for the condition—since the expression of brutality offers a definite if temporary relief to the schizophrenic” (188).
Wow! (No emoji needed.)
Of particular interest are also Mailer’s ruminations about the War in Vietnam and what he understands are the beliefs of the two opposing sides in this country supporting and opposing it. Though against the war himself, he grants the other side some valid points.
Other celebrities crop up in the narrative, from poet Robert Lowell and agit-rock band The Fugs to noted war opposers Rev. William Sloan Coffin and Noam Chomsky. Definitely worth reading if you are interested in this period of U.S. history.
In this, the book that won him his first Pulitzer Prize, Mailer gives us what he likes to think of as two books. First comes "History As A Novel," in which Mailer describes his experience (in the third person) participating in the largest anti-Vietnam War rally to have occured by 1967 when this book was published. In traditional fashion, a somewhat besotted Mailer makes rousing and unsettling remarks at a theater based event, lends his support to draft-card burners (actually, the group of protesters were to turn in their cards, rather than burn them), and walk in the historically significant march on the Pentagon. At the Pentagon, Mailer manages to get himself arrested (a goal he had previously set for himself), and spends the weekend in jail. He describes all of this with such wit and insight that Mailer himself becomes as much the subject matter as the march itself.
In the second book, "The Novel As History," Mailer gives us a historical perspective on the march and describes its genesis, reason for existance, movers and shakers, and then describes the march as it might have been seen by an unbiased reporter (although Mailer admits that no unbiased reports of this event could ever be given).
Mailer is an enjoyable author to read, as his utterly opinionated and iconoclastic personality cannot be kept apart from his subject matter, a fact that is all the more true for Armies of the Night. I was surprised how much self-awareness he actually posesses... writing in the third person allowed him to step outside himself and observe some of his more unusual personality traits.
You do not need a heavy interest in the Vietnam War to enjoy this book (although I suppose it may help)... all you need is your sympathy, intelligence, and sense of humor.