Friday, June 08, 2007

The Castle in the Forest by Norman Mailer

Well, it's been a while since I completed a full book. Not sure when was the last, it's too embarrassing to guess, but it may have been when Rick Santorum was still in office.

Even with the Bay Ridge Jewish Center's book club, I haven't been that successful in completing a book.

So I was pleased, with six stops on the R train before 77th Street (the BRJC stop), I finished Norman Mailer's The Castle in the Forest, just in time for Book Club.

Of course, a little back story here. Trust me, just a little. I have limited experience with Mailer. I do remember trying to read The Executioner's Song while in high school. I have no recollection of what possessed me to the 1000+ page volume about the killer Gary Gilmore, but I tried. I gave up somewhere between page 75 and 180. In the Spring of 1988, I read Why Are We in Vietnam? in Eric Newhall's Contemporary American Literature course at Occidental College. It was shorter, and it was better. I had warmed back up to him. Well, sort of.

I may have read snippets here and there, but The Castle in the Forest is the latest Mailer novel that I attempted, and completed.

I've met Mailer twice at book signings. First it was at a Brentano's in Century City Shopping Center in West L.A. He was touring to promote his Jesus novel The Gospel According to the Sun. Pal Brian was there and I learned a great lesson from the Master. Despite the 2-book limit per customer, Brian got a whole stack of books signed, at least six, but quite possibly more. His key: engage the author and don't break eye contact. Perhaps discuss something controversial or something you know the author holds dear. They become engaged in the discussion and lose count of the number of books they're signing. Bookstore staff are likely to intervene only if they think the author is being bothered. I can't remember what Brian and Mailer talked about, but I remember Mailer referring to a female critic as a "bitch".

It was at this event that I think he signed my hardcover 1st edition of Why Are We in Vietnam? I could be wrong, but I think I'm not.

Next time I saw Mr. Mailer was a few years later, after I had moved to New York, in 1997. This time the setting was larger and more esteemed: the Barnes & Noble flagship store in Union Square. Mailer was promoting the anthologized collection The Time of Our Time, a 1286-page behemoth that came pre-signed on a tipped-in page. The cover even touted the volume as "a signed first edition". When I got up to Mailer on the dais after the reading, he added a "To Bill Cohen, Cheers" above his signature

and then also signed a copy of his Picasso biography for me.

But enough of that stuff, let's talk about The Castle in the Forest.

I purposely have not read any reviews so as to color my opinion of the book. So, I decided to approach my "review" of this with a different approach. I'm going to list 3 things I liked, and 3 things I didn't like about the book, and that will hopefully shed some illumination on the novel.

First and foremost, I want to give this book a BillyBlog recommendation. I enjoyed it thoroughly and felt it was a great accomplishment from a writer who can still amaze with his narrative skills. I was intrigued throughout the novel, all the way to the end of the book.

#1 Thing I Liked: The book is about the early life of Adolf Hitler and his family, a fascinating subject, but is narrated in such a way that the main characters aren't completely abhorrent. The reader spends the time observing this family and regarding it in a historical context. Why did Hitler turn out the way he did? We get clues and hints, but Mailer, for the most part, doesn't club you over the head with obvious incidents that foreshadow future events. There is subtlety here.

#2 Thing I Liked: The narrative itself. The voice behind the story is a devil, working to shape the historic events ahead through a subtle manipulation of the characters. So we are not presented with a linear historical narrative of the rise and demise of the Hitler family. Instead, we have a textured story that meanders between the main subjects and the back room workings of the evil-doing industry.

#3 Thing I Liked: The Apiarian Angle. The book is not so much about Adolf Hitler, but about the family of Alois Hitler. And Alois dabbled in beekeeping. The story gets a big section devoted to the Hitler family's dabbling in beekeeping, and Alois, the patriarch, spends a considerable amount of time working to make this venture a success. It's really quite interesting and whether intentional, or not (and I'm guessing it was), the reader cannot help wondering what kind of impression the "hive mentality" had on the future machinations of the Third Reich. The old man, "Der Alte", to whom Alois goes to for apiarian advice, is a fascinating character that lends a pungent texture to the story.

Now, for the things that I didn't like:

#1 Issue: Although I may have been expecting a more abrupt ending, based on the warnings of Melanie and her mother, who also read the book, the story did run out of steam a bit suddenly, almost as if Mailer had grown bored with the subject matter and moved on. Perhaps that's a bit unfair, but it's how I felt.

#2 Issue: Mentioned earlier was the fact that the book was more about Alois, Hitler's father, than about little "Adi," as he is known in his childhood. Because he is such a larger-than-life historical figure, the reader may feel cheated that the whole story is not being told. The one case where more Adolph may have been better, at least just for the story's sake.

#3 Issue: Incest. Although I "get" why it's a central element in the story, I would have preferred less of a focus on it. I realize that this is significantly unreasonable on my part. It's an essential piece of the Mailer-Hitler puzzle, but the story could have been just as good, and just as compelling, in my opinion, had the thread of incest not been woven so deeply into the plot.

So, there you have it, folks. An impromptu, informal review of sorts. I kind of like that format: 3 good, 3 bad.

Overall, a good book, and a BillyBlog-recommended read.

Here's a few other opinions:

"This remarkable novel about the young Adolf Hitler, his family and their shifting circumstances, is Mailer’s most perfect apprehension of the absolutely alien. No wonder it is narrated by a devil. Mailer doesn’t inhabit these historical figures so much as possess them."

--Lee Siegel, in The New York Times, full review here
"On the last page Mailer reveals the meaning of his book's title. Translated into German it becomes Walderschloss, a name given to their hell-hole by the inmates of the concentration camp at Dachau. This unforgettable novel by a master of prose reinforces the belief that we kid ourselves if we lay the blame for hideous crimes on one single individual, even if it is the devil. We are all culpable."

--Beryl Bainbridge in the Guardian, full review here
and this negative one, very negative, from Ruth Franklin in The New Republic:

"Nearly five hundred of the most revolting pages in recent American fiction...How could a writer as intelligent and original as Norman Mailer have digested this library of books and returned with the superficial, twisted, and finally just plain stupid vision of Hitler in this novel?"
Well, I'll leave you with this bit from Nobel Laureate, J.M. Coetzee, in the New York Review of Books (full review here):

Blessedly, The Castle in the Forest does not demand to be read at face value....
By invoking the supernatural, he may seem to assert that the forces animating Adolf Hitler were more than merely criminal; yet the young Adolf he brings to life on these pages is not satanic, not even demonic, simply a nasty piece of work. Keeping the paradox infernal–banal alive in all its anguishing inscrutability may be the ultimate achievement of this very considerable contribution to historical fiction.

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