Jul/Aug 2000 Book Reviews

Ovid Metamorphosed

Philip Terry
Chatto & Windus, Random House (Feb.2000) 250 pages
ISBN: 0 7011 6941 9

reviewed by Ann Skea

Hand Ovid's work over to a party of prose writers and give them a free hand to re-invent it and you will find it metamorphosed, as it is in this book, into modern fantasies, meditations, essays, word-games and even a scientific paper.

Some of these metamorphoses are as different to Ovid's original work as a moth, say, is to a caterpillar. Others simply shed a few skins, as spiders and snakes do, and appear renewed. Some of these metamorphoses work. Some do not. Readers unfamiliar with Ovid's work may well be lost in some places unless they check editor Philip Terry's helpful introduction for guidance. And the babel of voices, and the range of styles and topics, make for little consistency in the book.

Most of the pieces here, however, work well, as is to be expected when the list of contributors includes such skillful writers as Margaret Atwood, A.S. Byatt, Catherine Axelrad, M.J.Fitzgerald, Cees Nooteboom, Joyce Carol Oates and Marina Warner.

Philip Terry's own contribution draws on parts of Ovid's, Ars Amatoria, and is, he says "framed in a way that suggests a parody of contemporary men's magazines." It shows just how little sexual games and seduction ploys have changed since Ovid wrote his notorious guide for would-be lovers 2000 years ago.

Sex, of course, remains a major topic. As befits a notable translator, M.J. Fitzgerald sticks quite closely to Ovid's original horror story of Tereus, Procne and Philomela. It might seem impossible to make Ovid's gruesome horror story of rape, abuse and cannibalism any more disturbing than it already is, but Fitzgerald's subtle changes manage to do this.

Another rape occupies Paul Griffiths: that of Leda by the swan which is Jupiter in disguise. Compared to the graphic details of Fitzgerald's work, Griffith's offers an imaginative but confusing piece of literary games-playing. Without the title, "Leda," it would be hard to follow this fantasy. Time is circular, sentences and phrases repeat themselves in metamorphosed shapes, and various letters (which seem arbitrarily chosen) progressively disappear from the text.

Far more easily understandable, is Margaret Atwood's imaginative updating of the life of the Cumaean Sibyl. Typically, Atwood's story is self contained and needs no explanations. Her shrunken, immortal old woman speaks with world-weary cynicism and caustic wit, revealing how manipulative, gossipy and immensely rich she has become.

Another strong and distinctive voice is that of Catherine Axelrad's smug scientist who presents a pseudo-scientific paper on "Metamorphic Illness." In fact, Axelrad may have caught the disparaging tone of this self-satisfied modern scientist rather too well for her own good, it is so irritating.

A genuinely knowledgeable, intelligent and interesting voice, belongs to A.S. Byatt. In her long essay, inspired by the myth of Arachne, she weaves together a web of associations between art (Velazque's painting "The Spinners" in particular), schooling, needlework, arthropods, poetry and her own writing. This is a complex and fascinating essay.

Death, like sex, was a common theme in Ovid's work. Two authors, here, offer their very different meditations on the metamorphosis of death.

Suniti Namjoshi's brief, thought-provoking piece takes a mother, a daughter and her lover—Ceres, Euridice and Orpheus—and suggests the timelessness of myth and the very real emotions, tensions and questions which the death of a loved-one always provokes. Gabriel Josipovici's gentle and moving meditation on the death of his mother is equally personal. He beautifully re-tells her favorite story of Ceyx and Alcyone—their love, death and ultimate transformation and reunion as Kingfishers in a sea which is ultimately "calme and still." It is a story which suggests to him many truths about love, imagination, death and transformation.

There are other stories, too, some good, some not so good, but all attesting to the power which the work of that old Italian, Publius Ovidius Naso (known to us as Ovid) still has to stir the imagination. Will any modern author's work, I wonder, last as long.


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