By Norman Mailer
First Published: 1983
Review © 2009 by Stephen Roof
Genre: Historical Fiction, Literature
Ancient Evenings by Norman Mailer is such an ambitious novel that it sometimes gets a bit carried away with itself. This is a complex, crude, vulgar, multi-layered exploration of life and death in ancient Egypt. I think most people will either love or hate this novel with few on middle ground. If you like novels with a clear plot and if you would be offended by graphic sex scenes that include just about every Puritan taboo, you would do best to avoid this book. If these issues don’t put you off and you’re an ancient history buff, enjoy learning about very different cultures, or like books that immerse you in alien cultures, you’ll probably find this book fascinating.
Ancient Evenings starts off slow and confusing but if you stick with it through the first 100 pages or so, the stories and descriptions start to draw you into an incredible re-creation of Ancient Egyptian life. It’s obvious that Mailer did a huge amount of research for this book. It reads as if it was written by a real ancient Egyptian whose work was recently discovered and translated into English.
Ancient Evenings opens with the Ka or spirit of Meni II realizing he must be dead and needs to find his way to the afterlife. He soon discovers the spirit of his great grandfather, Meni I, who he hopes will serve as his guide. Meanwhile, there are some rather long retellings of Egyptian mythology which occurs often throughout the book. There are flashbacks to when Meni II and Meni I were alive and finally we get to the main part of the story where Meni I tells the current Pharoh the story of his 4 lives. The bulk of the novel is made up of the story of his first life as he rises from a low birth to a charioteer in the Army, to the top General, to the keeper of the Pharohs harem, to the Queen’s personal guard. As a result, the novel contains a lit bit of everything from the life of peasants, to violent battles, to politics and court intrigues. There is also a heavy dose of mysticism which includes the abilities of Meni II and Meni I to listen in on the thoughts of others. And throughout the novel is a plethora of sex which ranges from erotic seductions to graphic rapes of both women and men. Rest assured however, that this isn’t just gratuitous sex; it usually has mystical or at least deep emotional consequences.As you’ve probably guessed by now, Ancient Evenings is not a carefree happy novel. At times the novel is downright disgusting. Clearly, Mailer wanted to make the reader uncomfortable in order to jolt you out of your usual thinking by making you question what you’ve always taken for granted in terms of morals, sex, and religion. If you’re up for this challenge and like the idea of getting immersed in a very alien ancient culture, you should definitely read this novel. I guarantee that Ancient Evenings will provide a unique reading experience.