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Ancient Evenings

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Crossing three millennia to Pharaonic Egypt, this tale returns to that land's essences - the war, magic, gods, death and reincarnations, the lusts, ambitions, jealousies, and betrayals.

709 pages, Paperback

First published March 1, 1983

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About the author

Norman Mailer

282 books1,199 followers
Norman Kingsley Mailer was an American novelist, journalist, essayist, poet, playwright, screenwriter, and film director.

Along with Truman Capote, Joan Didion, and Tom Wolfe, Mailer is considered an innovator of creative nonfiction, a genre sometimes called New Journalism, but which covers the essay to the nonfiction novel. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize twice and the National Book Award once. In 1955, Mailer, together with Ed Fancher and Dan Wolf, first published The Village Voice, which began as an arts- and politics-oriented weekly newspaper initially distributed in Greenwich Village. In 2005, he won the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from The National Book Foundation.

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5 stars
452 (23%)
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519 (27%)
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501 (26%)
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247 (13%)
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177 (9%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 194 reviews
Profile Image for Vit Babenco.
1,422 reviews3,373 followers
February 28, 2018
Ancient Evenings is a thoroughly unpleasant novel – in it Norman Mailer almost sadistically admires all sorts of violence and atrocity. If he were an Egyptian deity he surely wouldn’t have been Thoth or Horus, he would have been Seth or Anubis. So the novel may be considered as Norman Mailer’s historical Fleurs du Mal or some tenebrously romantic Totentanz…
The is a highly poetic song Islands of the Dead by Be Bop Deluxe:
Come with me to the fire festival, let us burn each other blind. Let us dance, let us dance away, dance till the end of time. Come with me to the islands of the dead, to the soul house, to the fire-house, to smoke and ash of laughter in your head, sweet laughter, hereafter, ever after, in the islands of the dead.

And in Ancient Evenings Norman Mailer literally takes us inside the Book of the Dead.
We sail across dominions barely seen, washed by the swells of time. We plow through fields of magnetism. Past and future come together on thunderheads and our dead hearts live with lightning in the wounds of the Gods.

History is no less a sanguinary myth than all those bloodthirsty and scatological deities that dwelt in the heads of our ancient forefathers.
Profile Image for Lyn.
1,867 reviews16.5k followers
October 24, 2019
“We sail across dominions barely seen, washed by the swells of time. We plow through fields of magnetism. Past and future come together on thunderheads and our dead hearts live with lightning in the wounds of the Gods.”

Fantastically detailed and colorful, truly a literary masterpiece yet maintaining Mailer's personality, as if he were narrating with a wink and grin.

What stands out and is memorial is the frank sexuality of Mailer's narrative. He describes a lusty populace with heightened awareness of themselves as sexual creatures.

Mailer's language is rich and his story complex, spiritual and psychological under the canopy of the myth and legend. This is an artistic achievement.

“Was it an hour, or a week before the light of the moon rose in the interior of my body? A bird with luminous wings flew in front of that full moon, and its head was as radiant as a point of light. That bird must be the Khu--this sweet bird of the night--a creature of divine intelligence loaned to us just so much as the Ren or the Sekhem. Yes, the Khu was a light in your mind while you lived, but in death, it must return to heaven. For the Khu was also eternal.”

Profile Image for Szplug.
467 reviews1,226 followers
January 30, 2013
Beyond any doubt, Mailer can write: witness the incredibly vivid, disorienting, existentially-inebriated explosiveness of a Nile-nourished soul's rupturing reincarnation within fleshly garb that opens Ancient Evenings. This was so well done that my hopes for the thickish remainder was nigh unbounded. Alas, Mailer also cannot seem to discipline himself, and his voluminous story progressively spirals into sheer authorial indulgence, almost as if all thoughts of the patient reader accompanying such hyperkinetic outpourings were abandoned amidst the exuberance of linguistically capturing everything feral, carnal, kinetic, and mytho-spiritual that popcorn-burst within Mailer's feverish imagination and nailing it down to the page. As a significant number of my fellow reviewers have made note of, the amount of buggery, grotesque violence, flowery rhetoric, and divine Coptic name-dropping that litters Ancient Evenings proves mind-numbing; rather than shocking or enthralling with its air of casual admission, it renders what should have invoked the portentous and mysterious at a visceral level into an off-key bugling of the tedious and ridiculous. Oh-Sayh-Kann-Yu-Seeh's bung is flowering from sperm seed! Call the Nilotic plumber! That's not to say the book isn't ultimately worth reading, mind—or at least skimming—for the historic trappings, sanguinary armed clashing, ritualistic priestly lubricating, mnemonic Nile barge cruising, and vividly-illustrated details of ancient Egyptian life, with all of its tactile connections to the primordial and unearthly, yet makes for interesting reading material. Rather, it's a rueful nod to the fact that Mailer's inability to restrain himself means not only that a large number of readers will never undertake to finish (or even begin) this novel, but that those with the fortitude to do so will have been cheated out of what should have proved a far more illuminating, rewarding, and challenging literary experience.
Profile Image for Caitlin.
50 reviews7 followers
March 13, 2008
As the reviews below suggest, this will be a 1 star or a 5 star for you, but unlikely to be anything much in between. I adore Mailer - for his cockiness, his absolute conviction of his own brilliance, for the sentences whose structure make me drop my jaw and laugh, for insight, and for buggery. Who else could write a sprawling Egyptian epic stuffed with filth of roaches and make it so thoroughly mine? I love this best of all he's written and think about it more than the rest combined. God help me if I can tell you exactly why. This book made me feel like a kid again - needing to turn one more page.

Profile Image for George.
Author 16 books250 followers
August 14, 2022
"My story must be long like the length of a snake. If I present the head, You will know nothing of the body. Only the smile of the snake."

When I think of Norman Mailer I think of pub pugilism, uxorial impalement, and other egotesticle activititties. But with Ancient Evenings, Mailer seems to mostly shed this persona, which is the stuff of such works as Tough Guys Don't Dance and The Fight, and provides the reader with an immersive, imaginative experience.

Sure, there is war-waging, royal sex by "all three mouths," coprophagia, and males dominating each other through the act of buggery, but these obscene scenes are aspects of ancient Egyptian mythology.

While reading this 700-page tome, you will all but swim in the Nile, bow before the Pharaoh, visit the whisper-laden House of the Secluded (eg. His harem of "little queens"), fight in a sea of chariots during the infamous Battle of Kadesh, be embalmed and soaked in natron, and fly as the human-headed bird-soul known as the Ba.

The last couple hundred pages were not as magic-infused as the preceding portions. I think this might be due to a lack of climax, a monophonic tone, and the content itself. However, I have never made the pseudo-editorial claim that a book needs fewer pages (although I've said the opposite for DeLillo's magnum opus Underworld), and I wouldn't suggest a circumcision in this case either. Rather, Mailer needs more voices to enhance the alluring, somewhat soft-spoken charm of a humble Borges that desensitizes the eyes over time. The prose is never so floral as linguaphiles Rikki Ducornet or Angela Carter, which I think is a sorely missed opportunity.

Overall, this dark and brutal book is the decade-long product of obsession and research (1972-1982, to be exact). My mental depth instrument counted four-story fathoms. Such a measurement can also be indicative of a love for storytelling, especially the ancient kind.

Also, in addition to academic articles and other paraphernalia, I've found that when researching topics for my mega-novel, I'm lucky to come across certain books that almost instantly make me comfortable writing within a given world, and this is one of them.

(I think I'll gift my copy to Karl Sanders of the death metal band Nile next time I see him in concert. It could very well inspire another masterpiece album......Update 12/12/19: On my birthday, Nile played a show. I gifted my copy of the book to Karl and he, that god of death metal, accepted my offering. Praise Ra!)
Profile Image for Jack Mason.
5 reviews26 followers
August 22, 2012
ANCIENT EVENINGS is so many things. It's one of the greatest gay love stories ever written, for one-- something that is downplayed by reviewers in favor of a categorical dismissal of the novel as merely "endless descriptions of sodomy." The tempestuous love between Ramses II and Menenhetet I forms the core of the novel, couched in a complicated, beautiful framing device that resembles Proust as much as THE ARABIAN NIGHTS. It's also an arty fantasy/ sci-fi epic in the manner of DUNE-- supernatural elements abound, even though the novel was marketed more as historical fiction.

ANCIENT EVENINGS doesn't have the reputation it deserves both because Mailer has been unfashionable for so long and because it's such a unique novel that readers don't know what to make of it. Most people seem not to put forth much of an effort and abandon it during the mythology segment, which I don't understand; the prose is actually imminently readable and entertaining and you just have to surrender to it and keep in mind that you will not remember every detail or name mentioned.

It's certainly the most perverse thing ever to be printed in mass-market paperback with "NATIONAL BESTSELLER" emblazoned on the top. The total absence of any kind of modern morality must be disturbing for many readers; I myself marveled at how so many hundreds of pages of erotically described incest of every conceivable variety was desensitizing me. Reading it can be a kind of existential nightmare: you've died and you're trapped in a pyramid giving your great-grandfather a BJ while traveling through time and inhabiting the mind of your mother as she does the same thing. This is the shit I'm talking about.

If you like Sade, D.H. Lawrence, DUNE, William Burroughs, Jacqueline Carey's delightfully trashy KUSHIEL'S DART, or Kate Bush, you'll like it. Contrary to what others say, I think the story ties itself up nicely, and the final trip through the Land of the Dead is stunning and rewarding. There is also one final incest shocker in the last ten pages, as unbelievable as that sounds-- after 830 pages of incest it still serves as an effective twist.
Profile Image for Sara.
175 reviews38 followers
December 29, 2011
In a recent post on my blog, I spent a good deal of time discussing how ancient Egypt receives a disproportionate amount of popular attention as far as classical history goes. And then I promptly began reading a novel by Norman Mailer set in ancient Egypt. I learned about Ancient Evenings (and a number of other extremely interesting books) from a post by Wilfried Houjebek on the original and worthwhile site SpaceCollective. Houjebek describes it this way:

"[Ancient Evenings] is the autobiography of a Ka, the lowliest soul of the seven souls of the ancient Egyptians, which makes for unusual reading. Especially because Mailer uses an uncensored version of Egyptian mythology which, to put it mildly, differs from the version you get of it from the National Geographic. The Egyptians practised sex magic with the stamina of a bonobo. Mailer makes Aleister Crowley look like a prudish schoolboy. This is the boldest attempt to recreate a radically different mind from ours that I know of, and does so successfully."

Strangely and despite my bellyaching about all of the historical attention paid to ancient Egypt, reading this novel has underscored how seldom ancient Egypt has been explored in fiction. Science fiction has adopted Egypt as an aesthetic treasure trove from which to draw tropes and visuals (much like fantasy has used the Middle Ages), but fictive explorations of historical ancient Egypt remain scarce. Ancient Evenings in this respect certainly provides a thrill on par with Apocalypto, Mel Gibson's cinematic rendering of the pre-Columbian Mayan civilization. For reasons best known to the 100,000th author to set a novel in Victorian London, we rarely get to place ourselves imaginatively in certain more neglected places and periods. It is a treat to go along with an author or filmmaker while they portray these lesser attended worlds and their inhabitants.

To work, this kind of venture requires at least a gesture towards the detail and methodological sophistication of an adept historian. It is not sufficient to project one's modern sensibility into a premodern time period; neither is it useful to envision all precursors to our modernity as quainter, rubish versions of ourselves. That kind of shortsighted anachronism seems clunky and unconvincing even when applied to time periods much closer to our own (a great - by which I mean rather dreadful - example of this is One Thousand White Women). The author undertaking such a project ideally realizes that past cultures operated not just in different material worlds than we do, but within truly foreign paradigms and cosmologies. The cultural assumptions upon which they based their value systems, their ideas of self and of the world depart radically from our own. When executed with sensitivity, such a project demands not merely sound research but a real shift of one's entire epistemological framework.

I think Mailer understood this and attempted it sincerely. He not only spent a good deal of time researching the world in which he set this novel, but his narrative choices exhibit an awareness that ancient Egyptians viewed the world and humans' place in it in a profoundly different way than do we. Their minds were not our minds. It took Mailer 10 years to complete Ancient Evenings and, without being an expert on ancient Egyptian civilization, I can offer that every time I looked up a reference which seemed either farfetched or peculiarly well-imagined, a factual basis existed for it. I have actually become so curious regarding the breadth of Mailer's research that I procured a couple of academic histories about ancient Egyptian society and culture. I expect by reading them to form a more complete opinion concerning Mailer's level of scholarship and authenticity* in portraying ancient Egyptians, but I suspect it is rather high.

Authenticity and historical imaginative responsibility aside, the book possesses other artistic merits. Mailer has given the novel a story-within-a-story narrative structure reminiscent of The Thousand-and-One Nights. As indicated above, we do begin with our protagonist Menenhetet's ka, or vital spark - that essence which distinguishes the living from the dead - as he awakens in an Egyptian necropolis and realizes he is dead but cannot remember who he was. Slowly, Menenhetet's ka recalls himself and, soon, meets the ka of his namesake great-grandfather. The story moves across generations, telling the story of the elder Menenhetet's four previous lives, and involves tales of charioteers, concubines, and priests, embroiled in wars, palace intrigue, and religious rituals; and yet, through Mailer's careful emplotment and through the almost supernatural connection of his ancient Egyptians to each other and to their own history, the reader gleans a coherent narrative from the maze. In contrast with The Thousand-and-One Nights, the story-within-a-story structure of Ancient Evenings supplies a feeling of unity rather than the Arabian tale's feeling of disjointed rabbit-holing.**

The most self-contained narrative episode of Ancient Evenings relates the story of the deities Isis and Osiris. But again, while discrete, this story adds much to the arc and cohesion of the novel as a whole given the centrality of deities to daily Egyptian life (and so, to Menenhetet's lives). The tale of Isis and Osiris introduces the reader to the main players in the Egyptian pantheon and also offers a good example of the gods' vacillating powers, aspects, and associations with one another. This information proves useful as we crawl into Mailer's well-realized, and highly religious, ancient Egypt. It also begins to inure us to the litany of sex acts, detailed descriptions of which we will have to wade through in order to make it to the end of this 700plus-page book.

Mailer does a reasonable job of linking sex to some sort of spiritual alchemy. Most Bronze Age cultures situated procreation and fertility, metaphorically and actually, at the center of their religious mythologies and rituals. Mailer's ancient Egypt reflects this. Sex comprises an exchange of power, equal or unequal depending. The sexual activity of the pharaoh, indeed all of his physical experiences, are tied to the land itself and to the vital cycles of the Nile. Sex can establish something like a psychic link; although in general Mailer's Egyptians are capable of hearing each others' thoughts and even seeing each others' memories. In short, sex certainly has a relevant place in the world of Mailer's story. Nevertheless, the endless (if inventive) sex scenes made me feel half like a baffled and enthralled, probably giggling, child nervously flipping through a pilfered porn magazine; and half like a bored adult, scoffing and rolling eyes, because I have actually had sex and now these images do not feed my curiosity, but seem superficial and disappointing.

I do not here lodge any accusation of rank sexism at Mr. Mailer, nor am I calling Ancient Evenings pornography. I have formed the distinct impression that Mailer truly used, or felt he used, his depictions of sex to communicate the centrality of sex-as-act and sex-as-metaphor to the spirituality of ancient Egyptians. That is, he does not treat his descriptions as gratuitous and I believe he meant by them to reveal how open and un-tabooed Egyptians behaved with regard to sex. Mailer's sex scenes tend to punctuate if not always further the plot. The sex he describes does not only involve bodies, but egos and psyches as well. Additionally, he references most types of sex imaginable: between men and women, men and men, women and women, people and animals; participants range from two to the hundreds (seriously, you have never seen battle depicted like this); oral, anal, manual and anything else you can imagine occurs; he portrays sex as it demonstrates (for both sexes) love, lust, domination, curiosity, rage and friendship; sex for Mailer's characters can yield shame, elation, or insight. As with actual sex in the actual world, the meaning all depends on context and participants.

In this way, I would not call Mailer's use or depiction of sex sexist. I am, however, tempted to call plenty of it juvenile. Mailer definitely crafts female characters with more agency than round-mouthed blow-up dolls, but the drives of their sexuality still seem to mimic the drives of men. They use sex the same way men do; they want the same things...ahem...thing. Compiling a list of Mailer's euphemisms for the penis would yield a monotonous, if periodically amusing, read. And this goes back to the feeling I kept getting while reading the novel; that I was, in fact, peeping at girly magazine. Ancient Evenings is not like porn insofar as it has a higher purpose than portraying sex for titillation. It is exactly like porn insofar as it is so profoundly phallocentric as to seem frequently comical.

The male member is described, referred to, manipulated, named, and prized to a farcical degree by Mailer via all of his characters. Women and at least one of their erogenous zones are not ignored certainly, and some female characters (only the most powerful and goddess-like, however) are more three-dimensionally drawn than others, but female sexuality as a whole in Ancient Evenings retains the unidirectional telos and raison d'être of porn: it's all about the cock.

True, many modern portrayals of sex, pornographic and otherwise, echo Mailer's phallus obsession. It is possible that ancient Egypt simply resembles our own time and place in this respect, but I rebel against this thought. I find the omnipresence of phallic symbols as fertility symbols very believable, but I assume Egyptians would know and employ other symbols as well and that female symbols of sexual power might also engage their sexuality. Ancient Evenings is an otherwise well-imagined portrayal of a people for whom the powers-that-be appeared more sexually balanced than strictly patriarchal, and who validated women's sexual appetites (and so, I dare to hypothesize, understood and even indulged them). It would have been refreshing to read about a group of women who do not behave as though they were reared on the assumption that their own sexuality exists primarily for the use and pleasure of men; or that their sexuality mirrors, in perfect inverse, that of men.

Observing the many-columned Temple of Hatshepsut, Pharaoh Ramses II says to the elder Menenhetet: "Only a woman would build a temple with nothing but cocks". (278) And there is no satire in this comment, no inkling of a minor truth that women learn when still little girls and continue to observe as the boys they know become men: many, many males are fascinated by their own dicks and project this fascination out into the world (and on to females) with an astounding lack of self-reflection. I suggest, only a man would imagine a woman would build a temple with nothing but cocks.

*Whatever "authenticity" may mean in this context.
** Small wonder given the folkloric and oral provenance of The Thousand-and-One Nights; I intend no criticism of that amazing work.
Profile Image for Holly.
171 reviews601 followers
October 18, 2007
The recent news aboput Mailer being on his deathbed reminded me of my one and only attempt at reading his stuff. I must have gotten through at least the first third of this book but godalmighty... pretty much just an excuse for vivid descriptions of buggery, buggery, and incest. Also, buggery.

Dude has issues.
Profile Image for Magdelanye.
1,644 reviews202 followers
February 4, 2014
¨Drifting...is drifting¨

So insists the man with the pus-filled eye,even if he is about to be given a severe thrashing by a boatman who violently disagrees. But it is a good way to approach this massive,astonishing work of historical fiction that spans dynasties. It is also indicative of NM´s tendency to mingle the repulsive and the sublime, and in so doing he weaves a rich and vivid tapestry of reality that we can taste and smell and almost touch.

No matter that some of the details are sorely askew,although I must wonder if poetic license is really enough to justify making Nefertiti the Queen of Ramses II. This led me wonder why he dealt so poorly with Akhneton,and why,with his focus on Ramses II,he omits to place the Jews in their context. It is not because he resricted in his point of view. Indeed,after my initial bewilderment subsided,I highly admired the way NM slides in and out of different perspectives.

Okay,so the majority of the book consists of the prodigous memory of a magically extended lifespan as witnessed by the half asleep greatgrandson,that may all be a hallucination during the longest blowjob in history that takes place between two of the main characters.

In great synchronicity,when I logged in to write this review, the quote of the day is from NM whose birthday is today. In honour of this, I forgive him his brutish nasties and give him the full five stars for his luxurious,exquisite writing and his unboundable imagination.
Profile Image for Leo Robertson.
Author 38 books435 followers
July 25, 2015
This is an odd one.

This is, I think, what Stephen King was trying to say about writing even big books across the length of a season and no longer. Few authors can pull off greatness when it comes to projects they hold on to for too long. They get complicated, overly dense, they hold onto passages that should be snipped out, they forget the eureka moment that spurred the author to write them, they suffer from Will Self’s everything-itis.

Heller was successful with Something Happened and likely other books of his, but when it comes to tomes as dense as William H. Gass’, I like what John Gardner said: “The difference is that my 707 will fly and his is too encrusted with gold to get off the ground.” I’m completely unable to think of more dense tomes at the moment because I just woke up, but hopefully you see what I’m saying :).

Mailer did a whole load of research for this one and wanted to pack a lot of Egyptian history into this book. However, this means compromising a lot on putting the reader into a scene. What I mean is, in order to create a book this dense, Mailer has to use a lot of narrative summary and a lot of that thing you’re bored of reading in reviews, often patronisingly italicised: telllllllllling not shooooooooowing. For example, I could say “On the 22nd of February 2013, I shot the family cat.” Or I could say “Heat. Light. For the fiftieth fucking time I awoke with the sensation of a stinging scratch like a feline-sized rapier sliced out my left cheek again, but newly accompanying this was a creeping vengeance in my core: Mittens was fucking getting it. I stumbled out of bed…” and so on for, like, 20, 100 pages. Whatever. But in stretching out the tale (tail lol) I lack compression and am unable to put so many events in my book. But if I compress too much, I’m not painting a scene for the reader. And this is where Mailer understandably suffers. He couldn’t choose what to focus on, so he put in everything. This book should be maybe 7 different volumes which comprise a fully expanded story, every scene painted in Mailer’s best Proustian prose, but if this was the case, would I read them all? Probably not. Would I enjoy volume 1 of that expanded book more than I enjoyed this? Probably, but I’d also be left with the dissatisfaction that I’d begun a series I didn’t want to finish. So I accept this feeling as an inevitability of the project.

Like a sub-par Vollmann or a Pynchon mis-step. But in terms of literature overall, that still ranks it way way highly :)
Profile Image for Bryn Hammond.
Author 12 books348 followers
November 16, 2013
I can only tell you my experience of the book.

It was knocking on the door of greatness. The beginning was staggering, and I was floored by the musicality of its sentences, its startling imagery, and the depth of thought that made these ancient Egyptians remind me, as others before me, of aliens in a science fiction novel – that is, the past is an alien world. I was having an encounter with this novel, like you have with extraterrestials or great beasts. This reached its pitch with the Battle of Kadesh, whose inspirations were the Old Testament and the Iliad, and where Mailer, in the whole chapter devoted to the battle, gives his sentences the rush and rhythm of chariot wheels. Awesome battle scene.

So far, with me, he hadn’t put a foot wrong. Thomas Mann went wrong in Egypt with the ornate style, for me: I loved his first Joseph books but in Egypt I sank into the sands of his Biblical loquacity. But Mailer, as Old Testamenty as he, hadn’t spent a word too much, he was music to my ears. Then I hit the Book of Queens. It was atrocious, and the novel never clawed up from that low – until perhaps the last five pages.

As for the sex content. In the parts I admired, I didn’t feel it was gratuitous or ill-done. I’ll thank him for his lessons in unhealthy psychology. Once I read a book – which I won’t even link to, because I hated the book and thought it bad history – that told me how common in the ancient world was war rape, man to man: as a further vanquishment of a defeated enemy. So, there’s much oneupmanship in here, where they use such methods to humiliate and see who’s ahead of who. It’s effing unhealthy, like I say; nevertheless, when I read that aforementioned nonfiction I was disturbed and disgusted, whereas Mailer doesn’t set out to disturb and disgust me and he didn’t. When he has a humiliate-the-captive scene entirely from the point of view of the unapologetic perpetrator, I felt I was given insight, in the way fiction can.

None of what I’ve just said goes for the latter part of the book, where sex is stupid, gratuitous and features women. I had already noticed that he never has women raped. Is that pushing it, even for him? I had to wonder. But in these stretches you soon notice every single woman is a sex addict, and... spare me. It’s worse than I can say. The music is lost too, since he’s thrown discipline to the winds; and the Egyptians aren’t aliens now, they live in your closest daytime soap.

He took ten years to write this, as he lets us know at the end. Maybe he had a brain explosion along the way.
Profile Image for Savannah.
Author 4 books11 followers
April 11, 2011
A literary pornographic slasher flick.

Made it up to pg. 380 and quit. I can't take it anymore. The beginning few parts were interesting and original, and here and there parts would sparkle off the page, making me sob that I shall never write so well. But! That said: the main thread of this entire book is a pre-adolescent boy listening to his parents and great-grandfather speak with the Pharaoh (while his mother tries to seduce the Pharaoh) about lots of lively topics like blood-drinking, cannibalism, anal rape, raping vanquished foes while pulling out hanks of their hair, shit, shit and more shit, oh and did I mention shit? and the smell of shit while raping hairy fundaments.... Is this supposed to somehow be titillating? Well, the characters find it so. I can only imagine Mailer found it so, or he wouldn't have spent so many hundreds of pages writing about it. It does NOT come off as a morality tail bewailing the evils of war (which would be cliche anyway) but as an endless yarn, usually excruciatingly boring and only "livened up" by moments that will make your stomach turn. Sound like your kind of thing? I hope not.
Profile Image for Kevin Adams.
349 reviews69 followers
January 27, 2023
Unlike Mailer’s other works this was an incredible and inspiring novel. Moves quickly despite the fact you are reading about a time around 3,000 years ago. Absolutely riveting. And the 10 years it took to write this (I’m assuming including the research) shows. The attention to detail and the research done is pretty impressive.
Profile Image for Ted Burke.
158 reviews21 followers
December 13, 2013
Mailer once remarked that his intention with writing Ancient Evenings was to compose a long sequence of novels telling the history of the Jewish people through the experience of one family, beginning in Ancient Egypt before the arrival of Christ, onward through time past various diasporas , persecutions, genocides, successes and setbacks, with the concluding edition of this fictional saga being somewhere in the future , in outer space, with the eyes of the protagonist trained outwards still. As it happens, Mailer was so engrossed in the profound mysteries of Egyptian religious ritual, culture and mythology that he never made past the river Nile. All the same, this is a breathtaking read, generations of magic, politics, reincarnations and aggressively ambiguous sexual engorgement roiling through centuries of particularized vanity.

This is ,as others have correctly asserted, an overlong book , and one suspects that had Mailer been less known and an good editor had applied the blue pencil on those passages that were merely lugubrious , we would have had a tighter, punchier novel. But Ancient Evenings is one of those exotic expressions of unexpected genius that the passages that threaten to sink under the weight of all that sexual energy being put forth don't become tedium, but rather the texture of a fantastically realized fever dream; there are fantastic battles, eroticism beyond gender, magic in the ancient ways as men and women seek power and dominion over their own soles against mysterious and powerful forces that have placed them in impossible states of yearning.

This is a brilliant novel by a writer who , I believed, is one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century. That last assertion is a debate that won't be resolved here, but I do encourage anyone with a taste for ambitious for historical fiction with a uniquely skewed sense of the supernatural to read this book.
Profile Image for Michael.
188 reviews18 followers
October 17, 2007
Bloated and exhausting, this is still an exhiliratingly perverse phallocentric psychodrama as set in the New Kingdom of ancient Egypt. Not as sharp or original as Mailer's fiction (and non-fiction) of the 60s, it manages to hit some heights amidst its 700-plus pages: the hallucinatory opening in which a soul screams through rebirth, a boat trip down the Nile, and the Satyricon-esque Battle of Kadesh. Personally I prefer more of Mailer's magic (mind-reading, reincarnation, curses) than his soap opera (the power struggles of Egypt's royalty), and there's a lot of the latter, but stay with this beast and you will be rewarded.

"Crude thoughts and fierce forces are my state. I do not know who I am. Nor what I was. I cannot hear a sound. Pain is near that will be like no pain felt before.

Is this the fear that holds the universe? Is pain the fundament? All the rivers veins of pain? The oceans my mind awash? I have a thirst like the heat of earth on fire. Mountains writhe. I see waves of flame. Washes, flashes, waves of flame.
Thirst is in the rivers of the body. The rivers burn but do not move. Flesh -- is it flesh? -- lies beneath some heated stone. Lava rises in burned-out fields.
Where, in what cavern, have such disruptions taken place? Volcanic lips give fire, wells bubble. Bone lies like rubble upon the wound.
Is one human? Or merely alive? Like a blade of grass equal to all existence in the moment it is torn? Yes. If pain is fundament, then a blade of grass can know all there is."
Profile Image for Andrew.
89 reviews13 followers
February 15, 2016
Okay, so people either love Mailer, or hate him; after dragging myself through "Ancient Evenings", I now hate him as well as love him.

I am fascinated with Ancient Egypt and (usually) blown away by Norman Mailer, so I was really looking forward to this book. And it started well - brilliantly, even - with a beginning that keeps the reader on their toes with some crafty twists that somehow incorporates Egyptian mythology with today's sensibilities.

But then.

But then the book degenerated into a self-indulgence by Mailer that can only be described as masturbatory. Long-winded and so very, very boring, "Ancient Evenings" becomes a salutation to his key characters, who are also long-winded and boring. Long, flowery sentences are used to describe the mundane, while revolting vulgarities that serve little purpose are spread throughout the novel.

Please read another book by Norman Mailer, if this is the first one you have picked up. If you've read a few, like me, rather re-read anything else he wrote.
Profile Image for Descending Angel.
668 reviews30 followers
April 12, 2023
Ive liked the Mailer books ive read so far but having read The Executioner's Song and this, two big books, you have a clear view of some of Mailer's bad writing habits. Ancient Evenings is an enjoyable book ~ despite some of the sex scenes that could of been ripped straight out of Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, but it is overly long, drawn out and unfocused. Reading about reincarnation and Egyptian gods had me hooked. The opening and closing of this book is really special.
Profile Image for Anders Moeller.
41 reviews103 followers
February 4, 2013
Positively the worst book I've ever read in my life. I literally had to force myself to finish all 700 pages of it, only because I have an obsession with not leaving books unfinished, and because I had nothing else to read to weeks on end. The entire ordeal culminates in the last two pages which are practically painful to finish. The basic plot line fascinated me but it was horribly structured in a convoluted manner full of story twists that reveal how big of a narcissist the author is.
Profile Image for Steve Shilstone.
Author 14 books24 followers
April 29, 2020
Norman presents a seemingly endless tale of lush ancient Egyptian Pharaonic porn.
Profile Image for Sammy.
807 reviews35 followers
October 12, 2011
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.
Profile Image for Jtmichae.
8 reviews6 followers
October 23, 2013
Though the first ninety or so pages of this book outmatch a bit for stylistic and gutsy integrity the remaining six-hundred, the critical treatment of /Ancient Evenings/ still seems largely unfair. One of the things I admire most about Mailer as a writer is the fact that he really does write very well, and in a style that could almost be called metaphysical, matching the poets like Marvell and Donne who are sometimes grouped together under that same textual adjective. Like the metaphysical poets, Mailer is interested in sex, and yet he is also not hedonistic about it, preferring to place sex and his ongoing discussion of sex within the confines of a larger discussion, or perhaps rumination, on time. If Marvell had written only base seduction poems, he would not have become Marvell. If Mailer were as bad and as bankrupt his critics sometimes claim, we as a public body would never have had a reason to think the words "Norman Mailer". /Ancient Evenings/ above all is the book which addresses head-on Mailer's lineage with the metaphysical poets, and for once places the distinct and rather rich style of Mailer's prose above the oftentimes zeitgeist cloud of his subject material. An aggravating, enlightening text, despite its rougher edges--made rough in the first place perhaps from the sheer boldness and remarkable attention paid the core.
Profile Image for Lobstergirl.
1,713 reviews1,243 followers
May 1, 2017

I wonder if Ramses II would enjoy this, all the lovely depictions of him buggering his staffers and everyone else. How he lies on his back with his knees in the air "like a woman" to be pleasured by his harem. This is a novel of the Oroficial genre. "I entered her by her third mouth..." (you can probably guess which one that is). There's so much reincarnation going on here, so many misidentified fathers, that we aren't really surprised when characters are murdered as they're having sex and then conspire to become the reincarnated offspring of their own sperm, so that their lover becomes their mother. Discovering that one's mother is one's lover in a former life, or one's father is one's uncle, or even stranger genealogical Mobius strips, become routine.

844 pages of this is a torture I wish on all mine enemies.
85 reviews
July 18, 2014
I give it 5 stars, as it's an entire world created for the reader: vivid, earthy, alive, clever, edgy, out there, filthy, holy, depressing, wondrous, human. I've read it about 5 or 6 times. Read it if you're getting a bit bored with novels about lawyers, or mundane stuff. Read it if you want something more - he's an American Anthony Burgess.
Profile Image for Richard Epstein.
368 reviews16 followers
June 4, 2014
One of the silliest books ever written by a writer possessed of some genius. I think it was at this book that I gave up on Mailer. It became more interesting to consider why he had gone off the tracks than to read him. I still think he would have been a great appointment to the Supreme Court.
Profile Image for Richard Fulgham.
Author 13 books41 followers
September 17, 2008
IMO, this might be Mailer's greatest book -- certainly the most literary and most interesting and best researched and best written. You might gather that I liked it.
Profile Image for Galder.
45 reviews
August 29, 2017
No me ha gustado nada. Desde el principio ya lo encontré a raro. Me costó varios capítulos cogerle el hilo al tema y ubicarme en la historia.
El estilo en el que está escrito no me parece atractivo y la traducción creo que tampoco ayuda.
La historia en si podría ser buena pero se lía demasiado y se enturbia tanto que en muchos momentos me ha parecido bastante sucio el modo de describir situaciones y hechos.
Aún no siendo novela histórica creo que tendría que tener más rigor con los nombres para no llevar a confusión al lector. Aunque con los nombres también ocurre otra cosa y es que en una página los escribe de una manera y en la página siguiente los escribe de otra manera (quitando o poniendo letras, cambiado las letras de posición...).
Es un libro que se me ha hecho muy pesado de leer y no me ha gustado.
112 reviews
August 13, 2019
If you like books about ancient Greece, then you may like Ancient Evenings. Keep in mind the Egyptians were a wild bunch with numerous Gods. Nothing.....and I mean absolutely nothing was taboo. Possibly a Caligula X 10.
Profile Image for Chris.
384 reviews146 followers
March 13, 2021
Interesting and engaging for the first four chapters up through the excellent treatment of the battle of Kadesh. Then it extremely abruptly goes off the rails for the final three chapters. I would recommend stopping there and skipping to the last section of the last chapter for the final close. Sure, it’s not Mailer’s total vision but it’s more intelligible. The missing chapters add little to the key concepts already presented in the first 400 pages. One or two necessary plot lines can easily be connected across the gap by the reader’s imagination.

Parallels with Thomas Mann’s great 4-part novel “Joseph and his Brothers” really are quite obvious even as Mailer’s writing quality is not remotely comparable. I can see him reading Mann’s deeply imaginative work and thinking “not enough dialog.” So he writes “Ancient Evenings” as his loquacious response. Sadly the dialog is just overwhelming in the later chapters. And there is a lot of graphic sex and excremental language throughout, but that doesn’t bother me. Just be aware that almost all of the concurrent reviewers (in 1983) reamed the book for that, unable to see past their own personal hangups. It’s simply a matter of taste.
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