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AWAKE by Harald Voetmann


by Harald Voetmann ; translated by Johanne Sorgenfri Ottosen

Pub Date: Sept. 7th, 2021
ISBN: 978-0-8112-3081-0
Publisher: New Directions

This strange novella concerns Pliny the Elder and his drive to catalog all of nature.

Pliny the Elder, a Roman writer and military man, is famous for his encyclopedic Naturalis Historia and for perishing when Vesuvius erupted in 79 C.E. Voetmann, a Danish writer and translator of classical Latin works, has written a trilogy that begins with this volume, his first book in English, and continues with one on Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe and one on the 11th-century German mystic Othlo of St. Emmerman. Not beach reads, perhaps. This novel is loosely constructed with brief citations from the Historia, vignettes and observations from Pliny’s life, and comments from his nephew, Pliny the Younger. The fluid prose owes much to translator Ottosen. One thematic thread is the contrast between the intellectual effort to rein in nature’s extraordinary variety and man’s ugly, ignorant cruelty. The great scholar himself is obese and prone to nosebleeds and dictates from a filthy bed. He has the feet of his servant Diocles nailed to a fig tree because he tried to escape. He describes dispassionately an arena entertainment in which the bellies of various pregnant animals and a woman are slit open before an elated audience. In lighter moments, Pliny gives a disastrous public reading. His nephew complains that his wife has replaced “a large portion of my library” with lurid romance novels. Diocles has several comic sections before he falls to screaming at the fig tree. And some of the knowledge Pliny the Elder professes is laughably off the mark to a 21st-century reader—as our own grand schemes may seem 2,000 years hence, if there is a hence.

An interesting work and a good introduction to this unusual writer.