Norman Mailer's long-awaited novel about Hitler and Satan has it moments, says Matt Thorne, but often ends up sounding like one of Peter Cook's monologues The Castle in the Forest by Norman Mailer, Little, Brown £17.99 Norman Mailer's first novel in over a decade, The Castle in the Forest, is narrated by an assistant to the Devil named DT (short for Dieter).
DT explains that he has written this account to address the following problem: even today, the first obsession remains Hitler. Where is the German who does not try to understand him? Yet where can you find one who is content with the answer?
DT confesses he has no such concern; as an employee of Heinrich Himmler employed to look into Hitler's background, he intimately understands his appetites and crimes, but worries about how he can relate this to the reader.
He looks for answers in biographical detail, asking whether Hitler's paternal grandfather had been Jewish, commenting on his excessive mother-love and joking about Hitler's possible monorchidism.
He questions whether Hitler was the product of incestuous union, and then goes back to 1795 to commence a family history in the style of "a conventional novelist of the old school".
The novel has a queasy tone, as Mailer creates an "origins of evil" narrative that uncomfortably echoes Thomas Harris's recent novel about the childhood of Hannibal Lecter.
Even at his best, Mailer has always been a slightly gamey writer and the scene of Adolf's conception (which he presents as an inverted Nativity watched over by "the Evil One") has a gothic (and sexually graphic) quality that will disturb many. Mailer's contention here seems to be that where science and psychology fail, the only explanation can be theological. As Mailer has commented in a recent interview with German television after angry reactions to the novel: "Hitler exceeds human comprehension. For me the only answer is the existence of the Devil ... Hitler is the Devil's greatest feat against Jesus Christ".
DT calls his master "Maestro" and God "DK" (for the German dununkopf — an insult), and describes in detail the "Divine" and 'Satanic' kingdoms. He claims that devils are obliged to be devoted to good writing, but does not know if the same is true of angels. He writes that Milton is high in their arcana of those few literary artists whom they don't have to look upon as "unforgivably second-rate" because he provided his intuitive understanding of "the contest between the Two Kingdoms," But Milton's descriptions are considered out of date: devils who serve the Maestro no longer go to war in phalanx against angels; now, they are artfully installed in every corner of human existence. There are now three kingdoms: the Divine, the Satanic and the human. The reason why there are now three kingdoms is that, until the Middle Ages, God and his angel cohorts worked on men. women and children to bring them under his influence, while the "Maestro" and his representatives looked to possess the souls of the same humans, but now many humans seek to be free, beholden to neither clod nor the "Maestro".
The devils have "clients" — people they only begin to influence after their seventh birthday, most of whom are mediocrities without the power to perform true good or evil. Others such as "priests in small towns who get in trouble with little boys" are of modest achievement, but ultimately not worth dealing with. Only Hider presents DT with the possibility of achieving evil on a grand scale.
Mailer plays metafictional games throughout the book which feel inappropriate for such a serious subject. His narrator quibbles about the genre of his book. wondering whether it is a memoir, biography, novel or some combination of all three, and frets about the "Maestro's" response to the book, claiming he can only write it because his master is more attuned to electronics than print, having followed human progress into cybertechnologies more closely than God. He reminds the reader that he is a devil, not a novelist, and has private motivations (revealed at the conclusion of the novel) for writing this family history.
He writes about how much the "Maestro" likes popular novelists, because they encourage "mispercepdon of reality" in their readers, which wastes God's time. He mocks the superficialities of Freud, describes how devils tried to win the souls of Mark Twain's associates, and fakes supposed suppressed pages by that author. At one point, he even encourages impatient readers to skip 50 pages in the middle of the book as DT switches attention from Hitler's family history to the contemporaneous coronation of Nicholas II.
Occasionally, Mailer can get silly, and much of the novel is unintentionally funny. When he's arguing about how devils invented soap, describing Hitler's father's interest in beekeeping or writing about young Adolf's toilet-training, it reads like a Peter Cook stand-up routine, yet the portentous prose style leaves the reader in no doubt that he is being serious.
It's clear that Mailer wants to ridicule Hitler by writing about, for example, his erotic excitement at seeing an assassin's small moustache, but this reduces the author's intellectual achievement.
More seriously, by including such puerile sequences as Hitler's father calling him "Toga Boy", family members mocking his body odour, and Hitler having a boyhood crush on an ugly elderly hermit, Mailer makes him seem sympathetic, failing in his stated ambition.
As with Harlot's Ghost, Mailer's long novel about the CIA. which famously ended with the words "to be continued" (a promise Mailer has so far reneged on) The Castle in the Forest is openended, with DT noting that he will write a sequel if he is not punished for this first volume. Given that Mailer is to celebrate his 84th birthday this year, and the critical response to this first volume is unlikely to be positive, it seems doubtful this book will materialise.
As risible as I found this novel at times, I would welcome a sequel, if only because Mailer would have more interesting historical documentation to wrestle with in writing about Hitler's later life.
And, while I find it hard to recommend The Castle in the Forest, it's :certainly a singular evocation of evil, perhaps best placed on a shelf beside Genet, Bulgakov and de Sade.