NORMAN MAILER'S The Castle in the Forest is a special experience for an Austrian. In his latest book in the Henry Bech series, John Updike has his Jewish author-protagonist say on the occasion of a visit to Czechoslovakia: "Hitler. To come to Europe is somehow to pay him a visit." In his latest book, Norman Mailer has paid a visit to the two Austrian regions which are home to the Hitler family.
On one level, Castle is a book about life of the lower classes of the German-speaking section of the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy and about one man, Alois Hitler, who manages to rise above the humble origins of his family. It looks at the daily life of the peasants, the education of their children, their sexual relationships, and their sometimes desperate attempts to improve their limiting life conditions. But the family that is followed in this novel in great detail on almost five hundred pages is not an ordinary family. It is the family of a man who would fatally change the course of history--causing a catastrophe whose terrible consequences we are still far from having overcome.
Norman Mailer has written another novel which functions very much the same way. In Oswald s Tale (1995), he and his collaborators have sifted through and generated an incredible amount of material relating to Oswald's time in the Soviet Union, his wife, Marina, and her family and friends. Reading through the hundreds of pages of this book, one comes to understand the tragic history of the Soviet Union and the way this history has shaped her citizens. Although readers are at times lost in the wealth of this material, at no time do they forget that the whole book has one focal point, namely the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on as November 1963 in Dallas. From none of the many things we find out about Marina and her development can it be excluded that it may have influenced her in a particular way which may have contributed to the negative development of her marriage with Lee, and thus to Lee's frustrated megalomania--or whichever else formative characteristic--which ultimately may have caused the murder of Kennedy. "This is," says Mailer, "after all, a book that depends upon the small revelation of separate points of view. We are, in effect, studying an object ... as he tumbles through the prisms of a kaleidoscope. It is as if by such means we hope to penetrate into the psychology of Lee Harvey Oswald."
In readers' minds, the massive quantity of information Castle provides concerning Hitler's family and early childhood is equally focused on a later historical development, although in a much different manner. The catastrophe is not the murder of a man with large possibilities and the meaning of that death for his culture, but rather the extinction of a whole culture itself, a genocidal horror unequalled in human history. Mailer, by focusing on Hitler's family and early life, seems to suggest that there must be some explanatory potential here for what happened later on.
One approach to this novel, though tiresome and uninspired, would be to look at the sources Mailer himself has used and listed in his bibliography and investigate where his narrative intervenes into the Hitler story using the fictional, novelistic mode. Clearly, this is not what this paper can or wants to do, although it would be of some interest if one wanted to look at Mailer's strategy of fictionalization. There is one major theme of the novel, however, where a comparison with the sources in order to understand their significance, namely that of incest.
In the past quarter century, Hitler research has found a consensus regarding the much debated question of the identity of Hitler's unknown grandfather. The father of Hitler's father, Alois, was neither the fabled "Jew from Graz," Frankenberger, nor the later husband of Hitler's mother, Anna Maria Schickelgruber. Rather, it was, as Mailer has his narrator, devil Dieter, find out--with the help of the "Maestro" himself--the brother of Anna Maria's husband, Johann Nepomuk Huttler, in whose house Alois grew up for parts of his life. …