March 8, 2007
Books: Mailer scrutinizes evil in form of young Hitler
(Page 2 - Previous Page)But in reality, Hitler's parents and his siblings dominate the narrative. Much of the material is derived from historical sources -- Mailer is a prodigious researcher -- with the addition of some fictional liberties and incidents. Mailer, for example, explores the historical questions surrounding Hitler's parents and comes down on the side of an incestuous coupling, not just uncle and niece as some have claimed, but he opts for the view that Hitler was the offspring of a father and daughter who were unaware of that bond.
But how to tell this story and include Mailer himself? For Mailer in one voice or another has been a performer at the center of all his novels. In this instance, he chooses for his narrative voice a surrogate named Dieter, who is a midlevel minion of the devil, partly, one supposes, as a way of setting up his long-held Manichean belief that good and evil, God and the devil, each with great and limited power, are locked in combat. It is a theme -- good vs. evil -- that has appeared in much of his fiction.
The effect of this on the novel is somewhat undermining. The novelist here is wading into territory largely skirted by historians and psychologists. Presumably we are going to consider the source of Hitler's depravity. The presence or absence of his conscience or perhaps examine the forces and occasions that helped turn him into a monster.
Was Hitler then the abused child, a product of brutal experiences? Or was it all genetic? Either conclusion would appear to make Hitler's behavior a foregone, deterministic conclusion. Or was he just one of many monstrous personalities who wandered onto the world stage at the right or wrong time? If not Hitler -- if he had found another career -- then perhaps someone else would have stepped forward. These are all possible and legitimate questions for a novelist to raise.
But Mailer engages none of these themes. It is the devil and his midlevel lieutenant who are responsible. They lie in wait, looking for an opening -- when DK (dumbkopf for God in the novel) and his supporters, here called cudgels, are otherwise engaged or are lax and inattentive -- a moment when the devil can act quickly and insert himself into the dream-memory state of a promising human. Thus Hitler is born. Literally. The book's narrator boastfully tells us that he was present at the heated, lubricious moment when Hitler's parent coupled and the child was conceived.
Later, when propitious moments surface, Dieter slips into the hallucinatory mind/body state of young Hitler, particularly when he appears vulnerable for a brief takeover. Thus young Hitler, age 10, jealous and vengeful toward his younger brother, Edmund -- who is now the adored child in the family -- deliberately infects his younger sibling with measles. It proves fatal. Meanwhile, Dieter gives us pictures of an unattractive young Adolf, or Adi as he is called: foul smelling, in love with excrement and masturbation, deceitful. But Hitler is always seen at a distance and through Dieter's eyes. The result is there is no one to loathe, to feel sorry for, to witness coming alive. It is Dieter who is alive, in Mailer's stiff, avuncular and, at times smug, voice. It all but buries the novel.
The exception here is the actual (and unintended) main character of the narrative, Alois, Hitler's father. A crude peasant figure who has climbed through the ranks as a bureaucrat, Alois is a customs official, petty bourgeois and rough hewn, with an all-consuming sexual appetite. Inadvertently, he becomes the figure that Mailer identifies with, as he couples -- morning, noon and night -- with one servant girl after another. It is the sexual jousting that appeals to Mailer, sex as some form of vital Godhead, and it is here, perhaps only here, that Mailer's charged prose achieves some of the energy and force of his earlier books. It all adds up to a novel in which Hitler, the boy, is wooden, two-dimensional and -- perhaps most damning of all -- uninteresting.
All of which raises the question: Why take on the subject? Or why choose the devil's subaltern to tell the story? It relates, I believe, to performance. One way of looking at Mailer's extraordinary writing career is to consider each novel -- indeed, each work of fiction, nonfiction, essay, short story, biography, memoir -- as a performance: The writing itself a seamless extension of the life lived. Each is a stage on which Mailer performs.
The role model, of course, was André Malraux, the writer as man of action. In midcentury America, the Cold War was everywhere; the sexual revolution and the women's movement challenging norms, social roles and behavior; our popular culture upended, Mailer the writer and performer was never without ideas or defiance.
The young Mailer backed Henry Wallace in his bid for the presidency and later he ran for mayor of New York, calling for gang members to engage in tournaments of combat in Central Park, like medieval knights. He helped start the newspaper, The Village Voice, which in turn led to the explosion of alternative weeklies in many cities, and he made several rather amateurish films. He drank and fornicated beyond count and famously engaged in violence, stabbing his second wife, Adele, nearly killing her.
Mailer was voracious. Not only did he seem determinined to rouse our conscience (and our imagination) through his charged and eloquent language, he appeared intent on playing onstage in all the day's major events. He seemed to have a different voice for different scenes. An Irish brawler's voice on one occasion; a small-town Southerner on another. He identified with John F. Kennedy; he craved Monroe; he wanted to be a boxer; a film director; a political leader.