The Devil Made Him Do It
THE DEVIL MADE HIM DO IT
THE DEVIL MADE HIM DO IT
Norman Mailer imagines Hitler's childhood -- recounted by one of Satan's demons
The Castle in the Forest
By Norman Mailer
RANDOM HOUSE; 477 PAGES; $27.95
For most of us who grew up after World War II and read as deeply and as seriously as we could just as soon as we were able, any new work of fiction by Norman Mailer stands as a literary event. "The Castle in the Forest" comes 10 years after the publication of Mailer's weakest novel, "The Gospel According to the Son" and it reads like one of his strongest.
Although stylists may disagree (and I often even disagree with myself on this question), perhaps subject matter has something to do with it. In "The Gospel According to the Son," Mailer told the story of Jesus, in his own words. In "The Castle in the Forest," Mailer tells the story of the early life of one of Satan's greatest disciples, Adolf Hitler, in the words of a middle-rank demon. Guess with which subject Mailer feels more at home.
"You may call me D.T.," the novel opens. "This is short for Dieter, a German name, and D.T. will do, now that I am in America, this curious nation." With its curious echoes of the opening of "Moby-Dick," this passage by Mailer's minor devil, in exile, he later explains, in the United States since the demise of the Third Reich (in which he was incarnated into the body of an SS officer serving under Heinrich Himmler), sets the tone for the rest of the novel's revelations, a mixture of awful biographical revelation about the Hitler family and dramatic philosophical declarations by our man with the metaphoric pitchfork.
"I am ready to write about his early life," D.T. informs us, "with a confidence no conventional biographer could begin to feel." The book itself, a sort of unauthorized devil's tell-all, is, as D.T. sees it, quite unconventional. "It is more than a memoir and certainly has to be most curious as a biography since it is as privileged as a novel." "I do," he declares, "possess the freedom to enter many a mind."
Enter he does. The book's first movement is a virtuosic little overture to the story of Hitler's begetting, childhood and youth. D.T. recollects how, charged by Himmler -- "a frustrating mixture of brilliance and stupidity" -- to hunt down the facts behind a scurrilous accusation by a would-be Nazi leader that Hitler had a Jewish grandfather, D.T. throws himself into genealogical research about the Führer. The rest of the book gives us the fruits of his labor, in which the charge of Jewishness proves to be false and young Hitler emerges quite perversely (which is a plus in mad Himmler's worldview) as the spawn of incest.
We're thrust into the blood bramble of the lives of Hitler's grandparents and the incestuous whirlpool of his parents, Alois and Klara, all of which Mailer all-too-painstakingly reconstructs from his extensive research, a talent that he used to great advantage in his midcareer masterwork, "The Executioner's Song" (in which telling the story of Gary Gilmore from birth to death makes up something close to the Great American (Nonfiction) Novel), and the story of Lee Harvey Oswald in "Oswald's Tale," a brilliantly redrawn but much less compelling story than Gilmore's. Or Hitler's, whose story, as far as Mailer is concerned, may be the greatest story ever told in the 20th century, at least.
That's undoubtedly why his novel about Jesus was such an abysmal failure. Good just doesn't make for a good story. Ask Tolstoy. Ask Pastor Ted Haggard. Mailer has consistently presented himself as one of the major 20th century Manicheans, drawing the history of the world as a struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. And no one shone such a darkness on the century as Hitler, the devil's spawn with a number of mechanized divisions, an air force, an extermination program and an insane view of the very history he hoped to serve. To D.T., a not-quite-always-reliable narrator, this is not always entirely clear. He has his tasks from his boss, the Maestro, as he calls him, in the continual war against God, or D.K., as the devil calls him, short for Dummkopf, or Stupid, and sometimes these jobs take him away from the German countryside (as he describes in one long narrative diversion in which he helps sour the majesty of the coronation of Russia's Tsar Nicholas II by engineering the deaths of a few thousand celebratory peasants). And his preoccupations with Hitler's brutal father's hobby of beekeeping go on almost quite too long.
But he's constantly making wonderfully suggestive asides about sin and reincarnation, about marriage and dreams, about art and excrement. And he's there when we need him, as in the monstrous conception of the Führer himself, a scene that may rival in its evil intensity the comic precedent of the conception of the author in Laurence Sterne's "Tristram Shandy." And he's consistently present at those subtle and not-so-subtle moments when young Hitler, the devil's wind at his back, moves forward to greet his horrific destiny.
Thanks to Mailer -- and it's a dark prayer, to give thanks for this dramatic etiology of modern evil -- we're present, too.
Novelist Alan Cheuse is a book commentator on National Public Radio.
Norman Mailer imagines the family whose complex couplings led to the Final Solution.
The prospect of this novel is enticing: Norman Mailer on Adolf Hitler. Mailer, who has fearlessly, full-throatedly tackled Marilyn Monroe, Jesus Christ, Lee Harvey Oswald, Picasso, Muhammad Ali and Gary Gilmore (among others), seemed to be taking on his biggest confrontation yet. This hefty book from an iconic American man of letters, now in his 84th year, seemed to promise that the familiar Mailerian audacity was in fine fettle. I wondered if, here, he might just match his masterwork, The Executioner's Song.
The Castle in the Forest is a baffling, meandering, self-indulgent curio of a book -- at moments brilliantly insightful and fascinating but more often prompting jaw-dropping incredulity.
Mailer has decided to investigate Hitler's immediate family: his father, Alois, his mother, Klara, their relatives and his siblings. The period covered is approximately 1837 to 1903, the lifespan of Hitler's father. When Alois died, Adolf was 14 years old, still a sub-average schoolboy. So far, so straightforward. But Mailer is not content with a third-person, historical account of the antecedents and early life of perhaps the most vicious man who has walked this Earth: He has decided instead to have his novel narrated by a devil. A middle-ranking devil, moreover -- not Satan himself ("The Evil One" or "The Maestro," as he's termed here), but a devil who has the Maestro's ear and whom we know as Dieter.
The Castle in the Forest has its own freakish cosmology -- one I found most uncongenial, not having any belief in supernatural beings of any category. You cannot read this novel without encountering passages such as: "Spirits like myself can attend events where they are not present. I was in another place, therefore, on the night Adolf was conceived. Yet I was able to ingest the exact experience by calling upon the devil (of lower rank) who had been in Alois' bed on the primal occasion. . . . A minor devil can, on the most crucial occasions, implore the Evil One to be present with him during the climax. (The Maestro encourages us to speak of him as the Evil One when he does choose to enter sexual acts, and on that occasion, he was certainly there.)" The book is replete with these asides. The tone is arch and pompous; the dialogue throughout reads as if badly translated from rudimentary German.
Mailer, in a long career full of bravura risk-taking (think Ancient Evenings and Harlot's Ghost), has taken perhaps his biggest risk ever. And yet his intention is not merely to suggest that Hitler is "the spawn of the devil" -- nothing so facile. When we strip away the toe-curling mumbo-jumbo of all this diabolism, a sober and thoroughly researched thesis is being proposed here: Hitler was the product of a fuming stew of routine peasant incest in rural Austria; his mother was at once Alois Hitler's niece and his daughter, the product of a random sex act between Alois and his half-sister Johanna.
The supposition is entirely possible and has been mooted by Hitler scholars. There is no firm evidence, but novelists need no firm evidence: They are free to go where academics, historians and journalists dare not tread. And much of what is buried in this maddening novel is highly engaging -- most notably the portrait of Hitler's father. Indeed, the book is far more about Alois than Adolf, and it's in the sustained depiction of this boorish, fornicating, self-important, minor provincial customs official that Mailer's great strengths as a novelist shine: his feeling for character and detail, his empathy for the unworthy and the sly, his wit. Like a sculptor facing the lumpy, daunting block of marble that is The Castle in the Forest, the reader wants desperately to hew out the real, serious novel that is hidden within.
Mailer knows Hitler's life intimately (as do I, having spent a year writing a six-hour film drama of his rise to power), and his insights and intuition into how that warped mind was influenced and grew are genuinely intriguing, if occasionally a bit too apt. Hitler was insane -- incontrovertibly, I would say -- and his mania may well be explained (as might his alleged solitary testicle) by the complex incestuous web of his parentage. But in this novel, the ludicrous superstructure of devils and angels obfuscates the argument most damagingly. ?
William Boyd's latest novel is "Restless."
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