Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Castle Mailer

Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Castle Mailer

Article excerpt

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

IN THE UNPUBLISHED PORTION OF A 1983 INTERVIEW, Norman Mailer stated that trying to understand Nazism was "one of the great questions" of the twentieth century. "No one is rewarded for approaching that question," he explained, "because those horrors are in all of us, and there to be tapped. We draw back from that as a conclusion about human nature. We don't really want to know the answer ... because the answer may be terrible." Norman Mailer, at 84, survivor of World War II, of the American Century, and more recently of heart surgery, has, it seems, decided to tackle the big question, perhaps by now mellow in the knowledge that he shall not be rewarded for doing so.

His last novel, The Gospel According to the Son (1996), sought to understand the childhood and early manhood of Jesus, survivor of King Herod's holocaust. Mailer's new novel The Castle in the Forest (Random House, 2007) creates a sort of diptych by attempting to understand the childhood of Jesus' messianic obverse, Adolf Hitler. "I think he [Hitler] saw himself as a world leader," Mailer told William E Buckley Jr. in 1979, "and thought that he was bringing some kind of salvation to the world." How did Hitler become the megalomaniac who fought to march humankind into the new world order of a fascist millennium? That is the underlying question of this provocative, complicated, digressive, sometimes frustrating, yet ample novel.

To answer that question, the novel takes us on an arduous journey of research and speculation, of empirical detail and metaphysical fancy that only Norman Mailer would dare to compose. His stylistic quirks and rhetorical marks, his curious hobbyhorses and obsessions, his excremental vision, his Manichaean dualisms, his plumbing the unconscious infrastructures of his characters, his bold metaphorical vision--all are still intact as he continues to explore ancient horrors: the face of Evil as it battles God by insinuating its indomitable Will through human history.

Evil's modern face comes to us through our reader-friendly narrator by way of a first-person-omniscient-demonic point of view: one D.T. or Dieter, a lesser devil in the service of Satan ("the Maestro"), incarnated as an S.S. officer working directly under Heinrich Himmler and disembodied as a Satanically empowered evil spirit whose subversive "unpublished" memoir (against the Maestro's wishes) we find ourselves reading. D.T, mind you, has been assigned by his Master to the Hitler family and to the demonic nurturing of young Adolf, in particular. As if covering his bases, Mailer makes the narrative function on two levels--the metaphysical and the mundane. Such bifurcation is not new territory for him, but it is important to understand that to Mailer the metaphysical represents the metaphorical and the archetypal, a way of embodying in fanciful prose narrative the deepest machinations of our conscious and unconscious psyches. How the farthest reaches of the human mind work individually and collectively (whether for destruction or regeneration) on the harsh ground of history has been Mailer's exploration through the thirty or so permutations of his oeuvre.

This metaphysical dimension of the novel will, no doubt, give his readers and reviewers the most trouble. That is the dimension I will describe somewhat further before turning to the physical, to the historical and even to the familial mundane. The battle between God and Satan (Possibility and Entropy) that Mailer has been positing for decades as a means of approaching the inexplicable is here presented with biblical, even Miltonic, assumptions about the struggle of supernal powers in our cosmos and, on earth, through human beings. The suspension of disbelief required is audacious. If fundamentalists of various religious traditions should have little trouble accepting such ultimate contests between forces of Light and Darkness, twenty-first century materialists, corporatists, technophiles, and rationalists of every stripe are asked to climb a steep mountain of disbelief indeed. …

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