Brad Hodges's Reviews > The Last Days of Pompeii

The Last Days of Pompeii by Edward Bulwer-Lytton
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Apr 09, 2012

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Read from April 09 to May 13, 2012

Once wildly popular, Baron Edward Bulwer-Lytton is now best know for a couple of his quotes. One is "the pen is mightier than the sword," which is often used; the other is the opening to his novel Paul Clifford: "It was a dark and stormy night," which was later used by Charles Schulz in Peanuts, with Snoopy's attempts at writing a novel always starting with that line.

In 1834 Bulwer-Lytton published The Last Days of Pompeii, a potboiler about the days leading up the August 14, 79 AD eruption of Mount Vesuvius. He has a network of characters, heroes and villains, that get into tight spots, but all goes poof when the mountain erupts and the town is buried in ash.

The main characters are Glaucus, an Athenian, who is in love with the beautiful Ione. But she is also loved by the Egyptian Arbaces, who turns out to a mustache-twirling villain: "'Then hear me,' said Arbaces, sinking his voice into a whisper; 'thou shalt go to thy tomb rather than to his arm! What! thinkest thou Arbaces will brook a rival such as this puny Greek? What! thinkest thou that he has watched the fruit ripen, to yield it to another! Pretty fool--no! Thou are mine--all--only mine: and thus--thus I seize and claim thee!'" Other key characters are the blind slave girl, Nydia, who falls in love with Glaucus, who is good to her, but in her jealousy ends up getting him sentenced to the arena to be eaten by a lion. Along with him is Olinthus, the Christian, who is the bright ray of sunshine in this pagan world: "They regarded the Christian as the enemy of mankind; the epithets they lavished upon him, of which 'Atheist' was the most favored and frequent, may serve, perhaps, to warn us, believers of the same creed now triumphant, how we indulge the persecution of opinion Olinthus then underwent, and how we apply to those whose notions differ from our own terms at that day lavished upon the fathers of our faith." Bulwer-Lytton was ahead of his time on religious tolerance.

The novel has a serial quality, with episodes rather than a thorough plot. There is also a lot of purple prose, some of it for pages and pages, that don't seem to have much to do with anything. I slowed down when actual events were taking place, but there is a ton of filler, perhaps to satisfy Bulwer-Lytton's attention to his research.

"Pompeii was the miniature of the civilization of that age. Within the narrow compass of its walls was contained, as it were, a specimen of every gift which luxury offered to power. In its minute but glittering shops, its tiny palaces, its baths, its forum, its theatre, its circus--in the energy yet corruption, in the refinement yet the vice, of its people, you beheld a model of the whole empire." Of course, this is true given that the ruins of Pompeii, which were discovered in the 1700s, was the best chance to see Roman civilization as it was, untouched for two-thousand years.

The last few chapters are a real page turner. Arbaces has framed Glaucus for a murder he himself committed. Glaucus is about to enter the arena to be eaten by a lion. Will Nydia's letter to Glaucus' friend, exonerating him, be read in time? Of course, there's also the impending volcanic eruption, that only we know about. Bulwer-Lytton provides some striking details in the last few pages: "The lion had been kept without food for twenty-four hours, and the animal had, during the whole morning, testified a singular and restless uneasiness, which the keeper had attributed to the pangs of hunger. Yet is bearing seemed rather that of fear than of rage; its roar was painful and distressed; it hung its head--snuffed the air through the bars--then lay down--started again--and again uttered its wild and far-resounding cries." It's a kind of genius to shift the point of view to the lion at that point, but then we learn why--the lion, once released, will ignore exposed Glaucus, an innocent man, leading the mob to cry out for justice.

Then, when the volcano erupts: "The eyes of the crowd followed the gesture of the Egyptian, and beheld, with ineffable dismay, a vast vapor shooting from the summit of Vesuvius, in the form of a gigantic pine-tree; the trunk, blackness--the branches, fire!--a fire that shifted and wavered in its hues with every moment, now fiercely luminous, now of a dull and dying red, that again blazed terrifically forth with intolerable glare!"

Bulwer-Lytton will then go on to the obvious--those engaged in looting and larceny will end up buried in ash, alongside the good--you can't take it with you! A few will escape to the sea. But he sums up the notion of time nicely here: "Nearly Seventeen Centuries had rolled away when the City of Pompeii was disinterred from its silent tomb, all vivid with undimmed hues; its walls fresh as if painted yesterday--not a hue faded on the rich mosaic of its floors--in its forum the half-finished columns as left by the workman's hand--in its gardens the sacrificial tripod--in its halls the chest of treasure--in its baths the strigil--in its theaters the counter of admission--in its saloons the furniture and the lamp--in its triclinia the fragments of the last feast--in its cubicula the perfumes and the rouge of faded beauty--and everywhere the bones and skeletons of those who once moved the the springs of that minute yet gorgeous machine of luxury and of life!"
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Martin Bihl i read this. not bad, actually.

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