Young Hitler defeats Mailer

Fiction: History revisited; not only is the story already written, there is the chance of explaining, perhaps even understanding…

Fiction:History revisited; not only is the story already written, there is the chance of explaining, perhaps even understanding, its horror.

Enter Norman Mailer, fearlessly swaggering all-American man of letters, failed wannabe mayor of New York, serial husband and renowned literary street fighter, the very guy to explain mankind's major enigma: the phenomenon that was, and is, Adolf Hitler. Sounds doubtful? After all, have not teams of historians during the past 60 years been attempting just that - explaining Hitler?

Mailer, the pugilist, has always been ready for a fight and willing to take on the big story. His defining subject, and passion, is the US. For him, the US's dilemma was reflected in the life of executed killer Gary Gilmore. But then, he also dealt with Egyptian civilisation and reincarnation in Ancient Evenings (1983) and a mere decade ago, in The Gospel According to the Son, took on Jesus Christ - and in the first person. Worried about interviewing him for that book, I was relieved to meet a friendly little old man, very New York, very Jewish, who, when he heard I had cycled through Dublin traffic to meet him, declared "some guy tried to kill me - and I was on the sidewalk".

Having impersonated Jesus Christ, claiming to understand Hitler must have been easy. But it proves beyond Mailer, an egotist suspended somewhere between superhuman and subhuman, whose bawdy romp, intended to provoke and irritate, ultimately falters into far less than he must have intended.

Narrated by a voyeuristic devil in the guise of an SS intelligence officer, The Castle in the Forest draws on Hitler's chaotic family history and plays it for all it is worth. The result is an obsessive, somewhat ridiculous portrait of a dysfunctional clan preoccupied by sex, mainly among themselves. Hitler may have been the child of an uncle and niece, or of a father and daughter. The fact that dysfunctional families are one of the enduring themes of human history appears to have eluded Mailer, whose chatty, energetic narrative, a perverse Paradise Lost meets The Simpsons, is neither profound nor even particularly funny, though gleefully possessed of vulgar energy, several vivid set-pieces and a liberal scattering of detail - intimate and historical.

PERHAPS THE CHALLENGE of trying to explain the inexplicable drew Mailer, never a writer to avoid a challenge - but this is some challenge - to explain the semi-educated fantasist from humble origins who had one testicle, smelt, was nasty from childhood, enjoyed gassing bees in a hive, may have been beaten by his unloving, disappointed father, and was later responsible for the death of six million Jews, not forgetting a world war, and a legacy of upheaval, guilt and betrayal. Mailer fails as novelist, never mind historian and psychologist, in the process of writing a tasteless yarn that even admirers of John Irving - should he have any - would consider a failure.

The film Downfall (2004) may have humanised Hitler but it doesn't trivialise him as this book does. There is a fine line between historical romance and historical fiction - at least there should be. At its best, historical fiction can be as exciting, informed and imaginative as in the case of Peter Carey's 2000 Booker Prize- winning True History of the Kelly Gang or Justin Cartwright's excellent recent novel, The Song Before It Is Sung, based, ironically, on the failed Hitler assassination plot in July 1944. Don DeLillo's Libra (1988) is an eerily convincing portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald set against the multiple intrigues of the post-war US. Martin Amis has looked to Stalin's Gulag. A real life story that spins on the known facts as well as a novelist's inventive and unfettered attempt to catch the voice in the course of re-imaging, recreating and above all, evoking a particular time and mood, can engage with an abandon denied conventional history.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, and it can collapse into honourable failure - as did Russell Banks's Cloudsplitter (1998), a remorseless period saga based on the ambivalent life and career of slavery abolitionist John Brown, madman or messiah or possibly both. Adolf Hitler, a contender for the dubious title of history's ultimate monster, is an ideal subject. His career amounts to a study of evil. But Mailer - whose narrator claims "I am ready to write about early life with a confidence no conventional biographer could begin to feel. Indeed, it must be obvious by now [page 78] 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" - never confronts this and seems to be as confused about his intentions as most readers will be.

Mailer, now 84, has always mixed genres and favours writing about himself as "Norman" in the third person - never more pointedly than when recalling the night he appeared on television with the literary rival whose genius he would never match, Truman Capote. Mailer has cherished his position as witness. After all, his career has been about witnessing - and probably his finest achievement remains The Executioner's Song (1979), in which he set out to understand Gary Gilmore. While overshadowed by Capote's In Cold Blood (1966) - Mailer even persuaded his publishers to package it as a "true-life novel" - the first half of it, before the transcripts take over, is compelling. A few years earlier, in 1975, there was The Fight, Mailer's superheated hymn to Hemingway, an account of what happened when self-proclaimed "professor of boxing" Muhammad Ali met George Foreman in Zaire in 1975 to contest the world heavyweight boxing title. One of the closing chapters would provide Mailer with the title for his Gilmore book.

Mailer's experiences as a decorated marine in the second World War inspired his first book, The Naked and the Dead (1948). While not quite a great novel, it remains an important book and suggested, even that early in a career set to be an epic, that Mailer's talents lay in reportage, not fiction. Yet he never wanted to be seen as a journalist; he considered himself a novelist and had fun in the entertaining thriller, Tough Guys Don't Dance (1984). It was Mailer who wrote a mammoth novel about the CIA, Harlot's Ghost (1991), of which he wrote, "Once in describing how I came to have the confidence to write a long novel about the CIA, I remarked: 'It is a fictional CIA and its only real existence is in my mind, but I would point out that the same is true for the men and women who have spent forty years working within the Agency. They have only their part of the CIA to know, even as each of us has his own America, and no two Americas will prove identical . . . I will claim that my imaginative CIA is as real or more real than nearly all the lived-in ones."

That statement features in a foreword Mailer wrote to The Time of Our Time (1998), a 1,275-page personal selection of his reportage and fiction, which he published, aged 75, to mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Naked and The Dead. In that foreword he claims that "nearly everything I have written derives from my sense of the value of fiction. There is little in this book, even when it comes under the formal category of non-fiction or argument, that has not derived, then, from my understanding of how one writes fiction . . . Fiction, as I use the word, is a reality that does not cohere to received axes of fact but is breathed in through the swarm of our male and female movements about one another, a novelistic assumption, for we perceive the truth of a novel by way of the personality of the writer."

NONE OF THIS, even if you could follow it, helps explain why The Castle in the Forest is dominated by Hitler's father, Alois, a customs officer, sex fiend and failed bee-keeper, and the future dictator's colourful elder brother, also named Alois. Mailer has made known his intention to write another volume charting Hitler's adult career. Why? As this book stands, Adolf Hitler merely emerges as a repulsive child who distresses his poor, bewildered mother Clara, consistently offends his sister's sense of smell, kills his younger brother by passing on his measles germs - and develops into a lazy youth who fails his exams.

Why has Mailer fallen so short of what could have been an interesting transcription? One of the many weaknesses of this daft narrative is the narrator himself, who flits about reporting on a family of crazy Austrians who could as easily be holed up in a Tennessee shack - and reports superflously on the tsar's coronation. No wonder, muses the devil, that Clara "never spent a moment pondering whether her husband was not her uncle but her father". Yes, it is that kind of novel.

"I wish to attempt an entrance," wrote Mailer in 1959, a lifetime and millions of words ago, "into the mysteries of murder, suicide, incest, orgasm and Time." He was referring to his work, even if it sounds more like his subsequent life. It could also be referring to this new book. Any number of US novelists could have made some stab at a novel about Hitler; meticulous writers such as Banks or DeLillo, or a showman such as Philip Roth - or even Robert Stone. Cormac McCarthy explored random evil in Blood Meridian (1985), while Bret Easton Ellis was more specific in American Psycho (1991).

Why did Mailer miss such an obvious chance? Just over a century has passed since Joesph Conrad's Mr Kurtz's famous cry "The horror! The horror!" articulated profound guilt at evil perpetrated. Mailer may have waved his fists at history's biggest story - but then he simply ran away in an admittedly heavily researched performance that is ultimately embarrassing, silly and unexpectedly irrelevant.

Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times

The Castle in the Forest By Norman Mailer Little Brown, 467pp. £17.99