Lately I have been pursuing novelists who seem to think they are writing near-enough history, when in fact they are making it up. Now two heavyweights have slipped into the ring: Nobel-winner JM Coetzee, and the long-time champ of the American Middleweight Literary Division, Norman ‘Maler-Than-Thou' Mailer. This is how Coetzee opens his New York Review of Books review of Mailer's most recent novel, The Castle in the Forest, in which Mailer offers his explanation of the historical phenomenon named Adolf Hitler. Coetzee begins by brooding over photographs of Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin as children. Then he considers the opacity of childhoods in general: "The leap from the meagre factual record to the inner life is a huge one, one that historians and biographers ... are understandably reluctant to take ..." He therefore concludes: "if we want to know what went on in those two child souls, we will have to turn to the poet and the kind of truth the poet offers, which is not the same as the historian's." And that is the leap that Mailer has made:
Mailer has never regarded poetic truth as truth of an inferior variety ... he has felt free to follow the spirit and the methods of fictional inquiry to gain access to the truth of our times, in an enterprise that may be riskier than the historian's but offers richer rewards ... In The Castle in the Forest Mailer has written the story of the young Hitler, and specifically the story of how young Hitler came to be possessed by evil forces.
For that, remarkably, is Mailer's "poetic truth": that Hitler was born evil, conceived in the presence of the Devil and in the dark stew of a family history of incest, much as the baby Jesus, conceived in purity and born of a virgin, entered this world in a state of incorruptible grace.
Coetzee's indulgence towards his fellow novelist surprised me, especially given his own sombre enquiry into the fatal burden laid on individuals by their experience of Nazism (see his recent book of essays, Inner Workings). Mailer's audacity is less surprising. Half a century ago, in Advertisements for Myself, he declared his ambitions - "I wish to attempt an entrance into the mysteries of murder, suicide, incest, orgy, orgasm and Time" - and over the years he has attempted several entries from several different angles. Then, a decade ago, Mailer discovered that the Hitler field was still open: "There's a marvellous book by Ron Rosenbaum called Explaining Hitler, where he interviews leading figures who've studied Hitler. I read the book and it was immensely stimulating, but in the end there was no explanation for Hitler." No explanation for Hitler. Faced with so tempting an emptiness, what could Mailer do but seize the day?
The Castle in the Forest is the illicit memoir penned by a middle-rank demon occasionally incarnated as a middle-rank SS officer named Dieter and going by the nickname ‘DT'. DT has been serving a term as guardian demon to a very special baby. Indeed, he had been a participant in the triply orgasmic conception of little Adolf because, according to Mailer's freehand history, and only there, this baby was the product of three generations of incest, and therefore predestined for world-historical Evil. Indications of Baby Adolf's future greatness first appear in conventional Freudian terms: his little eyes gleam when he suckles, he sometimes nips his loving mother's nipple, he sometimes makes his precious poo miss the pot. As a lad he enjoys tripping up his cute little brother; later he kisses him slobberingly, when he knows he, Adolf, has the measles; his small rival obligingly dies. Throughout, as in so much of Mailer, there is a delighted fascination with the process and products of evacuation, with the full range of bodily fluids and with what Mailer's poetical DT calls "the hard-breathing, feverish meat-heavy run up the hills of physical joy". Devils are routinely present on the hill-runs, with the Devil Himself likely to drop in to celebrate climaxes of world-historical moment.
The infant Hitler's wicked doings didn't much impress me. His older half-brother, lacking both the spawn-of-incest head start and the attendant demon, shows much more talent as a star evildoer. Mailer might be saying, Patience! The lad is brewing mischief! - but why make us trudge through a very long novel about the largely invisible brewing stage? Worse, when DT assures us he had been "a charming SS man, tall, quick, blond ... witty", we don't believe him. We have been listening to him for what seems several decades, and we know he is a bore and his language stilted and prissy - as if, as one reviewer said, it had been badly translated from the German.
Reviewers have done their best to ferret out artful authorial agendas to leaven the DT lump. For example: DT fusses over the reliability of the junior devils he leaves in charge while he is in Moscow, where he has been sent to observe the coming of Hitler's twin-in-evil, Stalin. Is Mailer using DT to make his own judgement on the kinds of characters attracted to the SS? Is his tedious, schoolteacherly devil a parody of tedious, schoolteacherly Himmler? Or is a different joke being played on the reader: Is Adolf's minor devil fussing over the reliability of the reports he collects from even more minor devils a parody of the fuss-budget historian fretting over his hopelessly second-hand reports, so demonstrating his inferiority to the splendid certainties of Artist-Devil Mailer? Or (I'm groping here) is the dull DT an unsubtle reminder of Hannah Arendt's regrettably adhesive notion of the banality at the core of Nazi evil?
DT does seem to be some kind of joke, but he is a most unfunny one. If you want accelerated access to the DT Experience, begin the book with the epilogue. (Why not? Mailer breaks the rules. Why shouldn't we?) After 459 pages DT is at last thinking of leaving us. Through the haze of his usual to-ings and fro-ings ("that was not wholly inaccurate"; "needless to say") he seems to be apologising:
All that remains to discuss is why I have chosen this title, "The Castle in the Forest". If the reader, having come with me through Adolf Hitler's birth, childhood and a good part of his adolescence would now ask, "Dieter, where is the link to your text? There is a lot of forest in your story but where is the castle?" I would reply that "The Castle in the Forest" translates into "Das Waldschloss".
And off we go again, this time through an ersatz history of the German language, originally, we are told, "full of the growls of the stomach and the wind in the bowels of hearty existence, the bellows of the lungs", and culminating in "the roar that stirs in the throat at the sight of blood". We pivot to consider the affectations imposed on this peasant tongue when its bearers migrated from their hearty barnyards to the heartless city, only to swerve again to contemplate Berliners' talent for irony: "To every sharp German fellow ... particularly the Berliners, irony has become the essential corrective."
Then comes the remark which made me bite my thumb in rage: "Now, I realise this disquisition leads us away from the narrative we have just traversed, but then, this is what I wish to do." Why? Because "it enables me to return to our beginnings ... Needless to remark, it is my hope we have come a long way since." And then, as we totter wearily, drearily on: "What enables devils to survive is that we are wise enough to understand there are no answers - there are only questions."
And so, thankfully, we part. And I have a question of my own. Having trudged through an imaginary landscape littered with blood curses and demonic presences, surely it is reasonable to ask: What possessed the occasionally great Mailer? Does he believe any of this stuff? It is seriously difficult to believe he does. Yet the novel was ten years in the making, and while Mailer jauntily promises us two more to come, to bring us through The Career and The Downfall, we have to assume that at 84 this will be his swan song. He has always been devoted to the maintenance and expansion of his reputation; he has tackled large semi-mythical figures (Jesus, Marilyn) before. Is he making a last grab to add metaphysical profundity to his bulging quiver? (Milton's Paradise Lost and all seven volumes of Nietzsche appear in his bibliography, although I failed to detect their ghostly presence in the text.) As I say, a number of his reviewers think he is joking, or hope he is, but a single piece of evidence suggests he is not. The Castle in the Forest is dedicated to his ten grandchildren, his grandniece and his five godchildren, with every child accorded the dignity of their full name. Therefore I think the novel is not a joke. I think Mailer means it.
What does surprise is to find a small pleasant novel buried inside the large pretentious one. With DT gone to Moscow the language changes. Mailer has shoved DT aside, and we are reading a tender pastoral about Alois Hitler, an everyday sort of fellow who, despite an innocent passion for pliable servant girls, fetches up with a good woman as wife; a custom's officer turned beekeeper on retirement; a family man who struggles to hold his family together and to hold back the tides of time. There are long, leisurely discussions about bees and beekeeping, every bit of which I enjoyed (I like bees). There is a charming scene between Alois and wife, Klara, as they discuss, with mounting urgency, the bees' ecstatic marriage flight prior to embarking on one of their own, with not a devil nor a meat-heavy uphill run in sight. I suppose it is possible that the bees are there so we can watch little Adolf watching a hive of defective bees being gassed and, later, some healthy ones being incinerated, or to allow the insertion of brief expositions on the fascistic culture of the bee state: "our bees, all these bees, do their work by obeying the rules ... They do not have patience with those who are weak or lazy." But for most of the time the bees' appearances are occasions for wonder and delight, stimulating trusting interactions between typically untrusting members of the Hitler household. The novel-within-a-novel traces the fluctuating relationships between an impetuous, authoritarian but not unloving father and his children, and maps the trivial, tragic mistimings and misunderstandings of family life. And the language glistens. As the novice beekeeper Alois approaches his beehives for the first time he feels "shoots of fear. Bright as rockets, they fire off in his stomach as he approaches the hive-boxes", and we think, Yes! That is exactly how it would have been. It is beautifully done, and only Mailer could have done it. To my mind his talent - his perennially fresh talent - lies not with the dramatic-orgasmic, but in penetrating the crust of the commonplace to expose the tender human flesh below. It is those qualities which suffuse the slow, sweet novel lurking inside the noisy ‘historical' one.
Mailer chooses to identify his book's ontological status in magnificently obfuscating terms: "The Castle in the Forest is a work of fiction closely based on history." How closely? "A few of the names and incidents are the products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously." But which "few" names and incidents? We do not know, and we have no way of telling. So there we have it: maximum freedom for invention, wrapped up in an overall claim to authenticity. My grievance against both author and book is that after invoking a question of such painful importance to humankind - What made Hitler run? - Mailer's history should prove so lamentable. He chooses to append a bibliography to the novel, including a lot of books about Nazis. Is it reasonable to complain that he has chosen to ignore the stunningly productive archival work reported by Ron Rosenbaum ten years ago, as he has ignored the work done since? Agreed, this is a novel - but a novel which makes serious claims about the possibility of historical understanding. Mailer justifies his sortie into Hitler territory on the grounds that historians have failed to explain Hitler. Hence his own explanatory fiction: that the Devil made Hitler do it. It is true that Rosenbaum was interviewing his historians for their conclusions, with evidence and argument largely excised, and that he had an interest in dramatising controversy: this was soon after the controversy over Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners. Nonetheless, if we read his book attentively, it is clear that a broad secular consensus had been reached as to key themes, with dispute focusing on emphases and delicate matters of timing. The Rosenbaum book clearly had a major impact on Mailer, but not, I think, intellectually. Consider: in early editions the front cover consists of two photographs: above, an adult Hitler, black-clad against a black background, ranting; below, a pensive baby, wearing white but cocooned in black. Dividing the photographs, in big blood-red capitals, is "EXPLAINING HITLER", with "THE SEARCH FOR THE ORIGINS OF HIS EVIL" in smaller black capitals below. It is a stunning cover, and it contains in embryo the novel Mailer would produce a decade later.
Most of the reviews of Mailer's book I have seen are either exculpatory ("this is not what it seems") or adulatory ("this resplendent novel"). Coetzee concludes his assessment of Mailer's "poetic truth" thus:
Blessedly, The Castle in the Forest does not demand to be read at face value. Beneath the surface, Mailer can be seen to be struggling with the same paradox as Arendt. By invoking the supernatural, he may seem to assert that the forces animating Adolf Hitler were more than merely criminal; yet the young Adolf he brings to life on these pages is not satanic, not even demonic, simply a nasty piece of work. Keeping the paradox infernal-banal alive in all its anguishing inscrutability may be the ultimate achievement of this very considerable contribution to historical fiction.
But for the Mailer constructing these pages nothing is inscrutable, and banal explanations of evil proliferate with no anguish attaching to them at all. I am offended by the triviality of this book and its inept metaphysical attitudinising, because it does not help us understand the Hitler phenomenon at all. I felt much the same sick anger when, as a child already terrified of Nazis, I was taken to see Chaplin's The Great Dictator. I knew even then that whoever this Hitler might be, he was not a self-deluding clown.
As for Mailer's explanation: Do I believe in devils? No. Do I believe in evil? No. Do I believe that incest carries a heritable moral taint? No. I would be interested to know if Hitler had a Jewish ancestor and knew it, because that would cast new light on his passionately expressed conviction of the blood-taint of Jewishness. Do I care whether he had one or two balls, or possibly four? No. By the time we can see him with any clarity he is an abstemious, vegetarian non-drinker who chooses to keep an army of devoted women at more than arm's length, save for one who transparently adored him. What matters about Hitler is his audacity, his ruthlessness, his political genius, and above all his self-belief: his ability through a period of turmoil to recruit or to destroy competing interests and to win and keep the adoration of the bulk of the German population, while sculpting first a country and then a continent to the shape he had ‘in mind'. What we urgently need to understand is how a man with no advantages in birth, physique or education could have won and kept unlimited political authority through politically and economically ebullient times; how he yoked men superior to him in birth, wealth, intelligence and experience to his service. Above all, we need to know how he fabricated a political culture within which ordinary men with no experience of killing could be transported to a foreign country and there set to rounding up men, women and children, herding them to selected sites, and shooting or clubbing them to death, and to maintaining that routine of killing day after day. Those questions are too important for games.
Novelists are blessed in being free to explore imagined exemplary subjectivities, as evidence-dependent historians cannot, and by so doing they can expand their readers' understanding of other lives. Here I contrast Mailer's sorry attempt with John Banville's superb recreation out of the real Anthony Blount of the richly plausible but fictitious Victor Maskell in The Untouchable, or, indeed, with every one of Coetzee's South African novels, in which we are shown and made to feel the deformations visited on lives lived within a racist state. I take this penetration beyond the fully knowable to be what Coetzee means by "poetic truth", and I honour it. Historians are obliged to differentiate at all times between speculation and assertion, and their quarry is an actual and therefore not fully knowable individual moving within an actual and therefore not fully penetrable world. It is also true that childhoods are largely opaque to the historian, as I suspect they are for the child who lives them and the adult who survives them. But despite Mailer's airy claim that the Hitler field remains open, we have richer documentation for Hitler than for most individuals, not for his childhood, but for the movement of that extraordinary political career. Recognising himself as the Führer destined to lead Germany to greatness, Hitler accepted his obligation to proclaim his heroic vision. Therefore we have not only Mein Kampf, libraries of letters and speeches, emblematic buildings and emblematic public rituals preserved in heroically emblematic films, but also the intimacy of his Table Talk: the authenticated record of what he chose to say to trusted subordinates at group meals or over the tea and cakes of late suppers. The first monologue was recorded on 5 July 1941, the last on the night of 29 November 1944, and they give us intimate access, as their editor, Hugh Trevor-Roper, puts it, to "the self-revelation of the most formidable among the ‘terrible simplifiers' of history". It is through the close analysis of Hitler's rise to power and then his terrifyingly creative use of it that we will find the secrets of his success, not in overheated fictions about his infant and adolescent transgressions.
Now I have liberated you from Mailer, what should you read instead? Since the opening of the vast Russian archive of captured Nazi documents, historians have been working to retrieve the hidden history of the Nazi party and its ruler. There are literally thousands of Holocaust historians, nearly all of them unknown to the public, and most of them good. My favourite is the American scholar Christopher Browning, because he is an uncannily sensitive reader of documents and because he writes with elegance and economy. If you want to be liberated from the fly-paper of Hannah Arendt's cozening by Eichmann's fine performance as a myopic pen-pusher at his trial, read Browning's ‘Perpetrator Testimony: Another Look at Adolf Eichmann', in his Collected Memories: Holocaust History and Postwar Testimony. If you want to understand how individual Nazis' passion to please their Führer could precipitate competitive Jew-killing in occupied Poland, read the first essay in his Nazi Policy, Jewish Workers, German Killers, or, for an overview of the whole hideous process, his The Path to Genocide. And if you are as eager as I am to understand how family men, scarcely any of them Nazis, could be turned into the hands-on killers of terrified civilians in the course of a day, read his Ordinary Men. Should you lack the time or the inclination to settle to a course of directed reading, watch Oliver Hirschbiegel's 2004 film, The Downfall.Usually I mistrust film as too exuberant a medium to allow the critical scrutiny of evidence I take to be central to doing history, but here the focus is narrowed to Hitler's last days in the bunker, and for that period the settings, the personnel and the action, even the words spoken, have been scrupulously documented (see, for example, Hugh Trevor-Roper's meticulous reconstruction, The Last Days of Hitler). With Bruno Ganz playing Hitler with eerie verisimilitude, we can watch the incorrigible deference exacted by the shambling central figure, a man visibly at the end of his physical and psychological tether, even as the last vestige of the Nazi dream is pounded into dust by Russian guns.
We can work towards a flawed, incomplete because human, understanding of Hitler without appeal to derelict superstitions or to the contentless category of evil. His crimes, like the suffering they occasioned, were the fruits of human decisions and actions, not the proddings of a bored Devil. Such matters are too important to be consigned to the untestable propositions of "poetic truth".
Inga Clendinnen is an academic, historian and writer. Her book Reading the Holocaust was judged Best Book of the Year by the New York Times in 1999.
Lately I have been pursuing novelists who seem to think they are writing near-enough history, when in fact they are making it up. Now two heavyweights have slipped into the ring: Nobel-winner JM Coetzee, and the long-time champ of the American Middleweight Literary Division, Norman ‘Maler-Than-Thou' Mailer. This is how Coetzee opens his New York Review of Books review of Mailer's most recent novel, The Castle in the Forest, in which Mailer offers his explanation of the historical phenomenon named Adolf Hitler. Coetzee begins by brooding over photographs of Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin as children. Then he considers the opacity of childhoods in general: "The leap from the meagre factual record to the inner life is a huge one, one that historians and biographers ... are understandably reluctant to take ..." He therefore concludes: "if we want to know what went on in...
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