Sunday, August 20, 2017

Ancient Evenings (1983)

In the world of international heterosexual stereotyping, where the British have fixations on schoolmarms and the French want to put everything in their mouths, I always thought Greeks were into anal and Egyptians necrophilia. Come to find, in this doorstop of a novel, there was a good deal of nuance to all that, at least if we can trust Norman Mailer's version, and I'm sure we can't. Wikipedia is good on this one: Ancient Evenings, it says, "deals with the lives of two protagonists, one young, one old, in a very alien Ancient Egypt marked by journeys by the dead, reincarnation, and violent and hyper-sexual gods and mortals in a complex combination of historical fiction, allegory, poetic flight, confession, and spiritual meditation." Ayup, that about covers it. It's hard to separate the concept from the history, so to be safe I assumed it was all concept. There are pharaohs and other historical figures but also gods and magic and such. It's very dim at the start but there is a payoff in the first half with a great battle story that is vintage Mailer storytelling, the Battle of Kadesh, an actual historical event that happened in 1274 BCE. At points like this the novel feels reasonably accurate, but that could be because I saw the same Ancient Egypt movies on TV that Mailer saw in theaters. Starting in Advertisements for Myself, nearly 25 years earlier, Mailer often mentioned in passing that he was at work on a great big novel set in Ancient Egypt. This is obviously that book, though he dates the writing as 1972 to 1982, which suggests a long gestation. He had found the key to writing very long in his previous book, The Executioner's Song, and in many ways Ancient Evenings feels like hard-won wisdom applied to a project too long stewed over. (It also feels like a book contract he was able to secure in return for the success of The Executioner's Song.) At least he got it out of his system because he then became very good indeed at very long narratives, both fiction and nonfiction. Ancient Evenings is an interesting curiosity but way too long and weird to read casually. The sex is embarrassing for what it reveals of Mailer's own preoccupations, but I guess by that token you can also say it's very brave. You could probably take it apart in a good all-night book reading group session and really have some high old drunken times. Or you can file it under I read it so you don't have to.

In case it's not at the library.

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