Satan, Meet Norman

012207 article cover Satan, Meet NormanThe Castle in the Forest, by Norman Mailer. Random House, 477 pages, $27.95.

Norman Mailer’s first novel in over 10 years has a couple of big surprises right off the bat. One is physical, the other spiritual. As to the first, the welterweight from Brooklyn turns 84 at the end of the month; you lift the cover wondering how many rounds he can still go with a pencil. Forget about it. This work has vigor, excitement, humor and vastness of spirit. There are a few signs of strain, but they hardly count against the power of the language and the ideas. Here’s Norman Mailer in Act V, and he has all the wit and magic of old Prospero.

That touches on the second surprise: The novel’s concerns are metaphysical. Going in, you know the book is a biography of Hitler. I imagined I was in for a Leni Riefenstahl–ian barnburner that would take me through the Reichstag fire, Kristallnacht, the bunker. Waiting for the book to come, I peeked at a bio of Eva Braun. I was all wrong: There’s little history here at all, and more about czarist Russia in the late 1800’s than about Hitler as a fascist leader.

Any thought you have that the book will take up Jews and the Jewish question—again, no.

Mr. Mailer finishes with Hitler in 1905, at age 16 or so, in Linz, Austria, at about the time when he’s figured out how to masturbate. The author has thus eschewed Vienna and Berlin’s journalists and courtiers, types he knows well, for gothic settings. His pages are filled with incest, beekeeping, horses, squalling infants and feces, lots of it! The dogs aren’t Tolstoyan hounds, they’re snarling curs. Darkness hovers over every page. Sixty miles away, Theodor Herzl has just called for all Jews to leave Europe and form a state in Argentina or Palestine—Mr. Mailer doesn’t care. He’s using his simple materials to get at fundamental issues: the struggle between good and evil in our lives.

“The world has an impoverished understanding of Adolf Hitler’s personality …. He is, after all, the most mysterious human being of the century. Nonetheless, I would say that I can comprehend his psyche.”

The first-person narrator is a “high devil” who’s looking back on the days when he was molding Hitler so as to bring off the Holocaust. Lately demoted by Satan, he’s now betraying “the Maestro” by telling how devilish agency works (somewhat in the way that Hubbard betrayed the C.I.A. in Harlot’s Ghost). Mr. Mailer’s demonology aims to restore the devil to his proper place in a secular age. “The modern tendency is to believe that such speculation is a medieval nonsense happily extirpated centuries ago by the Enlightenment …. One Mystery [God] might be allowed, but two, never!”

Mr. Mailer’s metaphysics give the book its soul. God and the Maestro have been at war over us for a long time. God seeks to bring people to strength, generosity, loyalty, fairness. The Maestro’s goal is “reducing human possibilities” and wrecking civilization. Their methods are changing all the time. God was first to use dreams as “visions” to inspire us. But the devil has gotten into dreamwork, too: “jagged, broken-backed narratives” that reinforce our vices.

Neither God nor Satan can possess us fully, and both are strapped for time; they can’t attend all of us around the clock. That gives us a lot of leeway. (Mr. Mailer’s book tour ought to include some pulpits.) “[W]e do not appropriate people by way of a lightning flash …. Rather, it is an ongoing tug-of-war.” Meantime, we have learned to disguise the markings God gives to the depraved—an odor of sulfur and feces—with indoor plumbing and soaps.

Best-selling books tend to help the devil. Their authors call on the devil, and use magic and sentimentality “to steep their readers in baths of misperception. The profit comes to us.”

(It’s true: When you finish a great book, you want to call the author on the phone. I did, and asked Mailer if he was including his own work among books that serve the devil. No, he said, he was talking about the modern best-seller. (Mailer: “Those of use who set out to become novelists when I was young were absolutely agog with the fact that novelists were major historical figures. Steinbeck, Hemingway …. Young writers can’t feel that way anymore.” Publishers once used profits from best-sellers to nurture talents that might take a place in history; now they are “major marketing combines.”)

The great misperceptions that will bedevil Europe in this tale are patriotism and racialism. But these bad ideas are not as interesting to Mr. Mailer—or to the devil—as the future Fuhrer’s genetics. Hitler must be the product of incest. The devils encourage Hitler’s father, Alois, to have sex first with his own stepsister, then with their progeny, Klara, in twists and turns that have the mood of a “maimed French farce,” to cite Ron Rosenbaum (whose book, Explaining Hitler, is in Mr. Mailer’s long bibliography at the end).

Sweet Klara loves baby Adolf. Wiping his behind is a “dalliance.” “She wiped him so carefully that his eyes gleamed. He discovered heaven.”

So much mother-love can hobble a child’s will. The devils make sure that Adolf doesn’t get too much, by “drenching the boy’s spirit with wretchedness.” His abusive father, the retired customs agent, blows smoke in Adolf’s face, then laughs as the baby cries.

(The relationship of father and son animates the book; I wondered if Mr. Mailer was drawing on his own experience. Mailer: “No. My father was essentially a gentle man, though he was complex …. He was a compulsive gambler. He was remote, but not a brute, no, no, no. If you look at my books, there’s almost always a father-son relationship I explore.”)

The boy develops in evil ways that the devil prepares for him. He sharpens his oratory by talking to trees. He studies racialist science—and gassing—with a wizardly beekeeper who belongs firmly to the devil. He practices war games at school and masturbates to nationalist fantasies. The devil shields him from his own wretchedness by pumping up his idea of his own worth. “A mediocre mind, once devoted entirely to one mystical idea, can obtain a mental confidence well beyond its normal potential.”

Arc is the only problem here. The book ends at age 16 because the devil’s work is done: Hitler’s character is formed. The rest is history, and we know that history. Besides, Hitler’s adult actions beggar the imagination, even Norman Mailer’s imagination. Better to stick with the childhood, about which few know anything. The literary problem is that some of Hitler’s boyhood in The Castle in the Forest has the quality of a case study.

But plot has never been the reason to read Mailer. Better to read him for his ideas and insights. Here, for instance, is his take on marriage:

“[M]ost husbands and wives use so much of their time together in excrementitious exchanges. Indeed, that is often why they married in the first place …. They needed to be able to exercise one or another petty cruelty at any moment to a dependable person who would be close at hand …. The fierce upbraidings one would have liked to present to the world (but did not dare) could now be delivered through critical judgments on one’s mate. All that spiritual excrement! … Ergo, marriage is a workable institution—especially for dreadful people.”

I READ THIS BLACKLY HILARIOUS, BEAUTIFULLY written book in a few sittings. But does it live up to its own moral standards? Does it inform us about history, or steep us in baths of misperception? Can its metaphysics help us?

(Weiss: “I say this is a moral work.” Mailer: “A serious writer is always offering a moral. Even the writer who can be a perfect scamp, and people laugh, laugh, laugh—there is a moral under that.

“Theology and law are highly circumscribed. In politics, morality is also circumscribed, and often skewed.

“But as a novelist, you can be a private moralist and explore at some lengths. Saying I’m a moral novelist? That implies a piety and self-righteousness I don’t want to be attached to. I like to say that if a novel is successful, it can change the nature of people’s thinking.”)

As to history, the answer is a qualified yes. Mr. Mailer seems a little bored by history—been there, done that. He’s not interested in the Jewish question. His Hitler is a figure born of 19th-century ideas of racial difference and mass hysteria that are pan-European, and not limited to anti-Semitism. After the Holocaust, his devil says (in a plague-on-both-their-houses spirit), the demons moved on to the Arab world and to Israel.

(I asked about his Jewishness. Mailer: “There are two kinds of ways for novelists who have some talent to go. One is to use their experience as their private goldmine, and they search more and more deeply into that goldmine. That is one way to be a serious novelist. Another way was to use your personal experience as a springboard to go quite a distance into the outside world. That was my preference. My Jewishness was a great asset in my work, because it gave me a certain sensitivity to the world. It is not easy to be a Jew without thinking about the world a great deal of the time, given the classic situation of Jews in history …. But I have never wanted to write about the near things. My personal experiences are crystals to beam my imagination into far-off places.”)

The philosophical question is easier: Mr. Mailer’s metaphysics might actually change the way you think. With one blue eye on his own grandchildren, to whom the book is dedicated, another on one of the greatest evils of history, Mr. Mailer is offering us every bit of wisdom he has in his cosmology, and his manner is so open and generous that I find that I am willing to accept instruction. God and the devil are with us at every moment. Denial and repression may make us feel pious, but we’re still going to do bad stuff. The growing of ourselves involves screwing up a lot and trying to make wiser choices.

Mr. Mailer would seem to condemn himself into the bargain. The open question in this book is not what will become of Hitler (we know that story), but what will become of our narrator, and by the end he is showing real misgivings. “I have never known Love …. I can delineate most of the reasons for its presence or disappearance, I can inspire jealousy, doubt, even periods of revulsion toward the beloved …. I cannot distinguish true Love from its artistic substitutes.”

And telling true love from its counterfeit is everything in life.

These ideas give the book a kabbalistic feel: Demonology is an ancient kabbalistic pursuit, one that goes back to the Middle Ages. The Faust myth was imagined by kabbalists in the 1400’s—centuries before Goethe and Mann. (Mailer: “Trace out for me, if you will, that demonology—I’m interested.”)

Here my knowledge comes from Rabbi Asher Crispe, a scholar with the Gal Einai Institute, who lectured on demonology at Chabad-Lubavitch of the Main Line in Philadelphia last summer. Rabbi Crispe says kabbalists believe that after the snake entered the garden, the quality of doubt separated Adam and Eve for 130 years. In that time, Adam had 300 nocturnal emissions. (Mailer: “Three hundred emissions in 130 years—kind of a stingy dick!”)

Those emissions formed demons in the lower atmosphere that the kabbalists say can appear to us as animals, men or angels. They trap us at night, when we are asleep and our souls “disengage from our bodies” and seek divinity in our dreams to reorder our lives. Rabbi Crispe says wise mystics also seek their “brainchildren” in the heavens; the great test is sorting out the fake inspirations from the real deal. Mr. Mailer’s narrator engages us in the same trials.

(Mailer, chuckling: “I didn’t realize you had to be a kabbalist to believe that. You know, I was interested in the kabbalah, but I found it very difficult. Most of the writing repelled me. It was closed. I found it tiresome, not open. I felt there was a certain tyranny in the closure that surrounds it, and I didn’t like that …. The idea of a marketplace of sleep, I’ve used often. The idea that in sleep we occupy a more serious realm, that dreams are an essential apparatus. You don’t have to be a kabbalist to believe that. Christians believe that, Mohammedans.”)

Norman Mailer has always been a universalist; rejecting the idea of any tradition being chosen, he has taken freely from any tradition that interests him and shared his gifts fully in return. Here he shares the Holocaust with all humanity. It isn’t only a Jewish experience of history, it’s a spectacular victory of the devil over a weakening God, achieved with the help of a very bad boy. Now Satan has decamped to America. For mystical, metaphysical, misanthropic Mailer, there’s plenty of mud, feces and sulfur here, too.

(Weiss: “Are the two references in the book to America hints about George W. Bush?” Mailer: “Yes.”)

Philip Weiss writes the Observer.com blog MondoWeiss.