The Australian writer David Malouf is fascinated with the power of words, an obsession he shares with the characters in his books. At the opening of his second novel, An Imaginary Life (1978), the poet Ovid has arrived at a desolate edge of the Roman Empire, where he has been banished for tweaking the emperor’s nose once too often. His new home is a village of huts, pigs, and mud. No one reads Latin; no one can even understand what he is saying. He walks around ranting during the daytime, cut off from the essential working life of the village, and at night he writes letters, even when there is no one to read them:
I speak to you, reader, as one who lives in another century, since this is the letter I will never send….
Have you heard my name? Ovid? Am I still known? Has some line of my writing escaped the banning of my books from all the libraries and their public burning, my expulsion from the Latin tongue? Has some secret admirer kept one of my poems and so preserved it, or committed it to memory? Do my lines still pass secretly somewhere from mouth to mouth? Has some phrase of mine slipped through as a quotation, unnoticed by the authorities, in another man’s poem? Or in a letter? Or in a saying that has become part of common speech and cannot now be eradicated?
Have I survived?
Malouf isn’t particularly interested in the circumstances surrounding Ovid’s censorship, nor does he seem to care very much about Ovid’s enduring literary fame. But here Ovid is like the desperate man on a desert island who puts a message in a bottle and throws it into the sea. The desire to be recognized and remembered is always close to the heart of Malouf’s work—whether he is writing about a prisoner of war in southeast Asia or a lonely Roman poet. And for these yearning characters, language often defines the boundaries of their imagined worlds. Malouf rescues their “utterances,” even when they are unspoken; he gives them room to grow, transplanted, in the reader’s mind.
At the same time, Malouf is distrustful of words that are divorced from visceral experience: these can foster enchantment and delusion. Ovid’s fortunes improve only after he abandons his sterile self-imprisonment in Latin and learns the language of the place where he now lives. A feral boy is then discovered in the woods, and the poet teaches him to speak; this linguistic challenge is what binds Ovid anew to the present. It therefore seems appropriate that Malouf’s own heady concerns, which pleasingly resurface in book after book, are increasingly fused with the immediate and the particular. In his new novel about nineteenth-century Australia, Remembering Babylon, almost every idea seems lovingly fleshed out, just as the most commonplace object or gesture—a teacup, the slicing of an apple—is alive with meaning.
Remembering Babylon begins …