Ian Hamilton

  • Ancient Evenings by Norman Mailer
    Macmillan, 709 pp, £9.95, June 1983, ISBN 0 333 34025 6

His bushy hair is white and cropped more conservatively than in the past ... his eyes are clear and surprisingly blue. He moves with the grace of the boxer he has sometimes pretended to be ... his ample waist looks solid rather than soft ... He is remarkably fit for a man of 60, which is what he became last Jan 31.

Time on Norman Mailer, April 1983

His hair showed the silver of a virile maturity, while the lines on his face had not yet become a myriad of wrinkles, terraces and webs, but exhibited, instead, that look of character supported by triumph which comes to powerful men when they are sixty and still strong.

This second identikit is from Ancient Evenings, and it describes the novel’s central character Menenhetet, a figure for whom Norman Mailer exhibits a warm and virile admiration as well as a certain wistful fellow-feeling. Mailer, Time tells us, has had six wives; Menenhetet, Mailer tells us, has had four lives. According to Time, Mailer’s alimony payments regularly remind him of the earlier Mailers he has been; according to Mailer, Menenhetet is obligation-free: even though the 180-year-old Egyptian can recall, in much detail, all his previous lives’ great triumphs and disasters, nobody is serving him with any writs. Ancient Evenings is set in ancient Egypt (1290-1100 BC) but an element of its other-worldliness does seem to spout, near-plaintively, from Brooklyn Heights (1972-82 AD).

This is Norman Mailer’s Big Book, he has often said. The hugeness of its ‘sight-unseen’ publisher’s advance would, he promised, be more than matched by the hugeness of the book’s ambition, scope, imaginative daring. Publication Day was awaited, in New York, as if some vast, breathtaking revelation were at hand. Well, ‘here it is at last’ (New York Times), and there can be no doubt that it captures the spirit of its own promotion. The whole book bubbles with a desperate giganticism – indeed, is often pretty well deranged by it.

‘Why ancient Egypt?’ has been the question most often put to Mailer in pre-publication interviews. His answers have sounded bumbling or evasive. ‘I wasn’t sure I could really write about America any more,’ ‘These were people where everything I’d learned wasn’t much help in understanding them,’ ‘I want people to realise, my God, there are utterly different points of view that can be as interesting as our own.’ Worthy purposes, and there are a few stretches early on in Ancient Evenings when Mailer is respectful and tentative in the manner implied by such solemn declarations of intent: the early scenes at the court of Ramses IX, for example, and the first dabblings in ancient Egyptian telepathy (his own invention, it would seem, but plausible). This delicate approach, though, is at best intermittent and after some hundred pages it gets thoroughly abandoned. The remaining six hundred suggest that, for Mailer, ancient Egypt offered not mysteries but opportunities – and fairly cheap opportunities, at that.

There is, for example, the opportunity to seem to have been grappling with mysteries: those elaborate mosaics of religious metaphor, those fearsomely exact death rites, the intricately mapped country of the dead. Except in rare flashes, though, all Mailer has done here is to ‘write up’ (i.e. Mailerishly empurple) the available texts and histories – from the Book of the Dead to the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology. Since Egyptologists are for ever disagreeing, there is much scope here for swaggering creative licence. As it turns out, however, Mailer’s history lessons are slower and stodgier than anything you might find in, say, The Splendour that was Egypt. ‘My story must be long like the length of a snake,’ says one of Mailer’s raconteurs, as if he too had signed a big book contract with Little, Brown. And then there are all the lulling schoolroom exchanges:

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