On the first page of Advertisements for Myself (1959), Norman Mailer announces that he has been “imprisoned with a perception which will settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time.” In all of his subsequent work, he has put himself forward as a great novelist in the making, and many critics have regarded him as America’s most prominent contemporary literary voice. Even in a seemingly self-effacing book such as The Executioner’s Song (1979), one is reminded of Mailer’s huge ambition. At the same time, however, each new book has been offered as a provisional product of the author’s evolving existential vision and not as a definitive utterance. Thus, Mailer has been opportunistic and eclectic, taking what comes to hand—no matter whether it is Marilyn Monroe or a moon shot—and turning it toward his sensibility. Not until Ancient Evenings, written with much deliberation during a period of approximately ten years (1972-1982), has he dared to call one of his works his magnum opus.
Ancient Evenings is a summing-up and a testament wherein Mailer appears to have concentrated his whole will on expressing in their entirety the themes implicit in his career. Ancient Evenings is also a cosmological treatise in which the author of An American Dream (1965) and Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967) wants nothing less than to discover the sources of his imaginative power by returning to the origins of modern consciousness. If modern man could experience the very birth of consciousness, then perhaps his awareness of all things, or of how human consciousness participates in all things, would mitigate the overpowering sense of alienation that pervades twentieth century literature. This is the revolutionary premise of Mailer’s long Egyptian novel.
Reviewers have been quick to grasp Ancient Evenings as the embodiment of Mailer’s metaphysics and poetics. Throughout his career, Mailer has argued the interdependence of fact and fiction, of observation and imagination, and Ancient Evenings constitutes his supreme demonstration of that interdependence, first explicitly enunciated in Advertisements for Myself: “There is finally no way one can try to apprehend complex reality without a ’fiction.’”
The time and place of Mailer’s novel are historical: Egypt in the nineteenth and twentieth dynasties (1290-1100 B.C.). Many of the characters and the events are also historical and based upon his extensive reading of the literature on ancient Egypt. The frequent evocations of the country’s geography and topography, of its architecture and climate, and of its varied sights and smells, reflect the author’s effort to encompass the whole of a civilization. Beginning with the first sentence—“Crude thoughts and fierce forces are my state”—the reader is immersed in a style that confounds expectations—above all, the expectation of Mailer’s active authorial voice transforming everything it articulates, even when that voice hides behind the conceit of having been “imprisoned with a perception.” In Ancient Evenings, the imprisonment is palpable, for “my state” is governed by “crude thoughts and fierce forces.” Something very strange is happening to the passive voice of the novel’s first narrator-protagonist. This is, Mailer would have the reader believe, Egyptian consciousness, premodern; the “I” is not even yet born. The narrator-protagonist quite literally does not know who he is and therefore does not have the faintest idea of who he has been or who he might become. As the reader eventually figures out, Menenhetet II is undergoing the painful process of rebirth, a rebirth that is portrayed, however, not as merely the development of a personal identity but as a phenomenon of nature, a geological upheaval: “Mountains writhe. I see waves of flame. Washes, flashes, waves of flame.”
This first book of the novel is awesome and quite wonderful in its depiction of a consciousness trying to differentiate itself from all that surrounds it. It is tempting to see here an allegory of the artist’s search for a personal voice and vision that is also analogous to each sentient person’s wish to know himself and his world. In his other writings, Mailer has...
(The entire section is 1776 words.)