The picture of Norman Mailer on the back of The Castle in the Forest (Random House $27.95) is worth at least a thousand words. It's all the more remarkable when you recall the way this writer has been pictured on the jackets of his other books. Having written a novel in which someone who calls himself a "field officer for Satan" presents us with a narrative of Adolf Hitler's childhood, he might be expected to project a sinister gravitas or perhaps something closer to what Melville was getting at when, after finishing Moby Dick, he told Hawthorne, "I have written a wicked book and feel as spotless as the lamb." Previous Mailer jacket photos have been almost blatantly unsympathetic. The character on the back of An American Dream (1965) is looking for a fight; you just knocked the chip off his shoulder and he's saying, "Reviewer, mock my work and I will punch out your lights." The author photo on his next book, Why Are We In Vietnam? (1967), shows him, no surprise, sporting a black eye, along with the message "Will the Real Norman Mailer Stand Up?"
It's safe to say that you're getting a glimpse of the "real Norman Mailer" when you stare into the eyes of the 84-year-old author pictured on the back of his new novel. The expression is both poignant and insistent; the man seems to be making a gentle, solemn plea for our sympathetic attention. He could be telling us that though the book was a struggle and took a lot out of him, he made it through: he's a survivor. He said as much in an interview last month in Entertainment Weekly: "You realize that you won and you lost, and that's just what happens to everyone else. They win and they lose also &. In other words, I'm at peace with myself in a way that I wasn't for many, many years. I feel more sane than I've ever felt in my life."
Since the book is dedicated to ten grandchildren, a grand-niece, and five godchildren, it's possible to imagine the man in the picture telling them "I wish we had more time to know one another." After reading The Castle in the Forest, my sense is that he's telling the world "I have more to say and can only hope that I have time enough to say it in."
The First Movement?
Norman Mailer and Franz Schubert share the same birth date, January 31, and in celebrating Schubert's birthday two issues ago, I made reference to his Unfinished Symphony ("He didn't need to finish it. He'd done it all in two movements"). The Castle in the Forest can be read as the first movement in a symphony on the theme of Adolf Hitler. One reason it's not easy to know what to make of the new novel, which is alternately impressive and perplexing, is that it seems, by the end, to require a second movement. It's as if after doing everything he could with his material up to Hitler's adolescence (and maybe more than he needed to do), Mailer's already setting up a new theme a theme promising a change in structure and tempo on the way toward some powerful development of which we have only an abbreviated prelude. This is what he's apparently implying on the last page when after stating that "there are no answers there are only questions," he refers to "those of my readers who have traveled all this way with me" and the "good questions" that "still vibrate with honor within." The latter words come in the last sentence of the novel, reinforcing the idea that a new work has already begun taking shape inside him: he's pregnant with a sequel.
Giving questions priority over answers seems a sensible ground rule for book reviewers, including those who have slung hasty and snidely dismissive put-downs at The Castle in the Forest, which is currently holding sixth place on the New York Times best-seller list. This reviewer definitely has more questions than answers, and one way to at least begin to get at the quality of a work is according to the questions it raises. Is it effectively enigmatic? Does it have substance and credibility enough to make it worth the time and effort of trying to figure out what the author's up to? You have to at least respect the ambitions of a book that attempts not only to explore the nature of evil but the nature of fiction itself by assuming an ambiguous and erratic literary persona given to abrupt violations of the forward movement of the narrative. For example, this "devil" who begins his book by echoing the first sentence of Moby Dick ("You may call me D.T.") takes time off at one point to paste in a long quote from Mark Twain on the assassination of Empress Elizabeth. "Excuse me?" exclaims the reader, presumably the same one who gets thanked at the end for "traveling all this way" with an author who sullied the good name of narrative a hundred pages earlier with the self-effacing suggestion (possibly at the prodding of an editor) that if we prefer, we can skip an upcoming digression on the coronation of Nicholas II and jump 47 pages ahead to page 261; "Adolf Hitler's story will pick up again right there," he assures us.
Those readers who don't make it to the end of the journey may disembark well before the Russian interlude or else at the point when Mailer lumbers his story with the fruits of his research on the agony and ecstasy of bee-keeping. Or is that piece of scholarly excess the devil's work? And what about the narrator's disavowal of sinister innuendo when he writes of Hitler's father "gassing" one of the hives? It finally comes down to how much you're willing to let the author get away with such as his seeming admission on the last page of the novel that the Maestro (a.k.a Satan) may not even be the Devil but "only one more minion." This sudden, last-minute turn allows Mailer to remind us that the book may actually represent a rebellion against the ultimate avatar of evil. After all, Lucifer became Satan in the first place by rebelling against God. "Sorry, reader," D.T. is saying (D.T. for Dieter, his German name), but I have to confess that Satan's words as I've been reporting them may turn out to have been merely "the sardonic insights of one more intermediary."
The rebellion idea raises another question: why does a narrator who calls God the D.K. throughout his narration (for Dumbkopf, the devil's nickname for his former master) persist in respectfully capitalizing "He" and "His"? Does he have a Christian copy editor nagging him? Or is it Mailer's way of signifying that rebellion? Or is it posited in the Geneva Convention relating to the war between God and Satan that each of two great powers respect the uppercase personal pronoun at all times?
Clearly some readers are going to find the "devil made him do it" argument too simplistic a conceit on which to base yet another Hitler book. In fact, two of the most sympathetic reviews Mailer's received have come from authors who have been where he's been: Beryl Bainbridge (author of Young Adolf), in the Guardian, and Ron Hansen in the Los Angeles Times. In Hansen's novel, Hitler's Niece, which came out in 1999, there is no fiddling about. You get an intelligent narrative that entertains and enlightens without becoming lost in the fogs of research. You also feel you are getting what Hemingway called "the true gen," and at the end, you feel no need to go back over the journey to examine the author's design or his motives. With Hansen as your guide, you learn a great deal about Hitler in those crucial years from Nazi rebel to chancellor/dictator, but there's nothing in what you've read to make you urge the author to take the story beyond 1931. The difference between Hansen and Mailer is that in Hitler's Niece, you want to find out about the characters, where they're going and how they get there. In The Castle in the Forest you want to find out where Norman Mailer's going. The 1908-1931 period in Hitler's life covered by Hansen (the niece's life-span) would also have to be taken up in Mailer's second movement, something Hansen actually encourages him to do by hoping for "the harvest" of his "talent and imagination ... in a necessary sequel."
By Style Possessed
One of the most interesting things about the new novel is that for all its eccentricities, it exhibits a great deal of stylistic restraint in a writer not known for that virtue. One of the things Mailer does better than anyone else this side of Balzac is to create extravagant visual, visceral images of people, particularly when he's confronted by real-life subjects. You never see the boy Hitler or his father Alois or anyone else in The Castle in the Forest as vividly and unforgettably as you see, say, Nelson Rockefeller and Jack Kennedy in Mailer's brilliant essays on national political conventions. Here he keeps his rhetorical demons more or less in check, which is worth pointing out, given the nature of the project and his past adventures in wickedly elegant excesses of style. This is a mixed blessing if you agree that Mailer's style can evoke the old saying, "When he's good, he's very very good and when he's bad, he's horrid." His huge CIA novel, Harlot's Ghost, contains some classic examples of self-parody:
"Infidelity was on the horror of the air."
"Nausea was my neighbor."
"My nostrils still reeked criminally of Chloe."
And don't forget:
"Bright was the inner light of the last martini on my horizon."
Of course Mailer is often at his best when he's very, very bad. His stature and he's been one of the most indispensable writers on the planet over the past 50 years is the result of his willingness to fly high even if it means sometimes falling on his face. In this study of Hitler and his family he refuses to become possessed. If anything, he may be too strictly in control of his demon here. In Ancient Evenings, he gives himself brilliantly up to ancient Egypt. In The Executioner's Song, he submits his style and consciousness to the material. Above all, in Why Are We In Vietnam?, that free-form radio broadcast between covers where he literally opens his mind, "on the air" with a vengeance, he manages to succeed in becoming possessed by a host of converging voices as D.J., part Harlem hipster, part crazed Huck Finn Texan by way of William Burroughs.
If Norman Mailer can keep his channel open to the wilder voices of his subject and balance the wildness with the command he shows in The Castle in the Forest, the next movement of his symphony could be truly amazing. And as with Schubert, there would be no need to finish his work. He will have done more in two movements than many of his peers could even begin to imagine.
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