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The Castle in the Forest: A Novelby Norman Mailer
"How could a writer as intelligent and original as Norman Mailer have digested this library of books and returned with the superficial, twisted, and finally just plain stupid vision of Hitler in this novel?...After all the decades of inquiry into Hitler by writers and historians and philosophers and psychologists, this is what Mailer has come to propose: the devil made him do it!" Ruth Franklin, The New Republic (read the entire New Republic review)
Synopses & Reviews
No career in modern American letters is at once so brilliant, varied, and controversial as that of Norman Mailer. In a span of more than six decades, Mailer has searched into subjects ranging from World War II to Ancient Egypt, from the march on the Pentagon to Marilyn Monroe, from Henry Miller and Mohammad Ali to Jesus Christ. Now, in The Castle in the Forest, his first major work of fiction in more than a decade, Mailer offers what may be his consummate literary endeavor: He has set out to explore the evil of Adolf Hitler.
The narrator, a mysterious SS man who is later revealed to be an exceptional presence, gives us young Adolf from birth, as well as Hitler's father and mother, his sisters and brothers, and the intimate details of his childhood and adolescence.
A tapestry of unforgettable characters, The Castle in the Forest delivers its playful twists and surprises with astonishing insight into the nature of the struggle between good and evil that exists in us all. At its core is a hypothesis that propels this novel and makes it a work of stunning originality. Now, on the eve of his eighty-fourth birthday, Norman Mailer may well be saying more than he ever has before.
"Mailer did Jesus in The Gospel According to the Son; now he plumbs the psyche of history's most demonic figure in this chilling fictional chronicle of Hitler's boyhood. Mailer tells the story through the eyes of Dieter, a devil tasked by Satan (usually called the Maestro) with fostering Hitler's nascent evil, but in this study of a dysfunctional 19th-century middle-class Austrian household, the real presiding spirit is Freud. Young Adolph (often called Adi) is the offspring of an incestuous marriage between a coarse, domineering civil servant and a lasciviously indulgent mom. The boy duly develops an obsession with feces, a fascination with power, a grandiose self-image and a sexually charged yen for mass slaughter (the sight of gassed or burning beehives thrills him). Dieter frets over Hitler's ego-formation while marveling at the future dictator's burning gaze, his ability to sway weak minds and the instinctive fhrerprinzip that emerges when he plays war with neighborhood boys — talents furthered by Central Europe's ambient romantic nationalism. Mailer's view of evil embraces religions and metaphysics, but it's rooted in the squalid soil of toilet-training travails and perverted sexual urges. The novel sometimes feels like a psychoanalytic version of The Screwtape Letters, but Mailer arrives at a somber, compelling portrait of a monstrous soul." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"The prospect of this novel is enticing: Norman Mailer on Adolf Hitler. Mailer, who has fearlessly, full-throatedly tackled Marilyn Monroe, Jesus Christ, Lee Harvey Oswald, Picasso, Muhammad Ali and Gary Gilmore (among others), seemed to be taking on his biggest confrontation yet. This hefty book from an iconic American man of letters, now in his 84th year, seemed to promise that the familiar Mailerian... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) audacity was in fine fettle. I wondered if, here, he might just match his masterwork, 'The Executioner's Song.' 'The Castle in the Forest' is a baffling, meandering, self-indulgent curio of a book — at moments brilliantly insightful and fascinating but more often prompting jaw-dropping incredulity. Mailer has decided to investigate Hitler's immediate family: his father, Alois, his mother, Klara, their relatives and his siblings. The period covered is approximately 1837 to 1903, the lifespan of Hitler's father. When Alois died, Adolf was 14 years old, still a subaverage schoolboy. So far, so straightforward. But Mailer is not content with a third-person, historical account of the antecedents and early life of perhaps the most vicious man who has walked this Earth: He has decided instead to have his novel narrated by a devil. A middle-ranking devil, moreover — not Satan himself ('The Evil One' or 'The Maestro,' as he's termed here), but a devil who has the Maestro's ear and whom we know as Dieter. 'The Castle in the Forest' has its own freakish cosmology — one I found most uncongenial, not having any belief in supernatural beings of any category. You cannot read this novel without encountering passages such as: 'Spirits like myself can attend events where they are not present. I was in another place, therefore, on the night Adolf was conceived. Yet I was able to ingest the exact experience by calling upon the devil (of lower rank) who had been in Alois' bed on the primal occasion. ... A minor devil can, on the most crucial occasions, implore the Evil One to be present with him during the climax. (The Maestro encourages us to speak of him as the Evil One when he does choose to enter sexual acts, and on that occasion, he was certainly there.)' The book is replete with these asides. The tone is arch and pompous; the dialogue throughout reads as if badly translated from rudimentary German. Mailer, in a long career full of bravura risk-taking (think 'Ancient Evenings' and 'Harlot's Ghost'), has taken perhaps his biggest risk ever. And yet his intention is not merely to suggest that Hitler is 'the spawn of the devil' — nothing so facile. When we strip away the toe-curling mumbo-jumbo of all this diabolism, a sober and thoroughly researched thesis is being proposed here: Hitler was the product of a fuming stew of routine peasant incest in rural Austria; his mother was at once Alois Hitler's niece and his daughter, the product of a random sex act between Alois and his half sister Johanna. The supposition is entirely possible and has been mooted by Hitler scholars. There is no firm evidence, but novelists need no firm evidence: They are free to go where academics, historians and journalists dare not tread. And much of what is buried in this maddening novel is highly engaging — most notably the portrait of Hitler's father. Indeed, the book is far more about Alois than Adolf, and it's in the sustained depiction of this boorish, fornicating, self-important, minor provincial customs official that Mailer's great strengths as a novelist shine: his feeling for character and detail, his empathy for the unworthy and the sly, his wit. Like a sculptor facing the lumpy, daunting block of marble that is 'The Castle in the Forest,' the reader wants desperately to hew out the real, serious novel that is hidden within. Mailer knows Hitler's life intimately (as do I, having spent a year writing a six-hour film drama of his rise to power), and his insights and intuition into how that warped mind was influenced and grew are genuinely intriguing, if occasionally a bit too apt. Hitler was insane — incontrovertibly, I would say — and his mania may well be explained (as might his alleged solitary testicle) by the complex incestuous web of his parentage. But in this novel, the ludicrous superstructure of devils and angels obfuscates the argument most damagingly. William Boyd's latest novel is 'Restless.'" Reviewed by William Boyd, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"In his first novel in more than a decade, Mailer continues to provoke....Mailer is never an easy read...many readers will find the Satan-and-army-of-devils conceit a gimmick....Other readers will be, as always, excited by Mailer's intelligence and creativity." Booklist
"A novel as odd as it is thematically ambitious reveals the source of Adolf Hitler's evil. (The devil made him do it.)....Alternately engaging, embarrassing and exasperating." Kirkus Reviews
"The Castle in the Forest is a baffling, meandering, self-indulgent curio of a book — at moments brilliantly insightful and fascinating but more often prompting jaw-dropping incredulity." The Washington Post Book World
"[F]or all his excesses, Mailer paints an icy and convincing portrait of the dictator as a young sociopath, both prissy and sadistic, simultaneously sentimental and stupendously cruel. (Grade: B)" Entertainment Weekly
"The new book is lascivious, grandiose, cosmically critical (finding something Teutonic in technology and touting it as the Devil's own handiwork) and cantankerous, filled with grandstanding pronouncements on the nature of evil." Janet Maslin, The New York Times
"A nervy and sometimes pratfallen story, both absorbing and absurd....At its best, the book...is attention-sustaining and uncartoonish." Thomas Mallon, The Wall Street Journal
"As fascinating and deft as The Castle in the Forest is, it seems, at nearly 500 pages, only to have tilled the ground. Perhaps the harvest of this novelist's great talent and imagination will come in a necessary sequel." Ron Hansen, The Los Angeles Times
"[A]udacious, preposterous and often delicious....You can forgive most of his out-of-this-world setup when the stuff on the ground — plotting, characters and action — are this engagingly drawn....Give Mailer credit for taking a big swing and shining a light on a past that Hitler, himself, tried to hide." Chicago Sun-Times
"[W]ith a narrative that alternately plods and rambles, an absence of convincing psychological insight, and an oversupply of stale literary tricks, what Mailer's novel mostly demonstrates is the evil of banality." The Houston Chronicle
"When Mailer drops the theological fantasy and concentrates on Hitler family relations, he actually delivers a compelling, convincing drama....But the devil-made-him-do-it explanation of young Adolf's start on the road to genocide feels like a cop-out. It may be a metaphor, but it's an awfully tired one." Seattle Times
About the Author
Norman Mailer was born in 1923 in Long Branch, New Jersey, and grew up in Brooklyn, New York. In 1955, he was one of the co-founders of The Village Voice. He is the author of more than thirty books, including The Naked and the Dead; The Armies of the Night, for which he won a National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize; The Executioner's Song, for which he won his second Pulitzer Prize; Harlot's Ghost; Oswald's Tale; and The Gospel According to the Son. He passed away on November 10, 2007.
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