Playing on the Black Keys: The Castle in the Forest (Norman Mailer, 2007)

Playing on the Black Keys:

The Castle in the Forest




By the time [Hitler’s] political career began, he was in command of an artwork of lies elaborate enough to support his smallest need.  He could shave the truth by a hair or subvert it altogether…

‘There is no better way to usurp the services of a high political leader’, [The Maestro] would tell us, ‘than by this method.  They must not be able to distinguish certain lies from the truth…’


Oddly enough, after all these years, here I am just finishing my first novel by Norman Mailer.  And as it happens, it was his last.

Anyone interested in books as a teenager in the seventies would of course have been aware of Mailer.  He was one of those guys who was almost by reflex referred to as ‘a giant of the field’.  For me, though, he was a little too closely associated (especially by himself) with Ernest Hemingway.  And since I in turn associated him with the kind of swaggering, bragging, pseudomacho bullshit that got on my nerves, he really didn’t appeal too much.

Years later, I did try some of his non-fiction; but I came away with some confused ideas of his about how plastic is one the 20th century’s great evils and how having anal sex with a woman meant that she would invariably cheat on you.  Or something; it was a long time ago and even then I thought it sounded barmy.

All very bizarre but in its own peculiar way some sort of a twisted link to The Castle in the Forest, Mailer’s 2007 novel and published after his death in that year.

I thought I would kill two birds with one stone.  I like to increase my knowledge of things that I know little about (unless that includes sporting activities and then I’m not bothered) so here was a chance to find out something about Norman Mailer while doing a crash course on Adolf Hitler, “the most mysterious human being of the century”.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t aware that this was the first part of a trilogy (the remaining two parts were never to be written, given the very good excuse that the author had fallen off the twig) and so what I did end up learning an awful lot about was Adolf’s father, Alois; and the Fűhrer-in-training from birth up until mainly the age of six.

Frankly, if I had simply been handed the book and told that this was written by an 84-year-old man, I would have thought I had just come across one of the most unpleasant, sleaziest perverts to be walking around outside of a prison cell.  I’ve never –apart from the Marquis de Sade’s writings — seen a book so obsessed with descriptions of how filth and shit smell; or so single-mindedly determined to reduce the sexual act to the very crudest levels.  And if he can do both at the same time, wah-hey!  Here is a very mild example:

‘As he soon learned by visits to her attic room, she was a virgin of the most tormented sort, a maiden in the old peasant tradition:  She had kept the formal entrance to her chastity intact but the same could not be said for its neighbour.  This was not all so agreeable for Alois.  The Hound was too large to permit a good poke into “the smelly and the damned” (or so he would characterize it).’

There are also perpetual dissections of the nature of incest.  This dominates the entire opening of the novel and never really goes away, appearing again in full force right at the end.

Incest and endless descriptions of vile odors; this and a dislike of Hitler’s father are likely to be what you leave this novel with.  Oh– and you will also get a very uncomfortable, detailed description of the baby Adolf’s anus.

By that time, though, many readers will have abandoned the book because of its central conceit.  It is narrated by one of Satan’s demons, Dieter.  Literally. A demon.  Well, in fact I ended up not too sure if it was Satan or some entity that worked for him.  For, you see, the legions of the Evil in this book are kind of like the armies of Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, which these demons approve of by the way.  So we have a demon guiding the young Adolf through his formative years, which may sound a bit daft but which is actually readable, because if I’ve discovered one thing it’s that Norman Mailer can certainly write.

The Belly of a Drone

I’m just not sure what it all adds up to, really.  Mailer for a long period goes off to where we get page after page on descriptions of beekeeping, something that Alois has become fascinated with.  At one point I thought he was going somewhere when the bees are gassed in front of Adolf; but then we are warned not to take too much notice of this.  The same happens with a swastika.  It’s irritating, to put it mildly, since it goes in tandem with what seems to my untutored eye to be a fixation with dated Freudian sexual interpretations.

I was struck forcibly, however, by this passage where young Adolf tells his little brother a gruesome bedtime story:

‘He explained to Edmund that the Grimm brothers had written these tales so children would know how important it was to obey their parents and their older brother and sister.  Then he spoke of one story called “The Girl Without Hands”:  “This is about a father who has been ordered by the Devil to cut off the hands of his young daughter.”  When Edmund shrieked at the thought, Adolf spoke in the voice of the father, explaining it to his daughter.  “I don’t want to do this, dear daughter.  But I must.  These are orders.  It is not for me to question orders that have come down to me from a very high authority.  So I must obey.”

‘”What does the daughter say?” Edmund asked.

‘”Oh, she is obedient.  Very obedient.  She says, ‘Father, do with me what you will.  For I am your child.’  Then she puts her hands right up on the chopping block.  Her father picks up a big cleaver and he does it.”

‘”That is so awful,” said Edmund.  “He chops off her hands?”

‘”With one whack!  But she lives happily ever after.”

‘”How?” asked Edmund.

‘”Her father takes care of everything.”  Adolf nodded.’

I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions on that!  Never mind Nazi Germany, think of our blossoming nanny-state where we actually have a growing population of our very own soft-bellied drones who actually enjoy being told what to do.  And just as an aside, my favourite section had nothing to do with Hitler.  It was where Dieter travelled to Russia for the coronation of Nicholas II.  Despite Nic coming across as an inoffensive fellow, I could certainly see why the Russians felt the need to revolt.

The Castle in the Forest may be a very unpleasant book and yet I was left thinking:  If Mailer could write like this at 84, what was he like when he was younger?

Maybe I’ll even have a look at an earlier novel.  Hell, his themes can’t all be shit, piss and creepy sex…can they?



Author: Charley Brady

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