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An Imaginary Life by David Malouf
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An Imaginary Life (1978)

by David Malouf

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1978 novella by the esteemed Australian writer, known especially for his poetry. The imagined life at hand is of Ovid, famed Roman poet who was exiled to Tomis on the Black Sea in A.D. 8, under what circumstances we don't know. The mystery of Ovid's banishment to live among the barbarians ("these Getae") invites Malouf to invent a dreamy first-person narrative for the exile, who describes living in very sparse, frigid conditions with an "old man", the man's mother, and some extended family. Seasonally, Ovid goes along on horseback with other men, "into the birchwoods", to hunt deer. On one excursion, they glimpse an apparent wild-boy. Ovid is captivated by the child's elusive existence, and eventually the men track and roughly capture him. Ovid becomes caretaker for "Child" as he refers to him, gently coaxing him away from wildness, observing him for long periods in which Ovid falls into vague reveries of his own childhood. The shamanic, spirit-imbued world of his barbarian hosts proves a threat to Child when he becomes ill, leading to a fever dream exodus. This work is poetic, at times beautiful, but a bit too gray and nebulous for me. Perhaps a familiarity with Ovid's Metamorphosis cycle, which tells of human transformations into the natural world, would help the reader. ( )
  ThoughtPolice | Apr 23, 2018 |
An interesting short novel that imagines Ovid's exile and death as he searches for a way to a closer understanding of reality. ( )
  nmele | Jan 25, 2016 |
Enjoyed it for what it was, but disappointed that it was not so much a straight story about Ovid-in-exile [although that was there] as much as a meditation on the balance between civilization and nature, with psychological and philosophical underpinnings. Writing was luminous, with gorgeous descriptions. Worthwhile to read once but I don't feel it warrants rereading. ( )
  janerawoof | Oct 22, 2014 |
Ugly cover, beautiful prose. ( )
  KatrinkaV | Jul 9, 2014 |
A marvellous little book by Australian author David Malouf about Ovid's exile in Tomis. As the author himself explains in his Afterword. "To the Renaissance reader Ovid was the most modern of the Latin poets, the most worldly and accessible, the most human, his skepticism balanced by a love of the fabulous, the excessive. It is this modern quality I have tried to recreate, though the fate I have allotted him, beyond the mere fact of his regulation to Tomis, is one that would have surprised the real poet, since it attributes to him a capacity for belief that is nowhere to be found in his own writings. But that is exactly the point. My purpose was to make this glib fabulist of 'the changes' live out in reality what had been, in his previous existence, merely the occasion for dazzling literary display."

The interation of civilization and nature is such a huge theme, so often handled terribly in novels. Mainly because it's such well trodden ground that the author finds it difficult to adopt a new perspective or an original voice and the whole thing is reduced to a series of flat clichés of dubious colonialist origin. I also think it's ambitious to try to recreate a historical character in a first person narration, without it becoming a clunky list of things that happened in their life told by a overwritten stereotype. Malouf avoids this by making only scant reference to Ovid's life pre-exile and focuses on creating the character from his literature, to write prose like Ovid wrote poetry. As such there's a beautiful immediacy to the prose and a loving lingering over well chosen detail that make the whole thing delicious. Or at least I thought so.
1 vote gerundivalattraction | Oct 26, 2010 |
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To Christopher
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When I first saw the child I cannot say.
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Book description
The poet Ovid and his relationship with a feral boy during his exile from Rome on the coast of the Black Sea.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0679767932, Paperback)

In the first century A.D., Publius Ovidius Naso, the most urbane and irreverent poet of imperial Rome, was banished to a remote village on the edge of the Black Sea. From these sparse facts, Malouf has fashioned an audacious and supremely moving novel. Marooned on the edge of the known world, exiled from his native tongue, Ovid depends on the kindness of barbarians who impale their dead and converse with the spirit world.Then he becomes the guardian of a still more savage creature, a feral child who has grown up among deer. What ensues is a luminous encounter between civilization and nature, as enacted by a poet who once cataloged the treacheries of love and a boy who slowly learns how to give it.

"A work of unusual intelligence and imagination, full of surprising images and insights...One of those rare books you end up underlining and copying out into notebooks and reading out loud to friends."--The New York Times Book Review

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:12 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

In the first century AD, Publius Ovidius Naso, the most urbane and irreverant poet of imperial Rome, was banished to a remote village on the edge of the Black Sea. From these sparse facts, one of our most distinguished novelists has fashioned an audacious and supremely moving work of fiction. Marooned on the edge of the known world, exiled from his native tongue, Ovid depends on the kindness of barbarians who impate their dead and converse with the spirit world. But then he becomes the guardian of a still more savage creature, a feral child who has grown up among deer. What ensues is a luminous encounter between civilization and nature, as enacted by a poet who once catalogued the treacheries of love and a boy who slowly learns how to give it.… (more)

» see all 2 descriptions

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