Norman Mailer’s Ripe Garbage

Rob Madole in The Baffler:

NORMAN MAILER WAS CHARACTERISTICALLY AROUSED the first time he caught a whiff of death drifting from a nearby battlefield. “A curious smell,” he described in a February 1945 letter to his first wife Bea, whom he’d charged with preserving his correspondence as preliminary notes for the big war novel he’d conceived in basic training. “A smell of decay, not exactly sweet as the authors have it, but a good deal like feces leavened with ripe garbage.” Mailer’s tone is that of a gourmand encountering a rare vintage; his olfactory exemplar is Leo Tolstoy, who’d written evocatively in War and Peace about the “stench of rotting flesh” in military hospitals after the Battle of Friedland, the mere memory of which gives Nikolai Rostov, even weeks after the event, sensory hallucinations.

Mailer, however, didn’t share Rostov’s battlefield revulsion, even after the Jeep giving him a tour swerved down a dirt road and arrived at a field of putrefying Japanese corpses, “perhaps twenty or thirty . . . swollen to the dimensions of very obese men.”

More here.