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Armies of the night

A legion of devils and their protege, the young Hitler, populate Norman Mailer's nonsensical new novel

Mailer, shown here in 2003, says that "The Castle in the Forest" "is a book that I've wanted to begin for the last 50 years." (ASSOCIATED PRESS/KATHY WILLENS)

The Castle in the Forest
By Norman Mailer
Random House, 477 pp., $27.95

At almost 84, Norman Mailer is a famous American writer. He has won many literary prizes, and his first novel, "The Naked and the Dead ," was included in the Modern Library's list of the 100 best novels. However, if you look at his enormous output, you realize that Mailer is really a journalist. And although he has been called an innovator of fiction based on fact, he does not possess either the distinctive voice or unique vision that are the marks of a fine fiction writer.

His new novel, "The Castle in the Forest," is about Adolf Hitler's family, beginning with the search for his grandfather and ending when Hitler emerges into adolescence. At its end is a long list of books that Mailer read, more than 50 of them starred because they were especially useful to him. I can understand why Hitler fascinates Mailer, an American Jew who fought against him in World War II. Hitler fascinates many people because he perpetrated the greatest evil ever known and vies with Joseph Stalin as the most egregious villain of the 20th century. Certainly Mailer would have wanted to do research about him and Germany and its literature and culture. But can you write a novel about him?

Because, as Mailer himself says: "Indeed, it must be obvious . . . that there is no clear classification for this book. It is more than a memoir and certainly has to be most curious as a biography since it is as privileged as a novel. I do possess the freedom to enter many a mind. I could even say that to specify the genre does not really matter since my largest concern is not literary form, but my fear of the consequences."

The speaker of this particular bit of nonsense is his narrator Dieter, or D.T., a former SS man who was also a servant of the devil, called Maestro (as opposed to D.K., which stands for Dummkopf, who is God), and who was taken by an American soldier back home to the United States and is now living here. Why Mailer chose to make him the center of this novel, I cannot fathom, and this is where the trouble starts.

Since "Paradise Lost" was published in 1667 , it has become a cliché that evil is far more interesting than goodness, and Mailer actually mentions Milton early in the book. But Dieter is hardly anyone to root for, and since he can inhabit people on a whim, the reader never knows quite where he will turn up. Thus the book zigzags along in a somewhat chronological but ultimately messy and sometimes embarrassing way.

Hitler's parents, Alois and Klara, were cousins and needed a dispensation to get married. But Mailer, through Dieter, takes this further with a series of dizzying "proofs" that Hitler had a Jewish grandfather and that Alois was really Klara's father. Therefore, Hitler was the progeny of the worst form of incest. To make his point Dieter gives us descriptions of bodily and sexual functions that are those of an arrested adolescent and events in the life of the Hitler family that drag on for far too long, e.g., more than 60 pages on beekeeping when a neighbor helps Alois raise bees, and another almost 50 pages describing Dieter's trip to St. Petersburg for the coronation of Czar Nicholas II in Russia in 1895. The beekeeping, which describes what happened when part of a colony mysteriously died and the rest had to be gassed in order to save the hive, might be a metaphor for the gas chambers (though Dieter denies it). But what relevance the story of Nicholas has to this book is a mystery. Even Mailer gives the reader a choice, saying on page 214, "Just turn to page 261. Adolf Hitler's story will pick up again right there." At that point I wondered, where were his editors, his first readers, his friends?

If Mailer had kept more closely to the story of this modest family who had trouble making a living and finding a place for itself in 19th-century Germany, he might have created something of real interest. For although Adolf never becomes real, the parents and Hitler's half brother, Alois Jr., and the younger children, especially Edmund, do come alive. When that happened I didn't care if this was a novel or a partly embellished biography. But when Mailer didn't trust his material and resorted to the gimmick of Dieter, his antics with the Maestro and the Cudgels (the counterpart to D.K.'s angels), I lost heart. Because there is no way you can make Hitler's story into anything remotely resembling "The Lord of the Rings."

More than one critic has said that Mailer has more ambition than talent. But ambition can go a long way, and before he starts his next book I hope Mailer will go back to Aristotle's notions of pity and fear, and to the great fiction of the 19th and 20th centuries. Novels that nourish their readers and help us lead our lives are filled with compassion, and the word "novelist" confers honor and privilege that should not be taken lightly, even by someone as well known as Mailer.

Roberta Silman is the author of a story collection and three novels. She can be reached at