Book Reviews: July 07 issue

In association with The Nile
Mailer’s Magnum Opus
Michael Morrissey enthuses about the possession of Hitler

THE CASTLE IN THE FOREST by Norman Mailer, Little Brown, $36.99
What on earth (or indeed – highly pertinent in Norman’s case – Heaven and and Hell) are we to make of Norman Mailer? That one of America’s leading novelists should produce a work of considerable, even enviable, vitality at 84 is an occasion for wonder and admiration. While earlier giants such as Faulkner had accelerated their early demise by alcohol or blown their brains out (Hemingway), the nuggety little Brooklyn battler has shown us that he is not down for the count, no way. He is alive and kicking God and the Devil’s shins. And from the way Norman writes, he is often not entirely sure whether he is knocking the Divine patella or Satanic tibia. Who knows? – perhaps Norman will become the world’s oldest novelist and still be tackling the Big One (ie Novel) at age 100. It’s always possible that he might succeed in writing that great novel that has so far eluded his creative grasp.
The question is how great a novel is The Castle in the Forest? In its research – in the form of a large bibliography – it is impressive. In order to write about Adolf or Adi (as he is cutely dubbed) the child, Mailer has read all the great biographical classics on Hitler, the adult – from Bullock to Kershaw to Trevor-Roper with main titles asterisked – a list that curiously omits Mein Kampf but does include Milton and Heidegger. The question must be asked – is Mailer merely trying to impress us for little of this massive research material is in evidence in the text of the novel.
The novel unfashionably supposes that Hitler’s monumental evil is the result of devilish influence. Dieter (D.T. for short) who works in the SS under Heinrich Himmler is actually a devil assigned to guide young Adolf along the pathway of evil. I warned you it wasn’t a fashionable view. A more conventional view might be located in (say) a somewhat vitriolic review of Mailer’s novel in the New Republic which concludes that “the Nazis were neither gods nor demons but finally all too human”. Mailer opts for the view that the vileness of the Third Reich had its origins in demonic influence. We are not talking about rolling eyeballs, levitating beds, projectile vomiting, swiveling heads or crucifixes burning flesh, but subtle and undetected intrusions of the human psyche by a diabolic mind. Mailer’s Dieter, a minion of the Maestro (Satan), enters young Adolf’s consciousness via dreams, thoughts, wishes, fears. In other words, the Devil’s influence is psychological though real nonetheless. Mailer’s description and analysis of this subtle control is almost spooky in its accuracy. The problem from a literary point of view is that this often acute analysis is not dramatically integrated into the book. It’s all from the sideline. So while the book is brilliant in patches, its brilliance is “added on” as it were.
No one can accuse Mailer of not tackling the Big Issues of our time. His record is extensive as it is bold. World War Two in The Naked and the Dead; Communism in Barbary Shore; President Kennedy and nuclear war in The Presidential Papers; Vietnam in Why are we in Vietnam?; the 1968 Chicago riots in Miami and the Siege of Chicago; the moon landing in Of a Fire on the Moon. In the 1000 page plus The Executioner’s Song, he examined what makes a murderer tick; in Ancient Evenings he explored the 18th dynasty of Egypt. In Harlot’s Ghost, he took on the CIA with a massive 1300 plus pages. This was followed by 700 pages on Lee Harvey Oswald, Kennedy’s assassin, and more recently The Gospel According to the Son which dealt with a topic already examined by George Bernard Shaw – are voices in the head of the saintly merely the mind talking to itself or divine directives? All of these weighty themes in which evil or God is so often at the centre of the enterprise might entitle Mailer to be dubbed the American Dostoyevsky, but for one important fatal flaw. In nearly all of Mailer’s work save for The Naked and the Dead and An American Dream, the essayist wins over the novelist and the trenchant analyst triumphs over the dramatist. We get raw slabs of ideas admittedly couched in richly turned phrases but devoid of novelist’s drama and interaction. This is why Dostoyevsky is the greatest novelist of all time and Mailer, his struggling bastard son, tries hard but never quite achieves the title he so sorely craves – the greatest writer of his time, the literary Champ, the Muhammad Ali of the contemporary novel.
Thus The Castle in the Forest is a heroic failure of sorts. While rich in wit and insight, it is dramatically and novelistically impoverished despite having Adolf Hitler as its subject matter. The focus is often more on beekeeper Father Alois and his grubby colleague Der Alte than young Adolf himself. Adolf, more often than not, is viewed via the diabolic lens of Dieter’s subtle influences.
Nevertheless, it must be presumed that Mailer, like so many, feels that there is a “mystery” to Hitler – how did this humbly-born fellow come to nearly conquer the world? How did he manage to “secretly” bring about the death of six million Jews? I myself have come to believe or accept that there is no particular mystery. That Adolf was not mad but “merely” like so many would-be world conquerors before – Stalin, Mao, Napoleon, Tamburlane, Alexander the Great – evilly ambitious on a grand scale. Or as Mailer has fictionally explored, Satanically influenced. Hitler was a powerful orator (whereas Stalin and Mao were not) and used radio more fully as a propaganda device than before; also he used the aeroplane to move rapidly around the country and therefore appear omniscient, a media god. Prior to this time (1930s), these devices had not been used to the degree that Hitler used them – but again, where’s the mystery? He had the new technology, he used it to be powerful. Is there any mystery in that?
Hitler irrationally hated the Jews and used them as a scapegoat but there have been plenty of other examples of genocide both before and since – horribly in Rwanda in 1994 when a million Hutus were slaughtered at a faster rate than the Jews were killed under Hitler’s regime – and in like manner the world did nothing.
If there is a mystery, it is in Hitler’s numerous bad military decisions – Dunkirk, attacking Russia, delaying the assault on Moscow, failing to use the new jet fighter in adequate numbers and so forth. However, if you accept German historian Joachim Fest’s persuasive argument, that there is something in the German psyche that is attracted to a great doomed tragedy, and here we may find an explanation of the “mystery:” We have plenty of evidence for Hitler’s fascination with the Ragnorak, the twilight of the gods – the ultimate destruction of civilisation, in this case brought about by a doomed war. Mailer too, believes there is a mystery – “the most mysterious human of being of the century” says Devil Dieter, prominent narrator of Hitler. If there is mystery (which I am inclined to doubt), then why not examine the childhood of the tyrannical monster? Perhaps it is here the “mystery” of his enormous evil will be revealed? Thus is Mailer’s fictional strategy.
Nonetheless, I found it is, alas, hard to care about the wicked Alois and the would-be wicked Adolf – and this, after all, is the acid test for a book – do we care? The details of beekeeping might have been fascinating in their own right if rendered by an Updike or a Roth but here they seem like Mailer is away on an unfruitful tangent until the text mentions the bees are gassed to death. Alelluia, the reader might cry understandably thinking that here is where Adolf got his genocidal ideas from. The text undermines its own metaphor by asserting, “…I would warn the reader not to make too much of the gassing …” Is Norman embarrassed by the straightforwardness of his own metaphor? The denial seems either coy or forced. Mailer is always second-guessing and contra-qualifying his own text.
Dieter, talking about the methods of Satanic usurpation, is more interesting than Alois holding forth on bees but again Mailer fails to make this potentially riveting material dramatically interesting as Dostoyevsky always does. The bees, one is compelled to suppose, are a metaphor for the German people but one that palls. In fact – and regrettably – you can learn a lot more about the complex intertwining of good and evil from the superb Sopranos than by reading The Castle in the Forest. Thus this grand attempt at a portrait of Hitlerian evil is a missed opportunity and no amount of essayist’s glad phrasing will make for an adequate substitute. Norman should shut up and let the characters speak for themselves – that’s what novel writing is all about. When they do speak, they only monologue about bees.
Nevertheless, in an age of increasingly misguided liberalism and confused values, veteran author Norman Mailer has the moral courage to believe that in the fight between God and Satan (who at times reminds me of a naughty child that needs a good smack or two on his red behind), God “needs” human help. In other words, even though God was, is and for all eternity been destined to win over the Devil, our job as human beings is to join in on His side as freely, gracefully and powerfully as we can – each and every one of us – all six billion plus of us – and thereby create a happy pure life on this wonderful Spaceship Earth created for our enjoyment providing we also love God and each other. With Faith and Hope added in, it may not be difficult as people think. God throws a knock out punch and Satan goes down for the count – permanently! His red eyes close, his brain is damaged beyond repair and it’s all over – he dies in the ring and the crowd goes wild with joy! A big fat prayer recited to God in a humble spirit can do wonders.
Alas, from time to time, evil men like Hitler distract us with false gods sated with lust for power. This novel – flawed though still powerful in parts – portrays the early life of Hitler as told by one of Satan’s lesser devils and shows the boy being tutored in the ways of evil. If the very idea that is the central motor behind this, by turns, brilliant and laboured work – a tome of astonishing vitality for an author for 84 – seems far-fetched – “merely a work of fictional invention”, readers might like to consider this astonishing passage from The Dictators by leading English war historian Richard Overy:
“Two British generals at a Hitler rally in Berlin in 1934, seated in the stadium just feet behind him, watched him captivate his listeners with the familiar rising passion and jarring voice. “Then an amazing thing happened,’ continued the account: ‘ (we) both saw a blue flash of lightning come out of Hitler’s back …We were surprised that those of us close behind Hitler had not all been struck dead.” The two men afterwards discussed whether Hitler was actually possessed at certain moments by the Devil:’ We came to the conclusion that he was”.
This passage – and it is to be noted that this account is from England’s leading military historian and not some “hollyroller” fruitcake – is quoted from a book entitled True Account by F.W Tennant p. 182-183. Thus we may reflect, as per the old saying – Is Truth Stranger than Fiction? I have come to accept that Satan can enter people without their knowing but perhaps in the more dramatic cases of visible evil, the host is a willing collaborator. Thus is raised the spectre of the Faustian pact, a situation hinted at in the passage quoted above. In The Castle in the Forest, it is Dieter, a minor devil acting on behalf of the Maestro (Satan), who does the tempting and Adolf who is successfully tempted.
Some historians consider that Hitler was insane though that is a minority view. His main medical problems were physical not mental. It is more accurate to consider him as a man who chose evil. Any dictator who orders up the cold-blooded murder of six million Jews and caused the death of additional countless millions must be considered evil, not mad. In the case of Hitler, madness is a glib excuse. Alternatively, such a view suggests that evil – i.e. mad – people are not responsible for their actions. Let us remember that Hitler chose evil and he paid the price – his thousand-year Reich crumbled in 12 years.
Modern psychiatry increasingly continues to tell us that morality or free will has no place and that the quick fix for such disturbances is a pill. To this degree, psychiatrists are often of the Devil’s party without realising it. Major mental disturbances such as paranoid schizophrenia and manic-depression (politically correct term: bipolar disorder) are most likely coded messages from God – patterns of inner wisdom in code. Episodes of “Mania” are like the giant fifty-foot high waves of Hawaii (where surfing began) – if you can learn to surf you get the terrific thrill of defying death and if you do it accurately you don’t get injured. Or injure anyone else.
So Mania (which has of course “afflicted” little battler Norman and let us not forget Stormin’ Norman) is really a misunderstood gift from God which one day may enable humanity to spread out to the stars and realise that glorious future that God was planned for us. As Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) says in Contact, if the colossus of the universe is noting but stars, gas rocks and the odd planet than it’s an “awful waste of space.”
Mailer can never be accused of tackling lightweight subjects – for as already noted, one of his earlier books was entitled The Gospel According to the Son which considered the important question asked by Jesus – Is God speaking to me? Or am I hearing voices? It would seem that Mailer though Jewish – has moved closer to the Christian view in his latest work – perhaps the old slugger will convert one day? Imagine – Norman, a veteran of six marriages, turned celibate priest! Nonetheless, Mailer’s view is more Manichean or Zoroastarian than Christian – God is not all powerful but struggles to perfect His creations as well as struggling with Demons and evil influences. To some extent, the sense of this metaphysically asserted struggle provides the missing novelist’s drama. If the Mailerian view of God as less than all powerful being is unacceptable to Christians, it is evident he does take Satan and evil seriously – very seriously indeed.
Mailer may just turn out to be America’s most important novelist in the heady realms of Ideas. Though often ignored by local reviewers who unfortunately have fallen under the influence of femminazism and the rigid-minded doctrines of the politically correct who seek to reduce art’s richness to barren formulae, Mailer’s vitality of intelligence offers a rewarding though novelistically marred reading experience. No other major writer has changed his tonal voice so many times making a thesis on his work a formidable task indeed.. The way in which he has been largely ignored here is a matter of cultural shame. Unfortunately, The Castle in the Forest is a heavily flawed book though still worthy of our attention – as is much of Mailer’s locally neglected work which for several decades has continued to assault the heady realms of theodicy, eschatology, ontology and metaphysics.
When I met Mailer in late 1985, in a boxing gym in New York (where he was giving a poetry recital), I was struck by his mystical blue eyes. Hitler too, apparently had mesmeric pale blue eyes. However, Mailer’s seemed – almost cerulean, a Heavenly blue – a sign that paradise is to come? Only God knows. And though at first it seems unlikely, compared to Hitler, Norman must surely be on the side of the angels (or Cudgels as Dieter calls them) – as well as, of course, fallible humans.
Stop press: my old friend Michael O’Donogue, long time sub-editor at the Herald tells me – source New York Review of Books – that The Castle in the Forest is is only the first part of an intended trilogy. Norman, this is your big chance for a literary TKO at age 90.