Excerpt from a review of Ancient Evenings in the Springfield State Journal-Register, 4-17-83
In 1972, with twenty books behind him, Norman Mailer began to disengage from contemporary America, and started work on a novel that he hoped would “transcend the domination of actual events. The break was neither swift nor absolute, however. From 1972 to 1980 he published five books on four famous-infamous Americans: two on Marilyn Monroe, and one each on Muhammad Ali, Henry Miller and Gary Gilmore. Between spurts of work on these biographical books (which paid the bills), he labored deliberately on Ancient Evenings, a huge novel set in the Egypt of the 19th and 20th Dynasties (1290-1100 B.C.). Shell-shocked by the sixties, and depressed by the seventies, Mailer still understood that he would not be able to escape the temptation to speak directly to his time unless he chose a setting alien to Western culture, a setting so remote that historical memory could barely reach it, so far back in time as to stop it.
His original idea had been to write about Rome, Greece and Egypt, and he even made a trip to the Mediterranean to pick up some atmospherics. He never got past Egypt. Mailer was not impressed with present-day Egypt, but he immediately recognized what his extensive research confirmed: the Egypt of 3,000 years ago was swimming in religiosity, awash in faith. The citizens of Thebes and Memphis believed unreservedly in the Gods, and not as remote overseers, but as forces and presences in the smoke of the hearth and the mud of the Nile. Their nation was not a theocracy like Geneva or Plymouth Bay Colony; the priests were in liege to the pharaoh and he himself was a God. The reign of Ramses II, in which most of the action of Ancient Evenings takes place, is invested in magic and ceremony, blessings and curses. It was not a starched or stingy religion that these ancient Egyptians practiced, but a dynamic one, alternately graceful and fierce, always fervent. There was no separate secular life. The intrigues and projects of the Gods were manifested in the Egyptians’ prayers, fornications, marriages, and battles. Religion and sex, love and war: these are the four of the novel’s chief concerns.