Unbloodied by the Critical Pounding, Norman Mailer Defends the Egyptian Novel That Took a Decade to Write
Since its publication last month, Norman Mailer's Ancient Evenings, a story of Egypt in the 13th century B.C., has drawn the kind of critical fire that only a major writer could expect or endure. Reviewers attacked it variously for its ponderous length (709 pages), its scatological content, and an overall lack of coherence. Nonetheless, Mailer, 60, who calls the book "my most ambitious work," has reaped rewards; his publisher, Little, Brown, gave him a $1.4 million advance, the paperback rights fetched another $500,000, and Ancient Evenings has been consistently on the New York Times best-seller list. Mailer would like this, his 22nd book in a 37-year career, to achieve a stature commensurate with the labors of imagination required to produce it. He spoke of the novel's decade-long creation with fellow author George Plimpton.
Given the severe criticisms, would you consider changing Ancient Evenings, had you the chance?
I'm not sure that I'd change it much. I spent four months last fall going through the book and I took a hundred pages out. I didn't go in for any major surgery. The length is necessary; slowness is important to give a sense of the pace. If you speed the book up you gain a quick readability, but you lose the pace of ancient Egypt. Also, I was working with the vanity that this was the nearest I was ever going to come to the possibility of writing a great book.
And that's what you were trying with Ancient Evenings?
Whether the book is great or a disaster—and it's been called both already—my attempt was to create a new psychology, a new consciousness. After all, the Egyptians had a psychology that existed long before Freud. I was trying to write of these matters from the perspective of those times. One of the conceits of this book is that it's an Egyptian novel, and since there are no others, it's the Egyptian novel. I mean if one supposed—which of course is impossible, given the culture of the time—that one rather talented young man had written a huge novel about Egypt, this would be it; it would have come down to us as an extraordinary work out of the past with no tone of the present.
And with no attempt in it to establish a metaphor between Egypt and America?
No. Indeed, exactly the opposite. I know that Harold Bloom in the New York Review of Books said I was writing about America. He may be right, but at least that was not my conscious intent.
Wouldn't it then follow that you'd have to keep yourself—the contemporary Norman Mailer and his distinctive sensibilities—out of the book?
One of the big problems certain people have with Ancient Evenings is that they keep thinking of me as they read. They find that they can't concentrate; it's distracting; it's a great pain in the neck. That's obviously a problem if you're a well-known writer. Thomas Mann had to face it when he wrote his famous Joseph books about Egypt. Of course, his problem was larger—he was by far the most famous writer in Germany and had an immense international reputation. Mann could not write a book about Egypt in which he didn't appear. So he did, very correctly, in there to mediate for the reader, saying, in effect, "Look, we can't really understand Egypt, but I've been studying these people for a very long time, I know as much as my novelist's brain can contain, and I will, in effect, be your guide." As he told the story he kept stepping in and saying, "Now what's going on here is most peculiar. It's very hard to understand what their motivations were right here, but let us assume that possibly this is so. Whereas in this other case, I must confess I will leave it to the reader."
The reader, in consequence, was comfortable because Thomas Mann was there. On the other hand, I felt that one doesn't want to be comfortable with Egypt; therefore I kept thinking of Mann, for whom I have immense respect, as being nonetheless the model to avoid. What I hoped to do was capture a culture in a way that would make the reader feel right in the middle of it, and so look up in shock and say, "My God, where am I? I'm not here; I'm in Egypt." Such total disorientation would be quite an aesthetic experience.
But surely your voice, your preoccupation with odor and ordures, for example, gives the game away.
I didn't see any way to write about Egypt without entering a few unhappy subjects. In Egypt, given the Nile flooding its banks and turning villages into islands in the river, with detritus every-where, animals living in the houses, everyone huddled together, one knows that it was an incredibly fecal place. I dealt with it because there was no trying to avoid it. If I did, I was not going to get to the heart of my theme, which is that the Egyptians have much to tell us—precisely because they came before the Judeo-Christian era—about power, wealth, sex and death, and right in there is waste, excrement. That's one of the fundamental factors. It's no secret that Freud gave us a firm set of connections between anality and power...and what I learned about Egypt seemed a kind of confirmation.
What about your famous nose? Did you smoke at one time and then quit?
I smoked an awful lot. An American Dream is the first novel I wrote during my attempts to stop, and, of course, one's sense of smell is incredibly acute at such times. It certainly turns up in the writing. By 1966 I quit smoking forever, and that faculty, though not as strong, has continued. My eyesight is not that good. Writers with marvelous eyesight tend to show that in the writing. I don't think Hemingway's got three smells in all his work.
Did your editor make any firm suggestions—perhaps that you were going on at too great a length—in Ancient Evenings?
My editor, Roger Donald, was very high on the book and still is. We agreed, pretty much, that the chances had to be taken. He is one brave editor.
Might it not be difficult for an editor to press his views on an author of fame and distinction?
The editor is there to be a great and noble blocking back and keep people from wrecking your mood when you're at work. But to name one's peers—Vonnegut, Pynchon, Updike, John Irving, Bellow, and so on—if I were their editor, I'd hate like hell to tell them, hey, I think you're too long here. That'd be an enormous responsibility to take. When you get to the place where we all are as writers, you're supposed to be able to do your own editing.
What do you think are your major weaknesses as a writer?
I could list about six or seven but I don't think I will. They'll be thrown at me in later years—"Mailer himself admits that he's no good at..." But mind you, authors tend to make a weakness a virtue. For example, I doubt that Hemingway was capable of writing a long complex sentence with a lot of architecture in the syntax. So he turned that inability into the virtue of writing short declarative sentences and long run-on sentences connected by conjunctions. Faulkner was not capable of writing simply without personal pain. He turned that into a virtue and as a result you get this extraordinary mood out of his writing. Henry Miller couldn't really tell a story with any pleasure. He preferred his excursions away from the story, and those excursions are what make him a great writer.
And you won't say what you've turned into a virtue?
I'd say I have most of my problems with plot. The moment I think of a good plot, I find that the book is almost impossible to write because I know I won't believe in it. Life consists of people plotting all the time, and the plots never coming through. We always say, I'll make this or that out of my life, and then life confounds us. I like a plot that develops during the writing. I don't like one that moves ahead of my characters, because then my characters don't live. You can do the same thing to characters by allying them to plot that we would do to our children if we very carefully picked out their colleges, their wives, installed them in the proper job—well, you know what happens to kids like that. The same thing weighs on characters in a novel if they never get to fulfill their capabilities; they never come alive. The development slowly comes into focus as I work. Bill Buckley is wonderful at plots—his mind works that way—but nobody lives and breathes in his books with any more three-dimensionality than some passing movie star who can't act.
How did you begin Ancient Evenings?
With the Egyptian burial customs. Then at a certain point—about 100 pages into the book—I had to emerge onto terra firma...from the Land of the Dead to the land of the living—the fanciest literary transition I've ever gone through.
Working on the book off and on for more than a decade, how did you keep track of where you were?
I reread what I'd written, revising as I went along. There were ways to get psyched up, certain books I'd read. I never could have written Ancient Evenings without the 10 volumes of drawings in Lepsius Denkmaeler. These extraordinary books were printed around 1850—really at the birth of Egyptology. The pages are of very thick paper, almost like papyrus, so when you turn a page it's like a great sail flapping in a lull, and sometimes if you are able to do it neatly it's equal to a sail jibbing. I'd spend hours in the New York Public Library just peering at these incredible drawings of the temples and the tombs. Aside from this, the research was also a matter of endless reading until one had digested the material. A lot of it was contradictory. The 20th-century Egyptologists have a very different view from those of the 19th century.
Did you see any scholars?
I just read books. I was scared of going to Egyptologists. It would have taken another 10 years. My conscience was also gnawing at me that I should learn hieroglyphics. I was awfully tempted. I finally decided not to, because I felt it would be a self-defeating study. When you're past 50, one's memory isn't good enough to learn a new language. But actually most of the clues I had about life in those times came from language—a two-volume hieroglyphic dictionary by E.A. Wallis Budge. In it, you begin to discover the extraordinary puns and contradictory meanings that the Egyptians put on words. The word for "oil" is the same for "helplessness." The word for "think" or "ponder" is nearly the same as the word for "anus," and that also means "the moral of the tale." The word for "radiance" can also mean "conceive." The ancient Egyptians were a tactile, sensitive, visceral people.
What effect do bad reviews have on you?
I treat them like a politician running for office. A couple of friends called up after the bad review in the Sunday New York Times and asked, "Are you all right?" I'd seen it a week before, so any unhappiness I'd had about it was now digested. I said that it was like realizing that the county chairman in Schenectady is deciding against your candidacy. But to lose Schenectady doesn't mean that you stop running. It isn't my ego that's hurt, it's my damn pocketbook. Getting a bad review in the Times hurts you as much as any single review can.
Over the country as a whole (I'm beginning to sound like a theatrical producer), 15 out of 25 reviews have been very good. The prediction that I would catch the very best and the very worst has been true.
Have you ever taken it out on a reviewer personally?
When I was younger I used to consider a bad review a personal insult and would consider a guy who wrote it evil. In fact, I have never actually punched out a reviewer, which I say with a certain amount of wistfulness. I once sat next to Philip Rahv after he had written an atrocious review of An American Dream. Philip Rahv had his virtues, bless him, but physical courage was not one of them. So I made a point of sitting next to him at a party, and while I smiled at him, I kept my body firmly pressed into his, leaning into him, while we had a long 30-minute conversation about something else altogether. I was perfectly pleasant the entire time and everything seemed all right except that we were both tilted alarmingly from my leaning into him. He was in an absolute panic, waiting for me to strike. It must have seemed an odd sight from the other side of the table: He was a heavy man, and the two of us must have looked like two doughnuts crushed together in a box.
How has your immediate family reacted to the fortunes of Ancient Evenings?
I've always kept my writing separate from my kids. They're interested in a lot of things, but not in my writing. Of course, they're loyal. Their feeling with a bad review is, "Oh, that bastard, how dare he"—just a good family reaction.
Did you ever think of doing Ancient Evenings as nonfiction rather than using the novel form?
Never. Of course, nonfiction is much easier. Endlessly easier. It would have been no problem at all to write such a book. I could have done it in a couple of years at most—a series of essays on the nature of Egypt—and they would have been fascinating to readers and a lot more agreeable to some. But it never crossed my mind. Everything would have worked with that method but the feel. I wanted to immerse the reader in the feeling that he or she was in ancient Egypt.
Would you suggest actually going to Egypt? You went there once, didn't you?
Hated it. Climbed the pyramids, quite illegally, in seven minutes and ran down in five. The place has become a Third World country. It had nothing to do with ancient Egypt and so was terribly distracting to me. I understood that I could do my book only if I didn't go back there.
Have you talked to any Egyptians about Ancient Evenings?
I don't think it's relevant—any more than if I'd written a book about ancient Greece it would be relevant to talk to a Greek. Ancient Greece belongs to all of us.
As indeed Ancient Evenings does.
I would hope so.
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