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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Castle in the Forest by Norman Mailer

The Castle in the Forest by Norman Mailer. New York: Random House, 2007. ISBN: 978-0-394-53649-1

The last Norman Mailer novel I tried to read was Ancient Evenings (1983), set in ancient Egypt. For me, it failed the Nancy Pearl rule of 50, though if I remember correctly, I may have made it through 70 or 80 pages before giving up on it. The only thing I really remember, aside from the fact that I hadn't been able to discern any semblance of a storyline, let alone a plot, by the time I stopped, was Mailer's enumeration of the Egyptians' reverence toward, and veneration of the seven (as I recall) bodily fluids, or physical substances which come out of a man. There are urine and feces, of course, and semen. Then there are saliva, tears, and phlegm. So what is the seventh one? If you've not read the book, you'll probably never guess: cerumen (more commonly known as ear wax!)

I don't know why, but that has stuck with me all these years since. But I'm supposed to be writing about The Castle in the Forest, which was supposed to be the first in a trilogy, but Mailer died shortly after this first volume was published this past year. Mailer seems to have reveled in controversial or off-the-wall kinds of topics. He wrote “New Journalism” style biographical treatments of people like Lee Harvey Oswald and Marilyn Monroe, although he gave the Monroe book the title Marilyn: A Novel Biography.

Now, in The Castle in the Forest, he tackles the childhood and antecedents of Adolf Hitler, albeit in avowedly fictional format. You know how most novels have some kind of a disclaimer, often printed in small print on the verso of the title page? Something like

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Well, here's what Mailer prints in THIS book:

The Castle in the Forest is a work of fiction closely based on history. A few of the names and incidents are the products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and in those cases, any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

So which events are which? Who knows? I don't have enough personal knowledge of Hitler's parents, grandparents, siblings, and the events surrounding his childhood, to have the slightest clue as to which might be based on fact, and which are entirely fictitious. Do you?

One of the more interesting facets of the book's narration, is that the protagonist, much of the time, is supernatural. He starts out as a member of the Nazi SS, an officer assigned to research Hitler's background and ancestry, to allow the Nazis to cover up any scandal, should any be found. Is there really a Jewish grandfather in Hitler's family tree? Was Hitler the result of incest on one side or the other (or both) of his family? This SS officer fills us in on aspects of his research.

But soon, suddenly, and without initial warning, the protagonist changes, and becomes an agent of the devil, a fallen angel, if you will, a supernatural being actively engaged in the battle against God, and the unfallen angels for the souls of men (and women, naturally). We spend a lot of time inside this supposedly evil angel's head, as he carefully guides the events of Hitler's youth (ha! that pun wasn't intended, but was irresistable). Only later does he explain that he was a fallen angel who had infiltrated and taken over the mind and body of the human agent, the SS officer.

This is one of those books that reads like it SHOULD or COULD have happened just as the author imagines it, even if in fact we have no proof that it actually DID happen that way. And, unlike his Ancient Evenings, this novel has a story, if not a plot, exactly. The macabre nature of the subject is enough to get us started, and Mailer keeps our interest along the way by imagining things in such a compelling manner that we feel compelled to keep turning the pages.

We, of course, know the outcome. We know that this evil angel will succeed beyond anyone's wildest dreams in creating one of the great human monsters of the ages. Unfortunately, we haven't really yet seen quite how that is going to happen, when the book ends. Young Adolf is 15 years old, just out of the Austrian equivalent of high school, according to Mailer, although the Wikipedia entry on him states that he dropped out without his certificate. In the book, Mailer has the young Adolf defecate on his graduation certificate in a drunken post-graduation revelry.

So, unfortunately, due to Mailer's less than timely demise, we'll never get to know what he had planned for the remaining books in the trilogy, how he planned to tell the rest of the Hitler story. Still, even if the topic appeals to the more prurient side of your nature, this is probably a book worth reading. Recommended for sophisticated readers (or even those who think they are, or ought to be).

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