In Danish author Harald Voetmann's English debut, Awake, Pliny the Elder spends his nights in bed obsessively dictating new chapters of his Natural History to his slave Diocles and his days carrying out his many civic duties and giving the occasional disastrous public reading
Challenge and surprise are...essential to the Danish writer Harald Voetmann’s pungent short novel ... the concrete world of the first century ad is rendered present and particular ... But the vast differences from our contemporary times are as sharply conveyed ... To ask whether Awake is in any traditional sense a novel seems irrelevant, just as it’s irrelevant to quibble over Anne Carson’s forms. This short book is neither pleasing, nor in any straightforward way satisfying; in places, it is wildly unpleasant. But strange as it is, 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.
The novel is a curious mix of the fragmentary and biographical, with limited continuity. Striking as the pieces often are, and despite some connections among them...Awake remains a diffuse work, far from full-fledged biography but also limited just as impressionistic life-portrait. Some of it is very neatly put together, with Pliny the Younger in particular an amusing contrasting figure and voice, and most of the reminiscences are very powerful, in both the writing and the content, but it ultimately also feels a bit thin. Not quite notes-towards-a-novel thin, but still too pointedly slight (in presentation). Awake is an intriguing and enjoyable read, and well worthwhile, but for all its considerable depth feels also too insubstantial.