Norman Mailer's new novel puts Hitler on the couch

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The wise beekeeper does not wear dark clothing, lest it pick up light-colored pollen. Italian bees are gentler and more chic than the Austrian variety. The mating box, capping fork and spur-wheel embedder are essential tools for apiculture. And all power in the beehive rests with a treacherous but fragrant bitch.

All this bee talk crops up in “The Castle in the Forest,” Norman Mailer’s zzzzz-filled new novel about Adolf Hitler’s tender, metaphor-fraught and (in this book’s view) literally bedeviled boyhood. So it is not a stretch for the book’s jacket copy to insist that “now, on the eve of his 84th birthday, Norman Mailer may well be saying more than he ever has before.” More about beekeeping — absolutely.

Seldom is the banality of evil made this literal. In his first novel in a decade, Mr. Mailer has undertaken the ostensibly tough job of explaining Hitler’s origins, then narrowed his attention to the nuts and bolts (talk about Freudian! And this book loves exclamation points!) of fractious family life.

He spies on the Hitler household by inserting a pantingly nosy narrator who poses as a Nazi Intelligence officer but claims to have been sent by the Devil. This observer, stiff and Viagran in prose style, is always eager to witness “the most agreeable work of all — that hard-breathing, feverish meat-heavy run up the hills of physical joy.”

Part demon, part actuary (or so it sounds when he speaks of his clients and budget), this narrator painstakingly analyzes Adolf Hitler’s origins. He examines the implications of a doubly incestuous bloodline (which is not new speculation and is knottily complicated: it makes Adolf “a First-Degree Incestuary One Step Removed.”) He leaves no stage of toilet-training unplumbed, finding much to work with in “excretory dramas.”

As he puts it: “As a devil, I am obliged to live intimately with excrement in all its forms, physical and mental. I know the emotional waste of ugly and disappointing events, the sour indwelling poison of unjust punishment, the corrosion of impotent thoughts, and, of course, I also have to engage caca itself.”...

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