In that case, Livia’s a good name for his wife

The last novel of Adam Thirlwell’s I read was called Politics and was about sex. This one is called The Escape and — a lot of it is about sex, and maybe politics too. Thirlwell so often sums up the story that I can’t quite say what it adds up to. Haffner is the hero, an elderly English Jew who has come to a spa in “Bohemia” — perhaps something like Karlovy Vary, though it sounds like a smaller place — to pursue his late wife’s family claim to a villa in the hills.

Haffner had no sympathy for the manias of the twentieth century. The grand era of decolonisation, the century of splinter groups. All the crazed ethnicity. Was this such a triumph for the human spirit? It seemed to Haffner that it was a distinct defeat. All Haffner wanted was the conservative; the inherited; the right.

But the twentieth century was all he had.

The Escape, Adam Thirlwell, p. 76

Haffner likes to study the Roman emperors, particularly the horribly scandalous ones, Caligula and Elagabalus and Tiberius. In this scene, Haffner has actually been tied to the bed by a young woman for immoral purposes. (Cue the classic joke.)

Distractedly, Haffner saw once more the Lives of the Caesars, there on the bedside table. Even if this was not quite despotic, it was the closest he had really come, thought Haffner, to feeling imperial. This was Dacia, and Dalmatia. He could understand the emperors.

No wonder they set about erecting columns, thought Haffner: the camels and the trumpets. No wonder they wanted to parade their spoils, in triumph — the chariots drawn by panthers on their padded paws. No arch, no column, was grand enough to commemorate the few grand moments of desire in life, the even fewer moments of possession.

Yes, there had been twelve Caesars and now here was the thirteenth — Haffner Augustus: whose image, if there were any justice in this world, should be carved on a marble tomb, its panels chased with Haffner in profile, leading his jungly train — the leopards, the chubby satyrs — to some screwed-up festival of Bacchus.

— pp 188-189


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