Norman Mailer may have won the Pulitzer Prize and unanimous critical acclaim for The Executioner’s Song, but as he collected his plaudits the author believed that his true masterpiece was yet to come. “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,” Mailer told George Plimpton a few years later when discussing the decade-long gestation of his sprawling 1983 novel Ancient Evenings. But when that book was finally published, not everybody shared his view. “It is, speaking bluntly, a disaster,” The New York Times stated, while New York Magazine described it as “nasty, brutish and endless” and The Nation dismissed it as a “long and tedious wallow in the faeces of Ancient Egypt.” Nevertheless, the book sat in the bestseller list for 17 weeks and it still has many ardent defenders today.
Whether you think the book is a misunderstood masterpiece, an unreadable slog or something in between is a matter of personal opinion, but the one thing everyone could surely agree on was that Ancient Evenings was unfilmable. Opening my copy of the book (which I long ago filed away in the “unreadable” section) at random, my eyes landed on the following passage, which is indicative of the novel’s content:
“Then Thoth put His hand on the hips of Set, that is, so far as He dared, for Set was shaking with rage, but Thoth proceeded to make the same speech to the semen of Horus. Would it appear? A voice flew right out of Set’s buttocks. It was a full, sweet-smelling wind, and it said, ‘I am the transformation of the seed of Horus.’ This wind smelled sweet as lettuce. The Gods roared. For They knew Horus had buggered Set.”
Stanley Kubrick famously argued that “if it can be written or thought, it can be filmed,” and in this case the only man bold enough – or foolhardy enough – to accept the challenge was Matthew Barney. Appointed to the task by none other than Mailer himself, who regarded the artist as an authentic genius, Barney has very liberally adapted Ancient Evenings into an epic, six-hour extravaganza called River of Fundament. This magnum opus recently received its UK premiere in London, having prompted applause, disgust, awe, walkouts and general bafflement at its previous screenings. I felt it would be unwise to immediately jump in at the deep end with River of Fundament before familiarising myself with the artist’s work, and so, before his latest film screened, I spent the day with Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle.