Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews



The Castle in the Forest by Norman Mailer








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Normal Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest is either a brilliant novel or an arrogant spoof. When reading it, there were times I found it perfect, and many other times when I thought it was lousy. In the novel, Mailer presents Adolf Hitler’s childhood, using a minor devil as the narrator. The narrator’s voice, adds to the frustration of reading the novel. More often than not, the language smacks of something that could only have been conjured in hell. One would assume that Mailer intended to choose the writing style he did. Perhaps a second reading would lead to less frustration. Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter 2 in Book II, “Adolf’s Father,” pp. 24-28:


To fulfill such a promise, I must now expand this memoir and commence a family history much as if I were a conventional novelist of the old school. I will enter the thoughts of Johann Nepomuk, as well as many of the insights of his illegitimate son, Alois Hitler, and I will also include the feelings of Alois’ three wives and his children.

We are finished, however, with Maria Anna Schickigruber. That unhappy mother perished in 1847 at the age of fifty-two, ten years after the birth of Alois. The cause was termed “phthisis on account of dropsy of the chest,” a galloping consumption she contracted after sleeping in the cattle trough through her last two winters. The collateral cause was rage. Toward the end, she thought often of how healthy she had been at the age of nineteen, her body quick, her singing voice praised for its beauty when she had been the soloist of the parish choir in Döllersheim. But now, having suffered under the curse of three decades of lost anticipa­tions, she was full of the added fury that Georg had brought to their occasional couplings. He, like many a drunk before him, suc­ceeded, however, in outliving everyone’s assumption that his death would come early. After her demise, he actually kept going for ten more years. Drink had been not only his nemesis but his dear medicine, and, only at the last, his executioner. He went in a day. They called it apoplexy. Having never bothered to visit Nepomuk or Alois, he was not missed, but by then, Alois was twenty and working in Vienna.

For that matter, Alois had not suffered unduly when his mother was lost. Spital, where he lived with Johann Nepomuk and the wife and three daughters of the Hiedler family, was a long walk from Strones, and he had come close to forgetting Maria Anna. He was happy with his new family. In the beginning, Nepomuk’s ‘daugh­ters, Johanna, Walpurga, and Josefa, then twelve, ten, and eight, were delighted to have a five-year-old brother, and took him gladly into their bedroom. Since Spital was a full-sized village rather than a hamlet, a separation between prosperous and poor had begun to appear. A farmer could even be considered well-off—at least in his own town. There were a few such in Spital, Johann Nepomuk being the first. The wife, Eva, kept a good home. She was also most practical. If she had a suspicion that Nepomuk might actually be more than an uncle to the boy, she could not, on the other hand, forget the disappointment in his eyes each time she gave birth to a girl. It was probably better for all concerned to have a boy in the house. Yes, she was practical.

And Alois was loved! By his father, by the girls, even by Eva. He was good-looking, and like his own mother, he could sing. As he grew older, he also demonstrated that he was ready to work in the fields. For a time, Johann Nepomuk even contemplated leav­ing the farm to him, but the boy was restless. He might not always be there to take care of whatever unforeseen obstacle, large or small, might settle upon the daily work. In contrast, Johann Nepo­muk had so much love for his labors that on the best of days he felt as if he could hear the murmurs of the earth. While he was not at ease with the long silences that hovered over the end of afternoon, a spell would often enter his dreams by evening. The sum of his fields, his sheds, his beasts, and his barn became a creature equal to a demanding woman, cavernous, haunting, smelly, greedy, needy, ever extracting more from him. He would awake in full recognition that he could never leave the farm to Alois—Alois was the child of the woman in the dream. So he gave up the notion. He had to. Such a gift would enrage his wife. She wanted a good future for her daughters, and the farm might not provide more than two re­spectable dowries.

Over the years, new problems presented themselves concerning these dowries. For the first marriage, the oldest daughter, Johanna, was given only a pinched share of the land. But she had, after all, chosen to marry a poor man, a hardworking but unlucky farmer named Poelzl. When it came to the dowry for the second daughter, Walpurga, who was already twenty-one, Nepomuk was obliged to be more generous. The putative bridegroom, Josef Romeder, was a strong fellow from a prosperous farm in Ober-Windhag, the next village, and negotiations over the size of Walpurga’s dowry were stiff. In the end, Nepomuk deeded over the richest portion of his land. That left only a modest tract for the third daughter, Josefa, who was sickly and spinsterish. As for Eva and himself, he kept a fine small lodging in an orchard at the border of what was now Romeder’s property. But the small house in the orchard was enough. He was ready to retire. Given the length and heat of the negotia­tions over the dowry, the ceremony to transfer the lands proved as much of an event as the wedding that had just taken place.

Nepomuk led his new son-in-law around the property, bound­ary line by boundary line, and stopped before every marker that es­tablished a separation between his fields and the land of the next farmer. Nepomuk would say, “And if on any day you gather fruit from this man’s orchard, even the fallen fruit, may you labor under a black sky.” After which he would give Josef Romeder a clout to the head. At each of those eight separate jogs along the boundary line, he repeated the act. Johann Nepomuk was full of the kind of woe that hangs like a deadweight on one’s back. He was not mourning the transfer of his farm so much as the absence of Alois. His dear adopted son, Alois, was not there because Johann Nepo­muk had banished him three years earlier, when the boy was thir­teen and Walpurga eighteen. He had discovered them in the hayloft of his barn, and it caused him to think of the other barn where he had gone to the straw with Maria Anna on the afternoon that Alois had been conceived. A memory of the glory of this act of love with Maria Anna Schicldgruber had never left him. He had had only two women in his life and Maria was the second, and not at all a vil­lage wench to him, coarse grained and ass-bare in the hay, but a Madonna lit by sunlight, an image he had earlier acquired by way of the stainçd-glass window of the church in Spital. This image never failed to enlarge his estimate of the volume of his sin. He was living in sacrilege, that he knew, and yet he would not relinquish the image of Maria Anna’s face in the stained-glass window. It was reason enough not to go to confession too often, and when he did, he would invent other sins for the booth, large ones. One time, he even confessed to coition with the farm mare, a deed he had never attempted—one does not make love to a large horse for too little!—and the priest in return asked how many times he had com­mitted this sin. “Only once, Father.”

“When was that? How long ago?”

“Months, months I think.”

“And how do you feel now when you work with the animal? Are there similar urges?”

“No, never. I am ashamed for myself.”

The priest was middle-aged and had little to learn about the peasantry, so he could sense that Nepomuk was lying. Nonetheless, his preference was that the account be true because bestial sodomy, while as mortal a sin as adultery or incest, was to his mind less grievous. It would, after all, produce no offspring. He proceeded, therefore, to exercise his office without further questioning.

“You have degraded yourself as a child of God,” he told Nepo­muk, “you have committed a serious sin of lust. You have injured an innocent animal. For your penance I give you five hundred Our Fathers and five hundred Hail Marys.”

That was identical to a penance the priest had given earlier that morning to a schoolboy who had treated himself to an under­handed spit-in-the-palm masturbation in class (a most stealthy act!) and then rubbed his spit and semen on the hair of the boy in from of him, a small boy.

Johann Nepomuk contented himself afterward by confessing to the same priest upon occasion that he still had lewd thoughts con­cerning the mare but was careful to do nothing about it. That took care of confession, but the continuing absence of Alois caused Jo­hann Nepomuk Hiedler to live in an agony of love. He had wept like a biblical father and torn his shirt when he found his son and daughter in the straw. He knew that he had just lost the boy. The brightest light of nearly every one of his days, that lively young face, would have to leave. To the shock of the other women in the family, Alois was sent away that night to a neighbor’s house and in the morning was put on a coach to Vienna.

Nepomuk did not tell Eva, but then, he did not have to, because Walpurga, at her father’s insistence, was kept at home for the next three years. The young woman’s marriage with Romeder, empty of courtship, had to be arranged. Yet Eva, while as alert to the chastity of her daughters as a drill sergeant studying the precision of his platoon on dress parade, would still nag Nepomuk to allow Walpurga to walk on Sunday with a girlfriend.

“No,” Nepomuk would say. “The two of them will wander into the woods. Then boys will follow them.”

On the day he stalked the boundary line with Romeder, he was burdened each time he struck his daughter’s new husband. What an injustice he was doing to his new son-in-law. Ergo, he hit him harder. A marriage was being founded on a lie. Therefore, no tres­passes should be made on the land of the neighbor. That would be a sacrilege against the earth. How Nepomuk mourned the absence of his son!


The Castle in the Forest presents the formation of evil with mastery. Perhaps I should not have expected heavenly prose. Hitler’s evil arose in the context of his childhood, and all his future mania may well be traced to those formative years. Mailer’s take on that period may well be the most creative ever written. Patient readers may find it brilliant.


Steve Hopkins, November 20, 2007



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the December 2007 issue of Executive Times


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