The Castle in the Forest: A Novel
by Norman Mailer
The Prisoner of Sex
A review by Ruth Franklin
The reader strong-stomached enough to make it to the end of Norman Mailer's new novel, which comprises nearly five hundred of the most revolting pages in recent American fiction, will discover a refreshing oasis of reason. This oasis is a bibliography of more than a hundred assiduously chosen books, many of them mainstays of the scholarship and literature of Nazi Germany: Ian Kershaw's two-volume biography of Hitler; the works of Hugh Trevor-Roper, Joachim Fest, Ernst Nolte, and George Mosse; even Dr. Faustus. A note from Mailer solemnly informs us that certain titles, marked with an asterisk, "did provide me...with a bounty of factual and chronological references that a novel in this form can never ignore."
So what breakthroughs in understanding were made possible by these efforts in erudition? Here is an example. At one point in the novel, Alois Hitler, father of Adolf, indulges in a reverie on his favorite subject.
The female organ!...Such a wonderful array of meats and juices -- such a panoply of flesh in miniature -- this offering of archways and caverns and lips. Alois was certainly no philosopher, so he would not have known how to speak of Becoming (that state of existence when Being suddenly feels itself out in the open), but all the same, he could have given a tip to Heidegger. Becoming is, yes, exactly, when a woman opens her legs!
And indeed two books by Heidegger appear on Mailer's reading list, one dutifully asterisked.
Mailer accomplishes something here that I didn't think was possible: he makes one feel a twinge of sympathy for Heidegger. But the reader who is familiar with more than a few of the books on Mailer's syllabus -- who may already know something about Germany and the Holocaust, and may have already pondered the problem of the Nazi who shoots Jews during the day and retires to Beethoven quartets at night -- will face a new question about the relationship between culture and corruption. 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?
The Castle in the Forest has already become somewhat notorious for the bizarre conceit that organizes it: the book is the story of Adolf Hitler's childhood as narrated by a devil. Not Satan himself, but one of his minions, who has been charged with keeping watch over the young Hitler. With this device, Mailer promises an answer to what he calls "the first obsession": how to understand the character of Hitler. "I know him top to bottom," this narrator confidently tells us. "To borrow from the Americans, given their rough grasp of vulgarity, I am prepared to say: 'Yes, I know him from asshole to appetite.'" This phrase, which becomes one of the books oft-repeated leitmotifs -- the other one, similarly excretory in nature, I will get to in a moment -- certainly makes good on its promise. We learn a lot about Hitler's asshole, and we learn a little about his appetites.
But we learn almost nothing about his mind, his heart, even -- dare I say -- his soul. This is a staggering failure. For if the struggle between good and evil is not a struggle for men's souls, then what is it? Well, for Mailer it appears to be something like an eternal peep show. His devils spend the majority of their time in the bedroom, where they vicariously take part in sex acts: "Fucking -- to employ that most useful, all-but-cosmopolitan, and near-onomatopoeic word, so close to the meats [again!], body slaps, and fats of the occasion -- is of real interest." Even from Mailer, who once wrote that the "sexual force" of a man is "his finest moral product," this intensity of obsession is incomprehensible.
The Castle in the Forest is not a novel about Hitler, it is a novel about sex. It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of sex -- more precisely, of a certain notion of sex -- to this book. It is certainly the most semen-soaked "major" novel I have ever read. Page after page after page (though the book is not as long as it appears to be, because it is printed in remedial type -- even the font is bloated!) is devoted to the detailed description of a staggering variety of sex acts. There is sex between a teenage boy and his three half-sisters (not, thankfully, at the same time), between a young man and every cook and chambermaid unfortunate enough to cross his path, between an elderly man and an adolescent boy, between a father and his daughter.
The man responsible for the majority of this is Alois Hitler, who is the novel's real protagonist, and in many ways its true monster: a man whose sexual appetites bow to no convention, social or moral. The Castle in the Forest starts with Alois's own conception -- he is the illegitimate child of the maid Maria Anna Schicklgruber and her cousin Johann Nepomuk Hiedler (to be later spelled Hitler) -- and chronicles the rise of his career to "the highest level of the middle ranks" in the customs service and his marriage to Klara Poelzl, Adolf's mother; it ends just after his death. The narrator explains that he began his investigation into Alois's background at the instigation of Himmler, who was secretly obsessed with the idea that the children resulting from incest are the most likely to be exceptional, since "the best human possibilities lie close to the worst." He concludes, through a series of speculations too tiresome to be rehearsed here, that Alois and Klara are not only uncle and niece (as they acknowledge), but in fact father and daughter, since Klara is the result of Alois's coupling -- part of a "tradition of apocalyptic intercourse in barn straw" -- with one of his half-sisters. (Lest anyone wonder whether the woman involved could be certain of Alois's paternity, Mailer has endowed every female in this novel with the psychic power of recognizing the moment she has been impregnated.) For Himmler, who hypothesizes that "any Superman who embodies the Vision is bound to come forth from a mating of exceptionally similar genetic ingredients," this is confirmation beyond his wildest dreams.
But what is its significance for the average, even innocent reader, who comes to this book hoping for a renowned novelist's insight into Hitler's character and is met with this twisted family tree? Well, she will have to content herself with the ab diabolo explanation for Hitler's evil. Mailer's devil, when he is not observing or orchestrating or wondering about sex, spends a fair amount of energy describing the wars between the angels and the devils -- which, he reports, Milton got largely right, but not quite. Unfortunately, the blueprint of the Underworld that we are given here is so unimaginative and asinine that it would embarrass Stephen King. Satan is "the Maestro"; God is known as "the D.K.," short for Dummkopf; guardian angels are "Cudgels." Individual devils are assigned to keep track of various humans (like lawyers or brokers, they call their charges "clients"), of which they may have any number at one time -- midway through the novel, the narrator abandons young Adolf to file a report on the coronation of Czar Nicholas II and the tragic stampede at Khodynka Field, in which he played a role. This episode is puzzling for many reasons, not the least of which is that we are offered a comprehensive account of the czar and czarina's sex life -- of course! -- but not a word on the whereabouts of young Stalin, who would certainly have been as interesting to any real devil as Hitler.
Devils can recover people's memories, etch dreams into their minds, and inhabit their bodies, and they always know what time it is. But like the rest of us, they have limited time at their disposal, and so the multi-tasking fiends must carefully calculate which humans are not worth their attention and which "are ready to transgress a few large laws -- whether social or divine." Devils can even suffer injuries. At one point a Cudgel throws our narrator down a flight of stairs: "Since I was not corporeal at the time, there was no flesh to bruise but, oh, what a pummeling to my inner presence!" The angels whistling through Wim Wenders's Berlin would have made mincemeat of this guy.
Mailer's narrator is the downfall of this Hindenburgian book. In his last novel, The Gospel According to the Son, Mailer told the story of Jesus in the first person, a hubristic but also invigorating approach to a story long since examined from every possible angle. The Castle in the Forest must be seen as some kind of companion piece to Gospel -- Mailer said in a recent interview that "there have been two exceptional births in human history: Jesus Christ and Adolf Hitler" -- and even after all this, the thought of what Mailer might have done with Hitler's story, told in his own words, is intriguing. Instead, the young Adolf, or "Adi," as his mother calls him, remains a mystery. We see him being manipulated by his own personal devil, but we are allowed very little insight into his thoughts.
What we get is a series of set-pieces, all of which gesture toward Hitler's menace without elucidating it. The infant Adi is cosseted by his mother, who indulgently breastfeeds him and cleans his "pip-squeak of an anus" until it is "as immaculate as an opal, small and glistening." Even as a child, he has terrible body odor, a sign that he is one of the devil's clients. (Our narrator dutifully explains that God instigated the method of marking humans by scent for his own purposes, but by later in the twentieth century the devils will have managed to subvert it through the introduction of rigorous personal hygiene.) At age five, he becomes the master of war games at school, piquing the Maestro's interest further. His father takes up beekeeping, and when one hive must be gassed and another burned, Adi, who is now six, takes a sadistic, almost sexual pleasure in the acts. (Get it?) Trees are a particular fixation: when he is not masturbating onto leaves, Adi roars at the trees in the forest to develop his vocal chords. Later he meets a blacksmith who inspires him to ask, "What is a will of iron? How is that made?" All the while, the narrator cautions us against reading too deeply into any of these episodes. "I would warn the reader not to make too much of" the gassing of the bees, he cautions at one point: "It is not to be understood as the unique cause of all that came later." Well, fine. Nothing has a "unique cause." But if these early exercises in sadism are not to be understood as indications of what comes later, then what is their point?
Though the narrator claimed at the outset to understand Hitler from the inside out, in fact he takes no serious interest in his prize charge. He is able to view humanity only through a single, split lens: on the one side, sex; on the other side, shit. Augustine's famous lament (here inexplicably attributed to St. Odon of Cluny) inter faeces et urinam nascimur -- "between shit and piss are we born," in Mailer's translation -- is approvingly cited at least three times by both the narrator and then Hitler himself, who hears it from a fellow student and is inspired to use his diploma in lieu of a toilet. For the narrator, it is the key to the two primary human relationships, marriage and parenthood. Mostly the former, actually: "The proper study of marriage resides not only in partnership, congeniality, affection, boredom, predictable habit, daily annoyance, verbal scuffles, and daily despair, but in the guts and smear of it all -- the comradely knowledge of all the forbidden tastes, smells, and bodily nooks. Indeed, if all of that were absent, the sacrament would have less foundation. On caca, is marriage based. So I would assert." Why? No explanation is given, other than a formulation of the daily squabbles between husbands and wives as "excrementitious exchanges." (The Castle, by Franz Kaka.)
The narrator says that he is trying to write like "a conventional novelist of the old school," inhabiting the minds and speaking the thoughts of his characters: "I delight in writing about these people like any good novelist, and so am ready by turns to observe them sardonically, objectively, ironically, sympathetically, judgmentally, even compassionately." But he can approach them only through his own puerile perspective. He compares the death of three thousand peasants at Khodynka Field to the "unpleasantness" of someone farting at a banquet. Not incidentally, he is a terrible writer. He reports of the czarina that "Alix was more than pregnant. Her belly was huge." (More than pregnant?) His narrative has something of the mannered style of The Gospel According to the Son, though the mannerisms here are pseudo-Germanic rather than pseudo-archaic English. Perhaps the book's stilted dialogue is meant to imitate the convolutions of German syntax, but even Germans do not talk this way. ("How do you know this, Alois? So much you know," Klara simpers to her husband, sounding like someone out of Young Frankenstein.)
The sex scenes transgress the boundaries of taste, of course: that has always been Mailer's game. But they are not just depraved, they are also ludicrous -- the vaporizings of an incompetent pornographer:
Klara turned head to foot, and put her most unmentionable part down on his hard-breathing nose and mouth, and took his old battering ram into her lips. [Into her lips?] Uncle was now as soft as a coil of excrement. She sucked on him nonetheless with an avidity that could come only from the Evil One -- that she knew. From there, the impulse had come. So now they both had their heads at the wrong end, and the Evil One was there. He had never been so close before.
The Hound began to come to life. Right in her mouth. It surprised her. Alois had been so limp. But now he was a man again! His mouth lathered with her sap, he turned around and embraced her face [embraced her face?] with all the passion of his own lips and face, ready at last to grind into her with the Hound, drive it into her piety, yes, damn all piety, thought Alois -- damned church-mouse wife, damned church! -- he was back from the dead -- some kind of miracle, he was all there, his pride equal to a sword. This was better than a storm at sea!
The narrator is an undeniably repugnant character, though even his repugnance has none of the irresistible charisma of literature's great devils, Milton's and Goethe's and Mann's. Given the book's narrative strategy, one wants to read it as an attempt at exemplifying a vision of humanity that is absolutely, ultimately, irredeemably evil: after all, these numbingly repetitive sex scenes can hardly qualify as man's "finest moral product." Yet even the most unreliable narrator gives us hints to his own unreliability; we know that he is unreliable because we can compare what he says to what we know about the real world, and see at a glance how he has gotten it wrong. For an unreliable narrator to be effective, he needs a strong authorial presence behind him, who simultaneously nudges him away from reality and nudges us toward it. Such a presence is entirely lacking in this novel, which exists solely in the dual hells of the universe of devils and the Hitlers' household. Klara, who seems to be intended as a sort of embodiment of the good, is a voiceless cipher, occasionally succumbing to moral outrage over her husband's conduct, but never able to assert herself in the face of it.
A little in desperation, the reader looks back at Mailer's career for help in interpreting this brew of bodily excretions. What one finds, of course, is a writer who has not infrequently put forth a view of the universe -- or at least the universe of male-female relations -- that is strikingly similar to our devil's philosophy of sex and shit. Just a few years before he published The Executioner's Song, for example, Mailer put together an anthology of the writings of Henry Miller, whom he hailed, in numerous critical commentaries scattered throughout the volume, as the greatest American writer of the century. In contrast to Hemingway, whom Mailer denigrated as uptight, Miller "bounces in the stink. We read Tropic of Cancer, that book of horrors, and feel happy. It is because there is honor in the horror, and metaphor in the hideous....Look, he was forever saying, you do not have to die of this crud. You can breathe it, eat it, suck it, fuck it, and still bounce up for the next day. There is something inestimable in us if we can stand the smell." Inter faeces et urinam nascimur: and the greatest twentieth-century American writer is one who celebrates the human condition, thus understood, rather than attempting to transcend it. And if this weren't enough, Mailer fatally remarks of Miller that he "pounds away on the subject" of sex as an expression of love (oh, that impossible ideal!) "like a giant phallus trying to enter a child's vagina -- in the pounding is one simple question: How do you get in?"
Nearly fifty years ago, in Advertisements for Myself, Mailer famously wrote that he wished to "attempt an entrance into the mysteries of murder, suicide, incest, orgy, orgasm, and Time." In his finest writings, he handled these primordial human impulses with some sophistication and a measure of mental control, allowing them to invigorate his novels and essays without entirely overwhelming them. But there is no sign of this Mailer in The Castle in the Forest, no recognition that such primitivism is hardly the last word on humankind. Is it really the case that human life suffers from too much reason? 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! How is it that the writer who set out to change the consciousness of America, the grand old lion of literary New York, has ended up with the superstitious worldview of a Bavarian peasant? What is most vexing about such diabolical fatalism is that by foisting responsibility for man's evil onto an army of devils, Mailer effectively strips humanity of its moral agency, and thus of its ability ever to inhabit fully the deepest mysteries of the heart. If the last sixty years of meditation on Hitler's character have taught us anything, it is surely that the Nazis were neither gods nor demons, but finally all too human, and that is the most terrifying thing of all.
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