HERE AT LAST is Norman Mailer's Egyptian novel, "so ambitious," says the author, "it's absolutely beyond my measure of anticipation." The reader, too, might feel that the whole thing -- the whole massive thing -- is beyond him. But Mr. Mailer is at hand clamoring to good effect for our attention: "I think I've written the best novel about magic that's ever been written. . . . If the book is not good enough, then I'm not good enough," and so on.
In barest essentials, Norman Mailer is offering us 709 pages of recollection reincarnate. Six-year-old Menenhetet II tells the story he hears while feigning sleep during one long night at the Pharaoh's palace. His great grandfather, Menenhete I, is persuaded to recall his four reincarnations. His audience consists of the boy Menenhetet, Pharaoh Ramses IX, later claimed as the boy's real father, his mother Hathfertiti and Nef-khep-aukhem, his supposed father. The elder Menenhetet, born a peasant, rises in his first life to be chief charioteer to the great Ramses II, then governor of the "little queens" of the royal harem (unlimited scope for curiously old-fashioned male sex fantasy here), and finally lieutenant and lover of his first queen, Nefertiri. In his second life he becomes high priest at the Temple of Karnak in Thebes, descends in his third to be a loose-living papyrus merchant and concludes with a fourth life as an army officer, healer and elder statesman.
So, Menenhetet I with his convenient span of lives -- the four extend over 180 years -- witnesses a large and colorful slice of ancient Egyptian history, including the 67-year reign of the great Ramses II (1290-1224 B.C.). But does this amazing and at times stupefying chronicle of events, magic and mythology add up to a successful novel, yet alone the great book of Mailer's dreams?
Pharaonic Egyptian history is not exactly a part of our standard cultural repertoire. We don't bandy about the names of Seti I and Tuthmosis III as we might, say, that of Achilles with his heel of Nero, fiddling while Rome burns. Ancient Egypt was a culture of deeds, of temples, of sculpture, not literature. No Egyptian Odyssey, no Beowulf of the Nile has come to light. Only with the decoding of hieroglyphic writing, as late as 1822, was our age handed the keys to some of the mysteries of Egypt. Much, of course, remains a mystery still. The author comments with his usual candor "I've taken a field -- I'm a bully -- where there's no competition."
Ancient Evenings has a rambling, stop-and-go narrative and minimal character development -- the boy narrator is a precocious shadow, the listening Pharaoh a self-doubting specter, and Menenhetet the charioteer, a curiously passive hero. Even the slow chronological course of the story is often brought to a grinding halt by a series of magnificent tableaux. The legend of the goddess Isis and her husband Osiris is told in such lavish detail that one wonders if Mailer himself were bewitched. Osiris is cut into 14 pieces. Isis ranges the length and breadth of the land to reassemble him, with many setbacks and magical transformations: "On the first day of the fourteenth year, Isis, Anubis [jackal god of cemeteries], and the hounds found the last soaking stump of Osiris in the steaming salts of Yeb, and the sun went through an eclipse. Isis trembled from a sudden fear of all the worlds to come. The leg stood up in her grasp as if its will were to walk." This is unfamiliar mythology to most of us evoking no helpful echoes from distant classrooms. But Mailer does somehow bring to life not only these powerful and often capricious deities, but also the great secular events of the time: the bloody battle of Kadesh, for example. The Egyptians led by Ramses II clashed with the Hittites, both sides driving some of the earliest versions of horse-drawn war chariots. We've been to Troy, to Gaul, to Agincourt and to Waterloo. Now with Mailer, we are there at Kadesh, at the right hand of the Pharaoh's charioteer: "One pair of horses, stripped of all three men, tried to dash over a collision of other chariots, but stumbled and the empty chariot catapulted overhead while the horses stampeded into the ground, I never heard such a scream come from animals before. The worst was a howl from a steed User-mare-Setpenere [Ramses II]