Malouf, David (1980), An Imaginary Life, Pan
In his afterword to his second novel, David Malouf, one of the best known and most celebrated Australian prose writers, states that he wanted to write “neither [a] historical novel nor biography, but a fiction with its roots in possible event.” The result, An Imaginary Life, published in 1978, is an astonishing work of art, an enchanting, challenging, and poetical novel, that manages to sound exuberant and excessive while actually being fairly controlled and shrewd, moving and in the end even dazzling the reader. An Imaginary Life is a perfectly calibrated little book about something that probably didn’t happen, for various reasons, but is more an exploration of spiritual possibilities than real, historical ones, and whatever criticism could be leveled at it from that quarter it can dodge easily. When the book was published, Malouf was a well-known poet, winner of several prizes for his poetry, among them the Grace Leven prize for poetry and the gold medal of the Australian Literature Society in 1974. He had also, in 1975, published his first novel, Johnno, a semi-autobiographical, realist novel about Brisbane society, about two friends and the vagaries of masculinity including references to a homosexual inclination. Johnno is very much a social novel, drawing its strength and logic from the environment, from the social structure that Johnno and Dante, the two main characters, are a part of.
In many ways, the contrast to An Imaginary Life couldn’t be a more marked one. This novel about a “possible event” is set in Tomis ca. 17 AD. This is the year that we think Ovid, the magnificent Roman poet, died in the exile that Augustus had sent him to. We don’t know; in his letters to his wife he mentions a serious illness and more importantly, there is no more of his work after that year, no letters, poems or anything else from the pen of one of the most influential writers in world literature. This is why we assume it’s 17 AD, but it’s all guesswork. We simply don’t know, Publius Ovidius Naso “[c]alled Naso because of the nose” (to quote from Malouf’s novel) just vanishes from history. We have no idea where his grave is or when he died and of what. His life is shrouded in mystery and what we know of it, we know through his own letters, which are both self-pitying and self-aggrandizing, an unreliable witness if I ever saw one. Together with his fame, this makes Ovid a perfect candidate for portrayal in a novel, and indeed, this has been done now and then, the most recent example probably being Christoph Ransmayr’s somewhat overrated novel Die Letzte Welt. But instead of just using the dark spots in Ovid’s life and spinning a tale to fill the gaps, the unknown, Malouf, and this is why An Imaginary Life is such a full success, makes a different choice.
He decides, although he knows that Ovid isn’t to be trusted as far as historical truth is concerned, to not engage history at all. His book takes Ovid’s letters as a starting point and then it leaps out into the void. There is no point where the book displays any interest in what actually happened, but this turns out to be a great idea in that this, implicitly, does bring up the idea of truth, of construction, of delusion and deception. The story takes place in the town of Tomis, or rather: in the village of Tomis. Ovid, disgusted by the peasant lifestyle, pining for Rome, has not written kindly about the town where he spent the rest of his life after he’d been exiled. Then as now an important seaport, constructed by Greeks and constitutionally Roman when he arrived, it’s hard to believe the town to be the semi-savage village that he wrote home about (these are the base walls of the so-called “mud huts”). Malouf, and this is what strikes the reader within the few pages, reproduces Ovid’s fiction and then he uses the idea of this village at the periphery of the world, near the empire but not quite in it, to engage concepts of myth, to present an almost archaic culture that clobbers the mayor to death in broad daylight so he won’t go gentle into that good night, so his soul will leave his body not weakly, but imbued with a fighting spirit. It’s a village where a wise woman and a shaman can whip up the ire of a superstitious populace, suspicious of everything new and vaguely foreign.
So, the reader is immediately in on the fact that we don’t move in the historical Tomis, and Ovid’s life in exile, but in Ovid’s poetical distortion of it. In these letters, especially in those he had published as Tristia, Ovid doesn’t just relate to us what Tomis is like, but he constructs a narrative of his life. From these poems (and the subsequently published letters Epistulae ex Ponto) we draw all our knowledge of his life, it is to these letters that we fly when we want to find out why he was banished, how he grew up and even when he was born. And Malouf, too, draws from these texts, although his reliance on them fades as the book progresses. At first he even mimics tone and voice of them, with broad swathes of text that are addressed to some future reader, text that tells us about Ovid’s life and where he lives now. There appears, in the first chapter in particular, to be an unevenness in tone. The whole book is narrated by Ovid but the first chapter feels less narrated and more orated, acted out. There is Ovid the meek, humiliated poet who assumes no-one will read his work in the future: “Have you heard my name? Ovid? Am I still known?” He wonders what the fate of his work is at home where it, and he, has been banned, whether he is still read, remembered, “Have I survived?”. Like Malouf’s text as a whole, which tethers Ovid’s life to his Tristia rather than to some imaginary historical accuracy and truth, Ovid attaches his self and its well-being to the texts, to his words. His body plays but a small role in the whole thing.
In other places, he is surer of himself, of his reputation and his abilities, but even in these passages, which seem so out of line with the insecure ones, there is a kernel of self-consciousness. Its roots are in Ovid’s inability to properly speak the local language and, at the same time, his estrangement from his own. His learning the language of the Getae, a Thracian dialect, becomes a question of identity. “Will I have to learn everything all over again like a child?” He really means ‘everything’. His perceptions, his connections to the world of beings and things have become unstable. The Ovid of the Tristia has claimed “ipse mihi videor iam dedidicisse Latine: nam didici Getice Sarmaticeque loqui“ (~ I feel as if I had unlearned my Latin, and learned instead to speak Getian and Sarmatian), false modesty, clearly, since the book that contains these kinds of statement is incredibly artful. As with the depiction of Tomis, Malouf, however, takes Ovid seriously, and has his own Ovid be similarly insecure and uneasy about his language and that of those who surround him. At this point, the book is a very well-written, amusing exercise in creating a characters who is very much like the Ovid of the Tristia, it’s a bit dreamy, evocative and even learned, but nothing more, until, that is, Malouf sets the plot in motion.
This happens: a wild child has been sighted in the woods, grown up with wolves. The depiction of the child (or: the Child, as it is known in the book) is amazingly well done, effortlessly creating a mental image of a human being that seems more animal than human, uncanny, elusive. Part of the ease of this creation may be due to the fact that Malouf draws on “J.M.G. Itard’s painstaking observations of Victor, the wild boy of Aveyron” (to quote from the afterword again), which also gave us Truffaut’s L’Enfant Sauvage. Ovid quickly develops a fascination with the Child, and soon becomes intent upon catching and analyzing the barbarous bairn, quite unlike the local populace which is scared by the Child, assuming it to be something demonic, possessed by a spirit maybe, neither wholly human being nor animal but changing from one to the other at will. Nowhere else in the book does the contrast between Ovid’s culture and that of the villagers become more clear. Ovid is more than just a Roman. In his thirst for analysis, for dismantling the Other, the curious, for craving clarity, not in general, but in respect to the anomaly, the deviant little demon, this aligns him with the Enlightenment, as does the fact that he appears to be an agnostic rather than religious. In the character of Ovid, the new age explodes onto the stage where the grubby, fearful old age is still active. It’s due to Malouf’s brilliance and his ahistorical approach (which brings issues like the Enlightenment into play) that An Imaginary Life can focus on just that one facet of a potentially vast topic without feeling reductive.
And it can, just as quickly, move the focus away again. An Imaginary Life consists of five chapters, roughly equally long. Each chapter stresses a different point, a different idea. Narrative momentum rarely spills over into the next chapter because of the hard breaks between them, and still the book is very coherent and suspenseful. It’s impossible to express how admirably Malouf manages to condense a tone, a set of ideas and a narrative impulse into a rather brief chapter and to assemble a book that contains these kinds of chapters but also one continuous story and a very strong coherence. And so it is that, as the child is caught, Ovid’s interest is no longer in understanding or analyzing the Child. Instead he tries to domesticate it and teach it to speak. This section takes up his own alienation towards language and puts it into a new context. The fact that he needs to readjust his relationship with objects and words, makes him open to see how someone without language, like the Child, encounters the world, cognitively, as well as to the mysticism that language holds for the locals, such as a wise woman, who
spies on me. She believes, I think, that I am some sort of rival wizard – is that what poet means to her? – who is using the child to make a different and more potent magic.
Language, perception and cognition are the frontier where he encounters those who are strongly different from him, and that includes the locals as well as the Child. By now, however, he has become susceptible to their kinds of logic, whether it’s the mysticism of the locals or the Child’s nonverbal reading of nature. Malouf’s Ovid is still firmly entrenched in that Enlightenment thinking, without hesitating a second, he Others the Child, presupposes things about its cognitive process that flow from his own oppositions and his own mental strictures. It is not until the fourth chapter, where events finally come to a head and force him to reassess his situation, that he is able to jettison, at least in part, this kind of thinking.
That we keep ending up in Ovid’s head, in the mire of his thinking, is due to the fact that Ovid’s mind is at the heart of the book. The whole book is a journey not into Tomis, not into the middle of a fascinating archaic custom, it’s an examination of Ovid himself. I said, earlier, that, in a roundabout way, this book raises questions of historical truth in regard to Ovid, the historical figure. It does that by examining his interior landscape rather than by assembling all the known facts, for, as we saw, all the known facts are largely those provided by Ovid himself, and Malouf decides to take the text and have it, the values, descriptions, the mind at work in it tell a story that the surface content, the ‘what’, cannot tell this well. As the book moves into the direction of historical obscurity, it doesn’t actually move away from Ovid, but moves from the surface of his texts (characterized by the tone and voice of the first chapter) into an almost phantasmagorically colorful world that hides within. Ovid himself used the exile and his reflections on it as a means to reflect upon himself, producing a marvelously introspective work, that, honest or not, seems authentic and strong, and Malouf follows his lead, just with a twist, designed to grant him and his readers true insight. Everything, from the village to the Child quickly becomes a trope in Malouf’s treatment. There are countless ways in which this can be analyzed and interrogated and contextualized, but the most prominent is probably the contrast between city folk and villagers, or civilization and nature, etc., with Ovid occupying different points, depending upon whether his relationship to the villagers or to the Child is in focus.
For all the imaginary events, the basic, underlying conflict, the one with roots in history, is the one between Augustus and Ovid. Ovid, in Malouf’s book, may be in conflict with all kinds of weird and unusual people on the margins of myth, but these are ‘imaginary lives’, meant to portray both a conflict within Ovid, and within Ovid’s society which, despite his relocation, is the Roman one. It’s the conflict between the stern, joyless state as represented by the Augustan empire, elegant, powerful, but somewhat unpoetical, Apollonian, and the humid, the passionately mythic, carnal, as represented by the poet who gave our culture both one of its greatest collections of love poetry, as well as one of its greatest examinations of myth, poetical, joyful, Dionysian, full of song. In the village, Ovid is confronted with that which is Augustan in himself, and the Child challenges this part of him. But the Child’s and the villagers’ lives are not the only ones that are imaginary.
Ovid’s, for the most part, is as well (it’s also, arguably, the “Imaginary Life” of the title) , and it’s hard not to think that this defense of the wild, the poetical, that is undertaken by the book, wouldn’t, in part, be a defense of Malouf, the poet, or poets in our time, in general. As Ossip Mandelstam, the murdered Russian poet, appropriated the Tristia to sing of his own troubles and to provide a gentle but powerful music for his time, so Malouf’s novel, in its allegorical, tropical construction, keeps snapping the reader back into his own time. In one of the most powerful scenes, the Child is driven almost insane when he’s not allowed to get out of the house to frolic in the snow. This burning, desperate urgency, it transmits itself on the reader, and lifts this book from being good and impressively well made to being great.
An Imaginary Life starts in an unassuming, a quiet manner. Malouf is an excellent writer, sure enough of his mind and his language that he’s never controlling, he’s a confident writer who doesn’t need to smother the reader with brilliance, he allows the reader to discover the book for himself. It’s a good read, and a superb book overall, that makes sense on many levels and will appeal to all kinds of readers. It’s a very strong recommendation, a genuinely good, nay, a great book.
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