Norman Mailer’s Taste of Honey

The January issue of Esquire magazine contains an intriguing excerpt from Norman Mailer’s new historical novel The Castle in the Forest. This book has been generating some buzz lately, most of it not good.

I was skeptical myself when I first heard of this book, but something compelled me to pick up the magazine and see what old Norm’s up to, and I found the piece oddly affecting. I may even read the book.

The Castle in the Forest fictionalizes the childhood of Adolph Hitler, and posits that Satan himself sent an agent to lurk in the Austrian forests to infect the innocent and sad child’s mind with evil. The book is narrated by a cool, even-toned demon, and the story focuses on child Adolph’s relationship with his cruel and self-important father, Alois Hitler. In this passage, they are planning to visit a neighborhood beekeeper who will play an important role in Hitler’s training, and the devil carefully prepares the scene by planting a dream in the child’s head:

As a matter of style, when it comes to dreamwork, I have always been inclined to avoid baroque virtuosities. Modest scenarios are usually more effective. In this case, I satisfied myself by producing as close a presentation of Der Alte’s face and voice as I could manage before placing him in Adi’s dream. For the setting, I used an image of one of the two rooms of the old man’s hut, and made the yard visible through the window. The action of the dream could not have been more direct. As Der Alte led them inside his quarters, he fed Adi a spoonful of honey. I made certain the taste was exquisite on the boy’s tongue. Adi awakened with wet pajamas from navel to knee and a whole sense of happiness. Stripping his wet night-clothing, a not unusual event, he went back into slumber, replaying the dream with his own small variations, looking to taste the honey again. In his mind, he was certain that he would soon meet Der Alte, and this emboldened him to ask his father to take him along next morning. Alois, as I have remarked, was pleased.

Okay, so the old goat can still write. What does it mean? I really don’t know, but I keep thinking of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, which also scrambled and reinvented the history of World War II, and also did so by delving into the mind of a child (in Roth’s case, a frightened Jewish-American boy). It’s a striking fact that two Judaic-American literary superstars are spending their mature years conjuring alternative visions of Nazism, as if grasping to finally come to terms with it.

In the link above, Sarah Weinman summarizes the Newsweek review of Mailer’s book with a single word: ‘trainwreck’. I find that interesting because I actually thought Philip Roth’s novel was a trainwreck (clumsy writing, murky message), and yet many many people all over the world somehow seemed to relate to it.

God only knows if Mailer’s new book will reach the same acclaim as Roth’s did. Myself, I’m interested enough to read some more when I get my hands on it.

4 Responses

  1. Two things …One, while the
    Two things …

    One, while the premise here (as you’ve described it) sounds interesting, personally I feel that to mythologize a Hitler and Satan in the forest Church Lady (could it be … SaTAN?) scenario is sort of a too easy explanation that skirts the more complicated processes of a mind that maybe we need to really understand. So much to that it feels a little dangerous and irresponsible to “go there”. Metaphor or no, why play metaphor when the reality is more necessary and probably more readable.

    Second, am I the only one who started singing “Boogie Oogie Oogie” while reading this post?

  2. Yeah, didn’t we recently
    Yeah, didn’t we recently consider the possibilty that religion’s role in war has been over-emphasized? This reminds me of The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis.

  3. A minor point, I suppose, is
    A minor point, I suppose, is that the story isn’t narrated by Satan himself, but rather one of his lieutenants, named DT, an odd and smoothly untrustworthy narrator.

    Mailer has imagined the war between God and the Devil for decades, in both journalism and fiction, and here he finally takes us inside the workings of the war for fate of human kind. One may indulge in their dismissals of this being old hat, but Mailer none the less provides us with some notions that unravel the notion that one is always free to make a moral choice.

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