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.