HARALD VOETMANN (tr. Johanne Sorgenfri Ottosen)
$14.95 trade paper, available now
The Publisher Says: In a shuttered bedroom in ancient Italy, the sleepless Pliny the Elder lies in bed obsessively dictating new chapters of his Natural History to his slave Diocles. Fat, wheezing, imperious, and prone to nosebleeds, Pliny does not believe in spending his evenings in repose: No—to be awake is to be alive. There’s no time to waste if he is to classify every element of the natural world in a single work. By day Pliny the Elder carries out his many civic duties and gives the occasional disastrous public reading. But despite his astonishing ambition to catalog everything from precious metals to the moon, as well as a collection of exotic plants sourced from the farthest reaches of the world, Pliny the Elder still takes immense pleasure in the common rose. After he rushes to an erupting Mount Vesuvius and perishes in the ash, his nephew, Pliny the Younger, becomes custodian of his life’s work. But where Pliny the Elder saw starlight, Pliny the Younger only sees fireflies.
In masterfully honed prose, Voetmann brings the formidable Pliny the Elder (and his pompous nephew) to life. Awake is a comic delight about one of history’s great minds and the not-so-great human body it was housed in.
I RECEIVED MY DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.
My Review: First, read this:
Sex can be either play or labor, depending on the participant's role and reasons for taking part, but as we have eliminated the category of play, there is only one option left. Sexual activity can only be defined as a kind of labor, and all participants would do well to strive for the superior work ethic of the slaves who know they must endure it. You won't hear them cursing and fuming and acting out whole other are trying to nap—trouble springs from the perceived masters of the situation, who trust that their ejaculation, under the right circumstances, is for pleasure, and never realize that their urge is but earthly slavery imposed on them.
It's different with women. I would not go so far as to suggest that women are more shameless than men as several examples of the female pudicitia exist, but perhaps their shame os more general, shame felt on behalf of an entire species rather than the indivivual alone. Even as they indulge their shame and allow themselves to go mad with desire for bloodspattered gladiators and dusty donkey herders, it can hardly be considered personal.
It flows from there....
Pliny the Elder, a titanic figure in Western culture for his unbelievably vast (and hubristic, if you ask me) effort to contain a description of all of Creation in one encyclopedic work, is here in his subligaculum. It's a wry, ironic character who addresses us. It's not, however, a recital (perish forbid! he did poorly at those) but a polyphony of perspectives on the topic "privilege."
What the novella does at its best is bring the reader that quiet, deeply personal glow of happy recognition, that connection to the character we seek so often fruitlessly in less meditative works. What the novella does not deliver, nor in my opinion does it promist to do so, is Action. Pliny the Elder is, well...elder...when we meet him. He's suffering from what sounds to me like congestive heart failure. He's lost interest, such as he had to begin with, in the pleasures of the flesh and even the world. He's forcing himself to remain connected to the suffering planet because he does not yet KNOW EVERYTHING and that is an intolerable pain.
As someone who believed that finishing a book a day for decades would enable him to read All The Books, this is a delusion the pain of losing which I can relate to in a deeply personal way.
The other voices in the polyphony are his priggish, licentious nephew Pliny the Younger, whose very sneering judgments of his uncle are mercifully kept short...I wouldn't have been able to endure too much more of the rotten-souled grasping whoremonger!...and his slave Diocles, a youngish Greek scribe whose hands are worn out and blistered in copying Master's words as he emits them...all while he dreams of mounting, well, anyone. He can not focus on the raspy reedy wheezing bloviations of fat old Gaius Plinius Caecilius for long, not unserviced as he is! And Master is surely dying, he won't miss that silver ewer but Diocles will miss the services the professionals will give him for it!
I think of Pliny the Elder as the lunatic whose curiosity got him killed in Pompeii's eruption. Author Voetmann is a more subtle man than I can aspire to become:
I certainly do not believe that life is so valuable it must be prolonged at all costs. You who are of the opposite opinion will die nonetheless, even if your life has been prolonged by perverse acts and abominations. Therefore, let each take the following to be the soul's greatest remedy: Among all the gifts which nature has bestowed on man none surpass a timely death, and the best thing is that anyone can procure it for himself.
"Perverse acts and abominations" indeed....
This slim book comes out tomorrow, heralding the translations (at last! this is a 2010 publication!) of the other two parts of "his trilogy about mankind's inhuman drive to conquer nature," as the publisher's promotional material says. It also says this short work is at times wildly unpleasant, well actually Claire Messud said that in Harper's, but it's oddly true. The reason I say oddly is that the book's prose is never aiming for vulgarity or puerile transgressivness. It is aiming, insomuch as that feat is possible, for the world-view of man dead for almost 2,000 years rendered as comprehensible as it's possible to be...there's much of credulousness, pompously pooh-poohed in Pliny the Younger's tiresomely superior interpolations, in Pliny the Elder's worldview. His memories of Novum Comum's lake-side rituals were particularly the topic of scorn...his gardens in Tusculum, the ones Pliny the Younger swears he failed to catalog, are the source of an anecdote that sounds half-remembered and half-repurposed by the angry younger man.
I prefer to remember Pliny the Elder thus:
Greetings, Nature, mother of all things, and deign to give me your favor, I am alone among Romans in praising you in your every expression.
He loved what he possessed, and it pained him not to possess Nature utterly.
Let that sink in.