The Naked and the Dead

Norman Mailer (Wingate, pp. 721, 15s.)

In the matter of The Naked and the Dead our duty as liberal and educated people is clear. If it comes to a showdown we stand by Norman Mailer. His book is tremendously good, and perhaps better than that. There has been some conjuring up of the ghost of what Henry James called "that Rhadamanthus of English literature - the Young Person." Presumably British grown-ups have enough moral fibre to read without becoming demoralised, a book about soldiers fighting, frightened, swearing (which everybody knows most soldiers do all the time - and in any case almost everybody has been a soldier; even the women have been in uniform by the hundred thousand), and about soldiers and their women and soldiers getting wounded and killed. As for the Young Persons, those belonging to what used to be known as the working classes are commonly enlightened very early about elemental things, and the other boys and girls are not nowadays brought up prudish. But in fact "The Naked and the Dead" will only be scavenged for obscene passages by those whose taste or fancy is already for such nourishment. It is a powerful, well-planned and excitingly intelligent book: a far more remarkable achievement than there is space to describe here.

An American brigade is fighting the Japanese on a Pacific island. We are made intimate with individuals of all ranks from the G.I.s to the General. (Some of them are perfectly respect-able, kindly, and restrained.) From time to time there is a flashback to the private home life of one or another of our heroes, and these passages, though brilliant in their analysis, are in some cases the weakest links in the sequence: in their compression they are a little too magazine-slick. When one considers that Mr. Mailer is still only 26 years old, the range and the grasp he shows seems extraordinary. His assessment of something nearly as universal as fear inspired by danger comes out in the superb dialogues between the General and his aide. Most people who reach three times 26 never tumble to a fraction of what Mr. Mailer has already found out about the psychology of the men who want power. In the long future which may be ahead of mankind the misfortunes of the masses will seldom any more come to them from a lone dictator - much from countless bosses and managers like Mr. Mailer's not altogether detestable General. And what a lot this story tells us about that subject of such prime interest in the twentieth century: the Americans! One feels, of course, that Americans get too much to eat in war as in peace. How can one not become rather more animal than befits a human being with so much rich food to eat? "The Naked and the Dead" is a little too long - not much; and one must insist that the construction is masterly.

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Dead reckoning

David Riggs' biography, The World of Christopher Marlowe, moves beyond the conspiracy theories to paint a realistic picture of his life and shows just how different he was from Shakespeare, says Colin Burrow

10, Jul, 2004 @12:23 AM

Dead poet's society

It took some time for Joseph Severn to escape from his friend Keats's shadow. But a new discovery of letters shows how he came to be hailed as an artist in his own right, writes Grant F Scott.

16, Apr, 2005 @12:01 AM

Article image
Review: Who Murdered Chaucer?

Whodunnit? Jonathan Myerson is rapt in a Python's coils of explanation as to the writer's mysterious end in Who Murdered Chaucer? by Terry Jones et al

Jonathan Myerson

15, Nov, 2003 @12:35 PM

Voices of the dead

Isaac Bashevis Singer begins with a disconcerting irony: "I was brought up in three dead languages - Hebrew, Aramaic, Yiddish." This ironic statement functions as an invocation of those dead who spoke, specifically, the Yiddish of Poland.

By Angela Carter

15, Feb, 1978 @1:09 PM

Article image
The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson – review

Following his own Homeric epiphany, Nicolson gives a reading of the Iliad and Odyssey that is preoccupied by masculinity. It is full of insight and passion. By Charlotte Higgins

Charlotte Higgins

15, May, 2014 @10:00 AM

Article image
Bring up the bodies: digging up the dead in literature
You don’t need zombies or ghosts to chill the blood. Moira Redmond digs up some of literature’s most gruesome graveyard scenes

Moira Redmond

30, Oct, 2014 @2:01 PM

Article image
Nosferatu to rise from dead again as Hollywood plans second remake
Director behind Sundance hit The Witch to remake FW Murnau’s 1922 silent Dracula adaptation, following Werner Herzog’s 1979 effort

Catherine Shoard

29, Jul, 2015 @10:12 AM

Article image
Dead Poets Day: it’s not just the anniversary of Shakespeare – or even Cervantes
Rupert Brooke, William Wordsworth and the 18th-century writer Thomas Tickell are among the others to have died at this rich time of year for centenaries

John Dugdale

23, Apr, 2016 @7:00 AM

Article image
The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson review – beneath the hyperbole is a good book

This enjoyable, if sometimes wordy study of the Greek poet, is impassioned and wide-ranging, writes Ian Thomson

Ian Thomson

25, May, 2014 @11:00 AM

Article image
The Dirty Dust (Cré na Cille) by Máirtín Ó Cadhain review – the dead bicker in an Irish classic
This splendidly batty 1949 novel, translated into English for the first time, sees a smalltown graveyard become a hotbed of gossip

Kevin Barry

15, Apr, 2015 @11:17 AM