Gu nter Grass ends "The Meeting at Telgate," his portrayal of a 17th-century version of this week's PEN International Congress, saying, "The poets wanted to go home." If Norman Mailer had been around at Telgate, things would not have ended with such sobriety and quietude.
The final PEN panel meetings today were a fireball of collective anger directed mainly at Mailer, the principal organizer of the congress. Dozens of women blasted the Prisoner of Sex for his failure to place more women on the panels and for his remarkable statement Thursday that "Since the formulation of the panels is reasonably intellectual, there are not that many women, like Susan Sontag, who are intellectuals first, poets and novelists second. More men are intellectuals first, so there was a certain natural tendency to pick more men than women."
A group of writers led by Grace Paley, Cynthia MacDonald, Nadine Gordimer and Margaret Atwood circulated a petition expressing "shock" over the failure to include more women on the panels. Fewer than 20 of the 117 panelists were women. "We're absolutely amazed over the situation," Paley said with Mailer sitting next to her. She also wondered aloud why more black and Asian writers were not represented.
In an atmosphere more like that of a P.T. Barnum rehearsal hall than a gathering of predominantly middle-class belles-lettres-ists, Mailer won a cascade of boos and hisses when he said he did not think it necessary to replace 24 women who were invited but failed to come. (One of those women on his list, Elsa Morante of Italy, died, alas, three weeks ago.) Mailer said he felt tokenism was appropriate on a construction crew but not at a writers' congress. "I didn't want to replace the 24 women with others at the cost of mediocrity."
As the crowd hissed, Mailer went on to say there are some countries where oppression of women is so complete that there are "no good women writers at all." All hell broke loose over that one.
"Name one!" screamed someone in the audience. Mailer said that even though "I like good theater," he hoped the discussion would remain on a high level. He was out of luck.
Erica Jong, author of "Fear of Flying," challenged Mailer: "The issue here is one of invisibility. Our question to you is why do you look at us and not see?"
To which Mailer replied, "Erica Jong is the last woman in the world who can plead invisibility."
Mailer seemed alternately serious and amused by the battle. His one-liners may not have been much to the audience, but they were everything to him.
Yet when the topic shifted to the theme of the week, "the state and the imagination," he seemed genuinely morose, for he had to admit that only a few members of the panels had bothered to confront the idea seriously.
"It's opened up very little," Mailer said. And then he began to work some of the themes he has been working for years. "There's more and more plastic in the world," etc., etc.
"We've been hearing this stuff for years!" someone crowed from the back of the ballroom. Now more and more people were bellowing, walking out or both at once.
Mailer was losing, at the very least, his patience: "If you wanna yell, please give one good yell and leave!"
Cynthia MacDonald said, "I'm afraid any time that Norman is attacked he puts some part of his anatomy into his mouth. I love him, but, my God, this has been ridiculous."
Nadine Gordimer surveyed the room and said with evident exhaustion: "I really feel rather stunned by the atmosphere here."
Sometime in the middle of the week, Susan Sontag wondered aloud whether the 700 Poets, Essayists and Novelists here would ever get around to discussing problems of writing rather than politics. But judging by most panels, Sontag was deeply disappointed.
The week began on a note (basso non profundo) of political discord with Secretary of State George Shultz's appearance at the opening ceremonies and ended today in hapless confusion, hurt feelings and bemused observations.
Japanese novelist Kobo Abe was asked if he had had any interesting discussions about literature and writing with his colleagues. He said, "Yes. But only in my imagination."
Essayist Edward Hoagland said he was "glad to hear all the foreign voices here," but some of those foreign voices, such as Hungarian novelist George Konrad, displayed astonishment that the congress had turned into a political "United States versus the world situation."
The day began with a group of writers -- Mario Vargas Llosa, Frances Fitzgerald and Kurt Vonnegut -- discussing the imagination with politicians George McGovern, Bruno Kreisky of Austria and Pierre Elliott Trudeau of Canada. Moderator Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wore a bow tie the size of an apron and defended his panelists from aggressive questions from the right and left as if he were the mother hen of liberalism.
The panel was, for a while, remarkable for its dullness -- Trudeau quoting from Plato's "Laws," McGovern wondering "how all this is going to come out" -- until Kreisky spoke, at incredible length, on terrorism. He equated the recent terrorism at the Rome and Vienna airports by the Abu Nidal group with, among other acts, the blowing up of the King David Hotel by Menachem Begin and other Zionists during the British occupation of Palestine.
Kreisky, who welcomed Yasser Arafat in 1979 and Muammar Qaddafi in 1982 to Austria, was immediately attacked by members of the audience. Cynthia Ozick, author of "The Cannibal Galaxy" and a frequent contributor to Commentary magazine, demanded with terrific volume to know how Kreisky could "embrace such people." Israeli novelist Amos Oz approached Kreisky with a question: "Suppose Begin and Arafat are really so equal. Why then, Mr. Kreisky, do you so love Mr. Arafat and hate Mr. Begin?"
Kreisky defended himself on the gounds that he was only encouraging negotiations in the Middle East. He also asked the audience to remember that his country has long served as a landing point for Jews emigrating from the Soviet Union. He invited his critics to "meet me in a room later for more discussion." Both McGovern and Trudeau leapt to Kreisky's defense. "I'm shocked and stunned by the tone of the questions directed at him," said McGovern, who called Kreisky "a great man and a humanist."
Later in the discussion, Vargas Llosa of Peru, whose speeches attacking nondemocratic regimes on both the left and the right have won loud applause all week, said, "I'd consider it a tragedy if South Africa passes from apartheid to the gulag, a Soviet model. That's why I'm fighting for the mediocre solution -- democracy."
Vargas Llosa also expressed high regard for the "remarkable imagination" of Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but attacked him as a "courtesan of Fidel Castro."
Gu nter Grass -- whose low point this week came when he said, "Is capitalism better than gulag communism? I don't think so" -- stepped to the microphone and defended Marquez, who had not come to the congress.
"To call Garcia Marquez a courtesan of Fidel Castro -- is this the language to speak about poets?"
Even the most casual look at the week's proceedings would be enough to give Shelley pause about his Romantic rubric in "A Defence of Poetry": "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World."
Poet and essayist Galway Kinnell stood watching Mailer flailing against his countless female opponents today and said, "I think we've learned that writers are not pure heroes and the state is not pure evil. There are corrupt writers, corrupt states. I think that Shelleyan pronouncement about the inherent goodness and wisdom of writers on matters of the state is a dream."