The reich stuff
Norman Mailer is back, tackling both Hitler and
Mailer’s first novel in more than a decade looks at the mostly 19th-century childhood of the ultimate 20th-century devil (a.k.a. Adolf Hitler). The Castle in the Forest unfolds in vignettes told in the quasi-omniscient voice of the none-too-trusty narrator Dieter, who first identifies himself as a former S.S. officer under Himmler tasked, during the meteoric rise of Der Führer, with an investigation of said Führer’s rumored incestuous origins. As it turns out, Dieter is not only S.S. but 666, a long-serving agent of “the Maestro” (yes, Satan) himself, and young Adolf was his “client.”
If this sounds a little goofy, that’s because it is. Mailer intends to provoke weak or proper sensibilities. Surely at 83 his will remains that of the 40-year-old who got himself arrested at the 1967 march on the Pentagon, and went on to write Armies of the Night, one of the more truly transgressive and intellectually astute works of nonfiction the Vietnam War era produced. But Castle’s strengths stand less on the provocateur’s sensibility than on its dialogue with the religious preoccupations that have driven modern history.
Hitler’s provenance is well known: The dictator was the son of Austrian customs officer Alois Hitler and his second cousin Klara Poelzl, whom the narrator here reveals to be Alois’s daughter, the product of a roll in the hay with an aunt when Alois was a young man. From this act, the Freudian knot Mailer progressively tightens around Adolf is primed. In his young life, Adolf is enamored of his own shit and repeatedly vanquished by his older brother, Alois Jr., on whom the weight of their father’s expectations sit so heavily. Junior seeks solace via blow jobs given by a wizened old beekeeper known as Der Alte. But in turn, Adolf defeats both imaginary and real foes with fellow boys he commands during war games in the area around the small farm in Hafeld.
After a dispute between father and Junior prompts the latter to torch his dad’s beehives and the former to disown his eldest, Adolf’s newly acquired status as top dog prompts further whippings from his father and a new exigency to his life. In the whippings you’ll find the genesis of Adolf’s iron will. As for his hatred of Jews, as is also well known, that comes later in Vienna, though whiffs of anti-Semitism emerge from Alois. The book ends a short time after Alois’s death from lung hemorrhaging.
And if that seems to spoil the plot, fear not: That’s not how this book works. Mailer’s use of Satan’s agent as narrator is his way of giving this familiar story a new cast—not a terribly original one, really, but what else could be done with a monster of Adolf’s stature? Mailer keeps it interesting by drawing the particulars of the world of devil Dieter in often hilarious, mundane detail, including the minor devil’s detours to events in European history contemporary with Adolf’s youth—the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II in 1894, for instance, during which thousands died.
In the end, Adolf remains the book’s ostensible subject, and this hints at its larger message. Mailer risks a kind of apology for the 20th century’s greatest devil, but the historical narrative—full of warring sides, conflict and resolution, and full of plot—provides us with its primary benefit. Castle ascends finally to postmodern epic. Its mischievous narrators, heroes, devils and debased dumbheads ensnare readers between the empathic thrust of literary representation and a high and mighty knowledge of the crimes of history. As for its author, as Dieter himself puts it at the end of Book V: “Popular writers usually believe they are working both for God and their own prosperous selves. All the while, we are encouraging them to steep their readers in baths of misperception. The profit comes to us.”
The Castle in the Forest (Random House, $27.95) is on shelves now.