Awake is a collage of excerpts from Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia, perhaps the oldest surviving encyclopedia, intercut with interior monologues from Pliny, as well as asides from his nephew, Pliny the Younger. Our narrator, of course, is most famous now for having died at the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, which the younger Pliny also witnessed. Yet this climactic scene is relegated to a post-script; what draws the most attention, justly, are memories and recreations of ancient Roman life, which of course deal with all the bigger themes of knowledge and meaning and life, fitting for a classic work. Who thought that a narrative styled after an encyclopedia would be this deeply involving?
Awake by Harald Voetmann, (List Price: 14.95, New Directions, 9780811230810, September 2021)
Reviewed by Conor Hultman, Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi