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Epilogue, a rough draft

February 04, 2007|Josh Getlin

HIS eyesight and hearing are diminished and arthritis in both knees forces him to walk with two canes. At 84, Norman Mailer gropes for words that do not come so easily. He looks frail and vulnerable. But he's still in the ring, having just published "The Castle in the Forest" (Random House), a novel about Adolf Hitler's childhood that has drawn decidedly mixed reviews. As he sat recently in the living room of his handsome Brooklyn, N.Y., brownstone, Mailer spoke about why he took on Hitler, adding him to the list of major historical figures he's written about, including Jesus, Pablo Picasso, Marilyn Monroe, Henry Miller and Lee Harvey Oswald.


-- Josh Getlin

Hitler is basic to me, and I'd always wanted to write a book about him. When I was 9 years old, my mother, who was an intelligent woman but just had a high school education, knew more about him than the statesmen of the world. Being Jewish, she said, "Hitler's going to kill the Jews. He's a horrible man. He's a monster." Whereas the great statesmen were saying, "He'll settle down. Let him get some power and he'll see what our problems are, he won't be carrying on like this." This was in 1932, before he even came to power.... So he's been in mind all this time. If he'd prevailed, he would have been my executioner too.... I wanted to write a book about him, and I'd read Ron Rosenbaum's "Explaining Hitler" and was immensely stimulated by it. But I thought my take on Hitler was more interesting than the others -- which is the vanity you need to start any project. You really have to feel what you're going to do is special, so that you dare to do it.

I was probably less successful with Jesus, because ultimately you can't penetrate into the nature of Jesus. There was more success with Marilyn Monroe, and less so with Henry Miller, because he's such a great writer. I don't know if I wound up having anything special to write about him. As for Muhammad Ali, I knew him so well from watching him and being around him. There was a confidence, an excitement, an expressiveness about him that made it very easy to write. And I learned a lot from the Picasso book. I learned that the meanness, the spite, the ugliness and the backbiting in the literary world is minuscule compared to what goes on in the art world, and for a very simple reason: The art world has huge sums of money involved, so it's not just that you have an opinion, that so-and-so is a better painter. You're affecting people's investments, and they have powerful critics all lined up on their spiritual payrolls, so to speak, if not their actual payroll ....

What I've said about ["The Castle in the Forest"] is that I wanted to hit the longest ball, I wanted to hit it out of the yard. But I do think this book goes further in what it has to say than any other book I've ever written. And it has -- what's the phrase I'm looking for -- it has more profoundly disturbing ideas in it than any book I've written ....

[Now that I'm older] I have to be much more regular in my habits than I ever was. If I know I'm going to work, I work. I don't let things get in the way. I no longer feel sorry for myself if it's a beautiful day outside and I'm working. When I was younger, that was a problem. If there's some excitement in town, I don't go out and get drunk, too drunk to work the next day. And I'm aware of what I'm losing. There's a certain brio when you're younger. The words come and they're marvelous words, they carry you to places you didn't expect to be and, lo and behold, a wonderful image suddenly pops in. That doesn't happen as much anymore. Now you've got to work harder on your metaphors; I don't mean that you try to construct them, but they come less seldom, and when they come, sometimes they're wiser and deeper, but they don't come according to the clock. So you know that you have a more sober style now. It took about three years to write this last book. Thirty years ago it might have taken longer, because I'd let other projects interrupt it or get in the way. Because I wasn't as focused. I wouldn't let that happen now.

I won't make any promises [about writing another book after this one], because I'm too old. The point is, you could lose everything with one stroke. But if it happens, I'd be delighted. I'd like to carry this subject of Hitler a little further. Then again, there might be a knock on the door, there might be a muse saying, "Come with me." But I don't want to talk about it too much....

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