An Imaginary Life

I loved this book at Uni and this review reminded me why.

The case for David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life

By Dallas J Baker

… further from the far, safe place where I began, the green lands of my father’s farm, further from the last inhabited outpost of the known world, further from speech even, into the sighing grasslands that are silence … (David Malouf, An Imaginary Life).

David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life is not set in Australia and has no Australian characters. It is set at the edge of the Roman Empire, in the first century AD. Australia as “Australia” would not exist for almost 2,000 years. This lack of identifiably Australian components is probably why An Imaginary Life is rarely mentioned as a great Australian book that deserves more attention.

An Imaginary Life is exceptionally well written, rich in poetry and evocative detail. It is a work reminiscent of the writings of a mountain hermit or nature mystic – but that’s not why I selected it as the one Australian book that deserves more attention. I selected it because its central themes resonate with ongoing debates about what it means to be Australian.

David Malouf, An Imaginary Life.
Random House

What kind of Australian literature is this?

At first glance, Malouf’s second novel does not look like an Australian story at all.

It doesn’t strongly feature the Australian landscape or sense of place, nor does it offer us characters of the type we have come to expect of typically Australian writing. There are no larrikins, no diggers, no Aussie battlers, and no tough yet world-wise women with hearts of gold.

To me, though, it reflects a significant aspect of the Australian story – a sense of exile.

An Imaginary Life tells the story of Ovid, the most famous and most irreverent poet of imperial Rome. Ovid’s irreverence leads to his banishment to an isolated village on the shores of the Black Sea in current day Romania, a place occupying the literal edge of the Roman Empire.

Exiled to the limit of the known world, Ovid is cut off from his own culture, even from his language. Slowly, the poet learns to depend on and respect those around him, those he once saw as unsophisticated barbarians because of their inability to speak Latin, their poverty, and their closeness to nature. Ovid sees nature as something somehow frightening, wild, unless it is cultivated, transformed and made productive by human hands.

An encounter with a wild boy

His worldview is challenged when he encounters an untamed boy who has lived out in the wilderness with wild creatures. Ovid captures and tries to “civilise” the boy – but this backfires on the poet in unexpected ways. By observing the wild boy, and then following him into the wilderness, Ovid realises Rome is not the whole world, and not even the centre of it.

Ovid’s predicament should be familiar to many Australians. Like the poet, many of us are acquainted with the feeling of being at the edge of things, on the wild borders of regions and empires to which we do not quite belong, or do not belong any more.

For the first century or so after colonisation, Australia was on the periphery of the British Empire. Then, from the second world war to the 1990s, we understood ourselves to be on the outer limits of the USA’s sphere of influence. Now we see ourselves as on the edge of the Asian region, but not really part of it. We seem to always be a part of something and yet apart from it.

When non-Indigenous Australians think about the history of their belonging to this place, they inevitably come to a moment of arrival; either recent or generations back, either as free migrants, refugees or exiled convicts. They also come to a moment of departure from somewhere else, the places where their ancestors, or they themselves, once belonged.

Indigenous Australians also know exile. European colonisation dispossessed them of their country. Over the decades that followed, many of them were forcibly moved to missions in places as foreign to them as the Old World. There is in Indigenous communities a deep yearning and mourning for lost places; places locked behind gates and fences, places buried beneath cities and suburbs, roads and farms.

Somewhere else

The somewhere else in our personal histories – those places we lost or left – plays a big part in how we think about ourselves. It produces a sense of national belonging that is never quite secure.

A common response to that insecurity is a kind of aloofness, a standing apart from the rest of the world. We like to single ourselves out, to brandish our physical and cultural distance from other places, our un-belonging as it were, as a mark of uniqueness, and of national identity that distinguishes us from others.

This is also Ovid’s initial response to his exile, to cling firmly to that which makes him different, to refuse to truly belong either to his community of exile or to Rome, which has cast him out.

Another common response to this insecurity, that sense of un-belonging, is to turn to nature, to the environment.

That may be why so much Australian writing has a strong sense of place, and why when we think of important Australian novels they are often ones that feature landscape as a character in its own right. Indigenous Australians have shown other Australians the way in this regard. It is their profound understanding and love of this place that has, over time, transformed the non-Indigenous view of it from something to be feared and tamed, to something to love and protect.

Unfortunately, the landscape is still a contested space: the site of ongoing Indigenous dispossession, the site of mass species extinctions and environmental degradation. When we turn for a sense of belonging to the land, to the country, we are inevitably reminded of our un-belonging, or of our dispossession.

Even so, nature, perhaps because it is undeniably a healing thing, continues to anchor us here, to ground us as “Australians”. For many, contested though it is, the beauty of the land eases that sense of exile, of not quite belonging, whether their families have been here for just a few years or a few thousand years.

For Ovid, it is the same. Slowly he comes to see the wild world as something to embrace, to cling to even, rather than something to fear. Ovid’s great epiphany is that the untamed world is not a hostile place, but a new home where he can be free of the rigid structures of Imperial Rome. By venturing into an even further place, a greater exile, he becomes free.

The poet in the world

An Imaginary Life is, in part, about an individual journey from a state of being cut off and apart from the environment – of wishing to tame and exploit nature, of being totally entangled in language and culture – to a state of being in intimate contact with the untrained, wild things of the world. It is also about a poet, in thrall of civilisation, realising that there are other ways to live and experience; ways that are beautiful and fulfilling.

Ovid comes to this realisation by following the example of the wild boy, someone for whom the environment is not something outside of himself but an expression of his own nature.

Those themes – of belonging and exile, of how to relate to the environment and to those who are different to us – are core to the debate about what it means to be Australian today. An Imaginary Life does not provide a workable template for how to navigate the complexity of belonging and un-belonging, nor should it. It’s a novel not a policy document.

It does, however, show us it is possible to imagine ways to do things differently, ways to live differently with each other and with nature. And once imagined, those other ways of living seem all the more possible.

Read more articles in The Case For series.

Are you an academic or researcher? Is there an Australian book or piece of writing – fiction or non-fiction, contemporary or historical – you would like to make the case for? Contact the Arts + Culture editor with your idea.

The Conversation

Dallas J Baker does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

Unlike many of the books I pick up to read, I had not read anything about this one before I borrowed it from the library. It was an impulse pick. I need to do that more often.
Edgar is a young boy who is born to Trudy and Gar who live on a farm in rural Wisconsin. They are dog breeders and their dogs are named after them. Edgar is unable to speak but can hear and learns to sign. He works on the farm and loves the work. He trains the dogs with his mother and father and as he grows up is learning more about what the Sawtelle dogs really meant to his family and will mean to him. Edgar is also brought up by the faithful Almondine, a dog who is wise and kind to the young Edgar and steers him from harm.
Ostensibly the story is the Hamlet story retold. That, however, does it an injustice. It is beautifully written, nuanced and measured in its language. The voice of the novel got me as soon as I began reading and I found it drew me along for the whole length of the story. I was glad that I came to this book without knowing anything about it because the way that it developed the plot was so careful that I could draw my own conclusions; it was not until I was some way in that I realised the Hamlet plot was developing. It also revealed Edgar’s inability to speak carefully without being too obvious. I appreciated that I was allowed to ‘discover’ the story in this way.
When Edgar’s idyllic existence is brought to a crashing halt with the death of his beloved father the raw emotion is overpowering. It has none of the existential angst that Hamlet can have, nor does Edgar spend time navel gazing, he simply deals with it and grieves. It is not until his uncle Claude really draws in that we see what is about to happen. Edgar’s time in the wilderness on the run is told with a level of detail that is mesmerising. We believe that he could survive in the way that he does and the details about the wildlife around him add to the authenticity without bogging down the tale. When Edgar does make mistakes he deals with them with a stoicism that makes the reader admire him again. He takes an enforced rest and we can then see him through the eyes of a stranger who comes to admire him and who is left richer for having helped him. Henry is a lonely and morose man who tells Edgar that he is not trustworthy but Edgar proves to him that he is and allows him to learn that he is better than he believed.
The book really comes alive in the relationship between Edgar and his dogs, three of whom go with him into the wild. The dogs are finely written and their reliance on and love for Edgar is touching. At the very end it is his love for the Sawtelle dogs that proves to be his undoing. The ending will have you wrung out, even though you know how it has to end given the plot development.
The fact that this is David Wroblewski’s first book is extraordinary. It is assured and poetic and is a book that shows its love of language throughout.
I am not usually described as a dog lover, but this book certainly gave me a better appreciation of them. For more on this see David Wroblewski’s blog.

Film Review: The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared

I didn’t even know it was being made into a film. Would be interesting though as the book was lovely. Whimsical and charming.

A Little Blog of Books

The Hundred-Year-Old ManLast week, I was lucky enough to attend a special screening of the film adaptation of ‘The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared’ at the Soho Hotel in London ahead of its general release on Friday. Thanks to the likes of Steig Larsson and Henning Mankell, Sweden is generally more famous for producing atmospheric crime fiction. However, the comic novel by Jonas Jonasson has been a worldwide hit and has been translated into more than thirty languages with more than six million copies sold since 2009. The film is likely to match the book’s success across the globe this summer having already broken box office records in Sweden when it was released last December.

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Kingdom Come J.G. Ballard

After finishing this book I came across this Slatearticle online. It shows images that the photographer took of abandoned shopping malls and bemoans the loss of these ‘community centers.’
Ballard may well disagree.
His book, Kingdom Come, begins with a man who visits a town in Middle England, along the motorway by Heathrow, to attend his father’s funeral. While there he stumbles upon something much more sinister. The Metro Centre has become an unofficial church with its own high priest, it’s own soldiers, and violence aplenty.
He, as an advertising man, is perplexed and enthrall led and for a while become embroiled in the non-politics, politics of the town. A Fascist state ensues where immigrants are treated like footballs, figuratively and literally and citizens worship the twin gods of sport and consumerism. A small group tries to exploit this and Richard becomes an unofficial part of it all as advisor to David Cruise, the minor celebrity cum God of the mall.
It ends in violence, madness and chaos but he does find the killer of his father.
Ballard’s wry observations about middle class aspirations are well made in this account of modern life’s undercurrents. Indeed, ‘the suburbs dream of violence.’20140626-074109-27669763.jpg

The Crane Wife- Patrick Ness

This beautiful fable has cemented Patrick Ness on my list of favourite authors. I was lucky enough to find a signed copy in Readings in Carlton and it has sat on my shelf waiting for me to have time to give it.
It is the story of an ordinary, kind but mild-mannered man, George Duncan, and his meeting with an extraordinary woman Kumiko. She is definitely not what she seems and the reader gives George many wise nods as he falls in love with her. It is not just a love story though. It is a story of time and legend, of caring for oneself and others and of forgiveness.
George’s daughter Amanda is a prickly and difficult character who is unable to fit in even when she really tries. She also is fascinated by Kumiko and learns from her. Amanda arguably gains the most from her relationship with Kumiko as she learns to be more accepting and forgiving of herself.
Kumiko is unknowable but George still loves her, even to the point of dealing with her idiosyncratic inscrutability and secrecy. He is the gentle soul that she really needs as she tries to rest from her long trial.
The fable centers on an old tale, twisted slightly to fit the novel form, and a song by The Decembrists. Who the author recommends to his readers, pitying those who had not heard them. It is a tale of a vengeful and passionate lover who pursues a beautiful woman who will not kill him. Their elemental forces exist outside of time and the earth. Ultimately it will end badly for some, I won’t give away the ending, but read it for yourself. It is beautifully worth it.


The Wall- Marlene Haushofer

As part of my attempt to read more books in translation I have just finished the breathtaking work, The Wall by Marlen Haushofer. I was shocked to realize that it is a classic of European Feminist literature but in a way that is a good thing as I came to it with no expectations about genre or canon position.
An unnamed woman is trapped in the mountains after an invisible wall drops down freezing those on the other side to statues. She has only a dog with her at first for company but soon chances on other animals. Her life from that point on is about survival. She sets about the practical tasks of daily existence and shows herself to be resourcefully, strong and hardy. It was certainly interesting to read about how she managed to provide for herself but the more interesting story was her emotional survival.
She learns to view her past through a lense of distance like the binoculars she uses to check on the world on the other side of the wall. Her relationship with her companion animals is tender, caring and hard won. She deals with adversity pragmatically and even during illness and depression we see her tough core keep her going. The book has some similarity to the Robinson Crusoe story but contains much more compassion and yet a clear eyed look at what is wrong with our world. Like Crusoe she is alone but does not subjugate others to her will, she cares for her companions even when she is terribly ill herself.
Her voice was what drew me on, I really wanted to read her story and her lack of self pity and strength of will made for an amazing story. She found many solutions, was able to be easy on herself when she was unable to do something and yet forced herself to endure extreme hardship out of duty to her animals.
The narrative has a distinct lack of sentimentality and an unflinching look at what humanity is really about. An existential tale if ever I have read one.

Stars in their Eyes?

In an article in The Guardian today theatre critic Lyn Gardner writes about the reduction of reviews to their star rating. This can be a positive when given a four or five star rating but if given a three, Gardner is concerned that it may deter theatre goers who do not fully read a review but instead, simply skip to the rating and decide that three is not worth spending money on. She does have a point, we read things quickly these days and find ourselves skimming for essential information. This may mean that we miss. Uncles that a reviewer really wants us to consider. Their job is to review, as she rightly points out, not to sell tickets. Our job, if we want reviews to guide us, is to read carefully.
Personally I prefer to ignore reviews of plays until after I have seen them and made up my own mind. Some corroborate and some contradict. That is fine. The reviews are a bit subjective. Sure, they are more experienced in that area than me and they do have tried and tested criteria on which to base their assessment; I just may be seeing the whole play differently to them. I like to go on fresh and then ponder it. I may connect with a play for personal reasons or because I valued ( or otherwise) the dialogue, accent, set, plot above elements that spoiled, or made it, for them.
My point really is to agree with Gardner, we should not be swayed by a three star review, especially if it is only one review, and avoid seeing something we may connect with on a different level.



I wish I was a Murakami leading character. They are often beautiful, intelligent, strong and supernaturally intuitive. In fact, they are almost superheroes. This is not a criticism, he manages to make them just human enough for us to identify with them but special enough for us to want to read about them. It doesn’t help that the novels of his that I have read, and it is no small number, are translated so beautifully that his prose is almost poetic. When I stop to think about it his dialogue in IQ84 is unreal, and that’s not the only thing about this novel that is unreal, but he manages to keep it flowing well enough that it doesn’t jar. That’s exactly what I’ve come to expect from him. He defies convention.
IQ84 begins in 1984 and slowly edges its protagonists to a unity that the reader would have thought impossible until at least half way through. The plot centers on Aomame (Green Pea) and Tengo. Tengo is a writer who has a distant, yet strangely intimate relationship with his agent who calls at odd times and dispenses with preamble knowing without ever speaking of it, that Tengo knows it is him on the line. He offers Tengo a morally dubious job that quite literally changes the world. This is just one of the strange relationships in the novel.
Interwoven with Tengo’s narrative is Aomame’s. She is a sort of mercenary who ends the lives of men who have mistreated women at the behest of her friend and benefactor, the Dowager. Aomame also makes a decision that changes the world. The plot gradually draws the two closer filling in background details as we go along. Tengo’s relationship with the supernaturally beautiful Fuka-Eri, the writer of the story he ends up rewriting, is explored and the mysterious young woman brings two worlds together. A shadowy religious organization, the Dowager’s wonderful bodyguard and a gnome like private eye character round out the narrative. The plot twists and turns and we gradually realize that the novel is changing shape. Murakami keeps readers interested because he is never predictable and because as I have already said, he does defy convention. He does not disappoint here.
At 1000 pages this may test the dedication of some readers but it was enthralling and too hard to put down.



LibraryThing and updating the library

News Feed | LibraryThing.

I love using Library Thing as a way to catalogue my books and connect with other readers. I use Goodreads as well but Library Thing, I feel, has more features. I like the way that Library Thing lets me view my books in multiple ways and connect to other readers with similar books. They also send out free books to those willing to review them, although a lot of these are US only. I am a  bit sporadic about organising my books though and the library has grown somewhat over Christmas, therefore, it was time to do some organising. Some of my favourite new books were ones that I ordered after seeing them in Waterstones on my last visit home. They had really nice displays and as a traveller, not a regular, I appreciated the organisation of their stores, plus the fact that they had coffee in many shops! A spot to grab a book and rest weary feet was appreciated.

But back to Library Thing, the main reason that I stick with it is that it has been around for a long time and half my library is already there. To move to another cataloguing site at this point would be painful. I joined in 2006 and have catalogued 751 books. I find that I add a few at a time, have a look at what others are reading, check in with the groups and read the news and then revisit in a few months. The only thing that could improve the site for me would be an iPad app. This would be amazing as I could then update more regularly. I tend to use my iPad more than any other device for convenience’s sake.  The quicker sites like this make the job of organising books, the more time we have for reading.


via News Feed | LibraryThing.

Not more bloody war books

This year should be designated the year of the war book. With the anniversary of the outbreak of WWI and next year’s anniversary of the Australian landings at Gallipoli we will see increasingly large numbers of books being published, and republished, about war.
While many of them may well cover old ground a few should come out that will be interesting and original takes on the theme. So I thought I’d share a few of my favourite war stories; ones that I enjoyed reading, not because they were about war, or generals stuffing up and leaving poor Tommies in the lurch, but because they were about the trials of the human spirit.

All Quiet on the Western Front- Erich Remarque- this novel universalises the experience of war, showing the perspective of a young German soldier.

The Regeneration Trilogy- Pat Barker- these three novels focussing on our most famous war poets Owen and Sassoon, really show the damage that war can do to the psyche and give a glimpse of what a state early treatment for ‘neurasthenia’ patients was like. It shows a world in the midst of enormous social change and is wonderfully written.

Of course one of the best ways of beginning to understand the war is through poetry. Owen’s war poems are brutally honest, painful and sad reminders of the fact that these were often very young men who died in awful circumstances.