I first read this book in high school because it was one of many on that year’s reading list and it was chosen by the powers that be as one of four all students in my grade would study. I didn’t have great memories of it or any memories really and having read it again, I know why: it’s one of those books that make teenagers think they hate reading when really what they hate is poorly chosen books.
An Imaginary Life is a fictionalised version of a short period in the life of Ovid, a Roman poet who was exiled from Rome in AD 8. According to a note at the back of the book from the author, very little is known about Ovid and David Malouf relied heavily on two lengthy poems the poet wrote while in exile to construct the details of the imagined story.
However, the title may also refer to a child Ovid encounters during his time in exile in the village of Tomis. He first encounters the child when he is a child himself and since almost fifty years has passed before the next encounter, it’s unclear whether it’s the same child (and therefore imaginary) or a different child who reminds him of the child from his youth. Either way, the child appears to be wild, potentially raised by wolves, and he lacks language and social skills.
Because Ovid is so consumed by the boy’s existence, he and the villagers capture the boy and take him back to their village where Ovid attempts to civilise and educate him. They get off to a rocky start. The child drinks his ink, refuses to wear clothes or eat and masturbates in full view of others as a self-soothing mechanism. Eventually they come to a silent agreement to co-exist, perhaps because they are both outsiders and the villagers trust neither of them. But when the village leader’s grandson falls sick, the superstitious villagers know exactly who to blame.
I really struggled to get through this book. It shouldn’t have been hard because it’s only 154 pages long but I fell asleep seven times while reading it. There are multiple reasons for that. The writing is flowery, unbelievably flowery – which sort of makes sense since it’s supposedly being written by a poet – but instead of coming across as poetic, it was instead slow, boring, repetitive (in both the use of specific words and descriptions of individual incidents) and, in some places, contributed to a complete lack of understanding of what was going on. There are huge amounts of description, so huge that by the time the description finished and returned to the actual story, I could barely remember what the story was and why that description had been necessary.
Ovid’s decision to capture the boy also rankled. Maybe it was a commentary on how people in authority or positions of admiration or power always think they know how others should live their lives or maybe it was a metaphor for trying to recapture a happier time in his life, but from the first moment the boy is taken against his will into the village, it’s clear that it’s a pointless exercise. The boy remains unhappy for the duration of his stay and is prevented from being who he is, simply because he is different, and the effect is to drive a further wedge between Ovid and the people of the village.
There is almost no dialogue in this book, just page after page of dense prose, and again it makes sense since Ovid doesn’t speak the language of the villagers and they don’t speak his, but it also makes for such a difficult reading experience. No breaks, no white space, no let up.
I understand why it’s the kind of book that would have been chosen for a school reading list – because it’s full of things that pretentious English teachers can ask students what the author really means underneath the veil of the flowery language – but it lacks the three basic things that readers are looking for: interesting plot, complex characters and good writing. All I can say is that I hope it’s not still being chosen for high school English classes. After all, if students are going to being studying literature to see both what’s on the surface and the hidden depths, can’t we start at the top with Shakespeare and forget these pale imitations in order to encourage them to love reading instead of scarring them for life?
In a word: tedious.
*First published on Goodreads 13 February 2017