by Jane Alison, Farrar Straus & Giroux 2001
This is a historical novel about Ovid, why he was banished and what happened to his play, Medea. It starts with two quotes: "Two offenses ruined me, a poem and an error" (Tristia 2.207) and "I gave you your life. Now you are wondering, will I take it, too?" (Medea fragment). I can't find that fragment in Latin on the web -- I wonder if it was made up?
Ovid's Medea was praised by ancient critics. I remember our Ovid teacher at Harvard saying "Homer and Vergil, yes they were always read. But Ovid was read with delight!" So Ms Alison has an interesting story to investigate. The plot is simple: Ovid takes a trip to the Black Sea after sending his Metamorphoses to the publisher, to let Rome cool off for a bit without him. He meets Xenia, a beautiful witch, who inspires him and who has dreamt of him, fascinated by his assured immortality as a writer. He brings her back to Rome, she gets pregnant, and he gets a secret commission to write a Medea from Augustus' estranged and twisted daughter, Julia. Xenia gets jealous, and you keep expecting some gory Medean denouement.
That's the bald summary, but the writing is very lush indeed:
Moments later Xenia stood dripping where Ovid had been, the roaring in her ears drowning out the sea. She's almost been blinded by what she'd seen: not just the man himself, lean, slouching, elegant, famed, but so much behind him, fluttering about him, all those tiny figures! A winged boy, one with a fish tail, a boy-girl, a weeping tree... It was dizzying; she'd never seen such richness, such life -- colors as brilliant as a peacock! And that he'd crouched here with his famous, interested eyes, those eyes fixed upon her ... The very thought was undoing, and she dropped to the ground -- but there were his footprints, flown to her from Rome. She trembled. Then she saw the scrap of cloth left behind and plucked it from the thorn -- a token! Looking down again she discovered the holes made by his fingers. He hadn't just watched her -- he'd been rooted, enthralled.
She slipped a finger into a hole, and a flush ran over her cheeks. Was it still warm? Pulling her hand away, she looked at it, only then remembering the blood. [...] She ran from the dune to her house, love spells flying from her tongue.
Since it's so impressionistic, and since so little actually happens -- a few parties, some crowd scenes, the death of a slave boy -- the imagined Rome works pretty well. The only anachronism that jarred me was Xenia's rather advanced knowledge of chemistry, but even then I felt that Ms Alison had probably done her homework on the herbalism front. Julia is the only character with an I, Claudius sort of historical oomph, and we see almost nothing of her. You need to enjoy this novel for its ornate prose.
Giovanni wrote: Great review! In my argot "You need to enjoy this novel for its ornate prose" translates: "A typical Farrar Straus & Giroux book."