Once I met a woman who blurted after I’d given a reading, “Writers . . . They’re known to be egotistical.” She peered into my face. I was speechless. She’s a professor of literature! Plenty of untutored laymen share her impression.
I say this while immersed in Of a Fire on the Moon, the account of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon in 1969 by a man who fueled that stereotype, legendary egotist Norman Mailer. Reading it because of another book I’m reviewing, I find Mailer’s stance may imply at first blush I’m smarter and feel more, which gives me the right to be this self-referential. But I can’t help but think as well of the burden of such a claim. To be smarter and more empathetic. You can see, too, that he isn’t just winging it—his language and insights reveal he’s deeply immersed. His idiosyncratic impressions of the astronauts are interesting and, let it be said, funny.
In other research for my upcoming review, I perused Oriana Fallaci’s account of the mid-1960s space program in her critically acclaimed but now hard-to-find book, If the Sun Dies. Published in 1967, three years ahead of Mailer’s, Fallaci’s reflects greater access. In what seemed a less intense period, she hung out with and interviewed, astronauts. They clearly liked her. And she scored a sit-down in Alabama with rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, who was the Nazis’ before he was ours. This for me was the high point of If the Sun Dies—Fallaci had been a young resistance fighter in Italy in WWII, and loathed von Braun; she intercut their interview with her memories of occupying German soldiers. Her later work obscures this one’s brilliance. Fallacii (1929–2006) was a brave, blazing talent.