Norman Mailer became an American literary icon because he infuriated people, challenged them, harassed them and insulted them—and because he was so in?amed by his ideas (hailed by some, ridiculed by others), so marvelously self-centered and so magni?cently egomaniacal. Say what you will about Mailer, but as a writer he’s never been afraid of anything, never afraid to say what he thinks, no matter who might find those thoughts half-baked or myopic or dangerous or insane (I’m thinking of the campaign to free talented murderer Jack Abbott here).
So news that Mailer had written his novel about Hitler, a subject that has fascinated him since boyhood, stirs interest. What would the great writer—a Jewish-born World War II veteran who’d imagined himself into the minds of ?gures from Jesus to the Pharoahs, from Gary Gilmore to Marilyn Monroe—do inside the mind of the most notorious genocidal dictator in modern history? The disappointing answer is this: very little.
To the degree Adolf Hitler is present in Mailer’s new novel, The Castle in the Forest, he seems blandly insigni?cant. This is, of course, by design, believe it or not. Mailer’s focus here is more on the greater question of Evil, the nature of it, the source(s) of it, its pettiness and banality, and—here comes the big surprise—the relatively small role human beings actually play in its manifestation.
In this novel, narrated by a demon Satan charges with overseeing the development of the young Hitler, legions of invisible devils and angels are constant, ubiquitous eavesdroppers and voyeurs, ever on the lookout for prospective “clients” among the human race; vigilant against meddling from the opposing side. The war between good and evil, between Satan (“the Maestro”) and God (“the D.K.,” for Dummkopf), is now more like the struggle between battling corporate lickspits ?ghting for tidbits of turf and promotions: “Devils who serve the Maestro do not go to war in phalanx against angels any longer. Rather, we are artfully installed by now in every corner of human existence.”
They are master psychologists, too—or at least our narrator is. He’s an über-Freudian who cheers little Adi’s excessive attachment to his mother, his hatred of his father, his fascination with his own feces, his cross-dressing (just once in here, and—to be fair—young Adi was pretending the dress was a priest’s robe) and his frequent masturbation. The demon is able to plant ideas and encourage or discourage tendencies, to in?uence actions through dreams, or those ‘voices’ we often read accounts of madmen hearing before committing a heinous act. He can make sure that certain felicitous coincidences occur. He’s sort of an evil fairy godfather to young Adolf, though Adolf never suspects his presence. It’s bene?cial to devils that their clients believe they’re in control of their own lives.
There are wonderful passages and chapters in this novel, including the narrator’s salacious recounting of Adolf’s father and his serial adultery (which, via a complicated path, leads him to marry his illegitimate daughter, who becomes Adolf’s mother), and Mailer’s version of a Melville-esque digression into beekeeping and bees. The devil-narrator, in spite of being incapable of human emotion, nevertheless cannot stop himself from speaking quite tenderly about his charges, the ill-fated members of the Hitler family. And in the end, we ?nally get 60 pages of gratifying focus on Adolf himself, and Mailer proves capable of a fascinating empathy for the young man who would become a monster.
But, my God, it takes a long time to get there. I learned much more about Alois Hitler, Adolf’s father, and his mother, Klara, and Adolf’s various siblings (as well as the devilish old beekeeper Der Alte and other supporting cast) than I really cared to learn. To Mailer’s credit, my interest in these characters grew as I read on. But did we really need that 45-page digression into Russia while the narrator ‘managed’ the coronation of Nicholas II? I don’t think so. Even Mailer’s narrator doesn’t think so: He tells us which page to turn to if we desire to skip it.
If this demon and his demonic world seemed more malevolent, I’d have been more fascinated. And some of these devils’ shenanigans certainly lead to large-scale malevolent events (this is a novel about Hitler, after all). But there’s something about a description in ?rst-person by a devil with an apparently requisite lack of emotional depth that diminishes our sense of the malevolent grandeur of such acts. The events may remain horrible and have long-lasting negative effects on society and the human psyche, but in this novel their origins seem more petty and banal than ever. The idea that all the evil loosed into this world, including the greatest evils, is ultimately the fruit of labor by penny-pinching (these devils are quite the bean-counters, in their own way) Satanic bureaucrats would be funny—if this were a comic novel.
It’s not. It is, however, a big, uneven, ambitious, audacious novel that’s sure to please those who hate Mailer just as much as it pleases those who love him.