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.
Just like a human face, Awake is a novel like no other.
— Barbara Graziosi, TLS
Awake is original, piercing, and richly exhilarating. Voetmann’s text is a sharp reminder of how powerfully and succinctly well-chosen words can create a world, render experiences, and express thoughts—in short, transport us, to places and in ways we could not have imagined.
— Claire Messud, Harper's
Voetmann seems to work from the ground up. Although Awake and Sublunar might be called novels of ideas, Voetmann's intellectual concerns are not forcefully imposed upon fictional dramas arbitrarily designed to illustrate them, but rather arise from particulars that are irreducible. Each page of the books contains a richness of detail and a depth of attention that has all but vanished from the contemporary novel—or, for that matter, any other mass-produced object. The novels themselves—each scarcely more than a hundred pages— are miniatures that appear to have been less written than chiseled. Images glow in stark relief against the somber backdrops and recur with slight variations, as though guided by a Fibonacci sequence. Amid the guts and gore, there are moments of quiet splendour.
— Meghan O’Gieblyn, The New York Review of Books
This strange novella concerns Pliny the Elder and his drive to catalog all of nature. 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…An interesting work and a good introduction to this unusual writer.
Vivid, earthy, by turns hilarious, gross, and tragic, but always powerfully engaging. Reading and rereading this book remains a rare pleasure.
— Susanna Nied
A slim novel of ideas, seemingly turning its back on the present, or rather illuminating from within a turn that leads to the very history of European mentality.
— Svenska Dagbladet
A flawless and sparkling little monument to human life.
Reading Voetmann’s books makes me feel so alive. His voice is like no other, his hold on his material masterful. You will never read anything like Awake—a hardcore, pulsating portrait of a first century Roman weirdo. A wonderful and unpleasant treasure.
— Olga Ravn
No one else can describe ancient life with such beauty and humor, while never sparing you from the gross and terrifying pain of being human.
— Naja Marie Aidt
With a scholar’s knowledge and a poet’s playfulness, Harald Voetmann brings us into the mind and times of its protagonist, Pliny the Elder. Visceral and lyrical, entertaining and provoking, it evokes a dazzling world on the brink of destruction, resounding with our own conflicted age.