The Devil Wears Swastikas; Norman Mailer's New Novel Is a Hitler-Family Saga, with Superstar Guests. Maybe Fiction Isn't His Real Calling after All
Byline: David Gates
Last month the New York Times took note of the half-dozen pages of bibliography at the end of Norman Mailer's forthcoming "The Castle in the Forest," recalled recent novels similarly equipped and, with a spin of the Rolodex, confected a controversy that must have lasted hours. The gist was that some literary folks liked such bibliographies and others didn't. Defenders pointed out that they might forestall accusations of plagiarism (though that didn't work for Ian McEwan's "Atonement"), but the naysayers got the best lines. "We expect [fiction writers] to do that work," said The New Republic's book critic James Wood, "and I don't see why ... they should praise themselves for it." Nobody said the obvious: that including a bibliography implicitly privileges what's "really true" in a novel over what's "just made up." And without the addition of footnotes, the reader's forced to wonder which is which--the sort of static that disables the willing suspension of disbelief. Separating fact from fiction is the journalist's or historian's duty, but the novelist's folly.
That bibliography is only one of the follies in "The Castle in the Forest"--but when has Mailer ever been afraid of folly? Not just in his public persona, but in continuing to devote his passion and his inventiveness to his novels, though readers have long preferred his prize-winning reportage--"The Armies of the Night," "The Executioner's Song." Well, why not? His first novel, "The Naked and the Dead" (1948), gave Mailer his literary career, and harsh reviews of "Ancient Evenings" (1983) and "The Gospel According to the Son" (1997) haven't discouraged him. He based "The Castle in the Forest" on his research--see bibliography--into Hitler's family, especially his horndog dad, Alois, and the book is narrated by a character whose first words are "You can call me D.T." (Will American novelists ever get over "Moby-Dick"?) D.T. claims he'd been part of "a matchless Intelligence group" under Heinrich Himmler. The SS chief wanted to know if Hitler had been the product of incest, because of his theory that "any Superman who embodies the Vision is bound to come forth from a mating of exceptionally similar genetic ingredients." If you think this inquiry will prove to be folly, you have a good sense of reality, but you need to read more fiction. …