Last Days of Pompeii
By Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton
Published by Librivox
Read by Ric F, Becky Cook, Rachel Triska, Ann Boulais, Christine Blachford, Ruth Golding, TriciaG, BenW, Amy Benton, Iskander Shafikov, Kristine Bekere and Philippa
Sometimes I have to wonder why I listen to some of these audiobooks. Maybe I am trying to punish myself for something I cannot remember or maybe I am just a slow learner, but even after listening to the literary disaster that was The Coming Race , I went ahead and listened to another novel by Mister… no… Baron Dark and Stormy Night. I suppose that is more because I had already downloaded the darned thing and also this time I knew the story… although I’ll admit I didn’t think much of it even then.
Last Days of Pompeii was supposedly inspired by the painting of the same name by Karl Briullov (see above) and has inspired numerous adaptations, in opera, theater, concert, film/TV and at least one statue I am aware of. While it is relatively ignored these days, it was apparently very popular in the 19th Century. Darned if I know why, though. Otoh, as a friend pointed out, Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton was a best-selling novelist of the Victorian era so either tastes have changed or the people of the 19th Century were so starved for literature that… well, seriously. they read Wuthering Heights, didn’t they?
I sell my own books in merchant booths at SCA events from time to time. I don’t make a living selling them that way, but I sell more than I would otherwise. (NB: the world is not going to beat a path to your door just because you wrote a book – or in my case 51 books – so if you are going to write do it because it is something you enjoy not because you think you’re going to get rich) Anyway at one point a nice lady came in, flipped through one of the books on display for a minute or two and declared, “You, sir, OWN the English language!” I admit to being somewhat surprised… I’ve never actually owned a language before. On further discussion it turned out she was impressed by the fact she could differentiate my characters’ dialogue from my narrative voice and further could do so at a glance (I, in turn, was impressed she could do it at a glance). We discussed that for a bit and pretty much agreed that dialogue is not bound by same conventions as narration. Dialogue has to fit the person speaking, while the narrative voice is supposed to be fairly formal. In narration you should not use contractions or slang, for example. Of course that mostly applies to a 3rd Person narrative. In the first person you still want the passages to fit the character, but even then, I would recommend not being quite so free with the language as when the characters are actually talking. But I guess that depends on who the character is. I am starting to digress, but I do hope that when she actually read the book she continued to have a good opinion of what I wrote.
Bulwer-Lytton’s writing is ramrod stiff. The dialogue is stilted and it sounds exactly like the narrative voice. There’s no difference. It is emotionally parched even when characters go on extolling or voicing their lustful habits. Well, maybe that’s how readers liked it during the Victorian era? I don’t know. In high school, I was forced to read other literary rubbish from that period – novels I was told were great works of the art… probably only because someone still remembered them and their authors – but none seemed quite so stilted as this. Of course, the main reason this was not shoved down our throats was probably the sex and violence, but then if we had read it, teen pregnancy rates might have been much lower. Bulwer-Lytton certainly does nothing to make sex seem interesting. One could say that’s the Victorian viewpoint, but I wonder about that sometimes. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had nine children together. I cannot imagine that sex was entirely repugnant to them.
If there is anything that could possibly make the writing style of this novel worse it has to be the constant breaking into poetry and song by the characters. Not only did I find the poetical style completely wrong for the setting – like I said above, Bulwer-Lytton had a classical education and must have read real Roman poetry. I’m no classicist, but I do know a bit about how poetry was composed in that period. Hint: it was not in trite rhyming couplets – but he really did not write particularly good poetry. I hesitate to call it doggerel as it is not that good.
The story is also far too predictable. For example, an Egyptian priest goes on and on about the delights of corrupting innocent young women, and because of the way he presented his thoughts (with logical reasoning, I might add) the only thought that came to my mind was, “Okay… Ten to one, this is the villain!” and I was dead on. In a latter day setting he would have been tying the same young virgins to train tracks, I am sure.
So, what’s the story about? It’s a fantasy about how Bulwer-Lytton imagined life was like in a city during the reign of Emperor Titus with numerous comparisons to life in the 19th Century. In fact, he constantly stops telling the story in his narrative and speaks directly to the reader much as an actor in a play might make an aside to the audience. His habit of suddenly comparing certain scenes to ones current in the early 19th Century was jarring and unnecessary.
Actually, it is possible that the story starts during the last days of Vespasian, who died roughly two months before the actual eruption, but if so, Bulwer-Lytton got his chronology wrong. Well, that’s a minor issue except that his characters describe Vesuvius as being extinct. As it happens, Seneca the Younger wrote that there had been poison gas emitted from the mountain as much as fourteen years earlier and both he and Pliny the Younger state that seismic activity was common in the area. However we know that the people of Pompeii (and Herculaneum and other nearby towns) did not recognize the warning signs that Vesuvius was about to go kablooey, and indeed aside from the ongoing activity considered normal in the area, the tremors associated with the famous eruption only began four days beforehand.
The characters are two dimensional at best and annoying at worst. I think the blind flower girl, Nydia, was supposed to be a tragic-romantic figure, pining for her master who she loves while he, in turn, is in love with another woman and uses her as a messenger between them. I see her as an aggravating drama queen. Early on in the story she resolves to die because her master does not love her. However, while she renews that resolve several times, she never actually kills herself and instead is caught up in the eruption. By that point I had lost most of my sympathy for her.
The Egyptian priest of Isis, is a similarly shallow caricature. Constantly plotting and scheming on various fronts, mostly just to get in his female ward’s pants (well, not pants back then, but…). He is also the trite portrait of a polytheist priest who does not really believe in his god (or goddess in that case) but uses his followers’ beliefs to maintain his own prestige and power. If you were to believe this book you would think there were no true believers among the priests of ancient Rome. I really doubt that. Seems to me that while there may well have been a few who just went through the motions, the work and devotion it takes to be a priest (or any religious leader, really) would require a man or woman to truly believe in their deity regardless of the religion… just like today.
For a better description of the plot, check out the Wikipedia article and for more about the 79 AD eruption of Vesusius, that’s a fairly good source to start from as well. If you want more detail, I suggest degrees in History, Classics, Archaeology and Geology – yes, Wikipedia is faster, cheaper and sufficient unless you want to make a career of it.
So what’s wrong with this picture? Well, first of all why does it seem that every fictional account of Pompeii seems to involve the “virtuous” members of a Christian underground? Well, to be fair, it is probably all Bulwer-Lytton’s fault. As far as I can tell, he was the first to use that device and most of the other such stories are derived from his. Just as his later descriptions of ‘Vril” have been accepted as real by a host of mystic whackos, his conjecture that there were Christians at Pompeii has been accepted as fact by a host of people who would, for reasons that escape me, like to believe it was so, To date there is no evidence whatsoever that any Christians were in Pompeii at any time prior to or during the eruption. The few shreds I have seen produced have been shown to be in error – mostly inscriptions that were actually commonly used by other groups of people.
So we have a dull and predictable story about some nasty people, some innocents and a whole bunch of people who, I guess are corrupt because they respect the corrupt ones who are in power and, of course, consider the Christians to be atheists who reject the holy gods of Rome. At the end the survivors are the ones who have converted to Christianity, who are supposedly living happily ever after in spite of the fact that by then Domitian was emperor… Gee, I wonder what the hidden message was there… Yeah, okay, while Domitian has long been accused of persecuting Christians, many historians are at odds as to what his policy was if any and how it was enforced, but since in Bulwer-Lytton’s time Domitian was considered one of the great oppressors, the happy ending should probably been written from a cave in which our “heroes” were hiding out from their polytheist neighbors with torches and pitchforks, perhaps. Actually, as my friend (the same one who reminded me Bulwer-Lytton was a best-seller in his time) pointed out, Domitian’s oppression of Christians, if they existed at all, were not carried out in Rome or even in Italy, but I’m not sure Bulwer-Lytton would have realized that.
The story is also bogged down with long turgid passages about religious philosophy and the obscure mysticism, for which Bulwer-Lytton is known in his later works. This is not to say I did not enjoy it some of the time. I tend to make my own entertainment when I must and my best laugh had to have been during the description of a dinner entertainment that involved a master chef carving up a young roasted goat in time to music. I could not help but imagine Bugs Bunny doing that to the tune of Las Chiapanecas. Sort of like the slap dance from “Bully for Bugs,” but with knives. Now that was funny.
Anyway, if I have not yet discouraged you from seeking out this “Literary, best-selling masterpiece,” Instead of reading it, might I point you toward the 1984 Miniseries of the same name which had a fairly impressive cast including Laurence Olivier, Anthony Quayl, Franco Nero, Ned Beaty, Leslie-Ann Down, Ernest Borgnine, Olivia Hussey and Brian Blessed. It is the same story but will not take as long to get through.
In my home town, New Bedford, Massachusetts, there is an annual event held at the Whaling Museum in which readers take turns reading passages from Moby Dick in a round-the-clock marathon. I never thought Moby Dick was great literature, an opinion shared by readers at the time it was written as sales for it never broke even during Melville’s lifetime, but what with New Bedford’s history in whaling and, later, fishing, the maritime theme of the event is fairly popular. I was actually invited to read in it one year (while an honor it is not a particularly unique one as anyone who wants to read can, so long as he or she understands their turn might come up at 2:38 AM, but it was nice to be asked. Unfortunately, I had a previous engagement). Listening to that reading is not entirely unlike listening to this recording, where every so often someone else gets a turn to read.
Normally, I find that annoying in an audio-book, where I have to adjust my mindset, or listening ear or whatever) every so often as the next reader comes along. In this case I have to admit that it was more like sitting around a campfire with a bunch of friends from various parts of the world all taking turns reading from a favorite book. It had that sort of friendly feel to it. If only it had been a better story.
I think it is safe to say that none of the readers of this audio-book are in Lirivox’s first string, but I also think it safe to say that none of them are being displayed at their best. Like I said, it was sort of like sitting around the campfire and taking turns reading aloud. However, none of the readers seem particularly comfortable with Bulwer-Lytton’s stilted dialogue that makes each and every character sound like they are reciting from the King James Bible with all the thees and thous, or else doing really bad Shakespeare – the stuff even Sir Francis Bacon wouldn’t take credit for. It is just not material that would make any reader sound good and I am not at all sure that any reader could enhance the story. Certainly some of them tried to put some emotion into the stale dialogue, but even the best cannot make unbelievable lines sound natural. Yes, I understand that the 19th Century notion of dialogue differs from that of the 21st, but still, there was no need to have ancient Romans speaking pseudo-Elizabethan English.
The readers, I think, did their best and in a wide variety of voices and accents. My only real complaint is that I think Librivox should have supplied their readers with a pronunciation guide. For example, I would have thought Nydia would rhyme with Lydia (Nid-e-a, not Nye-de-a) and Ione should have three syllables (I-o-nay, not I-own… I-o-nee, I suppose is passably close and might be closer to what it should be than what I think), but it sure would have been nice if they at least agreed on the pronunciation of Bulwer-Lytton.
So all told, I have to admit that this story was better than The Coming Race, but as my best friend pointed out, that is not setting the bar too high, so unless you enjoy reading bad literature you might be better off avoiding this turkey. I think it is sad, because this could have been a good story even by today’s standards. As for the readers, I will willingly listen to any of them again when they have a chance to read better material.