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Harald Voetmann: Vågen (Awake)

Pliny the Elder is essentially known for two things. He wrote a lot of books (you can read about some of them in a letter his nephew and adopted son Pliny the Younger wrote, a translation of which appears in the appendix to this book). However, it is Natural History that is his best-known work, firstly because, unlike most of his other works, it survived and secondly because it is one of the first attempts to write what we would call an encyclopedia. This novel is to a great extent about his writing of this book.

However, he is also known for the manner of his death. When Vesuvius erupted, he set out both to investigate but also to rescue people trapped there. As the ship approached the shore, cinders and pumice started to fall. The helmsman recommended turning back but Pliny famously said “Fortune favours the bold. However, because of unfavourable winds their departure was delayed. A plume of hot toxic gases fell on them. Pliny who was both overweight and suffered from chronic respiratory problems was asphyxiated and died. His body was left behind but when they returned three days later it was preserved. This account, by the way, is disputed.

This is the first of a trilogy of historical novels, with this one featuring Pliny the Elder. Voetmann is a classical scholar and has translated Latin texts.

The book consists of Pliny the Elder telling his story and Pliny the Younger telling both his own story but, more particularly, that of Pliny the Elder.

Pliny was an adviser to Vespasian and that was his day job, so he spent his nights writing his Natural History. he would lie in bed, strange concoctions stuffed into his nose to help his breathing, dictating to his hapless slave, Diocles. Writing on poor quality wax at night was not an easy task and Diocles hated it. Diocles would also have to read various source books for Pliny.

Pliny describes his task: I simply wish to remind the reader that I am in a rush to describe the world in detail. The key theme of the book, however, is the contrast between this worthy and (as we shall see) imperfect intellectual effort and what the real world of those days is like.

We see numerous examples of this. Firstly there is the spectacle where pregnant animals are taken into an arena and, to the glee of the spectators, a man slashes the animal’s belly open with a spear and the foetus drops out, to the great distress of the mother. The final victim is a human woman.

Pliny may seem an admirable person but when his slave Diocles, fed up with all the writing, tries to escape but is caught, he is tortured to death. The other slaves have to watch to let them know what will happen if they try the same thing. Pliny is aware of the cruelty of the world. I have collected 20,000 examples of nature’s sublime cruelty.

Pliny is aware that he cannot hope to codify everything in the world. We see an example of this in the writings of his nephew, who tells us that, thanks to his connections with Vespasian , sea captains would bring him strange plants they found on their journeys. These were kept in a special garden but he never did find out what they were.

More particularly, we get lots of example of knowledge he discusses which we know to be eminently false. For example, his father used to hold gladiator contests. The father, who suffered from the falling sickness (i.e. epilepsy) reserved the bodies for himself and drank their blood as a cure for his disease. When he had drunk his fill, the body was cut up and pieces of it were sold as cures for various ailments.

Some of the current knowledge he himself is able to reject. For example, it is generally thought that there is a star for every person. He rejects this idea. There is also the view that stars are everywhere but all too often he knows that these are something else, such as fireflies. Before we laugh at some of the old wives’ tales in this book, we might well remember the various reasons anti-vaxxers have given for not having the covid vaccine.

We might admire Pliny’s work but this view is not necessarily generally shared. We get the comments of two people. Diocles, who is clearly somewhat biased, says The master’s mapping of nature doesn’t amount to anything, it only steeps the world in doubt and hesitation and tedious references to other authors’ doubts and hesitations.

Pliny the Younger has collected his uncle’s work in his library. My dear Calpurnia [his wife] has done away with a large portion of my library and replaced it with droning stories of Egyptian princesses and young lovers from Carthage or Milesian tales of a more sordid nature, enough even to make you blush. However, while not entirely happy he comments all I wish to do is rip her clothes off and fuck her until this pretence is dispelled. For this, I should merrily burn down all the world’s libraries.

The world is an ugly place and Pliny has no doubts about that. His nephew at least enjoys sex. We do not know what Pliny the Elder’s sex life was like but we do know he was never married and apparently had no children. His great work still exists and clearly was a major achievement for the age (though his one public reading of it was a dismal flop). Whether we can admire him as a man is open to doubt.

First published in 2010 by Gyldendal
First published in English in 2021 by New Directions
Translated by Johanne Sorgenfri Ottosen