By Norman Mailer

Random House 477 pp $26.95

Reviewed by William Boyd

The prospect of this novel was highly enticing and alluring: Norman Mailer on Adolf Hitler and his family. Mailer, who has tackled – fearlessly, full-throatedly — Marilyn Monroe, Jesus Christ, Lee Harvey Oswald, Picasso, Mohammed Ali and Gary Gilmore (amongst others) seemed to be squaring-up for just about the biggest author/subject confrontation available. And, furthermore, that this was a long, hefty novel from an iconic, venerable American man-of-letters now in his 84th year seemed both somewhat magnificent and to promise that the familiar Mailerian audacity and controversy were still undimmed and in fine fettle.  I wondered if, here, he might just match what appears, now we have the wisdom of hindsight to assess his oeuvre, his masterwork — The Executioner’s Song.

However, it has to be said from the outset that, whatever one’s admiration for the man and his work,The Castle in the Forest is another baffling, meandering, self-indulgent curio of a book — at moments brilliantly insightful and fascinating and yet at many others prompting a form of jaw-dropping incredulity that, in this reader at least, beggars belief.

Mailer’s subject is clearly defined. In this novel he has decided to investigate the immediate family of Adolf Hitler: his father Alois, and his mother Klara, their relatives and his siblings. The period of time covered is approximately 1837 – 1903, the life of Hitler’s father, Alois. When Alois died, Adolf was fourteen years old, still a sub-average schoolboy. So much, so straightforward. But Mailer is not content with a third-person, past-historical account of the antecedents and early life of perhaps the most vicious man who has walked this earth – he has decided instead to have his novel narrated by a devil.  A middle-ranking devil, moreover – not Satan himself, or ‘The Evil One’ or ‘The Maestro’ as he’s termed here – but a devil who has the Maestro’s ear and one whom we know as Dieter. The Castle in the Forest has its own freakish cosmology – one I found most uncongenial, not having any belief in supernatural beings of any category – but you cannot read this novel without encountering passages like the following:

‘Spirits like myself can attend events where they are not present. I was in another place, therefore, on the night Adolf was conceived. Yet I was able to ingest the exact experience by calling upon the devil (of lower rank) who had been in Alois’s bed on the primal occasion… [A] minor devil can, on the most crucial occasions, implore the Evil One to be present with him during the climax. (The Maestro encourages us to speak of him as the Evil One when he does choose to enter sexual acts, and on that occasion, he was certainly there).’

The book is replete with asides like these: the tone is arch and pompous and the dialogue throughout reads as if badly translated from rudimentary German.

Mailer, in a long career full of bravura risk-taking (think Ancient Evenings and Harlot’s Ghost), has perhaps taken his biggest risk ever here, it seems to me. And yet his intention is not merely to suggest that Hitler is ‘the spawn of the devil’ – nothing so facile. When we strip away the toe-curling mumbo-jumbo of all this diabolism there is a sober and thoroughly researched thesis being proposed here. Namely that Hitler was the product of a fuming stew of routine peasant incest in rural Austria; that his mother, Klara, was at once Alois Hitler’s neice and his daughter, product of a random sex act between Alois and his half-sister Johanna.  The supposition is entirely possible and has been mooted by Hitler scholars. There is no firm evidence but novelists need no firm evidence when they write fiction – circumstantial will do fine: they are free to go where academics, historians and journalists dare not tread.  And much of what is buried in this maddening novel is highly intriguing – most notably the portrait of Hitler’s father, Alois, that emerges. Indeed the book is far more about Alois than Adolf and it’s in the sustained depiction of the boorish, fornicating, self-important, minor provincial customs official that was Alois Hitler that Mailer’s great strengths as a novelist shine: his feeling for character and detail, his empathy for the unworthy and the sly, his wit: ‘Immorality, Alois knew, was not to be confused with the details of your private life.’  Like a sculptor facing the lumpy, daunting block of marble that is The Castle in the Forest, the reader wants desperately to hew out the real, serious novel that is hidden there.

Mailer knows Hitler’s life intimately (as do I, I should add, having spent a year writing a six-hour film drama of his rise to power) and his insights and intuition into how that warped brain was influenced and grew are genuinely intriguing, if occasionally a bit too apt. Hitler was insane – incontrovertibly, I would say – and it may well be explained (as might his alledged monorchidism) by the complex incestuous web of his parentage but — in this novel — the ludicrous superstructure of devils and angels, of God and Satan, obfuscates the argument most damagingly.

This review appeared in The Washington Post, January 2007.