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Ancient Evenings (1983)

by Norman Mailer

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1,2811914,934 (3.39)68
Menehetet I rises from peasant stock to become a harem overlord between the reigns of Ramses II and Ramses IX of Egypt.

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Showing 1-5 of 18 (next | show all)
A startling work of creative imagination.

Norman Mailer - love him or hate him - had a mastery of the language that very few could rival. It is apparent in all his works, including "Ancient Evenings", which takes place at a variety of Egyptian locales, from royal dinners to family barge rides, from distant mining camps to tombs. Much of the story is told in flashback, much of it recited by a ponderous old man. The highlights of the book are:
a) Mailer's immense knowledge of the age. I adored Ancient Egypt as a study topic when a student, and still I'm not sure how much of this is verified/historically theorised truth, and how much is Mailer's imagination. Either way, he creates a world in which every cultural nuance and spoken idiosyncracy feels foreign and yet genuine;
b) That sense of magic - speculative fiction, I guess we'd call it now - that allows us never to be sure what is real, without ever succumbing to the dreaded "fantasy"; and
c) yes, it is true: Mailer's ability to tell those lecherous tales while rarely coming across as just a perv.

As others have said, this book will beguile or disgust: sodomy and incest (sometimes both!) are high on the agenda, and Mailer is as unapologetic as his characters.

I would never call this book my favourite, not by a long shot: like many works, I appreciate it as much intellectually as I do viscerally. For instance, Menenhetet speaks using a lot of similes and analogies, often quite ponderously. It makes reading this book a tougher experience than one would like, but this is a genuine part of the character and his culture, not a flaw in Mailer's writing.

In the end, this is a work that won't speak to anyone. It's highly idiosyncratic, explores many abstract or challenging themes, and takes no pains to explain itself until it feels the time is right. However, by the same token, the novel refuses to pander to cliche or the simple answers, and is one of those amazing books where - by the time you're reading the final chapters - you realise how strange and incomprehensible they would be to the uninitiated, yet they make perfect sense to you. "Ancient Evenings" makes you work for your reward, and in this case the reward is a fantastic and unsettling portrayal of life in Egypt under the Pharaohs, and of a world so far removed from our own. The final chapter is startlingly beautiful, and puts my previous favourite literary ending - that of "The Great Gatsby" - to shame. Lovely. ( )
  therebelprince | Oct 24, 2023 |
Here's what I wrote in 2008 about this read: "Remember this one, which was recommended by Bruce Hedrick from Toronto. Many times felt a bit scandalous that we had read the same sexuality graphic novel!" ( )
  MGADMJK | Sep 4, 2022 |
One of my favorite late great Norman Mailer novels. Mailer visited Egypt and became fascinated with the pharaoh's court and mythology, and he writes about imagined sexual intrigue of the young Rameses and other fun stuff. I have been to Egypt and have studied Egyptian history, and Mailer's perspective in this novel is very real. ( )
  atufft | Jul 5, 2019 |
This novel is a heady re-imagining of the magical perspective of the Pharaohs, full of intense, smaller narratives ranging from the quotidian to the mythic. I recently noticed that Wilbur Smith had written more volumes in his ancient Egyptian series, but I'd rather spend the time re-reading Mailer's monumental book.
2 vote paradoxosalpha | Aug 16, 2018 |
OK, it's a stinker in some ways, but because it evoked a strong feeling of the time and place and of the mysterious, magical religion so effectively for me, appealing to all the senses, I'm not ashamed to be fond of this book. ( )
1 vote laursand | Aug 12, 2018 |
Showing 1-5 of 18 (next | show all)
We learn, in these 709 large pages, a great number of things. Most of all we learn how much Egyptology Mailer has learned in the last ten years... And the secret of power, which the book is chiefly about? This lies in magic, and magic is essentially control of the lower human functions. In a word, magic is anal... In Ancient Evenings, you sodomize the enemy to probe the caves of his strength. Rameses IX sees Egypt as looking like the crack between the globes of the buttocks. Egypt is fertile because of Nile mud, and mud is a form of faeces. Old Menenhetet has, to the shock of the court, eaten bat droppings in order to learn about magic...

If I can achieve a second, or third, reading of Ancient Evenings, I may be prepared to name it as the best reconstruction of an ancient world since Flaubert's Salammbo, but Mailer does not want that kind of praise... In America this novel - which, whatever its intermittent unread-ability, makes the fictional products of our own islands seem all too readably bland - has had a bad press. I don't think it has been well understood. Give it a few years and, like the equally misunderstood Gravity's Rainbow, it may well appear as one of the great works of contemporary mythopoesis. It certainly gives us a new look up the anus.
added by SnootyBaronet | editObserver, Anthony Burgess

» Add other authors (4 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Norman Mailerprimary authorall editionscalculated
Paolini, Pier FrancescoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Menehetet I rises from peasant stock to become a harem overlord between the reigns of Ramses II and Ramses IX of Egypt.

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