David Mamet On The Red Wing, The First Book of His Novella, Three War Stories
HH: “But I will endorse with every atom of my being the holy wisdom of that signal which began, and with which I conclude my experience of my voyage. They that go down to the sea and ships and do their work in many waters have seen the deeds of God and His wonders in the watery deep. Praise God.” That’s the last paragraph of the first of three novellas in David Mamet’s new book, Three War Stories. He rejoins me. Welcome back, David, it’s great to have you back on the Hugh Hewitt Show.
DM: Thanks, Hugh. I appreciate the time. It’s good to talk to you.
HH: It is good to talk to you. The Red Wing is so interesting. We’re only going to talk about the first novella, and I hope to get you back to talk about the other two in sequence. But I found The Red Wing so compelling that even though we have to cover the news of Iran, I want to begin by asking is this an homage in part to Patrick O’Brian?
DM: Absolutely. Patrick O’Brian, who of course notably wrote the Aubrey-Maturin books, 22 stories about life in the Napoleonic Navy and the British Navy during the Napoleonic wars. It’s one of the great works of fiction in the history of the English language, and I’ve read the books many, many times. And I was vastly inspired by them. It’s also an homage to the Flashman series by George MacDonald Fraser.
DM: …which is a series of 15 novels about a cad in the early Victorian days who went all over the Earth. There’s a lot of these great works of historical imagination. Bernard Cromwell writes them. Harold Coyle writes them. And I love all these stories, so I thought I’d try my hand at one.
HH: And what it is, it could easily have been written by a combination of Aubrey and Maturin at the end of their days, the spy and the sailor, and I just think it’s brilliantly constructed, but that I’ve read all of the O’Brian books and all of the Sharpe books. I’ve not read the Fraser books, George MacDonald Fraser. But I found myself understanding them better and being called back to them, so much so that in my National Review recommended list, I included Three War Stories without the proviso that people ought to read the O’Brian novels first. But have other O’Brian fans figured this out?
DM: No, you’re the first, curious, I thought everyone was going to say a-ha, but you’re the first. But of course, O’Brian was about the third guy who wrote this series. He just happens to be a genius. The same series was written before him by C.S. Forester in the Hornblower books. And then one could make the case that the same series was written to a certain extent by Frederick Marriott, who had actually been a captain in the British Navy under Nelson and during the Napoleonic wars. But the idea of a series of adventures involving the same two fellows, it’s, well, of course it’s where Conan Doyle got his idea for Sherlock Holmes.
HH: You got such an interesting in and out approach here. You have, it’s almost, he wakes up each day and he writes a different part of his story, and it all comes together. But you’ve got to read closely. You’re not going to be spoon fed this book. Was that conscious decision on the part of Mamet? I’m going to make people work to understand what’s going on here?
DM: Oh, gosh, no. I mean, that’s the last thing in the world I want to do is make anybody work. What I’m trying to write is a ribbon good yarn. So I figure if it interests me, you know, I have pretty good literary tastes, which means I like what I like. I figure if it interests me, it’s going to interest the reader, because other people talk about writing for a mass audience, which I understand to mean writing for a dumb audience. But I’ve yet to meet a dumb audience.
HH: Well, that’s what I met. A dumb audience could not follow this, and I was going to, then, bridge to your play, The Anarchist, which I loved and saw in previews on the same night at Woody Allen. I waxed poetic about it in a review, but then again, I’m a student of the breakdown of those years, though I came after them. And critics hated it. And so I never quite know when I’m going to track with what the popular taste is among critics.
DM: Well, neither do I. You know, it was, I think it was Wilson who said you can always get the mob to agree with you. All you’ve got to do is agree with the mob. I don’t know of any audience, I write, I write the best way I know how, you know, with the help of God. And if I get a kick out of it, I figure other people will get a kick out of it, too. And if they don’t, it’s my job either to understand why, and sometimes the answer is I don’t know. And sometimes, the answer is I have to do better. And sometimes, the answer is well, things are just sometimes like that.
HH: I think you’re going to get two reactions to The Red Wing. One, it’s going to be incredible praise from people who have read the O’Brian stories, or other similar series, and another of complete confusion from someone who knows not of what you’re writing.
DM: Well, I don’t know about the second. I always thought that, I love technical journals. You know, sitting in somebody’s office or waiting between planes, I’ll pick up Fine Boatbuilding, or Advanced Knitting, you know, things I know nothing about. And I’m fascinated by the idea that we share some common knowledge. I don’t happen to share it, but it leads me along in its wake, and that’s what this book is.
HH: You’re a better man than I am. I am not that man. I have to be, I have to know of what I’m writing at least a little bit, or reading. Let me ask you about a couple of things before we go back to The Red Wing.
HH: Iran and the United Stated entered into a deal. You are a supporter of the State of Israel. You are a new neocon of relatively recent vintage as we talked about when your work, The Secret Knowledge, came out. This is a terrible moment. It’s actually a terrible moment in world history. What do you think of it?
DM: Well, I mean, I was born right after World War II, and I’m a Jew. I’m a serious Jew. My grandparents who didn’t leave Poland got killed. Half of them got killed by the Nazis, half of them got killed by Stalin. And it’s been clearly evident to me from the first that the left is going to make Israel do its dirty work. It’s going to turn its back on Israel until to save the West, Israel is going to have to strike at Iran and leave the cat sitting on the fence to say see, I told you so. Look at what our enemies are up to this week.
HH: And so do you think that’s going to happen now?
HH: And will you be upset? Or will you cheer them when they act?
DM: Well, I’d cheer, you know, I’m a Jew. I’m for the Jewish people, and I’m an American, and I’m for the West. And I’m for our allies. And Israel’s been under attack for every day of its existence.
HH: Okay, having said that, you were also a child of Hyde Park. You know these people who are around the President. You probably know the President’s mind better than most. What is he doing?
DM: He’s a tyrant. And I give him great credit. He’s always said that his idea was to reform the United States, and that like, you know, like many tyrants, like Wilson and like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he believes that his way is the right way, and that he’s going to implement his vision of the world. And many agree with him. And he’s acting in consonance with his conscience, and I applaud him for that. I just disagree with everything he’s done, and I think he’s dead wrong.
HH: On Page 74 of The Red Wing, one of the three novellas in David Mamet’s new book, Three War Stories, you write, “Our political life has veered over the last age towards the capital D Democratic. Concomitantly, the political profession has attracted increasingly those possessing both the power to sway the mob, and to delay the discovery of their essential careerism.” Is that Obama?
DM: It’s everyone, isn’t it? I mean, it’s everybody in politics that I know of. It’s like the fellow who’s caught in the brothel. You know, his best friend sees him there and the guy realizes hey, wait a second, he can’t have caught me unless he was here, too. And I think everybody in politics is more or less the same thing. There’s so much money involved, that by the time you get to the top, you have to have sold your soul to any number of conflicting devils. And so Milton Friedman’s answer, I believe, was the only correct one. You have to cut taxes to take corruption out of government. It’s the only way. And one of the great geniuses of the Obama campaigns was to equate the cutting of taxes with greed rather than returning to popular government.
HH: Do you admire anyone in politics, David Mamet?
DM: Well, I probably do. I thought Ted Cruz had a bunch of guts to stick up there and stand up there and make his filibuster. And I thought it was great that everybody on the left who all, I used to be a Reformed Jew, you know, and Reformed Judaism, twice a year, you watch Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. And that’s replaced Yom Kippur.
DM: So I mean, there he was, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, and everyone on the left is saying oh, boo, oh hoo.
HH: And so do you have any hope that someone like Cruz wins through? Or is the same media machine that will raise itself against provocative works of the right going to array itself against provocative voices on the right?
DM: Of course, it is, but I think as Dennis Prager says, you know, we have to have clarity rather than agreement, and say that this is greatest crisis the United States has faced since the Civil War, and that God forbid it should get violent, and I don’t think it’s going to get violent, but it’s a civil war of ideas. And they’re diametrically opposed. And in order to prevail, we’re going to have to accept the fact and elect some electable people and hold their feet to the fire and say here’s what you said you were going to do. If you don’t do it, we’re going to send you back next November.
HH: How much of the meditations on torture in The Red Wing were born out of the conversations the country had about torture over the last decade?
DM: Well, quite a lot. Quite a lot. And Alan Dershowitz even wrote a book about it. Quite a lot. They’re works of imagination, and what one tries to do as an author is to imagine oneself into a situation and write one’s way out of it, to put oneself in a situation where the irreconcilables can never meet and say well, what would I do? So that’s what, the book is, as I say in The Red Wing, it’s an old man’s book. It’s a book of a fellow at the end of his life who’d been a spy, who’d been a fighter, who’d been a writer, and now was trying to make sense of the whole darned thing.
HH: And who’d been a captive. And more on that when we return.
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HH: I have not ever actually liked the form very much. The only other novella I’ve really liked is An Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett. Did you ever happen to read that, David?
DM: Wait a second. That’s not the one about the crazy lady in the camper, is it?
HH: No, it’s about the Queen learning to read.
DM: Oh, no.
HH: It’s a crazy lady in a camper, sort of, but I would encourage you to read An Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett. But in terms of this, the difficulty of this form, is this harder or easier than writing plays?
DM: It’s completely different. I mean, one gets to be, one gets to expatiate a little while in writing novellas and writing novels. I’ve written a few novels, and experiment with style and just get a kick out of the savor of the words. And there have been some pretty terrific novellas that I like. Hemmingway, for example, wrote three completely disparate novellas that somebody took and gobbled into Islands In The Stream, which makes a wonderful book by itself, but it’s made up of three novellas.
HH: Oh, I’ve never read it. Okay, so I’ll try that one.
DM: Excellent. Also, of course, they gave him a Nobel Prize for The Old Man And The Sea, which is about a hundred pages long.
HH: I will put this forward for the Nobel, because I like The Red Wing that much. Let me ask you, though, about four of five subjects that are discreet in here. You write in your character’s voice, “I have not encountered and not often expressed gratitude.” Is that in any way autobiographical?
DM: Sure. You know, the question as one gets to look toward the final lap is, as who was it that says, Daffy Duck, Say, what the heck is going on here anyways. So I mean, he’s my favorite philosopher. So that’s the question of philosophy, isn’t it?
HH: Well, do you, but you seem to me to be very grateful to people.
DM: I don’t, well, insufficiently grateful to people. I mean, insufficiently grateful. You know, there’s a prayer that the Observant Jews are supposed to say on arising, which is thank you, God, for restoring to me my soul. So if you say it with some sort of feeling, you say well, A) what is my soul, and B) what’s it good for, and C) where does it come from? Well obviously, it comes from God. And the question is what’s it good for is that it must be something that God wants. The question is now what am I going to do with it today? So you know, as the passions begin to burn off, we get more time for contemplation, and that’s the question in that book, The Red Wing.
HH: That’s the opening of The Republic as well. Second discreet question, on Page 31, you meditate on the fact that old men run out of the capacity, or at least the taste for friendship. Now you’re not yet old, but you’re older. Do you find that true? Because I find that depressing if it’s true.
DM: Well, I don’t know. Somebody said a long time ago, nobody makes a good, I think it was Maugham said nobody makes a good friend after the age of 25. That’s absolutely not true, and I’ve made many friends, and a couple of good friends, and I’m getting towards 70. But I’m very, very graced in having a lovely, loving family, and I’d just rather spend time with them than anything else in the world.
HH: Another wonderful aspect is about an author’s vanity. And you discuss how Burgess, who is a co-spy with your narrator, discovers that the narrator had in fact been an anonymous teller of fictional tales by watching him watching somebody reading his book. I thought that was masterful. Have you done that?
DM: Yeah, I have. You know, I’ve been putting on plays for about 50 years, and I always try to hang out in the interim, what do you call it, the intermission, and listen to people talking. And I’ve never heard anybody say anything except one time I heard these two people say at intermission, oh my gosh, it’s amazing, have you ever heard anything like this in your life? And the other one says no. And he says this is transforming my life. I didn’t think, you know, I’m preening myself, and I look forward, and I see that they’re talking about the infrared hearing devices.
HH: (laughing) Okay. Now there’s another aspect where Burgess, another spy, and your narrator come across a mystic who levitates, and you leave this open-ended. And they never discuss it again.
DM: Well, I think that that’s true of, oh, I’m so glad, I’m thrilled that you liked the book, and I’m so glad you’re mentioning so many of my favorite bits. I think that that’s what one says when one comes across the truly mystic. There’s nothing, what could one say? They saw it together. They’re going to have to spend their whole lives figuring it out, or relegating it to the unconscious. They actually saw a guy levitate, and that was that. And that’s the end of that story.
HH: And they can’t ever, there’s no way to talk about it among, you know, were we fooled, were we entranced, because you talk about hypnosis, another point in the novella. And so I just, I thought to myself, that’s fascinating, and we don’t quite know how much time Burgess spent with your narrator, but it was a lot.
DM: Yeah, well, but you know, I take it as a great compliment, because what I’m understanding you to say in compliment to me is that it was provocative.
HH: Oh, very. Very.
DM: And that’s the difference between, you know, the Old Testament and a greeting card.
HH: Yeah, and there’s also a provocative part on Page 47 on strategy in war. A midshipman who has been derelict in his duty creates a story by which it is covered. And your narrator discovers it. And then he argues with himself whether or not he ought to have upbraided the midshipman, because of course, the midshipman is exactly what might lead to the surprise stratagem in war, which is nonchalance about those days on which you might be attacked, which of course is a meditation on 9/11.
DM: Yeah, yeah.
HH: I think it’s really a wonderfully, I don’t know how long you took putting this together, David Mamet, but it’s, how long did it take?
DM: Oh, just long enough. (laughing)
HH: Is, so are you working on more? Or are you going back to playwriting now?
DM: No, I wrote, I’m always working. I’ve got a new play I’m really, really happy about, and Al Pacino said he’s going to do it in New York in the fall. And I’m working on a couple of novels. And I’m just working all the time.
HH: All right, now finally, Captain Marion, who is the protagonist of your mythical narrator’s three novel series, how is he different from Aubrey? How is he alike?
DM: Well, he’s a spy. I mean, he’s really, really a spy, and I’ve always felt myself rather a spy in the house of Western Civilization. And if you look at some of the great writers of the 20th Century, among them Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene and John Le Carre, they were all professional spies. And I think they bring that into their work. They’re looking very, very closely not at what a person says, but what a person means. And I guess that’s what it means to be a writer, partly.
HH: You also write the art of the spy is never to be noticed on Page 64, so I guess you would have been the perfect recruit for the Agency when you came out.
DM: I don’t think so, because for years, the cops kept pulling me out of line at the airport. I mean, this was decades before 9/11. There’s just, every time, they would look at me and say nope, I don’t like this guy. And then one day, they stopped, and I kind of missed it.
HH: And a last question. Early in the book, you write, “I do not know if I believe in God,” and yet the book ends by quoting the Psalms. And so I gather that that tension is resolved in favor of belief in your narrator’s mind?
DM: Sure, absolutely. I think what the narrator is saying throughout in the meditation of an old man, which is what the book is, is I sense that God exists. I know that God’s there. I have no idea why I’m here, but perhaps God might give me a clue.
HH: Well, it’s a wonderful, it’s a wonderful thing, and it’s a wonderful story, and do come back when I am done with the next two and talk about them. I did not want to mix them together, and I hope you’ll understand why I didn’t want to do that. There are three different books. I didn’t want to try and cover three in one interview, David Mamet. Thanks, it’s always great that you’re generous with your time. I appreciate it.
DM: Likewise. Thank you, Hugh, and you’re welcome. Bye bye.
HH: Happy Thanksgiving. Three War Stories by David Mamet.
End of interview.