• U.S.

A Rampancy of Writers

4 minute read
Amy Wilentz

In Manhattan, people are calling it the Rehabilitation of Norman Mailer or, less formally, Norman Goes Legit. Mailer, 62, “embattled aging enfant terrible of the literary world . . . champion of obscenity,” as he once called himself, has been remodeling his image–from rebellious to respectable. Throughout the autumn, he acted as an occasional master of ceremonies on a Broadway stage. He spent time sweet-talking the State Department. He rushed to the offices of a real estate magnate to make important deals. He even modified the cut of his clothes to fit his latest fashion. More often than ever, he has been sporting a nearly natty three-piece suit.

Why the good behavior? Mailer was raising money for what promises to be one of the largest gatherings of literary notables ever held: the 48th Annual Congress of International PEN, an association of poets, playwrights, editors, essayists and novelists, which opens in New York City next week. The London-based association, which has 83 affiliate centers worldwide, is dedicated to fighting censorship and the jailing of writers. Founded in 1921, it takes its inspiration from Walt Whitman, who wrote in 1881: “My dearest dream is for an internationality of poems and poets.”

This year’s congress, the first in New York in two decades, will draw some 700 PEN members from places as distant as South Korea and Argentina; among them will be three Nobel prizewinners and such luminaries as Günter Grass, Nadine Gordimer, Octavio Paz and Eugène Ionesco. The weeklong festivities will feature more than 30 panels on subjects as diverse as Translating Whitman, Alienation and the State, Science Fiction, and Censorship in the U.S.A. Total tab for the event, according to PEN: around $800,000.

Cost, in fact, was the major sticking point when the PEN American Center, of which Mailer is president, decided 13 months ago to be host of the congress. The center’s annual budget is around $500,000. But Mailer had a fund-raising idea as inflated as the self-importance of Manhattan’s literary circles: he would stage a series of eight literary evenings, with two writers entertaining each night, and charge $1,000 a subscription. “Even more than the Met!” cried one amused writer, referring to the price of a season ticket to the Metropolitan Opera. Says Mailer: “I believed we would sell the tickets, and we did.”

The series, called the PEN Celebrations, played first at the Booth and later at the Roy ale on Broadway, donated for the purpose by the Shubert Organization. Among the writers who appeared were Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, William Styron, John Updike, Woody Allen and Mailer himself, who agreed to debate sometime Archrival Gore Vidal. Indeed, the Vidal-Mailer matchup was a major draw for the series, and no wonder: their previous encounters have been dramatic, head-butting and drink-throwing affairs. But the latest showdown was disappointing. “A meeting between two toothless tigers,” Mailer called it.

American PEN officials feared they might encounter an obstacle in the McCarran-Walter Immigration Act, which contains a section barring known subversives from entering the U.S. “Even Claude Simon [the 1985 Nobel laureate from France] was excludable under McCarran,” says Karen Kennerly, executive director of the American affiliate. Early on, Mailer met with State Department officials to defuse the issue. Apparently as a result, Simon and several other potentially excludable PEN congress guests of honor will be allowed to attend.

Arranging for the care and feeding of writers from more than 30 nations has posed some tricky problems. Mailer and Gay Talese persuaded Donald Trump, Manhattan’s flashy real estate developer, to donate 200 rooms and six suites at his luxurious St. Moritz Hotel, which would otherwise cost almost $175,000. Ten or more interpreters will provide simultaneous French translations of all congress assemblies. And each of the 50 or so guests of honor is to be met at John F. Kennedy International Airport by a member of the organization’s student support staff. Says Kennerly: “We want to behave in the European style to which the members are accustomed.” President Mailer, with his newfound Old World gentility, would surely endorse the sentiment. –By Amy Wilentz

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