The Devil Wears Swastikas

Last month the New York Times took note of the half-dozen pages of bibliography at the end of Norman Mailer's forthcoming "The Castle in the Forest," recalled recent novels similarly equipped and, with a spin of the Rolodex, confected a controversy that must have lasted hours. The gist was that some literary folks liked such bibliographies and others didn't. Defenders pointed out that they might forestall accusations of plagiarism (though that didn't work for Ian McEwan's "Atonement"), but the naysayers got the best lines. "We expect [fiction writers] to do that work," said The New Republic's book critic James Wood, "and I don't see why ... they should praise themselves for it." Nobody said the obvious: that including a bibliography implicitly privileges what's "really true" in a novel over what's "just made up." And without the addition of footnotes, the reader's forced to wonder which is which--the sort of static that disables the willing suspension of disbelief. Separating fact from fiction is the journalist's or historian's duty, but the novelist's folly.

That bibliography is only one of the follies in "The Castle in the Forest"--but when has Mailer ever been afraid of folly? Not just in his public persona, but in continuing to devote his passion and his inventiveness to his novels, though readers have long preferred his prize-winning reportage--"The Armies of the Night," "The Executioner's Song." Well, why not? His first novel, "The Naked and the Dead" (1948), gave Mailer his literary career, and harsh reviews of "Ancient Evenings" (1983) and "The Gospel According to the Son" (1997) haven't discouraged him. He based "The Castle in the Forest" on his research--see bibliography--into Hitler's family, especially his horndog dad, Alois, and the book is narrated by a character whose first words are "You can call me D.T." (Will American novelists ever get over "Moby-Dick"?) D.T. claims he'd been part of "a matchless Intelligence group" under Heinrich Himmler. The SS chief wanted to know if Hitler had been the product of incest, because of his theory that "any Superman who embodies the Vision is bound to come forth from a mating of exceptionally similar genetic ingredients." If you think this inquiry will prove to be folly, you have a good sense of reality, but you need to read more fiction.

This sounds like a spinoff of "The Boys From Brazil"--until about page 70, when D.T. reveals that he's actually a devil who'd bodyjacked an SS officer. His real supervisor is Satan, whom he calls the Maestro, who's always at war with the Lord (a.k.a. the D.K., or Dummkopf)--or at least in a cosmic quagmire. D.K. "installs" thoughts and dreams in young Adolf's mind, and messes with the minds of those around him; he and the Evil One himself are present at the baby's birth: "[The mother] knew she was giving herself over to the Devil, yes, she knew he was there, along with Alois and herself, all three loose in the geyser that came out of him ... " Little Adi gets saddled with sexual, violent and excretory kinks--often indistinguishable. He masturbates over an assassin's mustache, his father's death and, literally and figuratively, over leaves in a forest. If this small-town Austrian kid could only have gotten over to Vienna to see young Dr. Freud. But the Evil One wouldn't have let that happen.

Preposterous as this prem-ise sounds, the book has its novelistic pleasures. Mailer has created (or spruced up?) two near-Dickensian characters: the self-important, secretly insecure Alois, who's risen from the peasantry to wear a customs inspector's uniform and to bed every woman he sees, and a filthy, half-crazy and debauched old beekeeper. Imagine Mr. Krook in "Bleak House" with an eye for boys. But for all its darkness, the book seems ultimately frivolous. That God and the Devil tinker with human affairs is a longtime Mailer theme. In "An American Dream" (1965), his narrator decides the only explanation for the evils of his time "is that God and the Devil are very attentive to people at the summit ... Do you expect God or the Devil left Lenin and Hitler and Churchill alone?" But in "The Castle in the Forest," the demonic machinations are so pervasive and intrusive as to leave young Hitler no room for moral choice--the true subject of all serious fiction, and source of the tension necessary to any fiction. To blame World War II and the Holocaust on the Maestro may be a theological statement, or simply an engaging fancy-- "Paradise Lost" in lederhosen. But why should a reader of fiction care?