The last novel I read was one I found on the street in a box full of old Australian classics – not my go-to genre, yet far better than the pap some folk leave out in my new neighbourhood (The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, assorted airport novels). Though published in 1978, An Imaginary Life by novelist and poet David Malouf hasn’t dated. Present tense lends this tale of the late life of the poet Ovid immediacy – the sense that events from two millennia ago are unfolding as we read.
Less than two decades ago, at a publishing seminar, seasoned editor Carl Harrison-Ford (whose job would presumably include advising authors to change characters’ names if they cause confusion) decried the trend towards present tense. I forget why he deemed it a problem. Though it’s obvious, or should be, that there’s something artificial about narrating action as it’s happening (which doesn’t stop a lot of social media users doing it), all fiction (like nonfiction) relies on artifice for its effects (ask any editor). And hadn’t authors of Malouf’s calibre made present tense respectable?
Present tense is apt for Malouf’s circular narrative. As a child, his Ovid sometimes saw and spoke with a wild boy, who disappeared once Ovid reached puberty. Now ageing and exiled from Rome to a remote tribal village, Ovid, hunting in the woods, sights a wild child and plans his capture. What he longs for isn’t new but reunion, a return. Since his original contact with the wild boy, he’s come full circle.
It’s a commonplace about ageing that the mind, or what remains of it, lacking distractions, gazes back on the past; a sign that organic time isn’t a line but a spiral. A downward spiral, some might say, but such is the nature of water, the element that, being reflective, most resembles memory. And so, reshaping much of what it touches, like water does, memory follows the path of least resistance.
On my latest visit to my mother I took a risk. At worst, I thought, she’ll get upset, but within a few minutes she’ll forget. The last time I tried, years ago, she bemoaned her appearance. This time, though, she smiles on seeing my camera. And she continues to smile as I take a few snaps. Why, after decades of protest, does she trust me?
She often refers to the distant past in present tense as if it exists here and now. For months she’s called me ‘Allan’ when I visit, even telling staff I’m her brother, yet she’ll say I’m her daughter if my partner asks. Others are quick to dismiss this self-contradiction as dementia – though who could blame her for wishing to retreat from the present?
While growing up and at intervals ever since, I’d ask her why we never saw her two brothers and their families (I never knew four of my cousins), and why they didn’t visit us, but she’d always evade the question and imply her sisters-in-law had issues. Now, she denies any rift ever existed – though, to my knowledge, she only renewed contact with her brothers once widowed, after a hiatus of more than forty years. Her father’s death marks her departure from contact with them; my father’s death marks her return. When I spoke with one of their wives, shortly before her 90th birthday, she said she’d never known why the rift occurred. Meanwhile, I find myself cast in the role of the jovial brother, not the stern one. How my mother must have missed Allan after his marriage.
A couple of years later, she finally got engaged. But unlike the names of schoolmates she’s never forgotten, she can’t now recall her first fiancé’s, insisting, despite all her snaps of their family visits, that he was only a ‘boyfriend’ for just a few weeks. In fact, their engagement lasted for several months. Within a short time of its being called off, she met her future husband. I don’t know which came first, or why my mother, a beauty, married late. But fertile ground for imagining can be found in the gaps between dates on photos and documentation.
How does Malouf evoke the life of Ovid? Some scholars treat Ovid’s poems as autobiographical fact, while others discern metaphor or invention (he wrote an epic world history featuring myths). More faithful to the spirit than the letter of Ovid’s work, Malouf keeps scholars guessing with regard to his own intentions.
Why write about Ovid? A poet himself, Malouf often dwells on the theme of exile. And curiously, Ovid and he share a birthday, 20th March, which roughly coincides with the northern hemisphere’s spring equinox and fell right on it in the year An Imaginary Life appeared. As Peter Morton notes in ‘Evasive Precision: Problems of Historicity in David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life’, the fictional Child shares his birth year with Christ; setting his story at the dawn of a new era, Malouf tweaked Ovid’s bio to fit precisely.
Am I like Uncle Allan? That may be irrelevant. Since my father died, my mother has drifted into nostalgia. ‘I’ve still got that coat,’ she tells me, looking at a street photo of her and Allan taken during World War II, ‘somewhere at home.’ Whether she means the family home where she lived until her marriage or her marital home where she lived until, at 96, she stopped coping, the deep past is closer for her, as for Malouf’s Ovid, than the far longer time spanning her prime. In circling back to her youth, she’s lost sight of the roles – wife and mother – that defined her. The photos she likes evoke promise, and the carefree phase they record is where I think she smiles from as I take more shots: of a woman with pure white hair cascading to her shoulders, unfazed by my gaze because she’s unaware that she’s ancient.
If, around midlife or earlier, we could see what awaits those of us fated to reach old age, would our priorities change? If we thought our deepest desires and fears might wear out like clothes (the choice of which reveals both our fears and desires more than we know), would we dare to live and love more in the moment?
Malouf wrote poignantly of childhood and age from a point in midlife. Through present tense, his narrator lives in the reader’s mind more vividly than if he’d recounted events retrospectively. And, describing in present tense the backward attitudes of a tribe far removed from imperial Rome, Malouf reflects on ’70s Oz from a postcolonial perspective. Yet Jungian, Christian and eco readings have also been applied to his text: a reminder that if we take fiction – or memories – too literally, we miss psychological, spiritual, political and other levels, and see only a mirror image of our own limits.