Now, in 2013, you want to ask yourself: Will Norman Mailer be remembered much longer? What has he actually written that might prevail? The Naked and the Dead seems a minor work of naturalism. The Executioner’s Song: no Capote, no The Executioner’s Song. Advertisements for Myself, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Marilyn, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, The Armies of the Night, Of a Fire on the Moon, The Prisoner of Sex, Ancient Evenings, Why Are We in Vietnam? and so on and ho hum…with his New York cheering section now largely out to pasture, my bet is that Mailer fades fast.
His final book, The Castle in the Forest, isn’t worth the difficulty.
As usual, Mailer, courting the general audience he descries by taking on a Big Subject, purports to use the imagination of the novelist to enhance History, here to reveal more than shown before about the nature of monstrous human evil in one of the greatest Evil Archetypes, Adolph Hitler, the Fuhrer, whose early boyhood years when presumably much of his personality was formed are not known in the detail for which historians would hope. However, many of us would say that similarly our knowledge of human psychology may not now be ready to explain such monstrous evil, no matter how much we might know about Hitler’s early life.
Apropos: The joke is that Mailer’s odd fictional histories and journalism pieces show him to be timid in his imaginings. He hangs onto the literal. It turns out to be an anchor. His books don’t really go very far. He is not very inventive.
Hence evil remains an inscrutability in The Castle in the Forest. Mailer’s lack of progress here is plain dull. He falls back on, and awkwardly tries to fuse, two old ideas as sources of insight into human behavior, especially evil: the God-Satan mythology and a version of Freudian analysis. He introduces a Devil-In-The-Field, “DT,” as narrator and, as it were, Local Representative of the Powers of Darkness, who seems to hover about the young Hitler. (Presumably, Hitler’s Guardian Angel got lost somewhere.) The God-versus-Satan wrestling for each human “spirituality” seems a banal regression in these times in a book purporting to be audacious.
Mailer’s novel in large suffers greatly from too many long stretches of unrelieved narration–I mean by “narration” the telescoping of periods of the family history surrounding Hitler (just a little short, it seems to me, of a mind-numbing account along the lines, A begat B begat C begat D and so on) and too few scenes and concrete action.
But there is too much reliance here, especially in the parental roles in forming Hitler’s personality, on Freudian (or perhaps, “Freudian”) explanations which aren’t convincing. None of it explains Hitler as Growing Monster; an episode in which the child Hitler watches the extermination of bees reminds one of the “explanation” of monsters-from-birth in the forgotten novel, The Bad Seed, in which it is posited that there are inherently Bad People–just accept that reality–such as those we encounter in run-of-the-mill Gothic tales. In short, Mailer brings no real news here. Maybe Freud has kidnapped Hitler’s Guardian Angel and scared off God the Father. That storyline might have done Mailer for a better novel, along the lines of DT In Vienna.
The best we can do for now in trying to fathom monstrous human evil writ large in Hitler remains such works as William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and Leni Reifenstahl’s masterful-but-frightening documentary, Triumph of the Will.
The Castle in the Forest — save your money.