For History and Biography Buffs: Daisy Dunn’s “The Shadow of Vesuvius:  A Life of Pliny”

Daisy Dunn’s brilliant literary biography, The Shadow of Vesuvius:  A Life of Pliny,  is a delightful read.  Although it may sound unlikely, this well-researched book is light and charming.

Actually, there were two Plinys, both influential Romans in the first century A.D.  They were Pliny the Elder, best known for his 37-volume encyclopedia, Historia Naturalis (Natural History), and his nephew Pliny, the author of nine books of literary letters.  In these letters,  Pliny (c. A.D. 61-c. 112)  chronicled historical and political events, ghost stories, court cases, a legend about a dolphin, senatorial scandals, and his interests in poetry and Stoic philosophy. He included his correspondence with the emperor Trajan.   

Pliny the Younger, known to us just as Pliny, is still popular today. (The letters translate well into English.)  Pliny’s hero was Cicero, but Pliny is a much less demanding writer.  His style is simple but elegant, and the letters are short, pointed essays.  His two letters to Tacitus about the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. are perhaps his most famous.  Pliny stayed home to study and read Livy when his uncle, Pliny the Elder, decided to sail from their home in Misenum to investigate the phenomenon of a strange cloud (like an umbrella pine) rising above a mountain.  (They did not know it was Vesuvius.)  Pliny the Elder died after going ashore to attempt to rescue terrified friends.  

In the second letter, Pliny describes his own observations and experiences during the volcanic eruption.   When the tremors increased and the sky grew pitch-black, he and his mother fled in terror, and finally went off the road to escape a panicky crowd. When the sun finally appeared, the earth was pillowed with ashes.  But twenty years later, many of the towns destroyed by Vesuvius  had  been rebuilt and flourished

The British edition.

Dunn is fascinating on the subject of Pliny’s love of writing and the quiet life. During the festival of Saturnalia, a week of wine and banquets, he retired to his country villa and lived in sound-proof rooms. He was a lawyer and politician who preferred the quiet life; while at the villa he wrote poetry as well as letters. Later, he was was elected consul, the highest office in Rome, and served as governor of Bithynia, where he attempted to create a just system by which Christians could be tried.  (Nero had persecuted the Christians; Pliny and Trajan were more lenient.)

There is also much about Pliny’s side business in wine!

This book is so short you could easily read it over the holidays (240 pages of text, the rest notes).  One effortlessly absorbs history through anecdotes mixed with information, accounts of sizzling political scandals, vivid characterizations of Pliny and his uncle, explications of Stoic philosophy, and a lively consideration of contradictory interpretations of historical details.

I recommend you read it along with Pliny’s letters.   The two together would make a great gift.

A 1920s Classic:  Aldous Huxley’s “Point Counter Point”

huxley poingOver Thanksgiving, I reread Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point.  It was the fashion to read this classic in my twenties, and I see why.  Huxley’s novel is a detailed portrait of the society of the 1920s, a novel of ideas, and a sharp satire of almost everything.  What’s more, it is easy to pinpoint characters based on D. H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, Nancy Cunard, Sir Oswald Mosley, and John Middleton Murray.  

Published in 1928, this book is unremittingly witty. I chortled over the dialogue and was fascinated by the idea-driven plot. The first 150 pages revolve around a musical party, where the guests are alternately charming and bored, and an after-party at a restaurant.

point penguin huxleyWalter Bidlake, one of the more sympathetic characters, is a writer at a literary journal, who is based partly on Huxley himself.  In the first chapter, he is about to leave for the party, while his pregnant lover, Marjorie Carling, whom he lured away from her husband, stays home. She pleads with him to come home early, but Walter is now in love with Lucy Tantamount, a strikingly fashionable woman who has had dozens of lovers and doesn’t particularly seem to want Walter.  Walter feels guilty, but he now despises Marjorie, who has nothing to do since she quit her job at a small decorating shop.  And the cynical Lucy, who finds Walter tiresome but loyal, wonders later, “Why did he look so like a whipped dog sometimes?”

Complicated affairs run in the family.  Walter’s father, John Bidlake, a famous artist, and Lucy’s mother, Hilda (Lady Edward Tantamount), were once as wanton as their offspring.  They had an affair, because Hilda’s much older husband, Lord Edward, a scientist with Dickensian ideas about women, made love to her like a “fossil child.” The horrible John Bidlake is now old, but does not realize it: he is repulsed by the fat old women who were once his lovers and models.  Yet he is truly hilarious when he mocks latecomers who arrive during the concert.  One woman mimes embarrassment,  blows a kiss, puts her finger over her lips, and then tiptoes to a vacant seat.  

Bidlake was in ecstasies of merriment.  He had echoed the poor lady’s every gesture as she made it….

“I told you so,” he whispered, and his whole face wrinkled with suppressed laughter.“It’s like being in a deaf and dumb asylum.”

Huxley’s dialogue is sometimes intellectual, other times racy and hilarious.   Rampion, a painter and writer based on R. H. Lawrence, rants about the horror of mechanical society and says that “Jesus, Newton, and Henry Ford have pretty much killed us.”  Sir Edward, the scientist without social skills, intelligently warns of the dangers of fossil fuels, and predicts the human race has 200 years left.  Spandrell, a mama’s boy who never got over his mother’s remarriage, has a program of seducing women and teaching them to accept degradation.  Philip Quarles, a novelist, cannot relate to people without the assistance of his wife Elinor, who encourages his relationships with his crushes; he does not realize that she has fallen in love with Everard, the leader of a fascist group.  

Baed on vivid characters and intellectual discussions, this entertaining novel shows the 1920s were just as “modern” as our own time. 

As Lucy says,

“Living modernly’s living quickly.  You can’t cart a wagon-load of ideals and romanticisms about with you these days.  When you travel by airplane, you must leave your heavy baggage behind.  The good old-fashioned soul was all right when people lived slowly.  But it’s too ponderous nowadays.  There’s no room for it in the airplane.”

The Old Novel: “Voting”

I recently came across Uncertainty,  a novel I wrote in 2007.  And you know what?  It’s okay, though a bit static.  So I am posting a chapter called “Voting,” because I was concerned back then about the same political issues then as now.

“Voting,” from Uncertainty, by Kat (2007)

Rose’s Prozac restored her to her old self, a woman who believed in suffrage and citizenship. She could scarcely remember her depressed decision earlier not to vote.

She read the newspaper and made a checklist of candidates. She talked them up to her colleagues. She persuaded her boss Kent to vote. He was “independent.” They notoriously didn’t make it to the polls.

I’ll go on strike if you don’t vote, she said. Vote for anyone.

She could still recite the intro to the Declaration of Independence if she concentrated. She threatened to recite it to him.

Our father who art in heaven…

No, wait. That was the Lord’s Prayer. Catholicism doesn’t matter here. It isn’t a Kennedy world.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the consent of the governed…”

Rose and Ben had been voting at the Catholic church for years. They were glad to vote because, if nothing else, they got away from Rose’s sister Megan for a while. Megan didn’t leave the house. Rose felt guilty about leaving her alone. But tonight she and Ben had an excuse to go out and Megan as usual refused to accompany them.

In the darkness one of the nuns hurried past them up the steps and said hello. Startled, Rose started to fall. She muttered that she felt a little dizzy.

Panic attack? Ben asked.

No. Nuns scare me . I still remember kneeling in school, when a nun wanted to see if my skirt hem touched the ground. She made me kneel because my skirt was too short.

They sat on the damp steps of the church until she recovered. She enjoyed going to Mass, but she didn’t want to go into the church. She had to go into the church. Voting. Got to vote. Too many bad things had happened since 2000. The twenty-first century was going down. That’s what it was about. The dollar was worthless, though economists lied and said the economy was in good shape. The U.S.A. was just a country that fought with Iraq. Crazed SUV drivers intimidated people in parking lots. Oil wars, fought even in parking lots. Who can drive the biggest vehicle? Right-wing nuts picketed plays.

Ben said he hated voting in a church.

I believe in separation of church and state. Should we genuflect at the voting booth?

The elderly women at the tables checked their names on a list and gave them voting cards. They went into the booths and voted.

They walked to the restaurant. They were glad to get away from Rose’s sister, Megan, who was having a nervous breakdown in their house. Megan wouldn’t see a doctor. She wore a bathrobe and clogs she had borrowed from Rose. Every day Rose came home to find the mail had been opened by Megan: bills, junk, letters, and packages. Rose didn’t like to scream at someone who had gone nuts, but she said, Are you the CIA or what? and they quarreled. She felt like getting stoned with Megan to get away from worrying about her. But she didn’t. It was against her principles. She had her Prozac. And she didn’t think marijuana was doing Megan any good.

The bed in the spare room was now covered with Look and Life magazines Megan had bought years ago in a store in Cape Cod when her husband was still alive…Rose wondered how the Kennedys felt about this crap being sold near their summer home. Spread out across the bed were biographies of the Kennedys, SOUL ON ICE, Beatles biographies, Edward Gorey books, journalism by Hunter Thompson and Tom Wolfe, novels by Brigid Brophy,William Burroughs, and Ken Kesey. She took notes in Mead marbled composition notebooks in all sizes, filled with writing….some of it quite good. But it was all in note form. Nothing really got done. Megan sat in bed, writing occasionally, stoned, then read POLDARK half the time.

And then there was the Ben problem. Rose waited up late to spend time with Ben. Megan didn’t like Ben much. At a late dinner the night before Megan urged Ben and Rose to vote socialist, just to agitate Ben, though as far as Rose knew Megan always voted Democrat. Ben got very upset.

Ignore her, said Rose to Ben. To Megan she said, Leave him alone. You’re so perverse. Why do you do it?

He’s so despotic. I can’t take it.

Well, take it. Everybody likes Ben.

Oh, then I’m jealous. I don’t have a husband anymore. I miss my husband. He and I voted socialist when we were in our twenties. I was just reminiscing really.

Well…that wasn’t clear, Meg. Now we’re just trying to hold the country together.

With votes? How naive.

What else do you suggest?

Drop out. Have a garden.

Megan had actually tried that for a while. In a commune.  No voting there.