The Devil You Know, The Devil You Don't

Norman Mailer channels one of hell's angels in his saga of the Hitler family

The Andre Gide epigraph of The Deer Parkwould serve Norman Mailer's new novel, The Castle in the Forest, equally well: "Do not understand me too quickly."

Any novel about Hitler, or, for that matter, any other world-historical figure, is doomed to banality unless it mints a counter-myth. Beryl Bainbridge did the twentyish Hitler to a riotous turn in Young Adolf, Gore Vidal gave us a fat-assed, fatuous Jesus in Live From Golgotha. Mailer novelizes Hitler with Dreiserian heaviness, but that's not necessarily a flaw. Only punitively narrow literary tastes would deny the felicities of Dreiser's, or Mailer's, exasperating but rewarding slow-motion prose.

To reveal that the narrator of The Castle in the Forestis a minion of Satan, possibly a minion of a minion, is a necessary spoiler. "D.T." introduces himself as an SS intelligence officer, whose terrestrial commander, Himmler, wants to clarify whether Hitler's bloodline contains any taint of Judaism. D.T.'s report to us is much fuller than what he gives Himmler. On the supernatural plane, D.T.'s memoir-writing is an act of secret defiance.

After little Adolf makes his appearance in this saga of three incest-peppered generations of Hitlers, his every poop and tantrum portends cheap and easy answers. This book draws its power by short-circuiting expectations of sensationalized clichés. Hitler's story has been given many shapes by many writers, but his psyche is usually shrunk to an oversimplified Freudian contraption. Mailer eschews the carpet-chewing madman perverted by frustrated artistic ambitions, bitterness over the Versailles Treaty, and pee-on-me sexual fixations.

Mailer's Hitler doesn't need excessive egging on from hell to embrace his wretched inner nature and dissemble his lunatic hatefulness as patriotic fervor. He becomes a political genius by absorbing other people's fanaticism and masterfully projecting it, without the slightest belief in what comes out of his mouth. He turns his own spells of bad luck into heroic excuses for ugly feelings, and lets revenge go cold as a Popsicle before sucking it down to the stick. He has some expedient use for everything, like a good chef or a bad contractor.

Mailer, shrewdly, deflects the reader's prurient impatience to get to the Third Reich: That impatience conspires with notions of Hitler the Utterly Inexplicable that Mailer rejects. He enjoins us not to read too much into Adolf's first glimpse of a swastika, or the gassing of one of his father's bee colonies. If Hitler were that simple to explain, he probably would have passed his span of years working in a post office.

Castleachieves luminosity by not making Adolf Hitler an all-consuming presence. He is, at times, nothing more than the dreary rug rat in a family with more important problems to deal with, and although he is the designated "client" of his guardian demon, even the latter is slow to understand why such unpromising material would have crucial importance for the invisible-powers-that-be.

The spirit world Mailer invokes has angels and devils wrestling for human souls, exerting a limited but important influence. These metaphysical rope-pulls are rendered lightly enough that whether one reads them as metaphors or a Miltonian bent in Mailer's ambition, they add jovial mischievousness to the novel's unrelenting excrementalism. Castleis literally full of shit, being very much of the earth and those who till and toil in its realms of fructifying manure.

Adolf isn't D.T.'s only client. When his satanic boss decides little Adolph is reliably developing into a twisted little fuck, D.T. is temporarily whisked away to hang around Moscow during Nicholas II's coronation, and for eight months of its aftermath. The narrator advises impatient readers to skip the Russian part, but it's the pivotal segue from an ambitious novel into a resplendent one. What D.T. witnesses foretells the murder of the Romanovs and the ascendancy of Bolshevism, Big Hitler's ideological nemesis and Nazism's moral twin.

Castletightly focuses on questions Mailer knows are unanswerable, but the only ones ultimately worth asking. When D.T. resumes surveilling Adolf, it's clear that Mailer's tagging the lethal threads that made the 20th century humanity's ugliest tapestry. (When the Second War concludes, hell's angels are informed that their operations are moving to the United States. Texas, anyone?)

Back in Bavaria, Hitler's father, retired Customs inspector and failed potato farmer, dreams of a honey empire, learning the apiary art from a cranky maestro called Der Alte. Adolf's older brother, Alois Jr., gets some vivid stage time, first by popping in on Der Alte for an occasional blowjob, later incinerating Dad's apiary as a parting "fuck you." Big sister Angela marries a priggish loser; D.T. makes passing note of Adolf's single passionate affair, with Geli Raubal—Angela's daughter, who shot herself in Hitler's Munich apartment in 1930.

The ardors Alois Sr. expends on beekeeping and their abrupt finish recalls Harlot's Ghost's opening chapter, in which an island estate is metaphorically assembled with infinite precision and care, brick by board, then burnt to ruin in a heartbeat during a CIA melee. It's a formidable example of what literature can do, which can justly be said of Harlot's Ghost in its entirety, and of most Mailer's novels, however ill-conceived a few of his books have been.

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