The sound and the Führer

Mailer takes on young Adolf
By PETER KEOUGH  |  January 31, 2007

FIRST PERSON: The author’s theories of Good and Evil may not always convince, but his rollicking, ribald, grave-reeking voice does.
Having taken on such larger-than-life figures as Marilyn Monroe, Gary Gilmore, Pablo Picasso, Jesus Christ, and, of course, Norman Mailer, Norman Mailer now essays “the most mysterious human being of the century,” Adolf Hitler. What to say about this incarnation of evil about whom so much already has been written? (The Castle in the Forest’s bibliography runs seven pages and ranges from Paradise Lost to Eva Crane’s The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting.) What perspective, what muse, what voice could one summon?

Mailer finesses his old ambivalence between the first- and third-person point of view by concocting a kind of first-person omniscient narrator. “Dieter,” who also goes by the suggestive initials “D.T.,” is a sardonic, cynical, Rabelaisian “member of a matchless Intelligence group.” Not the CIA of Harlot’s Ghost; more like the SS. Heinrich Himmler, it seems, had a theory of greatness. It lay in incest, which compounds both good and bad hereditary tendencies, creating gods or monsters, or one in the same. Could the Führer, the greatest of all men, have such Blutschande in his background?

As one of Himmler’s agents, Dieter investigates Hitler’s dicy genealogy. He dismisses straight off the canard that Adolf’s grandfather was a Jew. Instead, he determines that Hitler’s mother, Klara, was the offspring of Alois and Alois’s sister. No wonder Adolf only had one testicle!

The Castle in the Forest is, then, as much about the father as about the son. And what a fascinating mediocrity (the banality of evil, or evil’s instrument, need not be boring), as he plows his side whiskers through three wives, innumerable mistresses, several tiers of the Austrian civil service, at least seven children, and a few beehives, ending his life a consummate, brutish bourgeois and, in his own words, a “fine fellow.”

Needless to say, young Adi didn’t agree. But we don’t even get to his diabolical conception until page 68, and when the book leaves off, he’s just an anal, idle, nascently megalomaniacal but not yet anti-Semitic little shit of 13. We learn how his beloved mother cleaned his asshole, how he organized war games with the local kids, how he was initiated into something dank and demonic by a hermit in the woods, how his experiments in masturbation inspired his toothbrush moustache. Unremarkable, and yet . . .

For one thing, he has Dieter as a narrator, and Mailer’s assurance that devils and angels involve themselves in every aspect of human existence, especially when it comes to death and procreation. The theories of Good and Evil, God and Satan, history and fiction, don’t always convince, but the Mittel-Europaisch melodrama, with its Grimm-like uncanniness and the author’s rollicking, ribald, grave-reeking voice, does. And though Mailer’s effusiveness can get tangled in mixed metaphors (“The stench of a baby born to die in its first weeks of life settled into Klara’s nose as if her nostrils were another limb of memory”), there are also eloquent passages like this one about a dying dog: “Luther now looked like a young dog again, and some indefinable self-esteem had returned as if he had always been more beautiful than anyone had realized, and could have become a great warrior if it had been asked of him. . . . ”

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