We gave it a B
We’ll never really know why little Adi Hitler, pink-cheeked son of a middle-class Austrian family, grew up to be the man that he did. But in The Castle in the Forest, Norman Mailer’s discursive, self-indulgent, and terrifically creepy wallow of a 12th novel, the ever-game octogenarian author takes naughty delight in speculating on the psychosexual origins of everything from the Nazi salute to the Führer’s snippet of a mustache.
Narrated by one of Satan’s shape-shifting henchmen (who reveals a Mailer-like penchant for hammy tangents), the novel traces the genesis of Hitler’s character all the way back to 1837, when, after an illicit roll in the hay with her cousin, middle-aged Maria Anna Schicklgruber bears an illegitimate son, Alois. This is largely Alois’ story, the sordid saga of a vain lothario who beds his half sister and later marries the radiantly beautiful daughter, Klara, who is born of the affair. In an operatically rendered sex scene (”This was better than a storm at sea! And then it went beyond such a moment…”), Klara and Alois conceive their own child, Adolf, as Satan and a minion, aroused by the ”intoxicating stink” of incest, watch closely.
And they are not disappointed. Mailer has an inclusive vision of evil, one that embraces nurture, nature, and supernatural demonic forces, all of which come together in that perfect storm over the spick-and-span Hitler home. Inbred baby Adolf may be a bad seed from the get-go, curiously foul-smelling and fond of biting Klara’s breasts, but his parents do their Freudian best to further mess with his head, the devil cheering them on at every misstep. Doting Klara attends with overly fastidious attention to his bowel movements; coarse Alois blows smoke in his face, beats the family’s incontinent dog, and neglects to shut his bedroom door. The toddler Adolf develops a revulsion for sex after he spies Alois and Klara going at it one night — and given the details of this particular erotic scene, understandably so.
The horror of what is happening — the making of a monster — sinks in surprisingly late in the novel, partly because Mailer allows Adi’s character to warp and emerge very gradually. But also partly because he throws in so many noisy distractions: a time-wasting trip to czarist Russia, a treatise on Heinrich Himmler’s cuckoo views of incest, wink-wink asides (”On caca, is marriage based”), and gratuitous sexual subplots. Yet for all his excesses, Mailer paints an icy and convincing portrait of the dictator as a young sociopath, both prissy and sadistic, simultaneously sentimental and stupendously cruel. B