rollyson2002, September 23, 2012
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There has always been something pre-Judeo-Christian about Norman Mailer's imagination. He has a Homeric sensibility that is also at home in ancient Egypt. Monotheism hardly appeals to the Manichean Mr. Mailer. So it does not surprise me that a devil masquerading as a member of the Nazi SS narrates Mr. Mailer's first novel in more than a decade, "The Castle in the Forest" (Random House, 496 pages, $27.95).
Modern psychology, Mr. Mailer implies, cannot account for the rise of Adolf Hitler. He has a point. There are many explanations for Hitler's rise to power, but no interpretation dominates the field. Mr. Mailer knows as much because he has poured over the contemporary literature on the Führer. The novelist appends an extensive bibliography to his work, even marking with an asterisk those books he drew on for inspiration and data.
But why the devil? Because no God-centered universe could possibly produce a Hitler, Mr. Mailer implies. Such evil is only conceivable in a divided cosmogony, in a contest between God and the E. O. (Mr. Mailer's acronym for the Evil One). For decades he has championed the idea of a seesaw conflict between the forces of good and evil. The devil in "The Castle in the Forest" is like one of those Ancient Greek gods who takes a special interest in a particular mortal and helps him out when it seems the human's strength of purpose may flag.
So Adolf ��" enabled but also enervated by mother-love ��" needs a dose of the devil to enhance his prospects. Those who know Mr. Mailer's life story might think of Fanny Mailer, the maternal sentinel who presided over her son's rise to fame. Needless to say, Mr. Mailer is not equating his experience with Hitler's, but he seems to be pursuing a parallel. Remember that Mr. Mailer is also the author of "Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man" (1995), another work that attempts to fathom the origins of the artist's power. Indeed, Mr. Mailer is fond of analogizing: "Put an artist on an artist," he asserts by way of justifying his unique take on Marilyn Monroe, whom he portrayed as consumed with Napoleonic ambition in "Marilyn" (1973). To explain Mr. Mailer's choice of Hitler, the best source is Mr. Mailer's confession in "Advertisements for Myself" (1959): "The sour truth is that I am imprisoned with a perception which will settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time." That kind of megalomania belies the ambition required to undertake "The Castle in the Forest."
Norman Mailer's great contribution to American literature is his effort to encompass large subjects. His aspirations are so high that he is bound to fail by any conventional standards. As soon as the SS man explains he is a devil on assignment from the E. O., my interest in his story slackened. Making Hitler a product of evil, rather than an originator of same, is troubling ��" because it denies the force of evil any human agency.
Much of the novel is third-person narration recast in the voice of the devil. Mr. Mailer has often found speaking in the third person inauthentic because he could never accept the authority of an omniscient narrator. In "The Castle in the Forest," the author has neatly solved the problem by making the narrator's voice supernatural.
The biographer in me, though, rejects the devil and wants to know more about the devil's beard, the SS man. What happens among the congregation of the devils (it has to be kept vague, lest trade secrets become known) did not interest me ��" I felt I was due back on planet Earth. I responded with a virtual shrug, for example, to the secret that devils call angels "the cudgels."
And yet the richly imagined terrestrial details ��" the depiction of Adolf's father, Alois, for example ��" marvelously re-create the Hapsburg world. The sex scenes involving Alois have the ribald verve that is vintage Mailer ��" and more humor than you would expect in the novelist's evocation of the petty despotisms of domestic life.
Enjoy this novel for its deep learning and its well-wrought characters, if not for its factitious ontology.