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Ovid In and After Exile: Modern Fiction on Ovid outside Rome

Alison Keith

University of Toronto

Besides his own volumes of poetry from the Black Sea (Tristia 1-5, Epistulae ex Ponto 1-4, Ibis), only two references to Ovid’s exile in Tomis are extant from classical antiquity (Stat. Silv. 2.1.253–5, Plin. NH 32.152; later sources collected in Clark, Miller-Newlands). Yet scholars researching the reception of Ovid’s exile poetry have documented widespread allusion to these works in the Latin poetry of the first century ce, and well beyond, into late antiquity and the middle ages (Hexter 1986, 2002, 2007; Walker and Williams; Claasen 1999, 2008; Dewar; Gaertner; Fielding).

Even in the bimillenary year of the poet’s death, fascination with the politics and poetics of Ovid’s exile continued strong, as evidenced by the notice issued by the city council of Rome revoking the poet’s order of exile in December 2017 (; Henley) and conferences held in both Rome (‘Ovid, Death and Transfiguration’, American Academy of Rome/La Sapienza, March 2017) and Sulmona (Bimillenario morte di Ovidio, April 2017). Indeed, in a review of the 2005 publication of Peter Green’s translations of the Tristia and Letters from the Black Sea, Jan Morris averred that the messages of this poetry remained ‘more pertinent than ever in our dislocated and uncertain times’.

This paper explores the contemporary literary reception of Ovid’s life and work, contextualizing current artistic responses against new directions in the scholarly reception of Ovid’s poetry. Several novels have been written in the last thirty years that centre their plots on Ovid’s poetry and his exile (Ransmayr; Wishart; Skvorecky; Alison; Jaro; cf. Malouf). Focusing on the novels of Ransmayr, Skvorecky, and Alison, I analyze the themes that they explore of political intrigue and civic responsibility in repressive regimes; exile and expatriate alienation; female agency and ethno-cultural difference.

In Christoph Ransmayr’s novel, Messalla Corvinus’ younger son Cotta Maximus searches for the missing poet in Tomi but discovers in the rust-corroded town an ominous scene suffused with and dominated by the characters of the Metamorphoses, a transformed place where the ancient world meets the twentieth century. Ransmayr’s characters and the landscapes in which they move shift and change under pressure both from the supernatural events of the narrative and from the mythological transformations of the Ovidian intertext; as Gildenhart and Zissos (3) note, “Ransmayr’s tale amounts to a rewriting of the Metamorphoses  in the bleak spirit of Ovid’s own Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto.” Ziolkowski (465) has rightly called this novel an example of “Postmodern Ovid.”

In Skvorecky’s An Inexplicable Story, Ovid’s nephew Questus Firmus follows the injunction encoded in his speaking name to take up a similar quest to find his missing uncle as he records in his diaries the work he conducts on a strange new engine for ships. Skvorecky puts his wide knowledge of Roman history, and his personal experience of political exile, to the service of a postmodernist argument that history is always already fictional, its essence ungraspable.

Finally, I discuss Jane Alison’s exploration in The Love-Artist of sexual and political betrayal, Roman imperialism and ethnic difference, set in the highest reaches of the Italian political aristocracy as well as on the isolated margins of Augustus’ empire.

All three imaginative fictions adapt for our time the perennially fascinating questions of the politics of exile, sexual desire, and personal agency, along with unstable and degraded landscapes, female agency, and ethno-cultural differences encountered by the displaced representative of imperialism. In these novels, the alienated, homeless Ovid is a vehicle for critical global issues of the 20th and 21st centuries.

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Ovid Studies: the Next Millennium

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