Academic journal article The Mailer Review

The Devil Only Knows

Academic journal article The Mailer Review

The Devil Only Knows

Article excerpt

The Castle in the Forest By Norman Mailer New York: Random House, 2007 477 PP. Cloth $27.95

WILLIAM BLAKE IS ONE OF THE FORERUNNERS and one of the forefathers of Norman Mailer, another radical conservative who takes the greatest liberties and who seeks to liberate us from body-forged as well as "mind-forged manacles" (Blake, as it happened, deleted "german" from that line of his), seeks even to liberate us from such sentimental hopes of liberation as "the sexual revolution." Blake, searching within one of his forefathers, famously and infamously averred that "The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it." The proposition, as so often with Blake, is at once direct and equivocal. A true Poet is of the Devil's party: fine, and now (as always) is the time for all bad men to come to the aid of the party. But is a true Poet of--the-Devil's-party-without-knowing-it, or was it just that Milton was one who didn't know it? Is not knowing it a condition of being it, or was it rather that, with Milton, etc.?

Milton's aspiration was to "justify the ways of God to men." Mailer's latest ambition is to imagine how the Devil might justify to men his ways to men--and his ways to God. "An honest man's the noblest work of God": at least, such was Robert Burns's hope. Samuel Butler's was a tersely perverse reversal: "An honest God's the noblest work of man." As for Mailer, he sings along with Rowland Hill: "He did not see any reason why the devil should have all the good tunes." Rowland Hill shares a column with Adolf Hitler in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.

Without knowing it. Mailer is a great writer--a true novelist and more--partly because he knows that, for a man of his convictions, there is no substitute for knowledge. Self-knowledge, for the start. (Achieved at some pains to the man.) Knowledge of the world. (Achieved at some cost to the world.) Knowledge of the ways of God to men, and of the ways of men to God. (Achieved at some risk to the soul.)

Oh, and knowledge--including carnal knowledge--of the Devil or a devil, the traitor-narrator of this life of the young Hitler, The Sorrows of Young Adolf. (Of, being those sorrows that are inflicted on him and those that he inflicts.) All this sad variety of woeful knowledge, plus knowledge of other men's knowledge. The five-page bibliography at the end of The Castle in the Forest precipitated some numbskull head-scratchings in the reviewers. Was Mr. Mailer showing off, reeling off all these Hiflerian sources? Was he ducking the charge of plagiarism, somehow pleading the Eighth Commandment? Was he being a bit of a tease? None of these impertinences, as the pertinent paragraph by Mailer makes clear:

   Some of the books now listed in this bibliography have been given
   an asterisk for their historical or thematic relevance to The
   Castle in the Forest. It should be unnecessary to add that the
   other works cited also enriched many a fictional possibility. Those
   titles to which an asterisk was attached did provide me, however,
   with a bounty of factual and chronological references that a novel
   in this form can never ignore. With all else, character is
   sequence.

There is no substitute for knowledge, then, with this taking a different form when the novel is a historical novel, needing to explore the facts without being exploitative when it comes to what the abstraction-lovers may dub facticity. How factually responsible is such a book? Or, the prior question, what does such a book claim as to factual responsibility? Is the alternative the merely factitious? What exactly is it, to enrich a fictional possibility? How much store should we set by fidelity? Semper fidelis, really semper? Is that what we want of our translators, including those who translate veracity into verity, who realize-on our behalf-historical facts as the force of fiction? …

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