Exam essay question: David Malouf’s brilliant novel “an imaginary life” has been highly praised and studied widely. Analyse the reasons for this success and popularity.
This novel demonstrates an intellectually stimulating and unique way of asking important questions regarding our existence and our relationship with the rest of creation. ‘An imaginary life’ raises many queries about universal valves, what it is to be human, what is language and why it is so powerful, what is death and the nature of reality.
However, not only does this opulent novel ask these eternal enigmas, it also offers possible answers.
Thus, these suggested answers are rendered so plausible because of Malouf’s Midas touch with the five literary elements: historically authentic plot; believable and sympathetic characteristics; naturalistic but symbolic setting; universal themes; final and foremost it’s refulgent style!
Therefore, the novel’s style is richly poetic, possibly due to the fact that Ovid himself is a poet. His story is told through the use of an elongated letter, an uninterrupted journal entry, where the readers are often addressed. The novel is written in first person but he constantly makes assumptions and that gives him a slightly omniscient role. This role is reinforced through his prophetic predictions, when he states that this letter will be “found and read”, “It will be translated” in a “new millennia” where there will be “new furnishings, plants and the world will evolve.” Ovid’s background also greatly influences his writing style as he finds himself constantly exemplifying Greek beliefs (mythology) and making reference to their cultures and customs. However, even though that Malouf uses the character of a Greek in his story, it is blatantly obvious that the aboriginal culture has affected his style of writing, tying the culture of indigenous Australians to the Getae, as they consider the land to be alive, through dreamtime stories.
This can be related to Greek Mythology’s Gaia, the goddess of earth. ‘An imaginary life’ is categorized as a modern day romantic novel, where the boundaries of logic and reason are broken, and imagination is free to transcend, to a place where man forgets about civilization and tries to embrace intuition by disembodying their souls. This approach is evident in the quote: “we are free at last to believe in ourselves. Since there are no rules we must make some. Let them be absurd! Since there are no more restrictions, we invent them.” The deep utilization of different imagery allows Ovid to paint pictures with words, to stimulate our senses with varied pulsations.
These pulsations are what make up the epiphanies in his living stream of thoughts. Ovid tends to scrutinize anything that comes within reach of his senses, and his uncontrolled and exuberant flow of descriptions allows us to empathize closely with him. The narrator generally applies two major tones, both captivating in their own way: the first being the lonesome and pessimistic tone experienced in the first wave of stagnation, and the second, of euphoria that is transitioned to through a journey of finding his true self. A powerful example of his unique use of imagery is when he says: “…it is like trying to remember something you have forgotten, that glows at the very edge of your mind but refuses to reveal itself.” Here he tries to relate to the readers with generally common experiences through unparalleled ingenuity.
The ease of empathy towards Ovid and his life is therefore possible due to the deep bonds rooted through emotions between him and the reader and inclusive and direct statements which he employs within his interior monologue. Malouf also takes the readers on an emotional rollercoaster, which primarily starts when the child is taken. The cruel capture of the child stands as a metaphorical symbol of the stolen aboriginal generation, where the children were forcefully captured and taken by the more ‘civilized’ people, who understood nothing of them. Readers are able to immediately understand Ovid because most of the important events in his life, that made him who he was, occurred after he is exiled from Rome.
“But my knowing that it is the sky, that the stars have names and a history, prevents my being the sky. It rains and I say, it rains. It thunders and I say, it thunders. The Child is otherwise. I try to think as he must: I am raining, I am thundering, and am immediately struck with panic, as if losing hold of my separate and individual soul, in shaking the last of it off from the tip of my little finger.” This quote shows the idea that regardless of race, age, and behavior, a young wild child could teach an elderly man, brought up in ‘civilization’, how to break the limits of one’s self and reach the pinnacle of satisfaction in this world. It gives the novel its harmonious and enthralling nature.
This attraction is also achieved as Ovid enters the ‘other world’ where he finds true euphoria, and the immense openness that he once thought of as a desolated hell became his source of ultimate gratification. The idea that great imagination lies in simplicity is also explored in the plot of the novel, however, it is from this simple plot that the complex conundrums and theoretical themes are created. This journey is therefore truly inspirational to the readers; it provides an escape from the constrictions of conforming to science and civilization and instead opens a gate into the eternal bliss.
By empathizing with Ovid, it seems that a hope has been found, that life is truly an everlasting experience, and it does not end at death. This consequently makes the readers feel a peace of mind and tranquility, as the only boundaries we have are those we make ourselves and that “we are free after all. We are not bound by the laws of our nature but by the ways we can imagine ourselves breaking out of those laws without doing violence to our essential being. We are free to transcend ourselves, If we have the imagination for It.” and hence the title of the novel. During the final days of Ovid, the crossing of the river between two environments symbolizes his success in finally reaching nirvana.
Thus, the environment plays a major role in the overall mood and progress made in Ovid’s journey. The setting is a reflection of his psychological state, he describes it as: “desolateness. An empty place, where the world freezes for eight months with a polar curse, and when the ice loosens and breaks up, the plain turns muddy and stinks, the insects swarm and plague us. No flowers. No fruits. We are at the ends of the earth. Empty as the eye can see, or the mind can imagine, cloudless, without wings. I am describing a state of mind, no place. I am in exile here.” Ovid compares the nature of Tomis with that of Rome, and immediately focuses on the negatives to find that it lacks civilization and the quality of what makes humans, in his opinion.
However upon the finding of the poppy, his journey begins, his first step in casting off his old self is taken. “Poppy, you have saved me; you have recovered the earth for me”. His life in Rome had caused him to lose contact with nature, but his exile to Tomis allowed him to reconnect with nature, to regain his childhood vitality, and in sighting the poppy he reminiscences his childhood in Sulmo. It is also important to state that the landscape of the extensive plains is much like a poetic vision of Malouf’s homeland, Australia, with “the immensity, the emptiness, [which] feeds the spirit, and leaves it with no hunger for anything but more space, more light – as if one had suddenly glimpsed the largeness, the emptiness of one’s own soul, and come to terms with it, glorying at last in its open freedom.”
Malouf uses his universal themes in synergy, to create a message so powerful that it discovers the precipice of human purpose. The main themes which are highlighted to the readers are the themes of the power of languages, of mythology, and of breaking boundaries. These themes are put into naked prominence to be examined, like priceless jewels in a jewel box. Ovid faces three languages in the novel, the Latin language, the language of the Getae and fore mostly the indescribable language that he and the Child communicate with.
Upon learning the language of the Getae he realizes that it less constricts him in understanding nature as evidenced in the quote: “Seeing the world through this other tongue I see it differently. It is a different world. Somehow it seems closer to the first principle of creation…” and by learning this new tongue he has overcome one of his boundaries, thus also showing the power of language. In one incident, Ovid dreams himself to be a pool of water that the Child drinks from, and this symbolizes a step being made in Ovid’s journey of self, while also indicating that the boy is learning from Ovid, he is seeing his own reflection in him and gaining civilized traits. (Do I need to work more on this paragraph?)
In conclusion, it poses no difficulty in seeing why this ingenious piece of literary work has gained immeasurable success and popularity. It breaks new ground in combining the five elements of literature, to create a visionary masterpiece. It is said by the great Albert Einstein that “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For while knowledge defines all we currently know and understand, imagination points to all we might yet discover and create.” This novel acts as reinforcement to this point, it shows the readers the importance of freeing oneself from limitations and gaining and giving the most of life. Most importantly, though: “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.” – Carl Sagan.