When I heard Norman Mailer was writing about Hitler, I was distinctly ambivalent. This latest effort promised to be another publicity stunt on the order of the dreadful The Gospel According to the Son (1997), Christ's version of the Gospel—designed to keep Mailer's name before an audience that had long ago despaired of his writing future. Let's face it, he hasn't had a hit since 1979 with The Executioner's Song. Harlot's Ghost (1991), his big CIA book, was his last novel, and a credible enough one—though the subject didn't genuinely seem to excite him. About the intervening disasters, the less said, the better.
It was with some trepidation, then, that I opened The Castle in the Forest. Have no fear; all of Mailer's obsessions are here, in full flower. Technology = evil? Check. Anal sex? Check. Odors? Galore. The devil present at conception? You bet. And Mailer repeats several times one of his old chestnuts, the Latin phrase for "Between shit and piss we are born." This time, we even get it in German: "Zwischen Kot und Urin sind wir geboren."
But this effort signals a real departure for the author: It's an actual novel, it seems. Mailer has rediscovered the art of fiction after so many pratfalls. He clearly takes delight in what he's doing—something we haven't seen since his virtuoso writing in the '60s. He merrily presents himself as an SS man, Dieter, later revealing himself to be, in fact, a minion of the devil himself—whom he calls the Maestro. (God is the DK, short for Dummkopf.) Dieter wittily relates how Himmler, obsessed with incest, sets his intelligence officers, including our narrator in his SS guise, on the path of Hitler's ancestry. Not surprisingly, the narrator teases out a family tree that includes incestuous relationships. Uncles mate with nieces, brothers with sisters. The hero of our story, Alois Hiedler, Hitler's father, couples with Klara, a woman both acknowledge is his niece, but we learn she is also his daughter. (Be forewarned: I had to keep copious notes for the first third of the novel; to understand these convoluted histories is no easy matter.)
As it happens, it's not a bad marriage. We are presented with a lively family engagingly rendered, including some children from Alois's second wife, and then Adolf ("Adi"); his younger sister, Paula; and their younger brother, Edmund, who dies soon after his older brother makes him faint by telling him the plots of the bloodiest fairy tales—leaving Adi guilt-ridden. Mailer brings to life fully rounded characters—even the women—and watches their progress with solicitude and humor. The life of the Hiedler family (Mailer doesn't tell us when or why the name changes) is richly textured, the quotidian life of Alois and Klara indelibly etched. Klara is untouchable in her religious belief but has a certain sexual jones for her husband/uncle/father; Adi's half sister, Angela, is on to Adi in the sense that she can smell him (always a giveaway in the Mailer universe): "He did have an odor—a touch of sulphur and an unmistakable hint of something rotten."
The Castle in the Forest's real subject is Alois, a customs official who prides himself on his scrupulous pursuit of his duties—and his avocation as a ladies' man. We follow him into retirement, when he turns to beekeeping, a subject that Mailer has researched with palpable curiosity, just as he seems to have delved quite diligently into biographies of Hitler and portrayals of the Third Reich. Yes, a hive is exterminated because of disease, and, yes, Adi watches with excitement—"his heart shook in its chamber"—as his and his father's mentor in bee matters, an eccentric called Der Alte ("The Old One") who takes a special interest in Adi, destroys it. But what boy's heart wouldn't?
As Mailer reminds us, "That his name was Adolf Hitler was, after all, of no importance then." Dieter (who confesses a fondness for those who are reading this story) gives us a remarkable perspective that allows us to see Hitler as an infant, a toddler, a schoolboy, an adolescent. We might expect a good deal of bombast at this point, heavy overtones of what is to come—Adi killing animals, for instance, or meeting a scarily sexy Jewess. But we have a different Mailer on our hands—one who cares about credibility and the subtle workings of human nature. In one of the book's most accomplished scenes, the Hitler family's dog (Luther, a nice touch) starts howling indoors, and his master, Alois, whom the dog idolizes, berates him so severely that he pees on the floor—which brings on a savage beating. Does Adi relish this scene? No. "As Adolf stared at the wet dog and then at the overflushed face of his father, there was no tenderness in this look, but much comprehension." The reader is left with that.
The young Hitler is good at war games, however. He amasses schoolboy armies that rout the enemy, establishing as first principle that the leader—and Adi is always the leader—is untouchable; that's why he has a lieutenant. The boy has a gift for strategy and quickly realizes that war is more than two armies rushing against each other, that it involves feints, side-to-side maneuvers, and espionage. Our narrator, the devil's minion, even anticipates his readers' pleasure in watching Adi develop. "Good readers," he says, "are an unprotected species—their allegiance moves in advance of their judgment." Our narrator lets us know that his interest in character is "genuine." The Maestro has encouraged his minions in this: "He even encourages us to feel close to what is godly in people. If one is to be alert to the spoils that may be there later, it helps to comprehend the subtle differences between genuine and counterfeit nobility." Dieter prides himself precisely on his understanding of these differences; if the Maestro's devils had religious orders, he tells us, he would be a Jesuit.
Mailer clearly enjoys conjuring up this narrator and relishes the fact that he himself, at eighty-three, is on a roll. That must be his motive for inserting an otherwise baffling forty-four page episode in which our storyteller breaks off his tale to describe his being called away (the devils exist in the most faceless of bureaucracies, with its own economy) to czarist Russia, to attend the coronation of Nicholas II. Dieter suggests to the Maestro that to upset the coronation would hardly be possible—for one thing, God is too much on the czarist side, and Nicholas is guarded by scores of Cudgels, the devils' name for angels. Better to postpone their actions until the Peasants' Festival four days afterward, when faulty planning and false rumors, the work of Satan's minions, result in a crush of peasants trampling one another, and thirteen hundred die. But we also observe the great pomp surrounding the imperial pair, Nicholas and Alexandra (or Nicky and Alix, as our narrator calls them), who are very much in love and have ridiculous intimate names for each other. (In a wonderful stroke, Mailer has Alix confess her private names for Nicky to her maids-in-waiting, one by one, who of course spread this knowledge far and wide—so great is Alix's narcissism, and her innocence.)
The philosophical underpinning of the novel is where Mailer is least successful. In one of his mercifully few lectures, our narrator explains that when we conventionally try to understand Hitler without meditating on the dialectic between the Two Kingdoms, we inevitably miss the mark. He allows that some well-educated people may believe in God, but he thinks our failing is that we don't give enough thought to the devil. Dieter is impatient with nonbelievers. Foolishly, we seek to "be free," unaccountable to either Kingdom. Modern folk have become so vain ("through technology," Mailer cannot help but add) that we believe we can be independent of both.
This somewhat sloppy philosophizing is nothing new to Mailer readers. He is proud of his Manichaeanism, which for him explains everything: black and white, good and evil, God and the devil. But Mailer's most rewarding subject, if he would only realize it, is the subtly shaded ground between these realms, and that's where he functions best. He traces subtleties in Adi's behavior, seeking the humanity in the young schoolboy in rural Austria, and is not as interested, here, in the Hitler of the Holocaust. It's a daring venture, and the author is courageous to attempt it. In this sense, Mailer finally goes beyond his career-long pleading for the devil, searching instead, in the humble Hiedler clan, for the origins of evil.
We read on, expecting to see Adolf Hitler reveal his true nature, but Mailer doesn't take us there. We leave Adolf just after he completes his schooling. Drunk on graduation night, he wipes his ass with his ripped-up diploma and then has to clean it and piece it together to show his mother, telling her he tore it upon realizing how hard she'd worked to give him an education. In thrall to her son, she believes him. He's a loafer when we leave him, and Mailer lets us know that this state of affairs will continue for some time. In the meanwhile, though, Adolf's masturbatory routine changes—he sets as his task maintaining an erection while holding his arm straight at a forty-five-degree angle, in full and ominous salute.
Mary V. Dearborn is the author of Mailer: A Biography (Houghton Mifflin, 1999). She has also written biographies of Henry Miller, Louise Bryant, and, most recently, Peggy Guggenheim.