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:

    ‘May I ask any question?’
    I was fearful, but I looked back into Her eyes and nodded calmly.
    ‘You will not think it is a silly question?’
    ‘Very well then, ’ She said, ‘Who is this Horus?’
    ‘Oh, He is a great God,’ I told Her.
    ‘Is He the Only One? Is He the First?’
    ‘I would say He is the Son of Ra and the Beloved of Ra.’
    ‘So He is the same as the Pharaoh?’
    ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘the Pharaoh is the Son of Ra and the Beloved of Ra. So the Pharaoh is Horus.’
    ‘He is the God Horus?’ She asked.
    ‘Then the Pharoah is the Falcon of the Heavens?’ She asked.

But for Mailer ancient Egypt offers more than just the opportunity to spin out his material. One key attraction for him was surely that the Pharaonic religious beliefs were so earth-centred and non-ethical. The ancient Egyptians held the firm and vivid conviction that Immortality was fixable, that the Gods could be ‘got to’, rather like American politicians. Indeed, this was one of the frailties that they most admired in Them. As one historian put it, ‘the ancient Egyptian felt a warmer affection for his Gods if they suffered from the same weaknesses as himself.’ For the Big Novelist what could be more alluring? If Gods are men, and if men can, now and then, be Gods, then how simple it becomes to invest one’s weary fictioneering ploys with what can be made to look like Cosmic Weight. ‘The earth moved’ takes on a new freshness, a lively literalness, in ancient Egypt.

Similarly, the ancient Egyptian version of the after-life lends itself admirably to the Big Novelist’s need for upmarket novelty locations. The Egyptian’s ‘earnest desire was that the next world should resemble the pleasant land of Egypt as much as possible. He wished to continue all the bodily activities which he was accustomed to perform when alive’ (J.E.M. White, Ancient Egypt). Thus when Mailer locates his first bout of gay fellatio in some shadowy corner of the Land of the Dead (a long-gone incumbent is spiritedly welcoming his newly-enrolled grandson) the whole effect is ... well, so much more spooky and theological than if he had set it in the men’s room at the Barbizon Plaza. The same might be said of any one of Mailer’s repeated forays into grand-scale celestial-style pornography, into an other-world where all phalluses are seen as massive shafts, where all bottoms are bottomless, all orifices aureate:

Now, feeling her wet breast by one hand, and the crevice of her hips by the other, recollecting the view of the open thighs as He saw them in the light of a flame in a censer of oil, the Gods gleaming in the wet flesh of her hair, He knew a second pleasure, and His life stirred inside her belly and began to grow long as the Nile and dark as the Duad. The great force of the phallus of his ancestor, Usermare, covered his own phallus like the cloak of a God. At that instant His Secret Name must have opened the door for He had an instant when the Gods went in and out of him a second time and the Boat of Ra flew past as he came forth. The Two-Lands shivered beneath ...

Self-aggrandisement was no sin in ancient Egypt. In fact, the more splendidly boastful one’s passage into the next world, the more secure one’s hold on the eternal goodies. Mailer’s main characters spend many a page locked into formal bouts of boasting – they brag about their virility, their wealth, their courage, their magical powers, their proximity to the great god Horus, their powerful sense of containing the vast Nile waters in their loins, the black Nile silt within their bowels. In pharaoh-land, nobody objects to an eloquent self-advertiser. They know not the word ‘hyperbole’ – no more than doth N. Mailer.

Several times, during the Nile-long course of Ancient Evenings, one gets the image not of a writer writing a book but of a child contentedly playing with his toys: dressing them up, giving them funny voices, making them perform sudden, improbable acts of violence, and so on. When Mailer wishes his hero to be humiliated by a brutal Pharaoh, for example, he makes his Pharaoh-toy bugger the hero-toy – just like that. Of course, this being a big American novel, the hero-toy strangely enjoys it – but even so, the nursery-image is never quite dispelled. This is particularly so with Mailer’s lengthy battle-scenes. He pumps these full of every imaginable type of carnage, from straightforwardly sadistic body-slicing to nervously thrilled cannibalism, but for all the lip-smacking effort he puts into his descriptions, we don’t ever quite believe that the violated limbs aren’t made of lead, or plastic, nor that at any moment Mummy (well, Mother) won’t come in and tell naughty Norman that it’s time for tea.

The ‘story’ of Ancient Evenings is really a collection of stories, most of them well-known, and all of them bloated and distorted by Mailer’s infantile megalomania. Structurally, the novel is made to seem more ingenious than it really is by having all its principals a. believe in reincarnation, and b. possess some sort of telepathic gift. These two (non-historical) relaxants enable minds to flit in and out of other minds, live sensibilities to respond to dead events. There are fun-and-games to be had here, of course, and it is entirely in line with almost everything else in the book that Mailer should use the telepathy device mainly to keep us up to date on who is thinking of doing ‘it’ to whom. (Nobody, it should be said, is ever not thinking of doing it to someone.)

As a structural aid, however, the real usefulness of each device is to help set up the book’s central dialogue: between Menenhetet and his current Pharaoh, Ramses IX. Ramses IX wants to know how things really were during the reign of the notorious Ramses II, the Pharaoh of Menenhetet’s first life – some hundred and fifty years earlier. Ramses II was the last of the truly formidable Pharaohs, and Ramses IX knows that he is but a pale shadow of that bygone warrior, builder, fertiliser and, according to Norman Mailer, homosexual rapist. How pale a shadow, though? Menenhetet spends the bulk of the novel recounting the ‘true story’ of the Battle of Kadesh, of Ramses II’s controversial marriage to a Hittite princess, of his countless sexual misdemeanours (not too much is related on the subject of Ramses II’s architectural exploits – at Karnac, Abydos and Abu Simbel). At various times, Menenhetet had been Ramses II’s chief charioteer, his harem-master, and the lover of the best-looking of his several wives, so he has fair claim to be something of an expert. He remembers and tells all, prompted intelligently by the telepathic Ramses IX – being a Pharaoh, his telepathic skills are of a higher order than anybody else’s, he can actually read the minds of the long dead.

This, then, is the set-up which enables Mailer to stage a braggart first-person narrative of the declining years of the Egyptian Empire. Menenhetet, like Mailer, has no problem about length: Ramses IX

laughed with true merriment: ‘I want you to tell me,’ he said, ‘of my ancestor, Ramses the Second ... I want to know what took place at the Battle of Kadesh, and all that followed upon it.’

    ‘To tell you might take every moment that is left in this night.’

    ‘I am awake until morning.’

To get around any problems of courtly decorum, Mailer has the dialogue take place on the Day of the Pig, the one day of the year on which the month was required to be at its most foul. And to avoid the likely tedium of a two-voice exchange, he also arranges for an audience (a man, a woman and a child) to supply interludes of turbulent sexual telepathy. The air of contrivance, though, is always evident, and the suspense level usually flickers just above the zero mark. Again, it is a matter of excess, of Mailer never knowing when to stop, nor – it seems – much caring. ‘ “Why, as slowly as you wish,” said the Pharaoh, and inclined His hand most graciously.’ No doubt we are meant to be similarly gracious.

And perhaps we would be, or would try to be, if there were any evidence that Mailer himself was taking the thing seriously. Throughout the book, there are hints of other ways in which the subject, or some aspects of the subject, might have been pursued. The character Menenhetet, for example, has possibilities which Mailer simply fails to follow through. It seems that he is based on a historical figure called Menna who figures in Ramses II’s numerous self-glorifying accounts of the Battle of Kadesh. He was the charioteer who, for all his usual valour, cracked in the heat of battle. In Mailer, Menenhetet (or Menna) claims that Ramses has falsified the record in order to inflate his own history-book reputation. In Menenhetet’s account, Ramses would not have made it without his charioteer’s help. For a few pages here Mailer seems to be inviting us to ponder the rather large matter of how (and by whom) most history gets written. The trouble is that Menenhetet’s account is far more luridly windbag than anything even Ramses seems to have been able to come up with. Instead of the common soldier’s sober and precise corrections of the Pharaoh’s bombast, we get what amounts to a macho punch-up between Norman Mailer and the Pyramid Texts. Few of Mailer’s nastier embellishments would be easy to translate into hieroglyphs. In the end, Ramses’ famous graffiti are made to seem prissy and insipid when confronted with the bold-stroke phallo-graphics of New York.

Ramses II, of course, was not just a famous warrior, architect and fornicator. He is also well-known as a busy persecutor of the Jews. Some name him as the Pharaoh of the Book of Exodus. On this topic, Ancient Evenings is at its most peculiar. Mailer makes only one reference to the Jews. After the battle of Kadesh, Ramses II exiles his charioteer to the gold quarries of Nubia. There Menenhetet meets one Nefesh-Besher who tells him that ‘in the same season that Usermare’ – Ramses II – ‘marched to Kadesh, Moses arrived in Pithom dressed as an Egyptian officer and told the Hebrews he would take them to a land in the East they could conquer.’ Nefesh-Besher had been unable to go with Moses (his wife was out of town that night) and was later packed off to the quarries as a punishment for having been linked with Moses’ plot. When Menenhetet meets him, he is dying.

When I asked him if he hated Moses, he shook his head. Not at all. Moses had passed on a great secret. It was how, on your last breath, you could put yourself into the belly of your wife.

    Here he was. This Nefesh-Besher, this Ukhu-As – dying – yet he spoke of living. And not at all in the way some speak of continuing one’s name through the respect of one’s descendants. No, he told me, the child you make in your last moments of life can become a new body for yourself.

And this is how Menenhetet (alone, it seems, among Egyptians) learns the secret of reincarnation, the secret on which the whole of Ancient Evenings is based. Three times he has contrived to die in the act of impregnation: each time, needless to say, described for us in detail. And where does the trick come from? It comes from the leader of the Jews. What, then, are we meant to make of this? A sly Jewish boast? A retort to those (like me) who would wonder how a Jewish writer can manage to eliminate the Jews (apart from this one mention) from a ‘biography’ of Ramses II and his immediate successors? Or is it a self-insuring way of signalling – to those who care to pick it up – that the whole book can be read as a kind of wild anti-pharaonic spoof?

As to this last possibility, it is noteworthy that when Mailer describes, over the whole of one chapter, the techniques of mummification he makes two major errors. First of all, he removes the heart from the corpse (which, for the Egyptians, would have made the entire business a mere waste of bandages). Secondly, he washes the body cavities with preservatives before immersing it in natron: this, according to my Journal of Egyptian Archaeology (Volume 13) ‘would have been wasted labour and quite ineffectual’. Are these deliberate mistakes? I somehow doubt it, since he shares at least one of them with Herodotus.