Diabolical Conception

Norman Mailer published his first quasi-novel, The Naked and the Dead, in 1948, and his most recent, The Castle in the Forest, earlier this year, very close to his eighty-fourth birthday. In the almost six decades separating those two books he’s published more than thirty others, won two Pulitzer Prizes and one National Book Award, divorced five wives (he’s still married to a sixth), run for mayor of New York City, and directed one of the best so-bad-it’s-good movies of all time, Tough Guys Don’t Dance (if you’ve never seen it, you’ve a dubious delight to look forward to). Mailer has always been at least as much a Broadway production number as a writer: his image, principally one of masculine vitality-Ernest Hemingway without the suicidal impulse, Henry Miller with a better literary pedigree-has long overshadowed his work, and he seems to have wanted it that way.

At his best (The Armies of the Night, Marilyn, The Executioner’s Song), Mailer writes with force and an obsessive flow of energy; and while his favorite tropes and themes aren’t to everyone’s taste (they in¬clude sodomy, excrement, murder, incest, and torture), his choice of subjects and the intensity with which he writes about them have permitted his work to have a deep influence on American perceptions of the twentieth century. He’s written affectingly about World War II, Vietnam, U.S. politics from the 1950s through the ’80s, and about some of the century’s most iconic figures, such as Marilyn Monroe, Pablo Picasso, and Lee Harvey Oswald.

Mailer, then, isn’t really a novelist. He is a journalist who outclasses his sources, a chronicler prompted but unconstrained by the events he chronicles. When he’s in good form, he’s hot, intense, and focused. When he’s not, he’s loose, flabby, and self-indulgent, sometimes to the point of unreadability. I had to abandon Ancient Evenings (1984), a seven-hundred-page treatment of (mostly) the sexual habits of the ancient Egyptians; I had similar troubles with 1991’s Harlot’s Ghost, a fourteen-hundred-page speculative history of the CIA.

The new book is better than either of those. Its ostensible subject is the boyhood of Adolf Hitler, and its first-person narrator is a middle-rank devil assigned to guide the young Adolf. The Castle in the Forest contains a surprising amount of information about apparently unrelated matters, such as the coronation of Nicholas II of Russia and the working and mating habits of honeybees. You might expect material like this to make Mailer’s imagination soar and his prose glow-and maybe even to make some contribution to our understanding of what makes a person like Adolf Hitler possible.

But it doesn’t quite do this, in part because not much of it is about Adolf. The book begins in 1837, when Adolf’s father Alois was born, and it ends shortly after Alois’s death in 1903, in his son’s fourteenth year. We learn much more about Alois and Adolf’s mother Klara than we do about Adolf. We learn that Alois and Klara are father and daughter (she has no idea of this; he has some idea but prefers not to think about it) and that Adolf is therefore the product of incest. And not just ordinary father-daughter incest. Klara’s mother is Alois’s sister, and so she is not only his daughter and the mother of his children, but also his niece. This makes Adolf, if I have it right, simultaneously Alois’s son and grand-nephew and grandson. There is no historical evidence for any of this-it’s a creature of Mailer’s imagination-but he makes a great deal of it in the early chapters of The Castle in the Forest, depicting the various couplings and deceits that lead to Adolf’s birth with a loving attention to the brutal details.

The devil-narrator, named D.T., has been commissioned by a senior devil who may be the Devil himself-he goes by the name of the Maestro-to guide the young Adolf into the ways of evil. Mailer’s devils believe that those conceived by incest, especially the kind of baroque double-incest that produces Adolf, have special possibilities. Such people are unusually capable of the kind of action that undermines civilization and reduces human possibility, which, Mailer tells us, is what all devils are dedicated to. Adolf is therefore a subject for special devilish care, which D.T. duly provides, partly by small manipulations and intensifications of the troubles that belong to all human beings. D.T. manipulates Adolf’s dreams so that he becomes fascinated by images of power, games of war, and the certainty of his own future greatness. By the time Adolf is an adolescent, he is masturbating while he imagines battles and holds one arm erect at a forty-five degree angle. That’s all vintage Mailer.

If this were all, the book would be infantile: an extended meditation on the fact that we are born inter faeces et urinam, a Latin tag the author uses several times. Mailer has always delighted in the stinks and fluids of the body, and it is entirely in keeping with this fascination that he calls bodily odors God’s devices and deodorants a work of the Devil. Like Stephen King, Mailer is never too proud to go for the gross-out, and there’s plenty of schoolboy grossness in this book. But Mailer is also doing two other things in The Castle and the Forest, both of them interesting and one perhaps more than interesting.

First, there is Mailer’s depiction of evil, which is positively Augustinian. Evil in this book is a reduction of human possibility, a loss of the good, an absence of empathy. It is not a real force arrayed in power against God, whom the devils in the book call the Dummkopf. No, it is parasitic, pathetic, sadly strutting but internally empty. Adolf is moved toward evil by being slowly emptied of love and warmth and laughter, and by having his self-esteem made impregnable. And, most interestingly, D.T. is aware of the fact that his own devilish existence is shadowy, characterized increasingly by loss. He does not remember what he was and has little idea of how he is contributing to the Maestro’s grand plan. By the end, he is not even sure whether the Maestro-the master of irony, we are told-is really Satan himself, or just some devil slightly higher up the food chain. D.T.’s world is not one of power but of its absence. He does not bring anything into being but only makes less what was more. In one of the book’s more powerful scenes of evil at work, a beehive is burned by one of Adolf’s half-siblings, and it’s pretty clear that Mailer means the bees to signify the good-they work, nonironically, to bring something beautiful into being that the world would lack without their efforts. Their burning is emblematic of evil’s only capacity, which is to decrease and remove. This novel, then, is decisively antidualist, the very reverse of Manichaean.

But there’s more. D.T. is a rebellious and literary devil. Devils, he tells us, are not supposed to write books; they’re not even supposed to recall their devilish work in any full way. Writing a book like this, a sentimental book in the style of an old-fashioned novelist, is a strange thing for a devil to do. In having D.T. do it, and in having him become less devilish as he does it, Mailer may be suggesting that those who write are performing the paradigmatically good act, the act that holds back the waters of chaos. Such a suggestion is, for a writer, deeply self-serving, but that doesn’t mean it may not be right. It is, in any case, interesting: the central technical conceit of the book is to have it narrated by an unreliable narrator who becomes increasingly reliable as he narrates and because he narrates. I can’t help but think that Mailer must mean this as an icon of what it is to be and to do good. The rest-the incest, the excrement, the artificially stilted style-I could have done without. But that conceit is a rich one.

Published in the 2007-05-04 issue: 

Paul J. Griffiths is a longtime contributor to Commonweal and the author of many books, most recently Regret: A Theology (University of Notre Dame Press) and Why Read Pascal? (Catholic University of America Press).

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