cover image Awake


Harald Voetmann, trans. from the Danish by Johanne Sorgenfri Ottosen. New Directions, $14.95 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-0-8112-3081-0

Voetmann reimagines the absurd, grotesque, and at times, cruel world of Pliny the Elder in his peculiar English-language debut. Each section of the book starts with a quote from Naturalis Historia, the 37-volume precursor of encyclopedias written by the historical author and naturalist, then continues with musings from Voetmann’s Pliny the Elder and comic comments from his nephew, Pliny the Younger, who every now and then doubts the legitimacy of the recounted events and his uncle’s ability to understand nature as it is (“He is confusing stars with fireflies or something”). Despite being affected by frequent nosebleeds and general malaise, Pliny the Elder tries to produce a “mapping of nature” with reflections on death, the human condition, and various events that shape the world he inhabits (for example, the macabre annual ritual in his native Novum Comum of setting the goddess Laria’s portrait on fire and then raping an enslaved boy or a woman). While this kind of brutality may have been the norm for Emperor Vespasian’s Roman Empire, the descriptions sometimes feel gratuitous in Voetmann’s account. Rather than a plot, this is stitched together with anecdotes and meditations, and it succeeds at rendering the ancient author’s moments of inspiration. For a slim volume, it packs a memorable punch. (Sept.)