Ovids 3

1/ 1970s

[cover illustration by Mark Edwards]

David Malouf’s intense, evocative, prose-poetic novel An Imaginary Life (London: Chatto & Windus, 1978) is narrated from exile, in the first person, by Ovid himself. In it he tells of his meeting with a wild boy, brought up by wolves:

The encounter with the Child, which makes up the main part of this book, has no basis in fact, but I have verified my description from the best account we have of such a phenomenon, J. M. G. Itard’s painstaking observations of Victor, the wild boy of Aveyron … [“Afterword: A Note on Sources,” 153-54.]

François Truffaut’s film L’Enfant sauvage, also based on the story of the wild boy of Aveyron, was released in 1970.

2/ 1980s

[cover photograph by Howard Bartrop]

Christoph Ransmayr’s Die letzte Welt [The Last World] was published in 1988. An English translation by John Woods appeared in 1990 (London: Chatto & Windus). In it the young Roman Cotta visits Tomi in search of the poet “Naso,” only to find a disintegrating world filled with parodic versions of Ovidian mythology. The book concludes with “An Ovidian Repertory,” a glossary of identifications between the characters Cotta meets and their originals in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Time, too, has a habit of morphing between the ancient world and the twentieth-century present in Ransmayr’s brooding, apocalyptic work:
Banned from Rome, from the realm of necessity and reason, the poet had finished telling his Metamorphoses beside the Black Sea, transforming this barren craggy coast, where he froze and ached with homesickness, into his coast, transforming these barbarians, who harassed and drove him not the forsaken world of Trachila, into his characters. And in telling every story to its conclusion, Naso had freed his word of human beings, of their rules and regulations. And then no doubt he had himself entered his landscape devoid of humans – an indestructible pebble rolling down the slopes, a cormorant sweeping above the foam-crested breakers, a swatch of triumphal purple moss perched atop the last crumbling wall of a town.

Ransmayr’s work enjoyed a huge success (the cover of my paperback copy includes the comment: “The most extraordinary novel since The Name of the Rose.”)

This enthusiasm did not long survive his next work to appear in English, The Terrors of Ice and Darkness -- which I personally prefer. The fickle reading public deserted him, thinking him a one-trick pony, rather than the Eco-esque enchanter they were looking for.

Terrors (which actually appeared in German in 1984, four years before The Last World) tells the story of a young contemporary man’s obsession with a turn-of-the-century Austrian polar expedition to Novaya Zemlya.

“Reality, once discovered, no longer needed recording.”

3/ 1990s

[cover picture by Sally Taylor]

David Wishart’s Ovid (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1995) is set just after the poet’s death. His stepdaughter, Rufia Perilla, wishes to bring his ashes back to Rome for burial, and enlists the help of the narrator, dissolute aristocrat Marcus Corvinus, grandson of one of Ovid’s principal patrons, in doing so.

The rest of the book is a hard-boiled, Chandleresque riot through the mean streets of Rome, as Corvinus tries every trick he knows to find the true reason for the poet’s banishment. (It turns out that he accidentally discovered the identity of one of Augustus’s granddaughter Julia’s co-conspirators in her – alleged – plot against the emperor. He unwisely reported this to the Emperor’s evil scheming wife Livia rather than to Augustus himself, and thus become implicated in a fiasco which resulted in the Teutoburger forest massacre of three legions by renegade German noble Arminius).

Hero and heroine succeed against all odds, however (though the validity of Wishart’s theory about the true reason for Ovid’s exile is somewhat impaired by his own frank admission in his “Author’s Note” that “the real Valerius Corvinus was much older than I have made him;” that the real Perilla was “happily married with children;” and that her husband Suillius Rufus “could not possibly have been, as I imply, the ‘false friend’ who attempted to deprive Ovid’s wife of his estate and whom he calls Ibis in his poems.” [367]

One sample of Wishart’s prose will suffice:

I’d been at a party on the Caelian the night before. My tongue tasted like a gladiator’s jockstrap, my head was pounding like Vulcan’s smithy, and if you’d held up a hand and asked me how many fingers you’d got I’d’ve been hard put to give a definite answer without using an abacus ...

There's now a whole series of "Corvinus" novels.

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