In portraying Hitler as the product of a diabolical incest, Norman Mailer has taken fictional ambition to a remote peak of implausibilityby / February 25, 2007 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2007 issue of Prospect Magazine
The Castle in the Forest by Norman Mailer
(Little, Brown, £17.99)
There can be little doubt that The Castle in the Forest needs to be consigned at once to the underworld inhabited by Norman Mailer’s most remarkable fictional disasters. At times the novel ranks for ridiculousness alongside Ancient Evenings, his never-to-be-reread 1983 epic of ancient Egypt. But a closer analogy may be with Harlot’s Ghost, the interminably baggy über-narrative of the CIA he published in 1991, an opus which set out to embrace “the mind of America” and which concluded after 1,168 exhausting pages with an epigraph to confound even his most loyal readers: To be continued…
His long-awaited new novel may be less than half that length, but Mailer, in his eighties, has somehow found the energy to take fictional ambition to an even more remote peak of implausibility. Returning to the Mephistophelean psychologies of intelligence-gathering, this time within the historical circumstances of Hitler’s childhood, he casts an actual devil as his central narrative agent.
The Castle in the Forest opens with heart-stopping promise. Mailer’s narrator, writing in the present day, claims he was once an SS agent who worked for Himmler on his most secret enterprise: to uncover the origins of Hitler’s birth. The rumoured possibility that the führer had a Jewish grandfather, if true, would destabilise the entire Nazi project. But Himmler wished to pursue his own alternative theory, that racially inherited genius finds its purest incarnation in incest. In Mailer’s phantasmagoric scenario, Himmler’s agent, Dieter (or DT as he calls himself), produces evidence that Hitler’s mother was really his father’s daughter, thus satisfying the SS chief’s weirdest cravings.
And not only this. In the early chapters of the book, DT reveals that he was in fact no mere agent of Himmler, but a demon in human form, acting on behalf of an altogether superior kind of intelligence chief—the “Maestro”—an eminence who was present at the moment of Hitler’s conception and who may or may not be Satan himself. The Maestro, in Mailer’s Miltonic schema, wants to undermine the authority of God (whom he calls the Dummkopf) by sowing destruction on earth. The young Adolf has been selected as one of his most promising protégés.
At this point in the novel, Mailer’s project (“story” is really too modest a word for it) stands on the brink of a precipice. Is there any conceivable way he might pull it off? Mailer’s readers have confronted this kind of gambit many times before. They develop out of a psychological node in his writing—a confluence of machismo and masochism—that first emerged in 1959 with Advertisements for Myself, when he came to embrace the consciousness-altering pressures of his own fame and to transform the cancers of the ego into a literary device. Thus in the Vietnam era diatribe Armies of the Night (1968), Mailer’s central character—written in the third person—was the hard-drinking, antagonistic, excessively famous author “Norman Mailer.” The book won Mailer his first Pulitzer prize, because it felt true to the times. It was bombast as art.
Such chutzpah has produced some of the work which stakes out Mailer’s claim to lasting importance. In The Fight (1975), “Norman” set himself up alongside Muhammad Ali as an equal protagonist in one of the 20th century’s key sporting dramas. In The Executioners’s Song (1979), he took the story that every major journalist in America wanted to tell—the execution of Gary Gilmore—and transformed it into a mighty excavation of the American subconscious. In Oswald’s Tale (1996), Mailer absorbed the exhaustive literature of the Kennedy assassination and, by developing the novelist’s imagination as an investigative tool, superseded it. Such were the tallest of tales Mailer, against all the odds, has managed to pull off.
The Castle in the Forest is not, unfortunately, one of them. Having braced the reader for a plunge into the nature of evil, DT turns out to be a much less pungent narrator than “Norman” ever was. His “milk runs” as an intelligence officer of the evil one turn out to be rather banal: implanting the odd dream or idea into the young Adolf’s mind in order to furnish him with the kind of psychic conflicts that will develop into… well, the reader knows only too well what is going to become of little Adi.
It’s this reverse causality that may be the fundamental mistake of Mailer’s enterprise. The act of imagining the later personality of the Führer being germinated in his childhood unconscious—even if manipulated by an officer of Satan—falls absurdly flat. Hitler’s father, Alois, was a bit of a brute. So what? The love of his mother Klara was blighted by the death of so many of her other children. Big deal. Little Adolf is terrified of sexual humiliation and fixated by the idea that we are all “born between piss and shit.” But is that a motivation for the final solution? Perhaps he was the progeny of his father’s daughter, as Mailer hypothesises. Historians will rubbish the idea, but even if it were feasible, it doesn’t help explain Hitler’s pathology. Incestuous offspring in peasant populations were common enough.
The early trials of ordinary children can be interesting when you expect no more of them than a standard developmental drama. But when the final outcome of that child happens to be the Holocaust, there is no psychological equation that might provide a meaningful link from Oedipal drama to world catastrophe. Even as the story plunges into the Freudian murk, it is evident that therein lie no satisfactory answers—other than banal ones. In fact, if the novel serves one useful purpose, it is as a vividly boring example of how little can be explained by examining childhood experience. If the psychological novel is to re-emerge, it will be by escaping the dank cellars of psychoanalysis.
Yet when Mailer fails, he fails gigantically. Leave lesser novelists to their tidy critical standards. When Norman crashes out, it is to the roar of falling rubble, amid a recklessly quixotic attempt to explain evil and understand the origins of the 20th century’s most terrible man.