David Malouf • An Imaginary Life

I try to be a generous reader but I have my limitations. Sometimes the way a novel is written annoys me so badly that I can’t see its merits. Every time I  ve opened up Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, for example, I’ve winced. I recognize many people love Infinite Jest, are deeply moved by it, and think it’s a classic, but it’s not for me.

Previously I would’ve just put the offending book down and never looked at it again, but I’m trying to teach myself to finish books. A book-loving friend said recently that she has been learning how to put a book down, that she doesn’t need to finish every book she starts. My problem has always been the opposite, putting down too many books. I’m trying to learn how to see the merits of a book even through my dislike of its style.

An Imaginary Life by David Malouf is one of those novels whose style rubbed me wrong in almost every conceivable way. Unfortunately, I couldn’t balance my dislike of its style with an appreciation of its content, because its content also disagreed with me.

So here’s a bit of 🔥

David Malouf, An Imaginary Life. 1978 novella about Ovid in exile. Not recommended.

 Eugène Delacroix, Ovid Among the Scythians

Eugène Delacroix, Ovid Among the Scythians

An Imaginary Life is a novella about Ovid in exile. I found it to be an incredibly irritating book with precisely one saving grace: it was funny to read passages out loud to Brittany and watch her cringe. She’s less of a fan than I am.

Malouf’s book is, like Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and one of my all-time favourite books, Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar, an imagined memoir from a man about to die. The man in Malouf’s novel is the Roman poet Ovid, author of The Metamorphoses. I love Ovid, so I read this book.

There is no Ovid in the book. The main character is simply a generic civilized man who needs to get in touch with primal nature. He takes care of a feral child—sorry, Child—and dances about when he sees a single red poppy. (The poppy scene, which takes place at the end of part one and signifies Ovid’s opening up to primal nature, is egregiously embarrassing in a book full of embarrassing scenes.)

The conceit of the novel is that Ovid, the too civilized poet of transformations, gets to experience real transformation when confronted with primal nature. Malouf was not attempting to write a historical novel in the traditional sense, but in any sense the world of the novel feels thin. It has the depth of a puddle in the Outback.

Malouf is at pains to create an Ovid different from the available evidence of Ovid’s writings in a way that doesn’t work. Hence, Malouf has Ovid explain away the fact that his later poems are stuffed full of pleas to be allowed back to Rome with this bit of nonsense: “I shall never go back to Rome. No doubt I will go on writing to my wife and my attorney. I shall even go on addressing Augustus, begging him to forgive my crimes and recall me. Because in one-half of my life that is what is expected of me, it is the drama I must play out to its conclusion. But in the other half of my life I know that if the letter came, recalling me, I would not go.” Tomis is his “true destination… my true fate, the one I have spent my whole existence trying to escape.” You never hear another peep about the first half mentioned above.

Another example. Ovid says, “The emperor has created his age. It is called Augustan, as our historians, with their eye fixed firmly on the present, have already announced. It is solemn, orderly, monumental, dull. It exists in the eulogies that are made for him (to which I decline to contribute) and in marble that will last forever.” He has declined to contribute to eulogizing Augustus? This is simply not the case. The most obvious example is that The Metamorphoses culminates in a prophecy of Augustus’s apotheosis.

Now, there is genuine tension in the surviving evidence, a delightful field for speculation. How much did Ovid really mean what he wrote? Why was he exiled? But Malouf skirts the whole debate, in favour of presenting a bland Ovid who confronts primal nature and learns to bellow like a dying horseman. I suppose if horseman-bellowing is your fancy, then this Ovid might appeal to you.

There are lots of things that just seem off to me, like an idyllic memory of Ovid’s childhood on a farm in Sulmo. It reads like a Hallmark postcard with a bit of nudity. “I fall into some timeless place in myself where the past suddenly reoccurs in all its fullness, or is still in progress. I am there again. I make contact with a self so surprising that I can scarcely believe it is me. I touch again on an experience that I recognize as mine only because its vividness can only be that of life lived in recall. Imagination could not present to the mind, to the senses, anything so poignantly real.” Isn’t Ovid the champion of vivid imagination?

The point of the memory is to reveal that when Ovid was a child he was more in touch with primal nature and a woman’s world. Then he “went some other way, into a man’s world, into the city, into the state,” and became civilized and lost that connection. But now he’s getting back in touch with primal nature. Yes, it’s that kind of book.

By cleverly giving his novel the stunningly catchy title of An Imaginary Life, Malouf grants himself license to jettison anything to do with history. The author’s narcissism trumps all.

There’s no Ovid in the book, so let’s set allow him to rest in peace. What do we have left?

The plot is as follows. A generic poet in a generic past has been exiled to a barbarous town, Tomis. He lives with the headman of the village, Ryzak, his mother, his daughter-in-law, and her child, Lullo. I don’t believe the women are named; they’re referred to as the “old woman” and the “young woman.” Ryzak’s mother is, of course, a witch-like character: “From the window I watch the old woman’s party pass along the narrow lane, gathering adherents as it goes… No man is permitted to see their rites. These are the offices of the moon, and belong to the world of women’s power and women’s worship, that are older, more mysterious, than the world of men.” There’s also a male shaman in town.

The generic poet is unhappy about not being in civilization anymore. Then a feral child appears, The Child (yep), whom they capture. The generic poet takes care of the Child, teaching him some civilization while also—shock—being taught by the Child in return. But Ryzak dies and the family he lives with suspect the Child’s influence, so they run off into the primal nature of the Ukrainian steppes in what is supposed to be a sublime ending.

It’s all very 1978.

That’s the content, which I didn’t enjoy at all. (The two-page afterword doesn’t help matters at all.) But what really annoyed me is the style.

Malouf writes in a self-consciously “poetic” style that grates on my nerves. Nearly every page presented a sentence that made me wince. You very well might love this book if you love writing like this.

“Can one imagine the face of God?”

“I had to enter the silence to find a password that would release me from my own life.”

“We have only to conceive of the possibility and somehow the spirit works in us to make it actual. This is the true meaning of transformation. This is the real metamorphosis.”

“And yet daily he seems nobler and more gentle than any Roman I have known. Beside him I am an hysterical old woman. Utterly without dignity.”

On top of his talent for groanworthy turns of phrase, Malouf has three stylistic tics that are highly annoying.

The book is in five parts plus a “poetic” prelude. The parts are composed of short scenes separated by spaces. Malouf loves to end a scene with a short, portentous sentence, too empty for an aphorism. And there are lots of scenes for him to end.

“Everything hums in sympathy.”

“And the winter has just begun.”

“Free, at last, to prepare a death of my own.”

“We have come to the shores, and prepare to enter.”

“Must we wait, as before, for autumn?”

“He is The Child.”

Malouf loves a series of vague rhetorical questions. Every few pages you are treated to a pile-up of pointlessness.

“Where has he come from? Out of which life? Out of which time? Did I really discover him out there in the pinewoods, or did he somehow discover me, or rediscover me, out of my own alienation from the world of men? Is he the Child of my first days under the olive trees at Sulmo? Is it the same Child? Is there, after all, only one?”

“What is his country? What is his parentage? At what moment did he push out into the world, under what star sign, with what planet in the ascendant, in what ephemeris of the moon? And if he does not know these things can he ever know who he is or what his fate is to be? Or does not knowing make him free?”

His final stylistic tic that irritates me is his propensity to write awkward, wordy sentences in an attempt to sound deep. The whole book smells of a first draft, or perhaps an inebriated editor, from the vague narrative to the shallow history to the clumsy writing.

“What if the Child gave up the struggle, and we found ourselves shut up here with the giant white wolf who is his familiar, and who might at any moment succeed in filling the Child’s body and then breaking out of it.”

“As he builds up the whole range of sounds that we make, he is building up in his own head the image of head, checking and rechecking with his fingertips against my throat, my jaws, my lips, that he is made as I am, that he is man.”

“What else should our lives be but a continual series of beginnings, of painful settings out into the unknown, pushing off from the edges of consciousness into the mystery of what we have not yet become, except in dreams that blow in from out there bearing fragrance of islands we have not yet sighted in our waking hours, as in voyaging sometimes the first blossoming branches of our next landfall come bumping against the keel, even in the dark, whole days before the real land rises to meet us.”

The density of bad language is remarkable. Add a clichéd plot and a narcissistic view of history, and you have a novel that, for me, is painful to read.

Brittany checked out this book because she wanted to read a beautiful novel by a poet. She couldn’t read it. I finished it—it has the decency to be short—but I would not recommend that you read it.