It is difficult to review Ancient Evenings, but not as difficult as reading it. It is 300, 000 words long. Its American author, Norman Mailer, is recognized as one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century. His first book, The Naked and the Dead, was a New York Times bestseller for eleven weeks in 1948. Subsequent works were not well received, but two non-fiction offerings, Armies of the Night (1968) and The Executioner’s Song (1979), were acclaimed by critics and received Pulitzer prizes.
Towards the end of the 1970s, Mailer revealed that he was working on a project that would cap his career. In 1983, Ancient Evenings was published. It is set in Egypt during the nineteenth and twentieth dynasties (1290-1100 BC).
The novel opens with the words: “Crude thoughts and fierce forces are my state. I do not know who I am. Nor what I was. I cannot hear a sound. Pain is near that will be like no pain felt before.” These are the thoughts of a soul ripped from its body. It walks the grid-like streets of the Necropolis – the tombs of the rich – and finds its own burial chamber. It slips through the cracks and ponders its sarcophagus. It knows one thing: the body was murdered.
Soon another ghost arrives. This is the narrator’s grandfather, Menenhetet, who was once a warrior who sat at a Pharaoh’s side. Menenhetet begins to speak and 300, 000 words issue forth. As a reader, you should not hope to fathom his tale. Perhaps, you later think, Menenhetet is a facet of the narrator’s soul, that part whose memory remains. Always there is the threat of a failed passage through the underworld: without this knowledge as a guide, the soul may fall into lakes of fire or be consumed by monsters.
In this book, a story is a doll within a doll. The identity of the narrator remains uncertain. The truth of the mythologies recounted by Menenhetet is forever in question. Mailer insists upon magic and sex in equal measure, and describes each in every dimension. His language is biblical, but Mailer is not quite authentic; his repertoire is limited and the prose soon stales with repetition. For this reason and others, the first half of the book is the most effective. Both the reader and Mailer are up for the challenge. But by the end, when the pace of events increases, when the prose forsakes purple for a colour known only to Mailer, the book collapses across its own finish line. The sense of relief is palpable.
I was left with the impression that Ancient Evenings is a bona fide work of genius. There are passages that are literally breathtaking. For example, Mailer relates the thoughts of the soul as its body is prepared for mummification. As the embalmer’s hook scoops out the brain via the nose, the soul begins to lose its sense of the physical environment. As its organs are placed in jars to correspond with the partitions of soul and the embalmers begin to pour natron over the corpse, a sense of its other lives begins to emerge, just as strangers may walk into a room: a stranger like Menenhetet, with stories of battles and Pharaohs and magic. There is a sense in which a genius must be inscrutable. Mailer certainly is. Some parts leave the impression of genius, or seem to have such fingerprints, but make no sense whatsoever. But though the writing has these low moments, Mailer’s average is still sky-high and makes Ancient Evenings an odd, amazing book.