Ancient Evenings

This novel from Norman Mailer ( was over a decade in the making. Swiftly Ancient Evenings (1983, pulls its reader inside a starnge fictional frame of consciousness. A soul or body entombed is struggling to burst free, desperate not alone for light and air but for prayer and story – promised comforters that have been treacherously withheld or stolen. Dwelling within this consciousness we relive the ‘experience’ of an Egyptian body undergoing burial preparations, sense the soul’s overwhelming yearnings, within an unquiet grave, for healing that no physical treatment can provide.  All is strange, dark, intense, mysteriously coherent.

A second voice speaks. Offering a kind of taunting succor, it commences a story of the gods – the myth of Isis and Osiris which in this telling is made utterly new, indeed seems to have been given utterance by the strewn bones and limbs themselves. We are also taken to carefully described socialsettings. Guests at the Pharoah’s party consist of the Pharaoh’s ‘Overseer of the Cosmetic Box’ and the Overseer’s family – his wife, 6-year old son and the 6-year-old’s great-grandfather. The speaker for most of the evening is Menenhetet, the great-grandfather: former general, harem-master, magician, priest, grave-robber and raconteur – an ancient who can recall events from the period of his service, under Rameses II, at the Battle of Kadesh nearly two centuries before. Menenhetet has been reincarnated three times; since he discourses knowledgeably in the book’s final chapter on Greek and Roman religious beliefs, his four lives appear to span roughly 1,000 years.

The account opens with a wry story tracing Menenhetet’s ascent from peasant obscurity to noble rank and fame. Beginning as a humble conscript, the general-to-be scraps his way into the Royal School of Charioteers, wins promotion from one-horse to two-horse chariots and launches his later drive for power from a post as First Charioteer to His Majesty. From here his narrative advances to tales of epic combat and sexual initiation, a beast fable, a romance and yet another wry story – of his steps upward, during his second life, in the hierarchy of the priesthood. (The tales of sexual initiation involve not only the great-grandfather but the 6-year-old great-grandson as well. Like many characters in the book, the youngster can move freely from his own consciousness into that of others; he’s introduced to sex, in his infancy, partly by entrance into his mother’s mind, which is ridden with lustful fantasy, and partly by his nurse Eyaseyab.) The epic combat recounted by Menenhetet occurs at Kadesh.  The beast fable centers on Hera-Ra, a royal lion in Menenhetet’s charge throughout the historic battle against the Hittites. And the setting of the romance Menenhetet tells is the Garden of the Secluded, home of Rameses II’s 100 little (harem) queens.

This is a novel which will demand a lot of your time and attention. Give the first 50 pages a go at any rate.

First published 1983.

720 pages in Abacus paperback edition

ISBN 978-0349109701

Norman Mailer

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