Monday, April 5, 2010

Building a Castle in the Forest by Dwayne Raymond

Memoir of Norman Mailer's personal assistant during the last four years of his life.

Before Mailer started writing his Hitler novel Castle in the Forest he made endless notes on thousands of three-by-five cards, and nearly illegible scribbles on the margins of the pages of numerous books. It seemed to me that most of this early work consisted of defining what he did not want his book to be. Even so, he had completed the first 140 pages of an early version before I came to work for him in 2003 and although he was in full research mode throughout my first year it was not until 2005 that he resumed writing new text for the book.

He read voraciously, and I worked with him in the attic copying pages from books that held his notes in the margins. I spent hour after hour on the floor with growing stacks of file folders, into which I sorted those copies, and added to the tall bookcase near me, which already bulged. The files expanded, as did Norman's knowledge about every aspect of Hilter's life he planned to cover and each character he wanted to paint into his tapestry. He would give me endless lists of subjects and names of people to research. I put together new bookcases to hold all the books that were arriving by mail. The attic was brimming with books, we were running out of room.

As stacks of books, files and notes grew thicker, the range of what Norman wanted to learn expanded, and its obscurity deepened. In the course of two years, I looked into the particulars of everything from Wagner to measles to Viennese blacksmith shops. I created files devoted to Jung, the brothers Grimm, Karl May, Mark Twain, flour mills, painting, bees, potatoes, gardening, maps of Austria and Germany, silent films, wristwatches, rubber, pellet guns, and early twentieth century man's homeless shelters. The diversity of subjects was daunting. I found myself amazed at his implacable craving for knowledge even at eighty-two years of age. He'd lived more than twice as long as I had but regularly made me feel old and slow. For Norman Mailer understanding largely ignored details makes an idea authentic- 'grains of sand ensure the mortar of the bricks."

Mailer's nearly obsessive attention to detail in Castle in the Forest diverted the track of his narrative in ways that cause problems with his publishers as well as many readers, much as it had in Harlot's Ghost, in the first case when "medium ranked minion" of the Devil- D.T. the narrator- is sent to Russia to witness the trampling death of thousands during the young czar Alexander Romanoff's coronation. Despite objection, Mailer considered this section essential to the fabric at the heart of the novel and forced a compromise with the odd caveat:

...If there are readers who will say, "I'd rather go with what is happening in Hafeld", I have a reply. "That is your right," I can tell them. Just turn to page 261. Adolf Hitler's story will pick up again right there.

To Mailer the problem consisted of readers' lacking in the area of concentration, affected as they were by the hideous effects of television; any mind under its Midas control was irrevocably sapped from the time of infancy of any ability to properly maintain focus. He was determined that his work should not bend to its will. In the end, however, Norman did edit the Russian chapter down by about one hundred pages, but only after enough time had passed since the initial debate about it began. ( in the author's view 'It was easier for him to change direction if he could resolutely say the idea to do so was his.")

When Norman started writing again his already amazing concentration amplified. I was awed by his concern for every line and how it sounded to his ear as he wrote it on clean, white typing paper. I heard his shallow whisper repeating, repeating repeating; changing tone, varying strain, stressing and subsequently slaughtering lines only to resuscitate them with droning repetition. All the while his hand thumped at the edge of his desk to music only he could hear. In his escalating deafness there seemed to be an internal symphony booming, which he skillfully translated to paper.

When giving advise to me as a novice writer he urged me to take a look at my process and start there:

"You need to speak it. Do you speak it? Talk, read it to yourself out loud. There's a difference in how words play to the mind from the page and how they sound when spoken. Do you talk when you write? Learn your rhythm. You need to organize the loud and the quiet. The sounds are the muscles."


  1. Mornings with Mailer; A Recollection of Friendship by Dwayne Raymond; Harper Perennial, 2010

    To me it is unfortunate that Mr. Raymond succumbed so early to the temptation to write an intimate account of his four years as personal assistant to such an iconic figure in American literature. He should have waited until he had fully absorbed Mailer's advice about finding the sound muscles of his authorial voice in a craft-like way and with a more detailed retrospective vision of the not only Mailer's entire life and work but his own. I suspect that waiting twenty or thirty years and studying Mailer's works in far greater detail ( he admits never having even finished several of Mailer's novels) would have helped him produce a much more compelling and insightful work, one that better fulfilled Norman's own admonishing to "stick to what's important" rather than constantly allowing himself to be sidetracked by his own story which, frankly, consisted primarily of cooking, running errands, answering phone calls and other mundane secretarial functions.

    As Mailer said about those chocolate-covered vanilla ice cream bars on a stick ('Dove');

    "It's a perfect dessert". Too bad good restaurants don't see that. Grandiose desserts are as silly as unnecessary adjectives."

    Still, the quoted passages in the blog proper- edited and rearranged for maximum effect- was well worth the effort of plowing through a lot of Raymond's conventional drivel."

  2. I just started reading this post and I already never want it to end.

  3. I'm still interested in reading it. Hm!
    Am currently enjoying Doris Lessings' SHIKASTA, Sufi-inspired space fiction.