Tuesday, August 22, 2017
AN IMAGINARY LIFE by David Malouf
I reside in the bullseye of the target audience for David Malouf's An Imaginary Life, a historical fantasy about Ovid in Black Sea exile encountering a 'wild child,' so I'm unsurprised by my positive reaction. It's a very good, highly-intelligent, literary novella that's as much about consciousness and language as historical re-creation. In fact, it's so good that I was able to overlook Malouf's attempt to metamorphose Ovid into a kind of proto-Hegelian proto-Christian and focus instead on his dramatization of I-thou versus subject/object consciousness (all very Seventies and Esalen-y in this novel of 1978) and his Derridean-like foregrounding of writing--specifically, the writing of a narrative that privileges speech, thus upping the strictly postmodern irony. The emphasis on writing appropriately falls out when the narrator crosses the Ister--that Holderlinian and Heideggerean river--into a zone of preliterate pastoral. The final pages seem both 'written' and not, akin perhaps to the mystical wordless communication Ovid shares with the child. One might also subject Malouf's novel to a less postmodern, more postcolonial reading that interprets it as depicting an imperial subject's engulfing, consciousness-transforming encounter with a colonial other, a reading that allegorically relates the tale to Malouf's Australia and the centuries-long discourse of European-Aboriginal relations. Throwing light in many directions, inviting views from many slants, An Imaginary Life is a beautiful, multifaceted, intellectual jewel of a book.