The Castle in the Forest by Norman Mailer
The Castle in the Forest: A Novel
by Norman Mailer
Random House. 496 pp. $27.95.
A novel about Hitler is a prospect that many readers will shrink from. It is bad enough that we have to read biographies of him (as of course we do). Can we be expected to spend time on fictionalized Hitlers as well?
Norman Mailer thinks we can. His new novel is an account of Hitler’s childhood. It is not focused exclusively on young Adolf; at least as much space is devoted to his grandparents, parents, and siblings. But no one today would be interested in them if it were not for him, just as no one would be interested in his boyhood if it were not for what followed. The whole book, even its quiet or humdrum stretches, is bathed in reflected infamy.
The story as Mailer tells it takes place on two levels. Much of the time we are given a straightforward, naturalistic chronicle of the Hitler family. But on another plane, vast supernatural forces are at work, and the seemingly earthbound events that unfold in a provincial corner of late-19th-century Austria turn out to be controlled or at least nudged along by the Devil. Hitler, we learn, was assigned at birth to the hidden guidance of an “intelligence officer”—one of the Devil’s assistants. This same malign spirit is also the book’s narrator, and cheerfully lets us in on his professional secrets.
In its realistic aspects the book is reasonably convincing. Mailer has done a good deal of background reading (unlike most novels, this one comes with a bibliography), and much of the time he confines himself to a mixture of known facts and plausible invention. We follow the fortunes of Hitler’s father Alois—his progress from humble rural origins to the respectable role of customs official, his three marriages, his affairs, his drinking sessions with cronies, his attempts to become a landowner. And we watch the shifting relationships inside Alois’s family—the bullying and the rebellions, the conflicts and the alliances.
The account we are given of all this is a piece of solid, competent story-telling. But it can also be a hard slog: we frequently feel that we ought to be more absorbed than we are. Perhaps the characters just aren’t interesting enough to command our attention for any great length of time. At least, Mailer doesn’t make them so.
As for Hitler himself, for much of the book he is a young child, more acted upon than acting. (Three-quarters of the way through, he is still only eight years old.) But our interest in him naturally quickens whenever we feel we are being shown signs of the future Fuehrer in the making.
These are of two kinds. First, there are the influences that helped to damage the child’s emotional development. Second, there are the signs that point forward to his career as demagogue and dictator. Obvious engines of psychological harm include the harsh punishments to which he is subjected by his father, which are redoubled after his defiant elder half-brother, Alois Jr., runs away, and the conflicting messages sent out by his half-sister Angela (his senior by six years), who can be protective and desirable but who also humiliates him by complaining that he is a smelly little boy.
The parallel portents, of political evil, range from a diminutive Hitler alone in the woods, roaring at the trees so that he can build up the power of his voice, to an adolescent Hitler learning by heart a passage from the nationalist historian Heinrich Treitschke. We are shown Hitler the choirboy, thrilling for the first time in his life to an embodiment of ritualized power in the person of the abbot of the monastery where he sings (we are also told that the monastery has a swastika, the emblem of a former abbot, carved into the stone of its gate). And we see a six-year-old Hitler shaking with excitement as he watches a beehive being burned: a scene that would plainly be much less sinister if he were just any six-year-old.
Some of the “prophetic” passages in the book (the impression made on Hitler by the abbot, for example) have historical evidence to back them up; some are invented but credible. Others, however, are palpably manufactured, and they do the book no good. A particularly grotesque example involves the assassination of Elizabeth, Empress of Austria, who was shot in 1898 by an anarchist named Luigi Lucheni. Not long afterward, or so we are told, young Adolf sees a picture of Lucheni in a local paper. Not long after that, we find him masturbating, turned on by the thought of Lucheni’s face. What really arouses him is the assassin’s “postage stamp of a mustache,” because it reminds him of a glimpse he has recently caught of his sister Angela’s pubic hair. Are we meant to conclude that that is why he himself eventually grew a postage stamp of a mustache? I am afraid we are.
Another fabrication—more objectionable, because more significant—takes us back to the beehives. This time, the bees in a diseased colony are destroyed not by fire, but by being gassed. Angela and Adolf watch while their father carries out the operation. Angela weeps, and Alois sends her away. But Adolf follows the gassing intently, and earnestly ponders his father’s words: “In nature there is no mercy for the weak.”
If such an incident had actually taken place, it would be utterly chilling. But the fact that we know it has been concocted makes all the difference. As a piece of pure fiction, it seems glib and melodramatic. And matters hardly improve when Mailer turns arch and has his devil-narrator warn us “not to make too much of the gassing”—“it is not to be understood as the unique cause of all that came later.” No; but to dangle it in front of us as one possible cause seems all the more distasteful.
The most that can be said by way of mitigation is that Alois Hitler did in fact keep bees in his later years. This is an aspect of his personality that Mailer seizes on: apiculture looms quite large in the novel, and provides some of its more unusual pages. The picture of Alois in standard biographies of Hitler is that of a classic petty authoritarian—a mixture of heavy father and rigid functionary, forever laying down the law, quick to lose his temper. Mailer’s portrait, although not precisely more sympathetic, allows us to see him from the inside; and in his passion for his bees, and his skill in tending them, it even encourages us to discern a certain baffled creativity.
Quite apart from the light they throw on Alois, the descriptions of bee-keeping are fresh and well written. But they also provide a point of entry for the most overdrawn character in the book. When Alois runs into trouble with his bees, he goes to consult a great expert who lives in the neighborhood—an old hermit known as Der Alte, who is half-Jewish and half-Polish and has the reputation among the local peasants of being a sorcerer.
Though he has had no higher education at all, Der Alte claims to have studied at a dozen universities. His clothes are filthy. Without actually drinking, he adopts the air of a drunk. He is incontinent, and in any case he has a bad smell. Yet despite his unprepossessing qualities, Alois starts consulting him regularly, and Adolf grows close to him (though not quite as close as Alois Jr., who at one stage performs oral sex with him).
Exactly how this strange creature fits into the overall pattern of the novel is far from clear. No doubt one day a Ph.D. candidate will work out the details. But it will not make much difference, since the essential characteristic of Der Alte is that we don’t believe in him. He is a character who belongs in a lurid pantomime. Along with his other odors, he reeks of hokum.
One thing we do learn about him is that, like Hitler, he is a “client” of the Devil. We are also assured that after his death he is carried over to hell “in high style”—although the narrator is quick to add that hell is not a region with which he himself is familiar. He is not even certain that it exists.
This last bit of juggling is a fair indication of why it is impossible to take the novel’s cosmic pretensions seriously. The narrator keeps us informed about the struggle between the Devil (whom he prefers to call “the Maestro”) and God (whom he habitually refers to as “D.K.”—short for “Dummkopf”). He instructs us in the techniques used for taking possession of clients and outwitting angels (always known as “Cudgels”). Mighty issues seem to be at stake; but the tone is laboriously playful, and we are never persuaded that the supernatural machinery is anything more than a whimsical contraption.
The Austrian historian Friedrich Heer once warned readers against “metaphysical” explanations of Hitler—that is, explanations that removed him from the realm of historical responsibility. A Catholic himself, Heer was reacting against a speech made in 1945 by Pope Pius XII, in which the Pope spoke of “the satanic apparition of National Socialism.” Heer’s warning remains a valuable one.
Still, it is hard not to feel that, when all the rational explanations for Hitler have been exhausted, something still remains unaccounted for: an unconditional will to evil. To convey such malevolence in a novel would tax the greatest of writers, and anyone who made the attempt could be forgiven for achieving only partial success. But in The Castle in the Forest there is virtually no sense of evil at all. Talk about the Devil is no substitute for his deadly presence.
Mailer has never been shy about invoking Higher Powers—it does not take Nazism to make him write about politics in eschatological terms. Once or twice, in the later stages of this novel, he seems to be drifting away from Hitler and forward toward the present, as if about to draw some “metaphysical” or at least world-historical lessons. The ending itself is a curious affair, especially when one considers how little the book as a whole has had to say about Jews or anti-Semitism.
This is the background: like other agents of the Maestro, the narrator has the power to inhabit a human body. From 1938, when we first meet him, until 1945, he has been incarnated in the form of an SS officer named Dieter. At the end of the war he is captured by the Americans and held for questioning in a concentration camp that has just been liberated. His interrogator, a U.S. army captain, is a psychiatrist with a Jewish name-tag on his lapel.
Dieter (or rather the narrator) decides to play on the captain’s sentiments, expounding the Nazi worldview but at the same time suggesting that he was troubled by his colleagues’ excesses. While he speaks, the camp’s former inmates are rampaging outside, some of them “screaming like loons.” The American captain can bear it no more. He himself is a pacifist, but, “sequestered in the depths of the average pacifist—as one will invariably discover—resides a killer.” A dud of an epigram, one would have thought, but the captain proceeds to confirm its truth by picking up his pistol and shooting Dieter dead.
Before we have a chance to reflect on what all this means, the narrator hustles us on. He has a new assignment, he tells us—in America. But he has had a chance to talk with the Maestro, and he records the latter’s comment: “Yes, that Jewish captain showed the way. We will invest in Arabs and Israelis both!”
A murky ending, with unpleasant implications—but a mere trifle coming from a writer who has devoted much of his career to muddying the waters of moral judgment. One cannot but wonder what Mailer would have made of the subject of Hitler if he had turned his attention to it in his literary heyday—when, for instance, he was celebrating the “courage” of teenage thugs beating a storekeeper to death in “The White Negro” (1956), or holding up for our admiration a bold, smart fellow who strangles his wife and gets away with it in the novel An American Dream (1965), or falling under the spell of a real-life killer in The Executioner’s Song (1979).
It is safe to say that Mailer would never have had a kind word to say for Nazism. On the contrary, he could hardly have failed to present it as the extreme embodiment of the social phenomenon he was most opposed to: the coercive, technology-wielding state. But what of Hitler himself—at least the young Hitler? A rebel, a loner, an artist-hero, a despiser of commonplace morality, a hipster of sorts, a transgressor who took a gamble on his dreams—surely there was something to be said for the man?
A novel about Hitler written by the Mailer of 30 or 40 years ago would undoubtedly have been stormy and provocative. The Castle in the Forest is not that kind of book. There are some wild moments in it, and some trademark obsessions (like buggery), but by past Mailer standards it is a relatively sober affair. In part, this is no doubt because it confines itself to Hitler’s boyhood, and the outward events it describes are unspectacular. But the narrow scope of the narrative also comes at an intellectual price, setting a heavy limit on the book’s political interest in particular.
In the end, Mailer does little either to extend our knowledge of Hitler or to deepen our understanding. He has been famous in the past for mixing fact and fiction, to the supposed benefit of both. (The most notable instance is Armies of the Night, his 1968 account of the anti-Vietnam-war march on the Pentagon.) But his new novel constitutes a powerful argument for non-fiction pure and simple. You are left pining for the virtues of plain history and unadorned biography.