Ancient Evenings

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Ancient Evenings
Cover of the first edition
AuthorNorman Mailer
Cover artistFrank Fisher (photographer)
CountryUnited States
GenreHistorical novel
PublisherLittle, Brown & Company
Publication date
Media typePrint (Hardcover and Paperback)
Pages709 pp
813/.54 19
LC ClassPS3525.A4152 A79 1983

Ancient Evenings is a 1983 historical novel by American author Norman Mailer. Set in ancient Egypt and dealing with the lives of the characters Menenhetet One and Meni, the novel received mixed reviews. Reviewers noted the historical research that went into writing it and considered Mailer successful at conveying the nature of ancient Egyptian life. However, they also criticized the novel's narration and questioned its literary merit. Ancient Evenings has been compared to the work of the poet James Merrill and the novelist Thomas Pynchon, as well as to Mailer's novel Harlot's Ghost (1991). Some have suggested that its opening passage is its strongest part. Ancient Evenings served as an inspiration for the artist Matthew Barney's operatic film River of Fundament (2014).


Ancient Evenings is set in ancient Egypt. The novel opens with the reflections of a person who does not know who he is or what he was. Its characters include Menenhetet One and Meni living in the rule of Ramesses IX[1]

Publication history[edit]

Ancient Evenings was first published in the United Kingdom in 1983 by Macmillan London Limited.[2]


Media commentary[edit]

Ancient Evenings received positive reviews from the critic Harold Bloom in The New York Review of Books and the critic George Stade in The New Republic,[3][4] mixed reviews from Earl Rovit in Library Journal,[5] the critic Richard Poirier in The Times Literary Supplement,[6] and D. Keith Mano in National Review,[7] and negative reviews from the journalist James Wolcott in Harper's Magazine and Gary Giddens in The Nation.[8][9] Time listed it as a must-read.[10] It was also reviewed by the novelist Benjamin DeMott in The New York Times Book Review,[11] and discussed by the journalist Christopher Hitchens in The Times Literary Supplement,[12] Tara Marvel in Art Times,[13] Sonia Campagnola in Flash Art International,[14] Joshua Mack in ArtReview,[15] Livia Tenzer in Provincetown Arts,[16] and Lisa Havilah in Art Monthly Australasia.[17] The artist Matthew Barney and the curator Okwui Enwezor discussed the novel in an interview with Modern Painters.[18]

Bloom compared the novel to the work of the poet James Merrill, noting that both were influenced by the poet W. B. Yeats. He wrote that while it "defies usual aesthetic standards" it showed "spiritual power". He considered it superior to Mailer's previous novel The Executioner's Song (1979) and believed that it rivaled Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (1973) as an exercise in "monumental sado-anarchism." He suggested that it had an underlying motive similar to that of D. H. Lawrence's The Plumed Serpent (1926).[3]

Stade praised the opening passage of the novel, writing that its language was "powerful and disorienting". He described the novel as "exhilarating" and credited Mailer with developing its narrative with "patient and masterful skill" and presenting "fully and rigorously a form of consciousness that will seem at once alien and familiar to the modern reader." He criticized some parts of the novel for their "unintentional comedy", but believed that they did not undermine the work as a whole. He considered it better in some respects than Lawrence's Women in Love (1920), and concluded that it was a "permanent contribution to the possibilities of fiction and our communal efforts at self-discovery."[4] Rovit wrote that while the novel contained "richly realized characters" and showed "the sensuous texture of ancient Egyptian life", the tone of its narration, along with other features of it, tended to "drain the action of political and psychological complexity while denying the suspense inherent in the story-line" and that there was sometimes "too much information."[5]

Poirier described the novel as "the strangest of Norman Mailer's books" and "at once his most accomplished and his most problematic work." He noted that American reviewers of the novel "found things to make fun of". He compared it to the work of Pynchon, suggesting that Mailer similarly found it difficult to "resist displays of his encyclopedic researches". He also compared it to Joseph Conrad's Nostromo (1904), though he considered Mailer less successful than Conrad at "creating suspense and expectation" and suggested that many readers would feel "disaffection or impatience" with Ancient Evenings. He considered its motive to be "to claim some ultimate spiritual and cultural status" for the writer of fiction.[6]

Mano wrote that the novel was the product of impressive historical research and would "intrigue the soul". He credited Mailer with creating a "subtle and pervasive Egyptian Weltanschauung." However, he added that it would sometimes bore the reader and was, "half mad, half brilliant".[7] Wolcott wrote that while Mailer presented Ancient Evenings as the culmination of his work, the novel was unsuccessful.[8] Giddens noted that the novel had become a best-seller, but considered it a failure. He wrote that it had been greeted with disdain, contained little that was surprising, and was inferior to The Executioner's Song. While he granted that it contained some "extraordinarily fine passages", he nevertheless found it "at once preposterous and banal."[9]

Marvel described the novel as "often-unreadable", and suggested that the reason Mailer "feels the need for so much macho bluster" is that his best writing has an "unmistakable feminine delicacy."[13] Mack wrote that the novel dealt with "grand themes of resurrection and transformation" and noted its influence on Barney, but described it as "overly turgid".[15] Tenzer noted that Ancient Evenings was the inspiration for River of Fundament. However, she questioned whether the film was as successful artistically as the novel.[16] Havilah wrote that the novel was highly criticized when it was first published, with many reviewers describing it as unreadable. However, she noted that Ancient Evenings was an influence on Barney's operatic experimental film River of Fundament, which developed after Mailer asked Barney to read the novel's first hundred pages.[17] Barney, in conversation with Modern Painters, wrote that Ancient Evenings was "critically panned", but that when he read it, following Mailer's encouragement, he found that it had "something in it structurally that appealed to me very much", and despite disliking aspects of the novel such as its emphasis on Egyptian mythology and sexuality, felt challenged to develop it into a film.[18]

Responses from the gay community[edit]

Ancient Evenings received a mixed review from Dennis Forbes in The Advocate.[19] The book was also reviewed by the pornographer Boyd McDonald in the New York Native.[20]

Forbes was impressed by Mailer's understanding of ancient Egyptian history, specifically the "19th and 20th dynasties of Ramsessid Egypt". He believed that Mailer was mistaken only on minor details. He also credited Mailer with conveying "the fabric and flavor and aroma" of ancient Egypt. However, he considered the novel "plodding" and "essentially plotless" and believed that Mailer's use of reincarnation and telepathy as literary devices confused the narration. He wrote that it was not a "candidate for a quick read".[19]

William S. Burroughs acknowledged Ancient Evenings as an inspiration for his novel The Western Lands (1987).[21]

Academic assessments[edit]

Ancient Evenings was discussed by Philip Kuberski in ELH,[22] Kathryn Hume in Modern Philology,[23] and Robert L. Caserio in the Journal of Modern Literature.[24] Mailer discussed the novel in an interview with John Whalen-Bridge that was published in the Journal of Modern Literature.[25]

Kuberski compared the novel to Merrill's The Changing Light at Sandover. He credited Mailer with demonstrating "the interdependence of the physical and the metaphysical, sexuality and death, critique and creation".[22] Hume noted that the novel was the product of laborious research into ancient Egyptian religious practices, but that Mailer was criticized for appealing to a popular taste for "novelty locations" and that reviewers disliked Mailer's exploration of taboo subjects, sometimes dismissing it as obsessive and infantile. She compared the novel to Harlot's Ghost, and suggested that the way its characters engaged in "out-of-body mental travel" and heard voices was reminiscent of the psychologist Julian Jaynes's hypothesis about the origins of consciousness.[23] Caserio noted that, as with other novels published by Mailer since 1983, Ancient Evenings had attracted little comment from academic critics. He attributed this to the influence of feminism.[24] Mailer described Ancient Evenings as his most ambitious book, alongside Harlot's Ghost, saying that he was "amazed that people won’t go near those books." He considered Ancient Evenings a partly successful and partly unsuccessful work that would have been better had it been restricted to the Battle of Kadesh. He described his objective in the novel as being "to take the average movie story of a suspense film and make it believable" and to show the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians. Whalen-Bridge described it as an "orientalist fantasy" and suggested that it encouraged readers to identify with "imperial America."[25]

The novelist Anthony Burgess listed Ancient Evenings as one of the best English novels since 1939 in Ninety-nine Novels (1984). He suggested that it was "perhaps the best reconstruction of the far past" since Gustave Flaubert's Salammbô (1862) and described it as Mailer's best novel since The Naked and the Dead (1948).[26] In The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (1994), Bloom described Ancient Evenings as "exuberantly inventive" . He compared the nightmare that opens the novel to passages in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust, and suggested that it was its strongest part. He argued that it is no longer possible for historical novels to become part of the Western canon of literature and that the work "could not survive its placement in the ancient Egypt of The Book of the Dead", but nevertheless listed Ancient Evenings as one of the artistic works that have been important and influential in Western culture.[27]



  1. ^ Mailer 1983, pp. 3–709.
  2. ^ Mailer 1983, p. iv.
  3. ^ a b Bloom 1983, p. 3.
  4. ^ a b Stade 1983, pp. 32–36.
  5. ^ a b Rovit 1983, p. 759.
  6. ^ a b Poirier 1983, pp. 591–592.
  7. ^ a b Mano 1983, p. 1293.
  8. ^ a b Wolcott 1983, p. 81.
  9. ^ a b Giddens 1983, pp. 803–804.
  10. ^ Time 1983, p. 108.
  11. ^ The Times Literary Supplement 1987, p. 350.
  12. ^ Hitchens 1987, p. 378.
  13. ^ a b Marvel 2006, p. 23.
  14. ^ Campagnola 2008, p. 136.
  15. ^ a b Mack 2010, p. 125.
  16. ^ a b Tenzer 2014, pp. 119–121.
  17. ^ a b Havilah 2014, pp. 60–64.
  18. ^ a b Modern Painters 2014, pp. 64–73.
  19. ^ a b Forbes 1983, p. 50.
  20. ^ McDonald 1983, p. 40.
  21. ^ Burroughs 1988, p. vii.
  22. ^ a b Kuberski 1989, pp. 229–254.
  23. ^ a b Hume 2000, pp. 417–444.
  24. ^ a b Caserio 2006, pp. V–VIII.
  25. ^ a b Whalen-Bridge 2006, pp. 1–16.
  26. ^ Burgess 1984, pp. 132–133.
  27. ^ Bloom 1995, pp. 20, 212, 534.


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  • Bloom, Harold (1995). The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. New York: Riverhead Books. ISBN 978-1-57322-514-4.
  • Burgess, Anthony (1984). Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English since 1939 — A Personal Choice. London: Allison & Busby. ISBN 0-85031-584-0.
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