The Castle in the Forest
by Norman Mailer (Random House)
Norman Mailer’s new novel, The Castle in the Forest, to be released on his 84th birthday on January 23rd, is an eccentric imagining about the young Adolph Hitler, narrated by a top lieutenant of The Devil. Mailer's novel is study in three generations of dysfunction, with the young Adolph being the cold sociopathic fulfillment of Hitler Family Values. In incident after incident, ranging from his father Alois's incestuous infidelities to the youth's rapt fascination in a village blacksmith's theories on how a "Will of Iron" is galvanized only through relentlessly consuming fire, Mailer's use of the narrating demon is, in fact, a inquest into why and when the worm had turned.
It's an audaciously seductive saga exhibiting Mailer's verve in full force. Among Mailer's lifelong themes have been examinations of power as well as the consequences, political and spiritual, of how power is used. This theme, Mailer’s central obsession in his fifty years of authoring books, is obvious in such varied novels as An American Dream, the punch-drunk fiction that has an alcoholic writer and television personality murdering his estranged wife from intuited instructions from the moon; or in Ancient Evenings, where reincarnation and sexual domination are the means to control and manage one’s journey through history. The first person memoir of Jesus Christ in The Gospel According to the Son, where we witness the bizarre difficulty of being half man and half divine in the exercise of godly powers with a very mortal sense of weariness and exhaustion, while within the generational CIA novel Harlot’s Ghost Cold War intelligence gathering becomes akin to religious practice and operatives must ironically acquire the capacity for amoral application of trade craft to preserve the rumored good of their cause. We have in this brilliant and contentious series of novels characters who give themselves over to impulse, obsession and a sense of greater powers instructing them to follow vaporously suggested agendas. These are acts of faith without promise or proof that the demonstrations will come of any conventionally desired good.
Diverse though the settings and eras are, Mailer’s fiction all have a similar existential notion, whether his protagonists take responsibility for the actions given them by respective flights of intuition, voices from ashen moonscapes, or the whispers of ghosts and spirits. Mailer has defined his idea of existentialism as the practice of taking risks and accepting challenges without regard to trying to control the results. It is only in the pure state of happenstance that real and authentic choices are made, with the manipulation or denial of the requisites ending badly, in disease, disaster, war, lost hope. The Castle in the Forest’s imagined portrait of a world scourge emerging from a festering mess will give one something to ponder, perhaps in a pause of action when one is deciding whether to be a bastard by exacting a revenge for a slight, real or imagined, or mature enough to let the irritation fade and thus not make the world a more sour place. The beating of butterfly wings indeed; our good works, enacted in good faith, has an effect on how history turns out, but the sad fact is that our worst deeds seem to swell faster and sweep aside all good intentions in their tsunami like rush.
Our narrator, a lieutenant of Satan going by the name DT, or Dieter, here tells his tale in elaborate detail, extended digressions, and anecdotes about what it’s like to work for such a horrific employer, and characterizations of the small nuances of the war between heaven and hell. Young Hitler is nudged, whispered to, exposed to various stimulations, excitements and harsh experiences, made to witness great spectacles and various forms of cruelty and abuse.
Worse, perhaps, DT gives the young Adolph’s ears the speeches of vain and minor men and women speaking volumes about their best intentions, only to have their asides and instructions and philosophical squibs given the lie by crudity and violence. The petty vanities of Hitler’s parents—a preening brute of a father, a doting and emotionally confused mother—and their sustained failures to be ballast for their children gives us a portrait worthy of Faulkner of a family held together on delusional applications of bad faith. Adolph is lied to, pampered, ignored, humiliated, praised and damned; we are given DT’s chronicle of how he had subtly, quietly created the conditions under which the youth who would personify unrelieved grief. This is far less the creation of a merely immoral person, but rather the formation of a collective world view; young Adolph's experience in a world where every adult action is justified by transparent prevarication forces him to organize manipulative techniques that will in turn help tap into a country and culture's bounty of stored frustration and rage.
Adolph fantasies of himself as master of the world who will forge it to perfection, or destroy it in the attempt, and the delusion becomes an ideology, a cause, a death wish that engulfs the world. Mailer’s writing is sure and vivid, showing again his ability to assume voices quite unlike what we'd consider his elegant, wild and rolling style.
Insinuating his ideas in the idealized cadences of Marilyn Monroe , an ancient Egyptian King and Jesus , Mailer's bold empathy with of their respective struggles helps him in find a mortal ,human center, divided between polarities of the All Good and All Evil. The human soul has equal capacity toward the saintly and the unspeakable, and it is the center the pragmatic mind assumes. Both tendencies are balanced for the individual to live creatively through a life of unexpected results, but it is DT's assignment from Satan(whom he refers to as "The Maestro") is to usurp, subvert and stunt charitable inclination and curtail the capacity for more nuanced world view. The aim isn't pragmatism, which allows a man or woman the capacity to make decisions and take action without a guarantee about the results. DT's interventions make the young man's mind a reactionary, solipsistic mess. What would have been a better nature in less obstructed circumstances become a roiling mass of impulsively destructive delusion.
The goal isn't the greater good, but the greater chaos, and the reason, offered by DT with barely concealed glee, is petty and judgmental, to embarrass the Lord God for all His pomp and humorless instructions to humility and selfless works. DT is a demon who loves his work, but work it is no matter how he relishes the resulting chaos, and for all the information about the conduct of the war between Heaven and Hell, the social strata of rank within The Maestro's army, and the alluring description of tricks of the Devil's persuading trade have Wildean jadedness, a sharply articulated sense of professionalism that has become mere expertise. DT, albeit untrustworthy, is bored and frustrated with his Master's assignments. Something is not revealed here, and DT's evocations of how young Hitler's psyche was polluted by engineered bad luck and circumstance are told with just a hint of sympathy for the boy's eventual fate as destroyer.
The scenario echoes old Flip Wilson jokes about a felon explaining in his crimes with "the Devil made me do it", but the dashed expectations, engineered disillusioning , and endless witnessing of adult duplicities wedge the youth into a sphere where moral choice is impossible; simply, there are no genuine virtues to learn, no moral behavior attending all professing and philosophizing. DT's ministrations to his client aid him in achieving true pathology. The world and its people is something either to endure or to master with the mightiest force imagination and will is able to muster. Unreflective, unmoved by incident, we experience a malevolence slowly layered and nuanced with conflicting impulses and desires, warring instincts one resolves by unleashing violence onto the world.
You detect a sigh of Hell-born despair between the demon's measured words. He is at once sympathetic, vain, a wit and a confessor, is ambiguous and seductive, no a being to be trusted no matter the smooth surface of his speech. You read and you empathize with DT's workload as he details the limits of his abilities and lays out his frustration and then remember the roiling rage and devastation that are his stock and trade. Civilized, intelligent, sophisticated beyond imagination, this is merely a sleek glossing over a face that can only corrupt and undermine all forms of good will. Confusion, chaos and the spread of falsehood are the end-all qualities this curious entity exists to perpetuate.The peculiar mix of historical detail and shrewdly outlined characters gives the readers something that is better than formal history or History; it is Hitler as felt presence, a monster raised from circumstances not much different from our own. Mailer’s Hitler is a palpable presence, fully and masterfully realized, and the demon’s nonchalant, jaded recollection makes this book a chilling exploration into the imagined limits of historical record.