Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 22, 2011

An Imaginary Life (1978), by David Malouf

Ovid. Source: Wikipedia Commons

I discovered the Roman poet Ovid  when I was at university and enjoyed reading his Amores and Metamorphoses  very much – but I was much too young to appreciate him properly. All I really remember is that the Amores was rather raunchy and that Ovid wrote once too often about matters too sensitive for him to be permitted to continue.   He was exiled to a remote island called Tomis because he offended the Emperor Augustus, and was utterly miserable there.  This was not least because he was a bit of a ‘lad’, full of joie de vivre and a taste for ladies not necessarily available for romance, even in free-and-easy Rome.  He liked The Good Life, and most of its lesser vices, and he enjoyed being provocative for the fun of it.

It turns out that what I remember about him is about all there is to know, probably because Augustus was as good at turning his foes into ‘non-persons’ as Soviet dictators do.  Yet it is out of these flimsy facts that David Malouf has fashioned an intriguing life-in-exile for Ovid in his second  novel, An Imaginary Life ( 1978).

In Malouf’s novel, as in reality, Ovid paid a heavy price for his temerity.  In this re-imagining, Malouf takes us to the bleak and barbaric island of Tomis where the greatest deprivation for the poet is that no one speaks his language.  The peasants who live on this barren island are preoccupied with survival and not much more, and the early chapters of the book show us Ovid’s anguished longing for intellectual companionship and a shared delight in words.  I can’t help wondering if Malouf himself had felt this way early in his career.  Was his exploration of the themes of intellectual isolation, conformity and the bleakness of some cultures influenced by his ten-year sojourn in Europe and return to Australia in 1968?

For Malouf’s Ovid is irrevocably changed by his new environment.  He is a stranger among his suspicious hosts, and he is deprived of his language, his poetry and his raison d’être.  He is no longer himself.  Who can he be, and what will be the cost of his inevitable adaptation to his new circumstances?  His journey of self-discovery takes him from the elegant excitements of Rome to a world where he must fit into the natural environment, and he can only survive by using his powers of imagination to create a palatable alternative.

His first solace comes when he learns to take joy in simple things such as the sight of a single poppy blooming in the desolation, courtesy of a wayward wind or the droppings of a bird.

Out walking today in my old sandals and cloak, with a straw hat to keep off the sun, stumbling about talking to myself in the muddy waste towards the river, I was stopped in my tracks by a little puff of scarlet amongst the wild corn.
It is the first colour I have seen in months.  Or so it seems.  Scarlet.  A little wild poppy, of a red so sudden it made my blood stop.  I kept saying the word over and over to myself, scarlet, as if the word, like the colour, had escaped me till now, and just saying it would keep the little windblown flower in sight.

But as time goes by, Ovid develops a most curious obsession with a boy he sees while out with the men: a wild child – who might, or might not,  exist.  (How different this wild child is to Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy!)  At the same time, he stops blaming creation for his predicament, and learns acceptance.  In an allusion to his poetry he says that this is the ‘real’ metamorphosis (p64).

We have some power in us that knows its own ends.  It is that which drives us on to what we must finally become.  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.  Our further selves are contained within us, as the leaves and blossoms are in the tree.  We have only to find the spring and release it.  Such changes are slow beyond imagination.  They take generations.  But it works, this process.  We are already the product of generation after generation of wishing to be thus.  And what you are, reader, is what we have wished.  Are you gods already?  Have you found wings?  (p64)

Ovid learns the language of his hosts and finds beauty in it.  He enjoys the old man’s stories; he makes a garden.  He learns the satisfaction of skilled net-making and even finds a nascent soldierliness in himself as he takes his turn at defending the village against the would-be invading Dacians.  In return for these gifts, he brings a little frivolity to these people – for to play, he says, is to be free – a word not in their language.

When the wild child is brought into the village, he makes the same discoveries as Ovid himself as he learns  the society of his own kind.  Perhaps he is Ovid, and Ovid is him.  It does not really matter…

For in remembering his own childhood memories, understanding them as he never did before, Ovid feels the guilt of being a poor replacement for his sober and industrious dead brother and yet he takes consolation in having brought  pleasure and fun into people’s lives.  And in making the decision that the language he will teach the wild child shall be the village language and not his own Latin, he realises that now he will never go back to Rome, even if pardoned.

‘I belong to this place now’ he says…

It’s a beautiful book.

Author: David Malouf
Title: An Imaginary Life
Publisher: George Brazilier, New York, 1978
ISBN: 080760884x
154 pages
Source: Kingston Library


  1. This sounds a highly intellectual book! As one who knows nothing of Ovid, I think I would probably miss out on the nuances and allusions contained in it. I have a huge gap in my knowledge when it comes to Ancient Greece much to my shame


    • Tom, the best thing about Malouf is that he writes about complex ideas in a avery simple way. If you read Ransom, for example, as a father and as a grandfather, you will read it simply as a story about a man who loves his son and wants to see him buried with respect. You don’t need to have read the Greeks at all.


      • I second that. Malouf’s starting point is not, “Oh, look, let’s do something clever and allusive with, specifically, Ovid,” but, “An educated and thoughtful man is being banished to a far-away and unfamiliar place. What happens next?” The presence of a famous person gives this book an extra buzz of importance, as the presences of famous people do, locating it in a time and place and nimbusing it with a halo of history, sharpening the reader’s attention in that way, but the reader of Imaginary Life doesn’t need to have studied Ovid any more than the person buying a ticket to see Ian McKellen do a quasi-Nazi in Richard III needs to have studied the kings of England.

        I love this book for its melting quality, the soft ecstasy that comes to a grander ecstasy at the end, the push and pull between Ovid and the villagers becoming easier, then more complicated, and then this opening-out, this utter release: immigration as a kind of orgasm.

        (“I can’t help wondering if Malouf himself …” — interesting point. I hadn’t thought of that.)


        • Hi Deane – you could also read it as a window into the world inflicted on more recent dissident intellectuals sent away to labour camps in the USSR and China.


  2. Of all the Malouf books I’ve read this is the one I have no recollection of. I remember my group’s discussion, but nothing of the book. I think it was at a time that I was overtired and just didn’t register. I plan to rectify this – particularly after reading Ransom and the various comments reviewers made about it and this one.


    • I went to hear him In Conversation with Raimond Gaita tonight at the Wheeler Centre, and much was made of his long-standing interest in the classics. Apparently he treats them at some length in his Quarterly Essay on Happiness (which I haven’t read yet) and one of the things he said tonight was that there is a contradiction in our 21st century minds about how much we’ve changed the world we live in, and yet how much people have stayed the same. We are still creatures that belong in a world that is not the world we have made here. Such a wise, thoughtful man!


      • Oh lovely. I’ve seen him a few times, as you probably have as he’s pretty generous with his time. He’s an amazing person – calm and gracious, but as you say, so thoughtful. I recently saw him sitting in the foyer of the NLA and got up the courage to speak to him – just to tell him I loved his works. I think most authors appreciate that as long as you don’t behave in a fawning manner and hang around?

        I heard him interviewed (The Book Show? Life Matters?) about the Quarterly essay – it sounds interesting, like commonsense really but thought through and argued well.


        • The Quarterly Essay series has been a great innovation in publishing in Australia – good breain food!


  3. One of my regular blog correspondents kindly tipped me off to ANZ LitLovers a while back, Lisa, but I’m sorry that I didn’t really heed the advice until now. Nice to make your “acquaintance”–looks like there will be a lot in the archives for me to explore! As a big fan of Ovid, I have to say that I find the idea of this fictional biography quite compelling. Thanks for the tip. Cheers!


    • Hello, Richard, it’s nice to make your acquaintance! I’ve just visited your blog and read your post about Swann’s Way, and I shall be a regular visitor as you make your way through the succeeding volumes because I so much enjoyed your way of writing about him. (I finished reading the Penguin edition just shortly before I started this blog).
      re Malouf: do read Ransom too!


  4. Finally, Lisa, An Aussie book you’ve reviewed that I’ve actually read! And I really enjoyed it.


    • Ah well, Kinna, I usually feel the same way about your reviews because I haven’t read the books, but *gleam in my eye* that’s a good excuse to buy them!


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