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Early Hitler, Late Mailer

The Castle in the Forest
By Norman Mailer
Random House, 496 pages, $27.95.

What to say about what might be Norman Mailer’s last novel, except to voice hope for a novel that might’ve been better? Or maybe to ask the gods to give him more time — another year or two, or 10 — to produce another “last” novel? What to say, except that “The Castle in the Forest,” Mailer’s first fiction work in a decade, is fantastical and imaginative — for good, though mostly for bad. And, ultimately, for evil.

First the good. Mailer, possibly the most successful innovative novelist of America, is still writing, and still writing well. His sentences are as lucid as ever; dispassionately passionate, as polemical as can be while still retaining coherence and typographical calm. His themes are, as always, enormous. Again, his energy is awesome, giving a gleeful, and strangely thoughtful, Bronx cheer to the effects of old age and the tenor of unreaderly times. In the beginning, there was World War II’s “The Naked and the Dead”; then, the breakdown between fiction and fact as couched in an appraisal of Vietnam in 1968’s “Armies of the Night.” Years later came “The Gospel According to the Son,” Mailer’s attempt to re-fictionalize the historical Jesus; the book’s style and concerns echo here. “The Castle in the Forest,” coming as it does in Mailer’s 84th year, is a piece of magic in and of itself: if only for its context, coupled with a reminder of the author’s focus, wide culture and insatiable mind.

At base, “The Castle in the Forest” is a novel about the patrimony and early years of Adolf Hitler. He is born into a dysfunctional rural family whose farmhouse reeks of hay, dung and Freud. Alois is his father; Klara, his mother; his siblings, if not stillborn, arrive in a world that offers little hope of what we now call upward mobility. Hitler’s is the 19th- century education peculiar to such provincial Catholic nations as Austria, home to Hitler’s backwater Branau, which had remained, it seems, happily unchanged since the Dark Ages’ dawn: manual labor, near illiteracy, bouts of inexplicable bestiality (the burning of a beehive — Mailer’s been reading his Maeterlinck) and stirrings of incestuous longing. Young Adolf, often called Adi, develops a horrific fascination with feces (apparently, he smells terrible himself), and with the sexual impulses underlying violence accomplished on the undeserving — animals as prototype for Jews and other undesirables: those without any means of protest, redress or defense. Hitler first encounters his strange power to attract, and to lead, in various experiments with the neighborhood children . But the nascent Fuehrer’s Kampf, or struggle, is only just beginning; it’s a teenager’s dilemma, the eternal question of the adolescent as best asked by the Brothers Grimm and every prince they’d ever exiled off the page into the European unknown: How to escape hearth and home?

Mailer’s approach to this subject is often parodic — whether of the doomed philosophical correspondences of C.S. Lewis’s “The Screwtape Letters,” Milton’s epic “Paradise Lost” or German children’s or young adult literature, which were the first books to carry any whiff of the propaganda that would later come to dominate the Nazi “adult market.” Adolf Holst’s 1934 “The Dragon Slayer,” for example, featured Hitler as a prince fighting an underworld dragon to save a princess that was Germany. And in 1936, Elvira Bauer published the logorrheaically titled “A Picture Book for the Old and Young: Don’t Trust the Fox in the Green Grass, nor a Jew When He Takes an Oath!” In “The Castle in the Forest,” Mailer satirizes the heroic, clean-bodied, honest-soul naiveté inherent in these works of gutter hatred. “And Alois was loved!” he writes of Hitler’s father. “By his father, by the girls, even by Eva. He was good looking, and, like his own mother, he could sing. As he grew older, he also demonstrated that he was ready to work in the fields.” For much of the early chapters, at least, Mailer seems to be winking at the most enlightened, and referential, of children (and uses exclamation points wonderfully — better than any writer around!).

And now, the bad magic: Mailer’s story of Hitler’s youth is told by a narrator and not by the authorial intelligence himself. This regrettable bit of faux modernism, post-sensical and yet also necessary to the religious subplot setting the stage for the historical future, ultimately fails the book, rendering it an insoluble muddle of junk metaphysics and impotent heresy.

The book’s narrator is Dieter, who is, magically speaking, a demon, a devil — one of the minions of Satan. Here’s how the book opens: “You may call me D.T. That is short for Dieter, a German name, and D.T. will do, now that I am in America, this curious nation. If I draw upon reserves of patience, it is because time passes here without meaning for me, and that is a state to dispose one to rebellion. Can this be why I am writing a book?”

And so, a devil — responsible for the youth and rise of Hitler; reporting to Satan (known here as the Maestro); responsible, so it’s related, for Nazism itself — is now in America, here working his diabolical charms. President Bush, it seems to say, has inherited the mantle. Mailer, the old rabble rouser, should know better but doesn’t, or won’t. And though Mailer tries to create a grandiose, Dantesque hierarchy of devils, each degree of them apparently responsible for different human families, with the devils themselves, in effect, composing an alternate family (our Family of Man as opposed, theologically, dialectically, to their family of Un-man, or Über-men), his passing attempt to place the blame for the destruction of Europe and the premeditated death of millions squarely on the shoulders of the ineffable and the unknown is not just ridiculous but also galling.

If there was no God during the Holocaust, Mailer should know, then there was no Satan. But as Dieter tracks the progress of his charge, the author’s own descent becomes more and more obvious. Only at the novel’s very end does he attempt a strangely quick, final-paragraph salvation — one that’s both reductive and Gnostic in that as it expands the universe, it negates the intentions of man. Dieter asks: “Can it be that the Maestro, whom I served in a hundred roles while holding to the pride that I was a field officer to the mighty eminence of Satan, had indeed deluded me? Was it now likely that the Maestro was not Satan, but only one more minion — if at a very high level?” Norman Mailer, the grand heresiarch of American letters, is saying, in effect, that God is Satan, and so that God is evil. Which is wonderful Brooklyn-born blasphemy for a man as old as he is, but at the same time a rather ignoble conclusion to a brilliant career — and, also, to a search for the Holocaust’s cause.

Joshua Cohen’s latest novel is “Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto” (Fugue State Press).

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