“A wonderfully seductive first novel… that shimmers with the musical artifice of Ovid’s poetry while evoking the darker tragedies of his life… Alison has found a voice, at once modern and archaic, lyrical and potent, that mesmerizes the reader…. A small, twinkling jewel of a novel.” — Michiko Kakutani, New York Times
Why was Ovid, the most popular poet of his day, banished from Rome? Why do only two lines survive of his play Medea, reputedly his most passionate, most accomplished work? Between the known details of Ovid’s life and these enigmas, Jane Alison has created a haunting drama of psychological manipulation, and an ingenious meditation on love, art and immortality. When Ovid encounters a woman who embodies the fictitious creations of his soon-to-be published Metamorphoses, he is enchanted, obsessed, and inspired. Part healer, part witch, she seems to be myth come to life, and Ovid lures her away from her home by the Black Sea to Rome. But the inexorable pull of ambition leads him to make a Faustian bargain with fate that will betray his newfound muse.
Kirkus (Starred Review)
The great Roman poet, author of Ars Amatoria and the Metamorphoses, is the subject of Alison’s fascinating debut: an imagined explanation of what it might have been that caused the emperor Augustus to exile Ovid from Rome for life.
As the story opens, Ovid (b. 43 B.C.) is taking a trip to the Black Sea, purportedly to remove himself from the emperor’s view for a time–just out of caution–but also to catch his poetic breath pending the publication of the Metamorphoses, on which the ambitious Ovid pins his most fervent hopes for lasting fame. And such a lucky choice of getaway it is–for what finer creature should he meet along the forested Black Sea shores than Xenia, the sylph-like girl of 20, of immense beauty and mystery, who was found by villagers as an unparented infant. When she swims, she seems to become the water itself, reminding Ovid of his own characters and creations in the Metamorphoses–and leading him to feel stirrings of his next work.
She must, of course, return with him to Rome, a prospect that thrills Xenia herself, though Ovid fully knows its dangers: as he learns, she’s widely respected for her depth and prowess in the practice of witchcraft, and witchcraft is something that Augustus, in keeping with other of his regulatings of mystery and mortality, has strictly forbidden. To Rome, nevertheless, the couple goes, and in the city acclaim does indeed await Ovid for his Metamorphoses, enough of it, in fact, to bring him the patronage of none less estimable than the unscrupulous and driven Julia, the grievously embittered granddaughter of Augustus himself. And so it is that more harm than good may befall Ovid as he progresses with his new work, Medea, modeled secretly on the extraordinary (and dangerous) Xenia, under the patronage of Julia, whose own true motivations won’t be known until it’s much too late for the ambitious, brilliant, and doomed poet.
Literary life in privileged Ancient Rome: melodramatic, mysterious, believable, compelling.
Little is known about Ovid’s life in exile in the first century A.D., and only two lines of his acclaimed Medea survive today. In this strong debut novel, Alison reimagines Ovid’s sojourn on the east coast of the Black Sea, where Emperor Augustus, in the middle of a campaign to restore morality to his new empire, has banished the poet, displeased by the success of his Loves and The Art of Love. Here Ovid meets Xenia, a wild-eyed young woman who lives in isolation. The only literate person in her community, Xenia acts as town mystic, casting spells, healing the sick and telling futures. Ovid, who admits he believes in Amazons, with “their strong sweating thighs clutching galloping horses, wild howls coming from their parched, cracked mouths,” is eager to be stunned by the "fishy, monstrous, unreal." He imagines the jealous, stormy Xenia to be his Galatea and sweeps her back to Rome, where she unwittingly becomes the muse for the lost Medea, his darkest work. From Alison’s depiction of a trio of gossips at a patrician’s dinner party, "dark eyes flying from one to the other like torches," to her description of an evening walk in Rome freighted with the knowledge that thousands of animals are “denned beneath the city’s streets until they were let out, half starved, to devour terrified criminals or be speared in the emperor’s shows,” she demonstrates familiarity and ease with her subject; and her historic detail is never pedantic. Even those unfamiliar with Ovid and Roman history will delight in this tale of romantic intrigue, rife with blood, jealous rage and the consciousness of human frailty.
New York Times
"A Poet Who Makes Love As Artfully as He Writes"
By Michiko Kakutani – April 24, 2001
At the height of Rome’s Augustan age, no poet had more of a popular following than Ovid, the cynosure of the city’s sophisticated elite. With “Amores,” a series of light, sophisticated love elegies, and the notorious “Ars amatoria,” a kind of manual of seduction for the man about town, Ovid rapidly achieved celebrity and success. A couple of years later, with the “Metamorphoses,” a magical series of mythological stories about transformation and transfiguration, he not only created the perfect showcase for his wit, his verbal fluency and his fertile imagination, but he also ensured his works’ lasting place among the classics.
Why, then, was Ovid abruptly and mysteriously exiled to a lonely fishing village on the Black Sea in A.D. 8? Why were his pleas to be allowed to return to the capital summarily ignored? And what became of his highly praised version of “Medea,” written shortly before his departure from Rome? From these gaps in the story of Ovid’s life, Jane Alison has constructed a wonderfully seductive first novel, a novel that shimmers with the musical artifice of Ovid’s poetry while evoking the darker tragedies of his life.
Ms. Alison, who holds a bachelor’s degree in classics from Princeton, has freely extrapolated from the meager historical record. She turns Corinna, the heroine of Ovid’s early poems, from what most scholars believe was a literary construct into a real woman; she suggests that Ovid’s exile was the result of his involvement in a love triangle of sorts with two headstrong women: a wayward, witchlike beauty named Xenia, whom he met in a distant province and brought back to Rome, and Julia, the emperor Augustus’s rebellious granddaughter.
As Ms. Alison tells it, Ovid meets Xenia during a holiday near the Black Sea, in that "corner of the maps where sea monsters coiled and the river Ocean bit its own tail around the world." With her glassy hair and strange yellow-gray eyes, she instantly entrances Ovid: he sees her as the embodiment of the “wild, ambiguous beings” he celebrated in his "Metamorphoses" and he also sees in her the seeds of his next heroine, the barbarian sorceress known to readers as Medea.
Xenia, on her part, uses her alchemical skills to work love spells on the poet. She alone, in her distant, provincial town, has read Ovid’s poems, and she dreams of being "loved by the love-artist," a man, she knows with her clairvoyant powers, destined for fame and lasting glory, a man who can immortalize her, as well, with his magical words, if only she can become his muse.
So the two return to Rome, the center of the world, that newly marbled city to which far-flung colonies send tribute: grain and slaves and silk, and "the saltwater eels that were always served grilled; and the tiny, tiny singing birds; and the pearls that someone, somewhere dived for; and the clusters of smoked fish eggs."
There, Ovid throws himself into his new project. He does not tell Xenia what he is writing–he keeps his tablets carefully hidden from her–but coyly observes her from a distance, measuring her emotions and methodically converting them into verse. He remembers how his former love, Corinna, fled "the hungering monster he’d become," accusing him of confusing “love and art," "loving and stealing." But while he has spasms of guilt about the uses to which he is putting Xenia–especially after she tells him that she is pregnant with twins–he cannot quiet his ambition or his lust to transform her life into words. Sometimes he wonders if art imitates life, or life imitates art.
Although Ovid begs Xenia to tell him whether he will achieve the immortality he so craves, she stubbornly refuses. It is the one secret that gives her power over him, and for the time being she withholds that information. After all, she has begun to worry that Ovid is seeing another woman: she has picked up hints, whispers, omens that something is amiss. Her jealousy, Ovid thinks, is "not civilized;" it’s flammable, and "at the slightest betrayal it would be a fearful thing, violent and immolating."
In fact Ovid is seeing another woman: his new patron, Julia, Augustus’s granddaughter, who will give him access, he hopes, to the emperor himself. Julia, however, has plans to involve Ovid in a complicated scheme of her own: she wants to avenge herself on her grandfather, whom she hates for trying to force her to bear a child to continue the family line, and she sees Ovid as an unwitting accomplice in an intricate deception.
Though some of the melodramatic events that Ms. Alison relates are highly implausible on the surface, she infuses them with the weight and inevitability of a Greek–or rather Roman–tragedy. She has created a dense, poetic narrative, filled with images and leitmotifs that mirror and refract Ovid’s own verses, while at the same time spinning his life into a new myth of her own creation. In doing so she has found a voice, at once modern and archaic, lyrical and potent, that mesmerizes the reader, drawing us ineluctably into Ovid’s world of marble and monuments and primal passions. She has written a small, twinkling jewel of a novel.
New York Times Sunday
“Metamorphoses: A novel imagines a mythic chance meeting that changed Ovid’s life”
By Richard Eder – May 20, 2001
A hermit crab needs the shell of a whelk or sea snail to lead its life in, but the shell must be empty. And novelists who write of the past find their true fictional voice in history’s silences. Which is why even a skillful novel about Henry VIII or Abraham Lincoln–Gore Vidal’s, say–tends to speak flatly. Too much known; not enough silence.
There are two great holes in our knowledge of the Roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso, or Ovid. One is the fate and nature of “Medea,” his one recorded effort at classical tragedy amid the elegies, erotic or mournful, and “Metamorphoses,” his singular joining of mythology, human nature and art. Only two lines of the play survive, through references by other Roman writers.
The other hole is his sudden rustication from Rome, where he lived in a genial glow of popularity and reward, to exile in Tomis, a bleak settlement on the Black Sea. To Romans it was the far edge of the world. Ordered by an aging Emperor Augustus, the exile lasted for the remaining nine years of the poet’s life. The reason is not known; Ovid himself suggested that it was the scandalous nature of his “Art of Love.” Scholars seem to think this unlikely, and speculate about some personal misstep touching the imperial family.
Two silences, then, dramatically trumpet-tongued. The first a question: would the lost “Medea” have made a mark on theater as profound as the one Ovid’s elegies made on poetry? The other a mystery: his Miltonic fall from the golden pinnacle of life and fame to the back-of-beyond lifelessness of a stony Balkan village. “Paradise Lost” sought to justify God’s ways to man; there was no one to justify those of the godlike Augustus.
Two novels have cast Ovid’s story in mythic terms, using images that crash like cymbals, and a brazen, sonorous rhetoric. A decade ago the German novelist Christoph Ransmayr wrote of a Roman citizen sailing in search of the poet, only to find him gone, and the Tomis villagers transformed into the figures in “Metamorphoses.” Tereus, the butcher, like his namesake the king of Thrace, rapes his sister and tears out her tongue to ensure silence. The ropemaker Lycaeon turns into a wolf.
The mythic dimensions are less cosmic but more sharply drawn in Jane Alison’s new novel, “The Love-Artist.” It is a swirling parable that touches on the opposed sorceries of art and magic, on tyranny and rebellion, and on the struggle of male and female.
It begins at the end, with Ovid roused by soldiers at night and forced through a sleeping Rome to a ship that will take him to exile. Alison writes with the fevered pitch of nightmare and, as with the best nightmares, every detail is more real than reality: the fruit more succulent, the decadence more sumptuous, the dead deader, the emperor more distant and more terrifying. For all the gorgeous life along the Roman streets, beneath them run cellars thronged with wild animals awaiting release to the arena to tear human flesh or one another.
This is the Ovid of the lost “Medea”; and “The Love-Artist” configures it as his greatest and most terrible work. The story begins a couple of years before the exile. Learning that the puritanical Augustus was displeased with his “Art of Love”–although, or because, it enhanced the artfulness of Rome’s matrons–he goes on a long sail hoping absence and the publication of “Metamorphoses” will restore him to favor.
Fetching up on the Caucasus side of the Black Sea, across from the site of his future exile, he meets Xenia, nymphlike and with “transparent hair” (the way Roman eyes saw unfamiliar blond). She is a healer and alchemist, solitary priestess of an earth-magic quite different from the decadent refinements and brutal oppressions of Rome.
They travel back together, mutually ravished–he by her beauty, seemingly, and she by his poetry. Each, though, seeks something else: an immortality in which lofty transcendence is inextricably tied to a less lofty hunger for fame. He craves a masterpiece; she is bent on hitting the alchemical grand prize: a formula for quintessence, the principle of life.
For a while, as Alison writes, “she was flush, and he was flush.” They are feasted, Ovid as a celebrity, Xenia as a glamorous exotic. Her alchemist’s laboratory is crowded with clients; he writes exuberantly, bolstered by unexpected royal patronage. It is not the emperor who bestows it, though, but his granddaughter Julia. Lavishly praising his previous work, she commands him to write more gravely; he embarks on “Medea.”
Here begins the descent into evil and destruction that Alison makes her book’s fictional and thematic core. An intricate net entangles story and characters and drags them under. If up to this point the prose can feel overcharged and self-intoxicated, it now seems suited to the complex horrors that develop.
What happens is not always clear. One way that writing achieves force is through abrupt omission; but sometimes Alison omits too much. Roughly, though, a baleful triangle takes form among the three principals. Julia, whose ultimate object is revenge on the emperor for exiling her mother, uses both Ovid and Xenia as deadly instruments.
Ovid, too, turns instrumental; love gives way to cold artistic purpose. The choice of “Medea” is neither casual nor innocent. Variously portrayed by Euripides and other writers, she is woman as sorceress, paladin and monster. Ovid uses Xenia for his model and inspiration, first portraying her magical qualities, and then, as Julia’s poisons (and, through her, Rome’s) build up, the portrait turns dark. Greed for fame plays a part; Ovid demands that Xenia use her powers to foretell whether his work will endure through the ages. Scruples, a refusal to be used, anguish that the loving partnership of art and magic has been debased keep her silent.
The finale is near-Jacobean in its tormented ferocity. Of the three only Xenia emerges, if not quite unscathed, at least restored to her life of mysteries and obscure communions at the far reaches of an empire burnished and spoiled in its power, its terror and the servile vanity of its arts and glories. In Xenia’s restoration “The Love-Artist” could be called, I suppose, a work of magical feminism; and often a stunning one.
Memphis Commercial Appeal
“Ovid returns for walk on love’s wild side”
By Fredric Koeppel – May 20, 2001
One of the great losses of European literature is Ovid’s play Medea, only two lines of which survive. He completed the tragedy around 8 AD, when he was exiled from Rome to godforsaken Asia Minor by the emperor Augustus. “Two things ruined me,” Ovid wrote from the far shore of the Black Sea, “a poem and an error.” From that lacuna in the work of a great poet and from that expressive ambiguity, Jane Alison has fashioned a hypnotic first novel, The Love-Artist.
Though she has a degree in classics from Princeton, Alison writes like no academic. Her prose is an incandescent with sensuous detail as the ancient author of The Art of Love and the Metamorphoses could have asked for.
Alison invents a previous journey for Ovid to the Black Sea, undertaken to escape Rome temporarily after publication of The Art of Love had provoked scandal and the displeasure of Augustus. Better to get out of town while the Metamorphoses is being copied and let the emperor impose his puritanical reforms in peace. The poet is counting on what he thinks of as a “blind adventure” in a part of the world more pristine, more primeval than Rome.
Once Ovid disembarks, that adventure takes the form of Xenia, a child of nature in the form of a beautiful young woman, a “webby whirl of hair and white skin,” known in the region of semibarbarians as a magus, an alchemist, a witch–a searcher, that is, into the secrets of life. Seemingly the only literate resident of the wilds, she knows Ovid’s poems and who he is. Inevitably, though their equally matched personalities keep them on edge, they become lovers.
Xenia possesses the seer’s gift: she knows Ovid “would be borne up over the crowds, how gold would fall upon him in showers. He would return triumphant to Rome, more triumphant than he had been. A shiver ran from her throat to her knees. For if she were there, beside him? To be loved by the love-artist . . .”
Ovid, on the other hand, thinks, “She wants herself plundered, transcribed,” and thus Alison introduces what we may call the Scott/Zelda theme, for the manner in which the author of Tender is the Night appropriated his wife’s private horrors for his public fiction.
Ovid and Xenia return to Rome, where they settle into his house, she on one side of the garden, he on the other, among his servants. He attempts, rather disastrously, to introduce his witchy woman to a group of fellow writers and society friends. The problem is that Xenia knows too much: when she sees you, she sees your fate, just as, walking through the capital of the empire, she sees not magnificent palaces and temples but smoking ruins presided over by carrion birds.
Xenia also perceives, in the distant future, Ovid’s glorious and long-lasting fame, essential knowledge he begs for but she withholds. Desperate for immortality, Ovid believes that “unless you live on, you may as well never have lived at all.” In turn, the poet strictly withholds from his paramour the drama he works on so intently. Even Xenia’s pregnancy becomes matter for Ovid’s imaginative transformation. The tension between them increases when Xenia learns that the patron behind the mysterious work is a woman. What readers know that even Xenia does not is that Ovid’s patron is the reckless and destructive granddaughter of Augustus, Julia, whose every effort is bent on denying the emperor the heir he has ordered her to produce. Ovid could have made no more dangerous connection.
The Love-Artist takes the opposite tack from such epic novels of Roman grandeur and decadence as Ben-Hur and Quo Vadis. Alison’s view of Rome is taken from corners, coigns and dark streets, from the shadowed side of public plazas. Much of the book occurs during winter, when the city is wind-swept and inhospitable, its altars cold and repulsive, and the cloaks the citizens wrap about themselves seem wholly inadequate.
Whatever the season, however, Alison imbues this tale of competing motivations and betrayals, this appalling glimpse into the dark, grasping hearts of an insatiable poet and a questing witch, with a marvelous luster of physical and emotional particularity. Though her prose is lyrical and her subject esoteric, Alison grounds her narrative in the rough beauty and brutal accommodations of human relationships in a world that’s as real as it is dreamlike, and she seems as comfortable depicting the raging furnaces of jealousy as she does delineating the keen luxury of sexual desire.
The New Yorker
July 2, 2001
Part thriller, part fantasy, this richly imagined first novel offers an answer to an antique conundrum: why was Ovid banished from Rome to languish on the western edge of the Black Sea, and how is it that only fragments of his “Medea” survive? The disastrous love affair that Alison invents between Ovid and Xenia, an almost feral witch whom he first spies rising like Galatea from the waves, has the power of poetic truth, and the novel’s depiction of the circumscribed lives of women in ancient Rome–from old Persilla, Ovid’s housekeeper, to Julia, the maddened granddaughter of the Emperor Augustus–is especially fine.
“Novelist brings Ovid the love man a nubile witch”
By Carlin Romano – April 22, 2001
Ancient graffiti, like the present kind, captured key aspects of the celebrated in pithy sound bites: “Nero nodded,” say, “or Cleopatra ruled.”
By that standard, one imagines that “Ovid overdid it!” graced more than one aqueduct around Rome.
Publius Ovidius Naso (43 B.C.-A.D. 18)–Ovid to you–won fame as the bad-boy poet of his day, the Oscar W. of the Palatine. Favored by the emperor Augustus in his youth, and even gifted with a horse, he seemed headed from suburban Sulmo to glory as a lawyer and public official.
But Ovid disappointed his highness by turning to ribald verse. He particularly annoyed by publishing “Ars Amatoria” (“The Art of Love”), a witty, cynical guide to love, flirtation and seduction for philanderers of all sorts (“Breaking the Rules,” you might say, circa Circus Maximus) that exemplified the decadence Augustus sought to end in his new empire.
In A.D. 8, Augustus triggered one of the enduring mysteries of Roman literary history by banishing Ovid to bleak exile in Tomis (modern-day Constanta), a Romanian town on the Black Sea.
“Scholars have speculated ever since, often lewdly, on the exact reason for the banishment,” writes the scholar John Frederick Nims in his introduction to the handsomely republished Arthur Golding translation of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” (Paul Dry Books, 2000). “John C. Thibault’s ‘The Mystery of Ovid’s Exile’ (1964) finds none of some thirty-three theories satisfactory.”
“Ovid gives tantalizing clues in his later works,” Pat Southern writes in her biography “Augustus,” “declaring that the causes of his banishment were a poem and a mistake. Obviously, he knew very well what the problem was.” Many scholars speculate that whatever the offense, it involved Julia, the emperor’s licentious granddaughter.
Enter “The Love-Artist” and author Jane Alison, a first novelist with a B.A. in classics from Princeton, who plainly knew an opening for inventive historical fiction when she saw one. As a number of novelists and historians remark in “Novel History” (Simon & Schuster), a just-published collection of essays on the genre edited by Mark C. Carnes, the fiction writer’s most satisfying intervention into history comes when the writer persuasively or playfully plugs holes in our knowledge rather than altering (or actually getting wrong) what happened.
“The Love-Artist” splendidly gathers together what string exists on Ovid’s exile, engineers in the stray fact that he wrote one tragedy, a now-lost “Medea,” and exits with a compelling tale that maintains just the right mix of eerie distance and familiar humanity. Whereas Australian novelist David Malouf concentrated on Ovid’s encounter with bewildering, primitive exile in “An Imaginary Life” (1978), Alison focuses on Ovid in his native habitat.
More about oviducts than aqueducts in the end, Alison’s book conveys Ovid’s mix of satyriasis and steely literary careerism, his elite status yet inevitable vulnerability as a writer. Meanwhile, she convincingly creates Xenia, the unearthly and lustrous Romanian witch he brings back to Rome, with mighty consequences for all.
Alison’s Ovid thinks constantly about literary fame (“To be known. To be remembered. To live forever”), and confesses to being “sick of his frivolous reputation: he wanted his image transformed.” While he relishes the reputation already won by “Ars Amatoria” (Sample admonition: “Should I warn you to keep the rank goat out of your armpits / Warn you to keep your legs free of coarse bristling hair?”), he’s a first-century version of Woody Allen in the days when the Woodman envied Ingmar Bergman’s serious reputation: “He roamed the streets, staring into people’s faces, into their rooms and the blinds of their smiles, but he was always apart, caged in his own laughing self, unable to crack through his own glazed surface and enter the air in which Horace and Vergil had dwelled.”
Alas, when Ovid beholds the glorious Xenia, “her tiny perfect breasts,” in the nude on the pebbled beach, and she notices him, he sees “with delight a tremor run through her, the minute faltering of the footstep that he was so adept at perceiving.” It’s enough to easily distract him from his stylus and tablets, and then there was the magic, so compatible with the “Metamorphoses” that will prove his most enduring work. Alison deftly interweaves Ovid’s work with her plot: a story of separate transformations undergone by poet and witch.
As he reads to Xenia from the “Metamorphoses,” she “entered a world of stones that became tender as skin, feathers that sprouted from fingertips, hair coarsening to brambles and twigs, flesh hardening again to lifeless stone, girls flung into the sky as stars.” We immediately understand why Ovid’s fantastical leaps and clever satires on earlier myths made him the favorite Latin poet of Marlowe and the Elizabethans, and especially of Shakespeare.
At the same time, Alison plainly enjoys stirring the characterization of her witch. With each litany of the “wood betony, goosegrass, britannic” necessary for Xenia’s curative potions, of “mandrake, white false hellebore, nightshade,” the ingredients of the Romanian beauty’s own persona become clearer.
“How should a woman be loved?” the poet asked in “Ars Amatoria.” “Ovid will show you the way.” In her exquisitely crafted first novel, Jane Alison firmly shows us the way to a delicious portrait of Ovid, while luxuriating in evocative detail (“Steam hung among the pine trees, among the vines with their yellow bell flowers, among the tangerines, oleanders, azaleas, and persimmons”). It’s a wondrous overall debut.
“A fresh Roman tale of love, art intertwined”
By Brian J. Buchanan – June 10, 2001
The great Roman poet Ovid wrote of love and the perpetual transformations of all time’s creatures. He avoided political seriousness, even mocked it subtly, which may be partly why the stern Emperor Augustus banished him to the cold Black Sea in 8 A.D.
But we’re not sure. We know Ovid enjoyed clamorous popularity, but if he wasn’t a political threat, why exile him? And why did only two lines of his play, Medea, survive? Jane Alison’s first novel brilliantly reassembles the conditions in which these mysteries arose.
Restlessly casting about for his next great literary project, Ovid makes a voyage for inspiration and meets Xenia, the living embodiment of the Muse, on a remote shore. She’s a healer, seer, witch, seeker after the life principle. Ovid first sees her springing out of a pool where she has been exploring the world’s depths. Soon they know they need each other–both seek to be known beyond their time–and become lovers.
Though Xenia, with certain limits, can see others’ futures (except her own), and Ovid has the poetic power to immortalize her, she won’t tell him all she knows and he won’t show her his writing. Knowing his fame is assured might block the new work, she senses; for his part, he fears that his muse, disliking how she’s used, might bolt too soon.
By now, amid such intrigues of the heart, they’re in Rome, where Ovid meets the patron to back him financially as Xenia provides poetic sustenance.
Ovid struggles to keep love from overwhelming his work as Xenia struggles to use her own arts to save a gravely ill boy. A subplot with Augustus’ granddaughter Julia adds danger and more intrigue, threatening a muse-poet union already prey to jealousy and suspicion. Much happens that can’t be told here, but with Xenia’s pregnancy and a shocking betrayal, subplot and main story converge in a painfully suspenseful series of events.
Alison’s densely hued prose conveys a straight-ahead narrative with visual richness, delicacy of feeling and subtlety of mind. The story teems with herbs, eggs, atriums, images of seabeds, all suggesting aspects of deep psychologies at work.
One does not need a degree in classics to enjoy the tale, though Alison has made superb use of hers in writing it. Her Roman world feels fresh, porous with mythological openings into the mundane and vice versa. Xenia’s striking visions are effortlessly rendered, unforced, like the operation of one of the ordinary senses.
At moments the style grows over-ornate, almost cloying. I wondered at repeated mentions of Ovid’s wrists, expecting them to figure heroically, but they remained just wrists, obsessively noticed by the author. But this is quibbling. Few novels make art, life and love intertwine with such bewildering brilliance.
The London TLS
By Mary Beard – March 15, 2002
In the final lines of his Metamorphoses, Ovid heralds his own transformation: from poet to immortal. The very last word of the fifteen books is “vivam,” “I shall live (forever).” In her first novel, The Love Artist, set in Rome in the closing years of the reign of the Emperor Augustus, Jane Alison makes posthumous fame Ovid’s guiding obsession. Will he, or will he not, live on? The only person who knows the answer to those questions is his exotic mistress Xenia (“Foreigner” in Greek), a witch whose magical powers extend to knowledge of the future. She has premonitions of the Metamorphoses being read forever, and of its famous stories decorating walls and ceilings down the centuries, even in parts of the world the Romans never reached. But, out of propriety, tease or spite, she refuses to tell Ovid.
Alison’s Ovid discovered Xenia on the shores of the Black Sea, where he was taking a pre-publication holiday, just before the Metamorphoses reached the Rome bookshops. Entranced by the young witch, he brings her, by now pregnant with twins, back to Rome as his live-in mistress. He himself meanwhile settles down to work on his next masterpiece, his tragedy, Medea. This work, famous in antiquity (the stuffy rhetorician Quintilian thought it showed what heights the poet might have reached, “if he had been ready to curb his talents rather than indulge them”), is now completely lost, apart from a couple of uninspiring one-line fragments. In the background, he now has imperial patronage–not from the Emperor himself, who had found Ovid’s earlier erotic poems decidedly off-message in the context of his campaigns for moral reform, but from his wilful granddaughter Julia. This is a dangerous arrangement, for Julia is plotting revenge against the grandfather she hates and who is using her only as a “breeding mare,” to acquire a legitimate heir. Her standard tactic is to abort the baby every time she becomes pregnant (and Alison offers a powerful description of knitting-needle abortion Palatine-style); but her more devious plots turn out to involve Ovid and his unborn twins.
Inevitably, art and life become horribly intertwined. Ovid cannot reveal to Xenia the identity of his new patron; and she, suspecting a rival for his love, plots all kinds of jealous revenge. The tragedy of Medea, the foreign witch, who kills her children to take vengeance on their father Jason, who has found a new partner, looks as if it might be acted out, for real, in Ovid’s life. But, in the end, it is the power politics in the imperial palace that bring the story to its close, with an ingenious solution to the 2,000-year-old puzzle of why Ovid was exiled by Augustus (back to the Black Sea, where he had found Xenia).
The Love Artist is an impressive first novel. Its range of adjectives may be disappointingly small (Ovid is far too “lean” far too often); and its references to the physical contexts of ancient Rome disappointingly routinized (“rain splashed in the impluvium”). But any such faults are easily offset by the brilliant and surprising sense of ending, where, in the final sentences, with Xenia too now back on the Black Sea, all the extravagant claims for the poet’s immortality and the tawdry plotting in the Emperor’s entourage are trumped by a simple picture of maternal domesticity.