The Poison Tree
By Norman Mailer
Random House, 2007
|The hardest thing about watching Norman Mailer reprise his public role as a loudmouthed buffoon is seeing the damage his performance has done to his newest novel, The Castle in the Forest. Mailer has been taking the stage in this part for, it is hard to believe, sixty years, since the publication of The Naked and the Dead in 1948. For sixty years he’s been bullying his way to the front of the proscenium and bellowing forth one self-indulgent diatribe after another. For sixty years he’s been picking fights and manufacturing front-page vendettas, refusing to allow a single cultural phenomenon to pass without weighing in, in terms sufficiently coarse and supercilious to somehow make every spectacle in part about him—and rather conveniently timing these irruptions to coincide with the publication of a new book.|
Apparently there was a time—long before this reviewer existed—when Mailer’s antics were taken seriously, when they weren’t the silly tittles of literary trivia that they are today. (Name the celebrated writer who ran for mayor of New York with Jimmy Breslin; which American author once said, “It is not a good idea to put your wife into a novel; not your latest wife anyway”?) In an adulatory review in The New York Times, Lee Siegel wrote “When [Mailer] stabbed his wife at a party in 1960 and when he helped get released from prison a literarily gifted killer who then stabbed an aspiring young playwright to death, it was because he followed the wrong impulses, not the wrong ideas.” How stabbing his wife could have ever been the right idea (or how this solecism could have slipped past the editors) is beyond me; but even if Siegel just meant that Mailer’s actions don’t impugn his ideas, the fact that even a hagiographer has to resort to so much apologia and convoluted rationalizing demonstrates pretty clearly that most of Mailer’s bluster was…only bluster.
And now that he’s eighty-four, a Richard III grown old and Lear-like, his combative shtick has made him look merely foolish and his vendettas have come home to roost in the cruel, insidious way in which old age is mocked. When Mailer wondered to Esquire about “who put the hair up [Michiko Kakutani’s] immortal Japanese ass”—the kind of line that forty years ago would have provoked a half-dozen dissertations—you could only be reminded of your quaintly bigoted grandfather grousing about his Puerto Rican nursing home staff. Mailer’s previous book, a miscellany of conversations with his son about…well, whatever…called The Big Empty was the kind of insubstantial thing that usually gets scraped together after a famous writer has died.
Finding their age-old adversary in so frail a state that he’s publishing posthumously while still alive, many critics have delighted, on the occasion of Mailer’s big new novel, in punishing the book for the sins of its father. Jeering at the dormancy of Mailer’s once volcanic sex drive, heavy-handed hinting at senility being the cause of its length, and tongue-clucking over the inclusion of a bibliography have consumed the conversation about The Castle in the Forest. The impression successfully projected is that nothing moving, serious, thoughtful, or significant could possibly emerge from the pen of this vainglorious codger, that everything he writes must bog in the quagmire of his persona, which has become, after all this time, ridiculous—and Mailer, with his feeble verbal sparring, has been wholly complicit in producing this impression.
This is a terrible pity, because The Castle in the Forest is an excellent book, despite all odds a deeply considered and meticulously imagined fictional creation that can speak meaningfully to any open-minded reader. Ostensibly writing a biography of the childhood of Adolf Hitler, Mailer actually enlarges on that subject to craft a penetrating allegory—rich with scriptural overtones—about the nature of evil.
What allows for the books breadth and resonance is its narrative device. You almost suspect it was a device that began in Mailer’s head as a mere clever detail; in any case, it proved to be so fertile with possibilities that it became the dominant element of the novel, a rather remarkable thing in a book that’s also about Hitler.
The narrator of The Castle in the Forest is a devil, one of Satan’s (known here as the Maestro) higher ranking minions, name, for our purposes, D.T. D.T., telling his story from the present age, was the devil assigned to Hitler until he rose to political power and the Maestro took over the operation himself. D.T. speaks from a position of limited omniscience, and his relationship with Hitler shares the complicated ontology of Bible stories, residing in the liminal zone between divine determination and human will. Hitler is the historical Hitler, as Mailer makes damn well sure we recognize with his much-maligned bibliography; but, evidenced by Mailer’s willingness to tweak hard facts that don’t suit him, Hitler is also a representation of the way that evil manifests itself in humanity—the twentieth century’s white whale of evil. It’s strange to say, but the The Castle in the Forest is only about Hitler to the extent that the Adam and Eve story is about Adam; or, in this case, that the story of Cain and Abel is about Cain.
Thus Mailer has created a cosmology, with angels and devils pitted in sublunary strife over the souls and actions of mankind. It is an entirely valid creation, not, of course, because it has any literal truth—the cosmologies of the Yahvist of Genesis, or of Dante, Milton, and C.S. Lewis have no literal truth either—but because Mailer takes it seriously as an allegorical vessel. You don’t have to believe in a demon haunted world to believe in evil as a real force, and one as yet unsatisfactorily explained by biology of psychology. Indeed, anyone who studies the past century, and Hitler in particular, is forced to conclude that “evil” is not simply a synonym, or even a superlative, of “wrong.” (The primacy of evil, like that of love, is underscored by the fact that it has no adequate synonyms.)
It’s Lewis’s iconic Screwtape Letters that seems to have been the most recent influence on Mailer’s cosmology, with it demonic organization likened to a modern bureaucracy. The world ill-lit desks and faceless memos and wretched wage-slaves forever on the cusp of termination was the most soulless, degraded system Lewis knew. But Mailer has, I think, done him one better. Drawing off his research for his gigantic 1991 novel, Harlot’s Ghost, Mailer has organized Hell in the manner of the Central Intelligence Agency.
At the head is the Maestro; beneath, is a scaled hierarchy based on performance and politics, are the lesser devils. These devils are assigned cases and required to make reports to their superiors. The devils are only divulged as much information as they require for their cases. D.T., for example, has no idea how long the Maestro has been around, or whether he was originally an angel, as Milton has it. (This free Mailer from the awkward job of explaining creation.) Finally, working for the devils are the moles, the humans that are so thoroughly corrupted that they will do whatever the devils ask. Moles are too weak and pathetic to commit great evil, but they are useful in facilitating it in others.
Opposing these “directing devils” are naturally the guardian angels—D.T. calls them Cudgels—who work on behalf of God, known to the devils as the Dummkopf, or “Dumbass.” (The way to resist the influence of God’s grandeur, as with all mighty things, is to routinely belittle it.) All of this sounds somewhat comical, just as much of what stands out from The Screwtape Letters is the curious strain of macabre jokiness. Indeed, you get the impression reading that famous book that Lewis never quite took it seriously. Its brilliance is in its conception, not its execution. The devil in The Screwtape Letters is ultimately vanquished when his human charge marries and begins to regularly attend church. And it goes without saying that neither marriage nor churchgoing has ever been the curb on evil.
Mailer’s mythos, while still possessing humor, is weightier because it is comprehensive: incessant and omnipresent, it’s played out in an unflagging struggle between good and evil on history’s main stages and on all their darkened wings. It’s a Cold War that leans to the favor of one side or the other, but never ends.
“There is never an instant’s truce been virtue and vice,” wrote Thoreau. Here every moment, every decision and deed, works in favor of good or evil. Naturally devils can exploit violence and hatred. But also, says D.T.,
excessive mother-love is almost as promising to us as a void of mother-love. We are keyed to look for excess of every kind, good or bad, loving or hateful too much or too little of anything. Every exaggeration of honest sentiment is there to serve our aims.
An alert sense of morality and a loathing of injustice would seem to help the powers of good; yet the instant the consciousness of wrongdoing is brushed by self-absorption, the Maestro takes the advantage:
Injustice was a yeast to inspire hatred, envy, and the loss of love. For rare was the man or woman who did not possess an intense sense of the injustice done to them each day. It was our taproot to every adult. It was a fury in every child. Our work would fall apart if humans ever came to brood as intensely upon the injustice others might be suffering.
Over the course of The Castle in the Forest, such passages—a prominent devil’s trade secrets—serve to descry a complex, invasive, and dreadfully plausible operating system of evil. True evil never appears in a sudden coerced stroke, but only through years of molding, coaxing, and ego-stroking—the eventual fruit of a lovingly cultivated sapling. I have read few better descriptions of that process than this:
The Cudgels whip people into shape by way of conscience. We, in turn, when dealing with the most advanced of our clients, do our best to extirpate conscience altogether. Once accomplished, we then proceed to build up a facsimile of good conscience, ready and able to justify most of the passions that the Cudgels seek to repress: greed, lust, envy—no need to list the sacred seven. The point is that when this substitute is properly developed by us, our clients’ ability to justify ugly acts is strengthened. We have then succeeded in releasing conscience from the shameful memories that obliged it to develop in the first place.
This, then, was the process D.T. used with Hitler, the most powerful conduit of evil in human history.
Or, rather, first what D.T. uses on Hitler’s parents. Another unlikely truth about The Castle in the Forest is that Hitler him less is less distinct a character than his mother, Klara, and especially his father, Alois. Alois, the lecherous paterfamilias, is the incestuous Adam of this tale—incestuous because Klara, his third wife, is at least his niece and at most his daughter from a passing tryst he enjoyed as a young man. By marrying Klara, retired from work as a customs officer, and buying a farm, Alois is in essence putting himself out to pasture. Much of the devil’s work, therefore, is done in the relatively mundane confines of an isolated petty bourgeois family. D.T.’s preoccupations are in fostering feuds, widening disconnections, aggravating resentments, and the feeding the vanity of the spoiled little boy who is under his supervision. It is the kind of domestic discord familiar to everyone.
The pace of life in the country is slow, and that is the pace this novel acquires; there are stretches where the story seems to idle, but the longueurs are sweetened by the impeccable voice with which Mailer inhabits D.T., who speaks with chilling sangfroid about the Hitlers’ most private shames and fears, but is also, like every great manipulator, a beguiling storyteller. Apiculture, Alois’s new avocation, is the centerpiece of life on the farm, and the stewardship of the bee colonies offer obvious (but thankfully not overstated) parallels for the allegory. But it is D.T.’s uncanny view into the secrets of this outwardly average family that gives The Castle and the Forest its eerie power.
This is likewise the case with a forty page excursus in the middle of the book to Russia to dramatize the peasant riots that greeted the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II in 1895. This digression has been sniffed at as another of Mailer’s indulgences, but on the contrary the parallel here is especially eyeopening. At the turn of the century, just as Hitler was being seeded with the capacity for his future crimes, Europe too was being groomed—through rebellions, reprisals and massacres, coups, and assassinations—for its devolution into two world wars. The Holocaust was the result of a joint collaboration between a man and (much of) a continent, which had both been steadily preparing over years and years to perpetrate it.
Hitler’s preparation advances most dramatically in The Castle in the Forest when he infects his angelic brother Edmund with measles, causing Edmund’s death. Incest and parricide—these were the primal crimes of every tribal society in history (though incest was often an ambivalent one since it produced offspring) and are the obsessive themes of so much folk literature. The way that D.T. exploits such tragedy conjures deeply rooted horrors. Klara had already been distraught to madness when she believed that Adolf might die:
Since the sum of her experience had told her that the majority of one’s prayers to God were not answered, she prayed now directly to us, she called upon the Devil, she implored him. Only the pious can believe the Devil has such powers! “Save the boy’s life,” she implored, “And I will be in your debt.”
So we had her for the future. Not as a client. She had merely ceded her soul to us.
The death of Edmund, whom she loved much more, reduces her, and Alois, to even greater depths.
Klara are Alois are earthily (if at times sickeningly) real characters and it is a terrible thing to see them preyed upon by D.T. Hitler, on the other hand, is an adolescent, and this makes him somewhat less interesting. Adolescents can be bratty and awful and even wicked but, with all due deference to The Exorcist, they can’t really be evil, not in the calm, thinking way of adults. His role in Edmund’s death is more of an omen than an arrival. On a few occasions Mailer foreshadows the particulars of Nazism: Hitler watches his father gas a colony of bees; he is reprimanded by an abbot outside a church displaying a hooked cross, or swastika; he likes to raise his arm in the air while masturbating, the apparent precursor to the Nazi salute. There is something cheeky about these portents, and their literality compromises the fabric of the allegory and strains believability. Gas chambers, for instance, were not Hitler’s innovation, but were originally developed by the chief chemist of the German Criminal Police; it was Himmler, most likely, who encouraged their use in the death camps. And there is not much gain in making up a Freudian etiology for the Nazi salute, since it is so closely related to any other salute.
If the character of Hitler feels incomplete, this may in part be because Mailer is said to be planning a trilogy spanning Hitler’s life (or at least his life until he became Fuhrer). This is something to looked forward to, though reservedly since Mailer has already welshed on the promised sequel to Harlot’s Ghost and is, in any case, eighty-four years old. Regardless, The Castle in the Forest is can be read on its own merits. If it does not explicate Adolf Hitler, it does vividly delineate a world that lets us observe the structured workings of evil. Mailer’s sixty years of bluster will leave a long echo, but this book will survive it.
Sam Sacks has written books reviews for Pittsburgh Pulp, The Tucson Weekly, The New York Press, The Las Vegas Weekly, Columbia Journal of American Studies, and thefanzine.com. He lives in New York City.