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An Imaginary Life Paperback – May 28, 1996
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"A work of unusual intelligence and imagination...[a sort of] fantasia on what Ovid's life in exile might have been and, as time went by, became, as the quintessentially civilized man of letters was forced to come to terms with a harsh, pre-rational, thoroughly alien world" -- Katha Pollitt * New York Times * "Elegant and resonant narrative...an exhilarating use of language" * Sunday Telegraph * "Haunting" * Sunday Telegraph * "David Malouf, a spare and delicate writer, presents here the first-person story of the Roman poet Ovid's exile in the distant, frosty wastes...hypnotic in its gripping accumulation of detail, its gradual unwrapping of human reality amid what at first seems a barbarian and unknowable environment. At the centre of this meticulously well-told tale is Ovid's encounter with a wild boy, brought up among the deer in the snow" * Sunday Times * --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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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
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The 126 pages of this imagined life are luminous with this evocative writing and with ambiguities. Malouf imagines the life of Ovid, exiled from Rome for inciting Augustus's daughter, Julia. Her behavior was so far beyond her father's tolerance that she herself was exiled to a miserable island where she died. Was the incitement from Ovid's "The Art of Love?" Something more outrageous? Was her exile Augustus's idea? His wicked wife's Livia's conniving?
Ovid's story is a Matruska doll of questions within questions within questions. Fittingly, Malouf refers not only to his image of the Poet's life at the edges of the Roman empire in Tomis, but more centrally, a life he imagines Ovid may have imagined: a wild Child, like the wolf-raised children. These appear benignly in Kipling as Mowgli ,sadly in the research on the Wild Boy of Aveyron, and much earlier, in wolf-mothered Romulus and Remus.
There are few characters in this look: Ovid (the narrator), the headman of Tomis where he is sent to live, his mother, the widow of his son, and her child. The Child whose story becomes the focus of Ovid;s existence is found in a forest. He may or may not exist, he may or may not be the same Ovid remembers encountering as a three-year old in Sulmo...
The arc of the story thus bends to the Child's discovery by Ovid, their perilous existence in Tomis, and their flight to the great wilderness.. The arc equally is Ovid's thoughts on identities, transformations, origins with echoes of his great work on the origin of the gods, of human life, and of our own metamorphoses,
I found the writing almost sculpturally crafted, the imagined lives compelling, and the book wholly worth reading.
Any reader alerts? I couldn't get "An Imagined Life" out of my mind. It can have that kind of power.
The passages of nature descriptions and dreams are very beautiful and I realize deserve a slow second reading. One dream stands out where Ovid is a rain puddle, moved by the passing sky and clouds and sun as the human soul is moved by emotions and pain. That as dark clouds reflect upon his surface, the puddle cools, as the life energy of man cools and flairs with life events and time.
Ovid is enchanted by a wild child of 8 who lives with the deer in the forest and after 3 years of gradual contact he is captured and brought into the superstitious village. The villagers are correct to view him with suspicion for he surely was protected by the gods and spirits of the wild to survive 11 years naked in the cold harsh wild world.
The passages where the Child becomes ill and the perceptions of this illness by the family where Ovid lives and the other villagers is fascinating. For what is contagion in the primitive mind exception possession of evil spirits moving from one body to the next.
I was reminded of the poetry of Yeats and Ted Hughes and the novels of Coetzee (Waiting for the Barbarians) and the short story by James Joyce (The Dead) as I read Malouf, yet he is not derivative but deals with themes that Joyce, Coetzee, Hughes, and Yeats also explore.
What do you want to understand before you die? What do you wish to experience before you die? What is the unreconciled part of you that should be made whole before your last breath? Malouf is brave enough to engage in a short novel that addresses these issues with dream, vision, and the power of sensation. An excellent book which I highly recommend.