The late Norman Mailer’s last book, the 465-page A Castle in the Forest, released by Random House in 2007, the year he died, is a fictional exploration into the psychic life of Adolf Hitler, and an ambitious attempt to track the nature how a monstrous evil can germinate in a rather ordinary-looking and academically-challenged Austrian youth.
Judging by all the books he lists in the bibliography, Mailer has apparently done a whale of a lot of research into Adolph Hitler’s early life. In A Castle in the Forest, he links many apparently real known details of Hitler’s life into his own fantastic spin on how this particular evil developed.
Mailer posits an almost cartoon-like war between good and evil, with evil keeping the upper hand on Hitler. Mailer uses the persona of a narrator to tell the story, an assistant devil, not the top dog for sure, but a mid-level functionary with some power to manipulate local events assigned to enable the young Hitler’s maturity into the world-shaking monster he became. We are asked to believe that the lowly narrator was present at the instant of Hitler’s conception, simultaneously experiencing the moment as was the grand devil himself. In Mailer’s fictional world, evil is connected with manipulation, deceit, and power and little Adolf develops an early taste for these.
As the narrator tells it, Little Adolf’s genetic corruption began before he was born, with a lot of incest within the family, most notable by Hitler’s father, Alois, who suspected he was part Jewish. It continues through little Adolf’s childhood under his stern Austrian father, a vain, petty, arrogant former Hapsburg empire customs inspector who has run through several wives and a number of lesser conquests, and Alois’s weak compliant wife. We see Hitler’s father retire to the countryside in an attempt to live the life of a country gentleman farmer trying to raise bees. Mailer provides a fascinating look at beekeeping, and Hitler’s father’s retirement struggle to learn the art of beekeeping and make honey. Into the plot comes a smelly bearded old beekeeper neighbor, Der Alte,a sort of mystic country loner who knows a lot about bees, and is himself a lowly instrument of the devil. The creepy old man recognizes the young Adolf as one of his own and dotes on the boy, contributing to his education, while also giving Adolf’s older brother blow jobs. This is where little Adolf spends his formative years and this is not the idyllic pastoral life many associate with country living, but a real barnyard with dirt and terribly real smells.
Little Adolf grows up under the punishing thumb of his father, occasionally beaten at home, here and there encountering bits of information that mark him as a future manipulator of men, learning on the playground to be a bully and command larger boys, learning to lie and get away with it, killing by proxy his adored younger brother Edmund under the watchful eye of his evil friend.
Mailer’s assistant devil seems a bit too Manichean, a parody of lip-smacking evil. Indeed to plumb the development of evil in a developing child is an ambitious and tricky undertaking, fraught with striking a balance between a cartoon evil which doesn’t quite ring true and the young Hitler’s actual experiences which to me here actually felt a little too normal — not quite the soil from which such a dark plant could spring. I still don’t know how evil develops in the world, if it develops at all. Although Mailer’s tale is elegantly and masterfully told, the psychological details feel slightly off balance and this is where I have a bit of a problem with the book.
Adolf matures after his father’s death into a lazy Austrian fop carrying a silver-headed cane who can’t work because of possible lung problems. We are spared the often-told tale of the little corporal and World War I, his rise to power in Germany, and all the rest of the horror.
Where Mailer was a reporter plumbing the depths of evil in his brilliant nonfiction novel, The Executioner’s Song, tracking the life of sociopath Gary Gilmour, here he creates an active fictional demon who manipulates the process for an admittedly more complex and farther-reaching evil. Mailer’s heroic attempt to capture this process is not convincing, yet the more pungent parts of the book linger in the mind.
Several of Mailer’s later books were frankly embarrassing, but here the old warrior returns to form. His portrait of family life in the waning moments of the Hapsburg Empire is completely convincing, and even includes a fascinating if unnecessary side journey into the coronation of Russian Tsar Nicholas II . While Mailer’s Austrian countryside feels real, I was finally not convinced that this Hitler kid was so marked and manipulated by devils that he could grow up to become the monster that rose over Germany.
Mailer is a brilliant writer, arguably the best of his generation. I continue to admire his lifelong appetite for the grand theme and his valiant attempt to capture truth in this last powerful book.