Joshua Calladine-Jones reviews the new paperback edition of Harald Voetmann’s shocking, phantasmagoric, paradoxically authentic Awake.
Harald Voetmann, Awake, (Lolli Editions, 2022), 135pp.
I’ve never read the Naturalis Historia. The Histories of Heraclitus maybe, but the Natural History? It is the largest intact work of Roman imperial literature, a libraryish innovation, an exogenesis of the encyclopedia. And I still haven’t read it. In whichever sphere he dwells, its author, Gaius Plinius Secundus, better known as Pliny the Elder, likely doesn’t care.
It’s hard to say if he’d care if anyone had read his works, or what they’d say about him. He’s too long dead. Not even Harald Voetmann, whose first novel, Vågen, published in 2010, speaks entirely on his behalf. Voetmann, an erudite reader and translator of the Latin, vocalises Pliny throughout the novel. He is well-qualified to give such a seance, and the ouija board of Awake (as it’s known in translation from the Danish) does often feel like an act of conjuration, bringing the spectral voices of the long-departed into the present, giving them lead roles and speaking parts.
Awake marks the first of Voetmann’s trilogy of hubris, works tied together thematically by the will to power of human beings over a nature pigeonholed to the point of folly, and by their belonging (very) loosely to that broadest yet muddiest of genres, the historical novel. But if it seems to resemble faintly the palimpsest of some classical tragedy, tragedy is evoked in Awake by pride, and by Pliny’s own fatal hamartia.
Pliny is tormented to relatable distraction. He is distracted by the scale of his task, such is the megalith of his ambition that it cannot be regarded too closely, nor for too long, and yet distraction brings him back towards it. He aims to catalogue all of nature’s forms, every last one, and so every distraction is, paradoxically, relevant. But crucially, his distraction is like all distraction: tied to the compulsion to work, to expend energy, to attain a goal that defies all aim.
I am sitting on a chair in my garden, it is morning. I have not slept. At brief intervals, my vision darkens, sleep pulls at me from within but I straighten my spine and breathe deeply, keeping my eyes open. The boy dabs my forehead with cold water, it helps. And the cool blade he now starts to scrape over my skin helps too.
Relatable too, is Pliny’s obsession, his productivity complex, and his burnout. Translated lucidly by Johanne Sorgenfri Ottosen, the voice of Pliny via Voetmann is, mutatis mutandis, no less limpid, despite resoundounding from afar. He feels close to home, and though the book does not seem to surrender to the fallacy of historical equivalence, there is a feeling of a closed loop. It even opens with an epigraph from Parmenides on the circularity of endings and beginnings.
Voetmann’s Pliny himself is a man out of joint, cursed with a spite both comic and cruel. Neither here nor there in time, or indeed in genre. This isn’t so much historical fiction as an archaeology of parts: direct quotes from the Natural History itself, interspliced with pseudo-Bernhardian black monologue, achieve a Kuleshov effect across the centuries.
Quote, Naturalis Historia
And to think that among thousands of human beings there exist no two indistinguishable examples, and yet only ten features or so constitute our countenance.
Pliny the Elder
My face — ten or so features — appears to stare at me from the depths of the Corinthian bronze mirror. As though immersed in a basin filled with blood and water. It is staring at itself.
Awake has that soliloquous quality of a private journal, crosscut however, with direct quotation. This disorienting and unifies in equal measure, alternately clashing and concordant with the past from which the text derives, while conversely producing cycles of resonance and discord with the present of the writer. The haunted chords of this near-cinematic exercise, resound so closely with Pliny’s written voice (doubly translated across languages and time) it often feels as if they are fading in and out of the character’s own hearing, like an overarching soundtrack to the video-obituary of his own life.
Nevertheless, there’s a disconnect between the quotes, written in the official if eccentric script of Pliny himself, and their monologue counterparts qua Voetmann: there are two kinds of authenticity here. Each plays off against the other. Overlook for a moment the mediatory capacity of translation: reading the extracts from the Natural History, is reading the original. Yet reading Voetmann’s extrapolations, is encountering what feels real. What Pliny doesn’t confess (the grotesqueries of his privilege, the monstrosity of exploitation upholding the elite’s daily life, dichotomised with and against the brute constructions of his era) that is, what Pliny did not include in his histories, is as authentic as that which he did, though it is not — in the accurate sense — the original.
He bent down toward me with some difficulty, rested his hands on his knees and said: The donkey is a diligent animal, let it serve to remind you of the virtue of diligence, my friend. Toil, little donkey, it shall serve you well. From a breast pocket in his tunic, he produced a fig and gave it to me with a stiff smile. The fig was bruised. Say thank you to the gentleman, said my mother. But he was no gentleman. And the donkey this Greek had sold us was shaped by children’s hands, not by his clumsy, dirty fingers.
This Pliny is no less real for being a ventriloquist prop. Through sleights of analogy and synecdoche, Voetmann suspends our historical disbelief, though we might hardly disbelieve the tearful tooth-grin confessions of Pliny himself. The deceased seem so only because they can no longer emote, and when they express themselves, they seem to live. This is how the dead come alive, through literature. Pliny is a living hologram. His transparency lends reality to the simulation. He is, disregarding all assumptions de rerum truth and historicity, an authentic copy. And a good fake, a bonafide knock-off, a forged signature, as any worthy crook knows, is more real than the original could ever be. Part of Voetmann’s success in this is a necrotic art, which deep-fakes the reality of the dead as the living. It is his disjointed structure itself that brings Pliny to life. Sequences like spliced footage from archival reels long-decayed come together with such jerked and jilting inertia that the twitching resembles the electric reanimation of a limb after severation.
Yet shock, actual shock, is embedded in Voetmann’s novel. It lingers ringing after the initial repulsion so straightforwardly scatological in the scenes of lust and violence Voetmann depicts, that the text at times irrumates the reader: scenes of encyclopaedic oddity, of bodies without orifices, of rape and slaughter in vanished Germanic camps, of snuff-shows in archaic arenas. The shock itself is oddly shocking in its capacity to shock, as though all figures hadn’t already been debauched, all words debased, and all images hardcore.
But how much of this actually and accurately reflects the life and work of Pliny and how much is invention? This is the big conjunction. The novel is a memento mori de memento mori: of encyclopaedist and encyclopaedia. Unflinching shock here reads not as filth for schlock’s sake, but the actualities to be considered as alien or normal to the present. There is, however, a risk of hypertelevising the past, imprinting existentialism and porno and critical retrospect on top of it. “Was it really like that?”, the chorus intone. If Voetmann’s normalisations go to any length in aiding this impression, it’s by playing it straight enough that it seems it really was.
Against this, voicing perhaps the reader’s scepticism, comes the voice of Pliny’s nephew and custodian, Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, or Pliny the Younger. Plainer, more phlegmatically down-to-earth, his nephew’s voice chasms a huge but visible expanse between his uncle and himself. Yet Voetmann’s prose also carves into the innermost suspicions of Pliny’s writing and any contemporary understanding of its author. Narrative unreliability is further deliberately exacerbated by Pliny’s scribe and slave, Diocles, who also plays a part in the drama, and whose error-ridden transcriptions compound the separation of Pliny from the present to which Voetmann makes us alert. These complementary and contrasting voices add to the mesmerism of the novel. Trilling upon the laconic, the absences are left without their own definite interpretation. Only potentialities.
Quote, Naturalis Historia
Stars exist in the ocean, and on the land. I have seen stars form a halo around the javelins of soldiers who guard the camp at night, and I have seen stars descend on the yard and other parts of the ship and hop like birds from place to place with a sound reminiscent of voices.
Pliny the Younger
He is confusing stars with fireflies or something.
And yet despite all his earthly constellations, you do believe him. This mad, asthmatic Pliny, this manic-somnambulist author, this statesman who may or may not have died pursuing the eruption of Vesuvius in one final act of obscenely suggestive catastrophe. You believe in Voetmann’s Pliny because you believe (with his hopping stars) in Pliny the Original. You believe because you want to believe. Not just because you yourself might be a writer, but presumably because you’re a human. You believe for the reason that both writers and humans both give only a fraction of themselves to the exogenous, to the page, to the external, the rest remaining unrecorded at worst, or at best, covert. Voetmann’s Pliny is believable for uncloaking the registered, behind which, flawed and mottled as it may be, is the deceptive but real form of authenticity. Through Voetmann is heard a Pliny who is still dreaming. Or perhaps he is yet still awake.
Joshua Calladine-Jones is a poet and the literary critic in-residence at Prague Writers’ Festival. His work has appeared in journals such as The Stinging Fly, 3:AM, Minor Literature[s], Freedom, and The Hong Kong Review of Books. His first micro-collection, Constructions [Konstrukce] was published by tall-lighthouse in 2021, and Reconstructions [Rekonstrukce] is to be published this year.