Not a Review of a Major New Novel by One
of America's Greatest Men of Letters
By SHALOM AUSLANDER
Friday, October 27:
Started the morning late. Felt tired. Meant to write a bit. Felt lost. Read
literary blogs instead. Felt angry. Switched to porno. Felt sad. Checked my
email. Agreed to review a book about Hitler.
Tuesday, November 8:
Hitler book came today, a 467-page doorstop by Norman Mailer. “Or should I,” I
joked to my wife, “just tell you the length and girth?” I held it up for her to
“What,” she asked, “is that?”
“A book,” I said.
“Why?” she asked.
“There’s a swastika on the cover,” I said, holding the book out to her.
“There’s a swastika on the cover.”
I have a Jewish armband in my closet. The armband is gray, and the word ‘Jude’
is stitched into the yellow star in the center. I bought it 13 years ago on the
Upper East Side of Manhattan from a dusty old man in a dusty old store full of
dusty old things. It was in a display case beneath a long row of ornamented SS
knives and gleaming SS medals.
“Teenagers,” said the old man with a nod toward the case. “They love the
He asked me my name and, upon hearing it, smiled and nodded. “Steinberg,” he
“Is that an armband?” I asked.
He told me it was, and that he had gotten it years ago from the son of a
survivor. He told me the price was 100 dollars. I told him I had 50. He dropped
to 80. I went to 60. He went to 70, I joked about two Jews haggling over a Nazi
armband, shook his hand and felt like a hero. Later that day I bought a
picture-box frame and fixed the armband inside using some rolled-up pieces of
cello tape. I hung it on the wall of our kitchen, next to a clock we had bought
at Ikea. The banality of evil,
right beside to the banality of Scandinavian design.
“A major new novel,” I read to my wife from the back cover, “from one of
America’s Greatest Men of Letters.”
I dropped the book onto the bed. It sank like an old man into the mattress,
groaned, and asked me for a shtikel
Saturday, December 2:
In the Table of Contents alone, Hitler’s name appears six times. It appears
five times in the publicist’s letter accompanying the book. This is an unfair
mathematics; every book and every author, to say nothing of an author of
Mailer’s stature and reputation, deserves to be judged by more than a few
random, unrelated observations. But I can’t help it. The problem isn’t the
book; the problem is everything that came before it. I grew up on graphic
Holocaust film footage—the bulldozers moving the piles of dead, the dump trucks
spilling them out, the ovens, the camps. As children, we were required by our
yeshiva to watch Holocaust, the TV
miniseries with a running time of just under eight hours, and to write a report
on it one week later. Hitler was mentioned almost as often as God: Jesse
Jackson was worse than Hitler, Al Sharpton was “another” Hitler, and any Jew
who dared to violate Sabbath was “finishing what Hitler started.” I was told to
never forget the Holocaust; I couldn’t if I tried.
The back cover of Mailer’s book mentions Hitler four times, but one of
those is a mention of “three generations” of Hitlers, which technically makes
for a total of six.
I emailed the JBooks.com editor.
“When do you need the review?” I asked.
“End of January,” he replied.
Wednesday, January 3:
A few years ago, I took the armband out of its frame and decided to see if
I could get its authenticity verified. I phoned the Metropolitan Museum of Art
in New York, who told me to phone the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. I
phoned the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, who told me to phone the
Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. I phoned the Holocaust Museum in Washington
D.C., who told me to phone Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
“We don’t do verification,” said the woman from Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
“Did you try Simon Wiesenthal?”
This continued for some time. One week later, I returned the armband to its
place on the shelf above the books in the living room, where, over the years,
many a friend and neighbor has pretended not to see it.
Two years ago, after discovering we were pregnant, my wife and I decided to
add a bedroom onto our house. We rented a small cabin down the road, and spent
the last month of her pregnancy packing everything we owned into cardboard
“Only take what we’re going to need,” said my wife. “I don’t feel like
moving our whole house down the road.”
“Are we going to need this?” I asked my wife, holding up the armband.
“Are we going to need it?” she
I shrugged, wrapped it in newspaper, and buried it at the bottom of a large
box that I carried outside and loaded into the shed. The mason and his crew
were already at work on the new foundation, and, as I walked back to the house,
I noticed two of the workers leaning on their shovels and watching me. The tall
one nudged the shorter one, and called to me.
“Mind if I ask you a question?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said.
“What do you do for a living?”
“I’m a writer,” I said.
He nudged his friend again, who smiled.
“Sure would be nice to be a writer,” he continued.
“Why is that?” I asked.
“Sure would be nice to have two houses,” he said to his friend.
“I don’t have two houses,” I said. “Right now I don’t even have one.”
“Yup,” he nodded. “Sure would be nice to be a writer.”
Anti-Semite, I thought.
The Castle on my Nightstand remains untouched. I want to read this book, if
only in the way that I want to read all two-inch thick books that sit on my
side table and taunt me: You can’t read
me! What’s the matter, ADD? Go read a graphic novel, you puss. Then it does
the chicken impression and I grab it, my determination renewed.
“Chapter 2: The room that Himmler used to…”
Saturday, January 20:
It’s just not going to happen. I can’t read this book. I can’t even look at
it. I’m over-Holocausted. I’m genocidally exhausted. I wonder if I am the only
one, and at first when I think “one,” I am thinking of Jews; a moment later, I
am wondering if non-Jews feel this way, if we, in an effort to make sure that
nobody ever forgets, have made everyone tired of remembering. What do the words
mean anymore? Lenny Bruce imagined a world where the common use of the word “nigger”
would remove its power, and it certainly seems that has been the case with the
words “Hitler” and “Holocaust.” A Google search for the phrase “worse than
Hitler” returns 70,000 hits. Bush is Hitler, Farrakhan is Hitler, Chavez is
Hitler. The increasingly popular term “Palestinian Holocaust” doesn’t tell me
much about what is going on in Gaza, but it tells me a lot about what is going
in the rest of the world, at least about the attitude to that word, to that
Six months after I gave a slack-jawed mason the dream of becoming a writer,
construction on our house was finished, and my wife and I moved back into our
house. We unpacked our books and put them on the shelves. We unpacked our
photos and hung them on the walls. I unpacked the armband, wiped the frame
clean, looked at it for a moment, and carried it downstairs, where I buried it
at the back of our mudroom closet—above the coats and behind the umbrellas—and
closed the door.
Monday, January 22:
Emailed JBooks.com this morning. Wondered if an essay about not reading the
book would be okay. No answer.
Bought some new shoes. Felt happy. Got haircut. Felt refreshed. Had dinner with
my wife and son. Felt at peace. Got into bed, decided to give Castle one last chance.
“Chapter 3: I am ready to speak of the obsession that revolved around Adolf