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Behind the Story

Food and Cooking in the
Roman Empire

The Uncertain Hour (Bloomsbury 2007)

A.D. 66: Having been falsely implicated in a plot to assassinate the emperor Nero, Titus Petronius has a choice: await the executioner at dawn, or die a noble Roman death by his own hand. Deciding that his will be a suicide like no other the world has ever seen, he summons a small circle of intimate friends to his villa on the Tyrrhenian coast of southern Italy. There, over the course of a balmy autumn’s night, Petronius throws the party of a lifetime. As they feast on course after course of the most sumptuous fare the empire has to offer, his guests are forbidden to dwell on the imminent tragedy; instead, they are enjoined to sing, eat, drink, and celebrate. But as his life dwindles to a few precious hours, Petronius himself cannot shake off the ghosts of his past or his regret over mistakes that can no longer be set right. With the fateful dawn approaching, he recalls the great love affair of his life, and his years as Nero’s “Arbiter of Elegance.” Not until the very end will he bequeath his magnum opus, The Satyricon, to posterity.

Praise for The Uncertain Hour

“If I say that Jesse Browner’s “The Uncertain Hour” is a truly original work of art, I hope I won’t scare anyone off. It’s also the most engrossing page-turner I’ve picked up in a long while.” Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours

"A long night’s meditation on love, life and death amid the decadence of the Roman empire, for those who like their historical fiction steeped in philosophy. The ultimate message that the way one dies is as important as the way one has lived, that death defines a life, is both timeless and modern. A reflective evening in the face of death." Kirkus Reviews

"Jesse Browner's latest book, "The Uncertain Hour," is that very rare thing — a historical novel of love and ideas not only free of pedantry, but also serious and entertaining... As one would expect from an award-winning translator of both Jean Cocteau and Rainer Maria Rilke, it's also elegantly written with a narrative so well-realized that it's easy to overlook the 46-year-old author's formal audacity." Tim Rutten, Los Angeles Times, June 19, 2007 Read full review

“Browner’s meticulous description of a Roman banquet and its attendant rituals, as well as his account of first-century Roman politics, letters and even clothing styles, is immediately immersive. Browner creates with considerable skill a snapshot of Roman life.” Publishers Weekly

"A sumptuous and affecting novel, brimming over with food and wine, politics, philosophical contemplation and poetry..." Michael Lukas, San Francisco Chronicle, June 17, 2007 Read full review

"Jesse Browner has written a lush and sorrowful novel about how to die. It’s set in 66 A.D., but when it comes to our common doom, not much has changed in the last two millennia. The Uncertain Hour (Bloomsbury, $23.95)—the title is borrowed from Eliot’s “Little Gidding”—presents us with the last night on earth of Titus Petronius, author of The Satyricon, who knows he will receive a death sentence from the emperor Nero at dawn and chooses, as a noble Roman, to commit suicide rather than submit to execution. Petronius makes his case early on: “The way a man dies is just as important as the way he lives.” His young protégé Martialis is not convinced: “Why can’t you die in confusion, and shame, and doubt, and anger, and fear, as you have lived? Isn’t that the more honest death? Isn’t there honor in that, too?” Bracketed by these impassioned arguments is a splendid Roman feast, lusciously described. Trust me, this novel is not grim—it’s gorgeous." Adam Begley, New York Observer, June 18 2007

The Uncertain Hour is imbued with the sweetness and sadness of life. Jesse Browner transports us to another world full of hauntingly universal truths.” Mark Kurlansky, author of Cod and The Big Oyster

“I greatly enjoyed and admired Jesse Browner’s enthralling The Uncertain Hour. Its mixture of love, regret and death-fuelled defiance is heartbreaking, but also oddly uplifting, largely because Browner is such a convincing, calm and gracious narrator.” Jim Crace, author of Quarantine and Being Dead

The Uncertain Hour is as sumptuous a feast as the fabulous banquet it describes. It is also an elegant meditation on such matters as the nature of love, what makes a good life, and whether there can be such a thing as a perfect death. I don't know which to praise more: the author's feat of historical reconstruction, or his boundless powers of invention.” Sigrid Nunez, author of The Last of Her Kind

 
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