Little Caesar

by Tommy Wieringa

“Tommy Wieringa’s ambitious novel . . . is a brilliant exploration of the uneasy transition from adolescence into adulthood—the restlessness, yearning for stability, irrational decisions, and erotic obsessions.” —The Independent (UK)

  • Page Count 336
  • Publication Date November 06, 2012
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2049-6
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $18.00

About The Book

From internationally best-selling author Tommy Wieringa comes a rich and engrossing novel about a man on an odyssey in search of answers about his dysfunctional artistic family and the legacy they left behind.

When Ludwig Unger returned to his hometown after a decade, he arrived with a plastic bag filled with his mother’s ashes and little else. He was there to make amends with his lonely past, to say good-bye to the familial ghosts that still haunted him. Raised in a cliff-top cottage on the east coast of England, Ludwig’s mother did her best to create a normal life for her son after her mega­lomaniac husband left them to pursue his art. A mama’s boy, Ludwig grew up in her shadow, developing an obsession with her and her sensual allure. But when he discovered the secret of her past as the world-famous porn star “Eve LaSage” and her plans to stage a comeback, Ludwig’s world spun out of con­trol. He soon found himself homeless, shouldering the shame of his mother’s career, and embarking on a journey that took him around the world from Los Angeles to Prague to El Real.

Little Caesar is a story of beauty and decay, of filial loyalty and parental betrayal, and of the importance, in the end, of self-sacrifice.

Tags Literary


“Although perfectly charming as picaresque, the tragedy of Unger’s plight registers just as strongly as its understated oddness . . . Wieringa plays for keeps.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Tommy Wieringa’s ambitious novel . . . is a brilliant exploration of the uneasy transition from adolescence into adulthood—the restlessness, yearning for stability, irrational decisions, and erotic obsessions.” —The Independent (UK)

“A potent, emotionally moving, beautifully realized novel about a young man seeking to understand his difficult, eccentric parents. . . . Wieringa masterfully examines the complex and often agonizing work that many of us undertake to live our own healthy, independent, adult lives.” —Library Journal

“Tommy Wieringa’s inventive coming-of-age novel [involves] deeply flawed characters, maddening in their poor choices, but in Wieringa’s nimble hands, they elicit our sympathy.” —Cleveland Plain Dealer

“The poet Philip Larkin’s famous observation that your mom and dad really mess you up is aptly illustrated in this offbeat, atmospheric novel . . . [a] haunting book.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Beautifully lyrical storytelling under a banner of gray skies and heavy hearts; one gorgeous, epic reminder than no matter what skeletons we have in our closet, we all try our best and our hardest to do well by the ones we love—as Morrissey has sung: ‘That’s how people grow up.’” —Dan Kennedy, host of The Moth Storytelling Podcast, author of ROCK ON: An Office Power Ballad

“A major novel filled with sharp psychological insights and fine writing . . . Wieringa shifts effortlessly between myth and reality, and lines up one felicitous idea after another. Tommy Wieringa is, mark my words, the greatest living novelist of Dutch letters.” —Vrij Nederland

“A masterpiece.” —Boekenweek

“Dazzling . . . The pleasure in storytelling leaps from the pages. A fascinat­ing novel.” —Trouw


Short-listed for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award

Reading Group Guide

1. This moving novel charts the destruction that can occur within the heart of families and the ensuing strength of the human spirit to overcome it—or to pursue another path, at least. Did you find this novel ultimately redemptive? Discuss your reactions.

2. Consider the theme of erosion that weaves through the narrative, constantly undermining the characters and causing them to reassess their lives. Discuss the many guises erosion takes: the sea and wind against the landscape; time, love, hope, and illness. Did you find other guises? Consider this quote: “When you look up from the beach you can see the web of roots clutching naked and panicky at the yellow sand” (p. 85). How does this imagery of roots compare to the people in the novel?

3. Ludwig Unger tells his life story to a woman he meets in a bar after returning to Alburgh, his childhood town, for a funeral. How is this narrative device effective? How did it deepen your understanding of Ludwig’s character? Did he evolve during the long hours of telling this story? Is Linny Wallace important to the story, or is she merely one woman in a particular time and place in Ludwig’s life?

4. Ludwig views his life story as a confession: “The reason for my confession . . . lies in the desire to impose order” (p. 78). Why do you think he feels this way? Was he searching for absolution through its telling? What do you think “imposing order” suggests? Do you agree that he achieves order through his narration? Discuss how and why he views his life as unstructured, beyond his control, or out of order.

5. In many ways Ludwig considers himself unanchored or adrift in the world because of the physical loss of his childhood home on Kings Ness, taken from him and his mother by the raging wind and North Sea. Discuss what this home meant to him as an adolescent. How was it a sanctuary for him and his mother, a refuge from the constantly threatening world? What does the home—and its loss—mean to him as an adult?

6. Discuss the many ways in which the ground beneath Ludwig’s feet collapses (literally and figuratively) throughout his childhood, and examine why he considers his relationship with his mother the bedrock of security.

7. The complicated relationship between Marthe and Ludwig—as seen through Ludwig’s eyes—lies at the heart of the novel. Discuss the intensity of Ludwig’s gaze and why his mother held such sway over him. How does the father’s abandonment affect them? Do you think Marthe was aware of her son’s confused sexual feelings for her? Why do you think she dresses him and puts makeup on him?

8. Discuss how loneliness impacts both Ludwig and his mother. How often do they interact with others? Do you agree that they are an island unto themselves? Is this a result of Ludwig’s blinkered vision of his childhood with Marthe? Did Ludwig—a Dutch-Austrian boy, born in Alexandria, living in England—feel like an outsider?

9. “My mother has led so many lives already, her life with me was merely one manifestation. That makes you unsure of yourself” (p. 99). Is Ludwig’s discovery that his mother is the renowned porn star, Eve LeSage, the culmination of his childhood fears that he is not the center of her life? Why or why not? Find earlier examples of his attempts to make her his alone. Did he ever succeed?

10. How, if at all, does Ludwig’s relationship with his mother change after this discovery? In what ways does his self image change? What does he mean when he states that “my history was in need of rewriting” (p. 91)?

11. Marthe Unger is portrayed through the lens of her son, through the screens and veils of his all-consuming adolescent love for her tinged with his present-day adult perspective. How do Ludwig’s feelings for his mother change throughout the course of the novel? How do his feelings remain the same? Consider how the author presents both sides in the same narrative voice.

12. Throughout the novel Ludwig attempts to hold onto his past as a proof of his existence, of his passage through life. Discuss this preoccupation in terms of the theme of death that permeates the novel. Using the following quote as a springboard, elaborate upon the reasons for his need to spend time with his mother: “Although I had lost her any number of times, she was indeed the only one I had. There couldn’t be anyone else, we were the sole witnesses to each other’s lives” (p. 212).

13. Why does Ludwig take his parents’ life histories so much to heart, and why does he feel so responsible for them, viewing himself as an extension of both? Is he ever able to view himself apart from his parents, and especially apart from his mother?

14. In leaving his girlfriend Sarah and following his mother back to Europe, Ludwig believes that he is protecting and saving Marthe. Do you agree with this? How true was Sarah’s belief that he had grown too dependent on Marthe? Ludwig states: “The life of a porn star is her point of departure, I will be her return” (p. 132). What are Ludwig’s points of departure and return?

15. As cancer invades Marthe’s body, she staunchly refuses to follow conventional and potentially life-saving treatment in a desire to “remain faithful” to herself (p. 275). What is this truth of self to which she clings? Do you consider her decisions admirable or self-centered? Did you regard her death an act of self-destruction?

16. Discuss how the novel explores the role of marriage: Marthe and Bodo’s, Warren and Catherine’s, and Warren and Joanna’s. Consider whether or not happiness within a marriage is attainable in this novel. If so, must it always come at the expense of other people’s (particularly the children’s) happiness? Consider this quote and discuss how it applies to the novel’s theme of marital and parental responsibility: “Should you stay where your love is buried, is that where your home is? Or is it with your children?” (p. 20).

17. As an adult, Ludwig lives without roots, without permanence. He interprets his mother’s words “In fact, you don’t really need anyone anymore” (p. 103) as a call to a life of loneliness, to meaningless relationships with a succession of women. What do you think his mother might have meant instead?

18. Continue your discussion of Ludwig’s meaning of home by considering his statement: “I have learned not to desire a home wherever I am” (p. 237). How does he achieve the “Delicious mercy of indifference” (p.321) that his father prized so highly? Consider his poignant words about his relationship with Tate in the Caribbean: “[It] might amount to something. . . . The possibility of a roof over my head” (p. 243).

19. Discuss Bodo’s role in the novel, and the effects of his absence in Ludwig’s life. Why does he remain such a powerful influence over the years? Consider the private destruction that he wreaks on his family, and contrast it to his public artistic destruction, Abgrund (p. 154). What do you think about Bodo? Do you agree with his statement: “Destruction is the only thing with permanence” (p. 80)?

20. Warren Feldman’s response to nature’s adversity is to build a seawall to protect the homes and families he loves. Compare his reaction to those of Bodo Schultz, who launches a campaign against the gods in tearing down a mountain. Warren’s seawall fails, yet Bodo claims victory. What is the ultimate prize for winning? How do these two responses affect Ludwig’s attempt to live his life?

21. Why does Ludwig feel the need to visit his father after his mother’s death? What do you think he hopes to achieve through his visit? How does the presentation of Marthe’s fake ashes affect Bodo, and why does Ludwig consider this a moral victory? What does Ludwig mean when he says he “pulled closed behind me not one door, but many” (p. 322)?

22. Discuss the end of the novel, when Ludwig is finally able to let go of his mother’s ashes. Analyze the sense of relief that this brings him. What future do you envision for him as he moves forward with these words: “Nothing had remained undone, there was nothing I desired. I was alone. And everything was beginning” (p. 327)?

Suggestions for Further Reading

First Light by Charles Baxter; Winterton Blue by Trezza Azzopardi; Almost Innocent by Sheila Bosworth; Mothers and Sons by Colm Tóibín

Author Q&A

By JW McCormack, Publishers Weekly

In Tommy Wieringa’s second English-language novel, Little Caesar, a son examines the sexual mores of his mother, a fading porn star making a comeback.

Q: Little Caesar plays out against an international backdrop. Do you see your work as characteristically Dutch?

A: The Dutch essayist Karel van het Reve once remarked that there is no such thing as “dutch literature.” Writers from the Netherlands mostly write about times and places that are not their own. There is some truth in that, but overall the assertion belongs to the realm of interesting nonsense. As for myself, there’s a strong Caribbean streak in me. I grew up on a small island in the Dutch Antilles, which led to a preference for Gabriel García Márquez instead of literature from the Dutch delta, which I only learned to appreciate later.

Q: I wasn’t sure whether Little Caesar was comedy or tragedy at times. Is there an underpinning of irony or surrealism?

A: Márquez made strong objections to the term “magic realism,” remarking once that the reality of the Caribbean is so overwhelming and wonderful that it would be an underestimation to call it “magic.” I also think that there’s nothing more surprising than reality itself. Most of the story lines in Little Caesar find their origins in real events, such as a town teetering over a cliff.

Q: Do you see the son’s fixation on his mother’s past as simply the eternal ‘mothers and sons’ conflict?

A: I never met a mother who wasn’t more or less jealous of her son’s girlfriend. My mother once remarked that her jealousy started when I was in the cradle. I wanted to capture the horror, shame, and excitement of a boy who finds out that his mother’s sexuality was once mostly public—and isn’t our parents’ sex life one of the most frightful events thinkable? When I was doing research, I interviewed Cicciolina, a once-famous Italian porn star, now in her 60s. She has a son with Jeff Koons, with whom she fought a fierce battle over custody, which coincidentally led to a reform of the U.S. law on child abduction. The fact that a famous porn star and a camp artist like Koons have a son together sparked this story: a search for what kind of person such a child will become.

Q: The circulation of a particular brand of pop music is impossible to ignore in your book. How do you compare pop music to literature’s ability to communicate to the masses?

A: English may be the world’s lingua franca, but the sentimentality of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” is universally understood. Compared to music and terrorism, literature is such a silent way of communication. It investigates our worldview, rather than affirming it.