Flowers, and Jane Allison’s The Love Artist

by Jess

Blue and purple delphiniums, yellow roses, and pink Asiatic lilies: this is what shows up at my house when Chris misbehaves!

Anyways, Jane Allison’s The Love Artist is the fictionalized story of Publius Ovidius Naso, the ancient Roman poet we know today simply as Ovid. History tells us he was mysteriously banished from Rome by Augustus, and while many of his other works survive, such as Metamorphoses and The Art of Love, only two lines remain from his magnum opus, the tragedy Medea. Allison attempts to piece together a “maybe this is how it happened” tale.

Allison’s prose comes across as a sort of hybrid poetry: it’s image-heavy and lush and fantastical, perfectly at ease with the mythology that bore Metamorphoses, a world in which men and women are transformed into trees or birds or stone. But it’s almost too rich to eat. Her descriptions of ancient Rome are bright and vivid without being overdone, making it clear that she knows what she’s talking about (she has a degree in classics) without going out of her way to prove to us that she knows what she’s talking about. After getting past the descriptions, though, I found myself tripping over the same images over and over. It’s possible to convey the sense of something, say, a character, without emphasizing it every time the character is mentioned. I understand after the first couple of chapters that Xenia has crazy eyes and that Ovid is very tall and (somehow) greyhound-like, but these same descriptors follow them throughout the text.

There are occasional POV switches to Julia, Augustus’ granddaughter, who is a wonderfully imagined character, much richer than Ovid or Xenia, who are both a bit megalomaniacal, and there’s simply not enough of her. Opening up the text to more than just Ovid, Xenia, and an occasional Julia would have given the story better scope, a more epic feel suitable for Ovid’s and Xenia’s constant obsessing about living forever. As it is, the novel feels limited. It doesn’t quite live up to its potential.

It’s a good read, if a little slow (and you have to read slowly to pick up all the richness of the prose). There’s plenty of talk of raising the dead, infanticide, immortality, infidelity, exile — everything you’d expect from an ancient Roman soap opera.

I’ll end with some lines from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It wasn’t included in the novel (in fact, we saw no examples of the writing that set the tone for all of Medieval literature), but it’s beautiful. It’s from the defiant speech given by Philomela after she is raped by Tereus, just before he cuts out her tongue:

“Now that I have no shame, I will proclaim it.
Given the chance, I will go where the people are,
Tell everybody; if you shut me here,
I will move the very woods and rocks to pity.
The air of Heaven will hear, and any god,
If there is any god in Heaven, will hear me.”