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Newsday, 27 January 2007

THE CASTLE IN THE FOREST, by Norman Mailer. Random House, 477 pp.

A major author who publishes a book late in life runs the risk that it will be received, for good or for ill, as the culminating point of an entire career. Norman Mailer, whose new novel, The Castle in the Forest, arrives on his 84th birthday, is no doubt fully aware of that fact. He has never been averse to risk; he has always taken his chances, and his lumps, and never expressed regret, despite occasionally publishing books so bad that even a man of such robust ego as his own must endure a silent shudder at their memory.

An admirer learns to accept a certain dynamic at work in Mailer's career. It is as though some cosmic bookkeeper allowed him to produce a book as good as Armies of the Night only by compelling him also to write pretentious garbage like Tough Guys Don't Dance and then direct a movie based on it. (The DVD of Tough Guys must be considered a potential implement of psychological torture.) The loyal reader must be stoic.

The Castle in the Forest is Mailer's reconstruction of the life of Adolf Hitler up to the age of 12. It is a pretty good historical novel that has been merged into (and largely ruined by) a terribly misguided venture into a sort of magical realism. Its themes and preoccupations echo so many of Mailer's earlier books that the word "culmination" does seem to fit. But it applies in less happy ways as well. Failures of structure represent lapses of judgment; and the imaginative architecture of The Castle in the Forest repeatedly collapses in ways that are unfortunately typical of problems that Mailer has been trying to solve for decades.

The first voice you hear in the book is that of a former Nazi intelligence officer who, after the war, escaped to the United States and is now, in old age, writing a memoir. He gives his name as Dieter or D.T. (Echoes here of D.J., perhaps, the narrator of Mailer's novel Why Are We in Vietnam? An allusion to delirium tremens? Discuss.) The narrator once worked for Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, on a secret investigation into certain rumors about the führer's family background. Much of the book is offered as a kind of belated write-up of D.T.'s inquiries and findings.

In real life, Himmler belonged to what might as well be called the Nazi intelligentsia. He was, in some respects, a prototype of figures found throughout Mailer's fiction, starting with the fascistic General Cummings in The Naked and the Dead. The narrator tells us that Himmler "subscribed to the theory that the best human possibilities lie close to the worst" (a belief that Mailer himself has expressed countless times over the years).

A case in point, according to the novel's Himmler, is incest: It can yield subhuman deformities among offspring, but might also be the way that concealed elements of superhuman genius emerge from a bloodline. And so, as D.T.'s autobiographical musings give way to his account of peasant life among Hitler's ancestors, an interesting narrative experiment is underway: An account of Hitler's origins, as explained by the most avant garde form of Nazi genetic crackpottery.

It works: Within a few pages, we are plunged into a story that focuses more and more on the life of Hitler's father, Alois, an ambitious man who has transformed himself from Austrian redneck into a solid and upwardly mobile bureaucrat. He is a man of iron will, and a sexual athlete of the sort familiar from Mailer's other fiction. The arrival of little Adolf (nicknamed Adi) is really a fairly minor development within Alois' own life. There is something disconcerting, even haunting, about seeing the future dictator portrayed as a toddler, slowly coming into consciousness among adults caught up in their own worlds of eros and aggression.

The casual incest of peasant life is transformed into something more perverse in Alois' clean, orderly, middle-class home. Hitler's mother, Klara, remains "alert, no matter how often Adi soiled his wrapping cloths, to keep the child clean; indeed, the act ... became a dalliance between mother and boy. She wiped him so carefully that his eyes gleamed. He discovered heaven."

But little Hitler is not the only one making theological breakthroughs in The Castle in the Forest, alas. Most of the book, around two thirds of it, consists of a narrative of family life, recounted in the third person, and presented in one of Mailer's best styles - one that is unadorned, exact, composed in short sentences. It is in some ways perhaps a tribute to James T. Farrell, whose influence was so strong in Mailer's earliest work.

But the voice of the narrator returns, interrupting, speaking in the first person - and soon announces that his identity is not, in fact, that of Dieter, the Nazi intelligence officer. He is, he says, actually a devil. Not Satan himself, but a functionary in the infernal bureaucracy, assigned young Adi as a "client." (The echo of social-work lingo is doubtless meant to be sardonic.)

Following this revelation, The Castle in the Forest periodically cycles between a naturalistic account of the Hitler household and a supernaturalistic framing of the narrative. Mailer's diabolos ex machina interrupts to deliver a restatement of the novelist's quasi-gnostic blend of psychosexual speculation and Manichean theology.

The basic idea is that Earth is one front in the vast war between God and the Devil. The outcome is not certain: Mailer's deity is neither omniscient nor omnipotent. Human existence is an important, maybe decisive scene of engagement: Our actions, our decisions, the ebbs and flows of our personality, all have meaning in the struggle.

For purposes of a bull session, this is an interesting proposition. But to integrate such a mythology into the texture of a novel is something very different from shoe-horning it into the text through long passages of rummy garrulousness. It is as if the author did not trust the tale he had to tell -- as if the narrative could only be made meaningful through frequent reminders that it is unfolding on a landscape of Ultimate Meaning.

As Ron Rosenbaum spelled out in his book Explaining Hitler, the mental agony of trying to understand the führer's story comes from thinking about two equally inconceivable possibilities. One is that there might be a rational explanation for how he became the leader he did -- some moment of suffering, some dark secret, a decisive incident that set his life on the course it followed. Such "answers" prove unbearable because of the disproportion between cause and effect.

But it proves just as difficult to wrap one's mind around the alternative: that there is no way to understand how Hitler came into being; that his actions were pure evil, inexplicable by familiar human motives.

With his novel, Norman Mailer has tried to face this problem. And, no surprise, he has failed to solve it: Saying that Hitler's evil was an aspect of Evil is not much of an answer. There are hints throughout The Castle in the Forest that a second volume might follow. The best a stoic reader can do is grind his teeth while hoping for the best.