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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Awake

by
Harald Voetmann


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Awake



Title: Awake
Author: Harald Voetmann
Genre: Novel
Written: 2010 (Eng. 2021)
Length: 108 pages
Original in: Danish
Availability: Awake - US
Awake - UK
Awake - Canada
  • Danish title: Vågen
  • Translated by Johanne Sorgenfri Ottosen

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Our Assessment:

B : appealing slices-of-life, if overall not quite enough

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Harper's . 9/2021 Claire Messud


  From the Reviews:
  • "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." - Claire Messud, Harper's

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Awake is a slim little novel centered around Pliny the Elder. After a brief prologue-like chapter it introduces the four 'voices' that are behind the text(s): Pliny the Elder; his nephew, Pliny the Younger; his slave; Diocles; and quotes from his best-known work, the mammoth Natural History. The narrative is presented, in generally short sections, through these voices, along with nine 'scenes' -- an omniscient narrator's descriptions, generally of an aging Pliny the Elder whose body is letting him down (although there is also one horrific scene centered around his long-suffering slave Diocles). While not directly in dialogue, there is nevertheless some connection between the four voices, with some sequences of commentary -- Pliny the Elder taking up a quote from his Natural History, Pliny the Younger reacting to his uncle's claims and observations, for example.
       There is also an Appendix, reproducing two (actual) letters of Pliny the Younger's: one to Baebius Macer (3.5), in which he provides a bibliography of his uncle's extensive writings and describes his working habits, as well the famous letter to Tacitus in which he describes Pliny the Elder's death after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE (6.16).
       The Pliny the Elder here is a man constantly at work, his Natural History nothing less than an: "attempt to master nature". He can not devote himself solely to writing, but every spare minute seems to be spent at it; as he notes in the Natural History:

I am merely a man and duties consume my days, and my work must recede to my spare time, so don't think I spend my nights in repose.
       Pliny the Elder's slave, Diocles, is called on to record the master's thoughts, taking dictation -- while barely registering what he records:
Diocles has taught his scribing hand to listen, only fragments of the world catch his mind.
       The work overwhelms him; at one point he breaks, and flees. Quickly caught, his punishment begins cruelly appropriately:
The master says that a meticulous written account will assist him in choosing the appropriate punishment, and naturally I should be thankful I was not branded or crucified immediately. But since it was from writing I fled in the first place, the master must know it's punishment in itself.
       Pliny the Younger admires his uncle, but doesn't really hold his writing in the highest regard.
My uncle was neither a poet nor a philosopher. But he was a diligent and conscientious commander. He worked his way up from perhaps not entirely modest means, but still. His literary work is no less capricious than nature, and as with nature, it is sometimes indecisive and at war with itself.
       Indeed, Pliny the Younger suggests that, impressive as his uncle's ambitions were, his grand project wasn't exactly a winning one. Among the more amusing episodes in the story is in a letter of Pliny the Younger's to Tacitus, advising against reading one's work to an audience, where he gives the example of Emperor Vespasian honoring Pliny the Elder by having him read from his work in front of an august audience; it did not go well -- indeed, Pliny the Younger suggests:
By his performance, my uncle fell out of the emperor's good graces, fell out with all who walked and breathed in decent society.
       Much of the novel contrasts the old and invalid Pliny the Elder (presented in the 'scenes') with his reminiscences -- often vivid scenes of Roman life of the times, and remarkable little testaments as to some of the quite shocking norms of the day. Pliny the Younger is less impressed, suggesting repeatedly that his uncle's claims tend more to flights of fancy, whether presenting episodes from his youth or imagining the stars. So, for example, he acknowledges the foundations of one story may be true, but: "the rest of the story is sheer folly".
       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 -- as well as, more generally, a focus on the aged Pliny the Elder --, 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.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 September 2021

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Links:

Awake: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Danish author Harald Voetmann was born in in 1978.

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© 2021 the complete review

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