The Love-Artist

The Love-Artist

3.8 5
by Alison

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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…  See more details below


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.

Editorial Reviews

Michiko Kakutani
From [the] 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.
New York Times
The New Yorker
Ovid's Metamorphoses, says Madeleine Foray, "changes in the hands of each new translator and adapter." Her introduction to a new edition of Arthur Golding's 1567 English translation of the Metamorphoses shows how he Christianizes Ovid, transforming his temples into churches with spires. The translation was influential with Shakespeare and Spenser, but its bombastic style later fell out of fashion. One recent editor complains that Golding turned "the sophisticated Roman into a ruddy country gentleman with tremendous gusto and a gift for energetic doggerel."

A few years ago, the sensual savagery of Ted Hughes's Tales from Ovid won wide acclaim. Meanwhile, novels like David Malouf's An Imaginary Life and Jane Alison's The Love Artist have built their narratives on what little we know of Ovid's actual biography. In Malouf's book, Ovid finds and civilizes a feral child, in a clever reversal of the people-to-animal transformations of the Metamorphoses. Most recently, Mary Zimmerman's award-winning play Metamorphoses presents the work as a parable about the healing power of love.

By contrast, Alessandro Boffa's comic novel, You're An Animal, Viskovitz!, sees metamorphosis as a cosmic bad joke; the hero is figured as a different animal in each chapter. During his time as a snail, he acts out an undignified parody of the Narcissus myth; Viskovitz is attracted by his own reflection in water, but the consummation makes for one of the oddest sex scenes of recent years: "I felt the warm pressure of the rhinophor slipping under my shell, and a strong agitation froze the center of my being."(Leo Carey)

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
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. (Apr.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Contemporary soap opera meets Ancient Rome in Alison's passionate first novel about the renowned poet Ovid's fall from imperial grace. At once inventive and historically accurate, the book chronicles Ovid's infatuation with Xenia, a young witch/healer he encounters while vacationing on the Black Sea. A steamy fling is followed by the pair's return to Rome, where Ovid intends to craft a masterwork inspired by his latest muse. Unfortunately, his desires are thwarted by a potent mix of greed, jealousy, narcissism, and the desire for immortality. Alison's feminist take on the outcome of the couple's conflicts is exhilarating. So, too, are her vivid descriptions of Rome, from narrow streets lined with bookstalls to sumptuous feasts served to the elite by slaves. Fascinating and clever, this is essential reading for anyone who has ever wondered what happened to Ovid's Medea or pondered his abrupt banishment to the edge of the Roman Empire. Highly recommended for all libraries.--Eleanor J. Bader, Brooklyn, NY Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
Product dimensions:
5.76(w) x 8.56(h) x 0.94(d)

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Now the word is given, the horses are lashed, and the wagon jolts down the dark street, a helmeted soldier seated at each side and Ovid, the exile, between them. Flames glare through the eyes and mouths of stone lanterns, and the blue night air swirls about him like water. The Palatine, crusted with villas, floats off to his left, the Capitoline with its glowing temples to his right; his own house dissolves far behind. His cold hands are clasped together upon his satchel, and he stares, his eyes like the eyes of the lanterns, that word still incomprehensible. Exile.

The soldiers came to his house only an hour ago. They stood in the overgrown atrium, in their dazzling armor, and when they told him why they'd come, Ovid — tall and lean, pen in hand — noticed the red wall near his arm gently waver. It was late. "I see," he said, but all he could hear was a humming. "Tomis." He touched the wall with his fingertip to still it. "The Black Sea, you say. Exile" — as if in his own voice it might become clear. "But I may bring what I want. My writing things, my books." He watched as his index finger drew a damp line on the wall, from the hoof of a stag to the white teeth of a dog. Then, unaccountably, he felt his mouth stretching into a grotesque hyena grin; he actually heard himself laugh. "Does that mean I can bring Rome?"

The soldiers, of course, didn't answer. They placed themselves at either side of the door and waited for him to pack. So Ovid found himself turning slowly, underwater, moving through the red and gold and black walls of his house, his shocked eyes falling upon the familiar bronze, marble, and papery surfaces, with that terrible grin stretching his face, with that terrible word incomprehensible. He stood swaying slightly in his bedroom, on the mosaic skeleton that danced upon the floor. He put some warm clothes, a few tablets, and a stylus in his satchel. Then another pair of shoes, and Carus's book. He stood there, looking around; he knelt and fastened his boots. He walked back into the wet green atrium, past Persilla with her streaming old eyes, past poor Lazar hiding his face in the shadows. "I'm sorry, goodbye," he heard himself say, as if he had been a bad guest. Then he passed for the last time through his own door into the cool spring night, and stepped into the wagon, a soldier on either side.

The blue night swirls by, and there's a dim roar of Rome all around. The wagon has reached the green stretch between the two hills and passes over the cloaca; it threads around the circular temple and, climbing, skirts Mareellus's theater. It would be lit inside now, Ovid realizes. The stage would be glowing saffron red, and there would be the murmur of all the voices, and the intricate hairstyles, and the bare shoulders, and the messages flying, and the swift appreciative glances, and the limb-weakening applause, which has often been for him . . .

The theater drifts by. They reach the river with its marshy spring air, and as the horses break into a gallop Ovid is thrown against one of the soldiers. He's jolted; his heart pounds.

"The thing is," he says — and he's shocked by his voice, how suddenly it flies from his throat — "the thing is, I didn't do anything."

The soldier's gaze shifts his way, and light glances from his helmet, a reflection of the city going by.

"I didn't. I thought Augustus believed me." But Ovid's voice seems to be drifting away. "You see," he says, concentrating with effort, "it was a mistake. I didn't know what Julia was doing. How could I have known?"

The soldier turns. It has nothing to do with him. His instructions were simple: arrest Ovid, remove him from Rome, place him on the ship bound for Tomis, the Black Sea. It's someplace up and over, he vaguely knows, at the edge of the world. A Roman outpost, very cold, always under siege. Uncivilized. Not likely that anyone speaks Latin up there, not even much chance of fresh fruit. What a place for this swan, he thinks, this poet with his tall, gray elegance, his finely arched nose, his feverish look, his leanness. Women were said to rush him on the streets, their dresses flying, bare arms lifted, eyes dilated, delirious to know him . . . Tomis.

Ovid has fallen silent, realizing that his words do not matter. The wagon jolts along more slowly, one of thousands rolling through the city, their wooden wheels groaning upon the granite roads. He gazes at the faces passing by — hard faces of fishermen and farmers, their wagons full of octopus, artichokes, and quail, the minor delights of Rome that he won't taste again. A merchant's daughter looks up as she passes, and her mouth falls open in recognition. She covers it with a startled hand.

Now the Aventine is rising to the left, its great black form blocking out the stars, giving off a scent of cypress. They turn onto the Via Ostiensis, swing south. Ovid has become aware of the pain in breathing; he keeps his teeth tightly clenched. They trot by a place that is discreetly marked, but he knows it at once: it's where the Vestals are buried alive when they break their vows to be virgins. Something runs through him, and he finds an arm flying; he finds himself almost laughing.

"He may as well just do that," he cries. "Give me a lamp and food for a day and pack me underground."

The soldier to his left grips Ovid's wild arm. He himself supervised hundreds of suicides some years back, when Augustus was cleaning out the senate, not to mention the swift executions when they didn't go willingly. Exile seems to him rather mild. "It's not the end of the world," he says.

Ovid looks away, sobered. "It is," he says. "I've been there."

Although in his mind he amends himself. He hasn't been there, exactly, not Tomis. Not the western side of the Black Sea, where he is bound now. But the eastern shore he has certainly seen, for that is where he found her, Xenia, only a year ago. When he set out blindly on the trip that has ruined him.

Suddenly he feels it streaming behind him, this world that he is leaving. This great city and all that it's made of — the finest things men have created and all the texture of cultured life, books and art and buildings and music, whispers in a marble square, sun shining through an amethyst dress, a glance on the street, sleek onyx statues standing in a row, the flare of recognition in intelligent eyes, the piercing spur of rivalry, the pleasure of praise, the thunder of the crowd as the horses gallop by, a translucent white vase in a garden, walls all figured with myth, the rooms where conversation flies like torches, and everywhere, everywhere, the subtle net of language, whose strands he himself has woven so finely that veils upon veils of meaning have hovered . . . He is going where there will be nothing: only the silent ground and the hard sky, alone.

The wagon rattles on. He clenches his teeth as the darkened walls roll by, and no one sees or comes.

Where is everyone? Where are the women who were inflamed by his Loves — the one who drew him a message in wine on a dinner-party tablecloth, that one who stood before him in an afternoon bedroom, nude? Where are the grand old patriclans who clapped him on the back, their eyes wet from the sheer knowing beauty of his Metamorphoses? Where are the ox-eyed young men with their groomed dark heads, reading his Art of Love for advice? And the old women, keyholes to bedrooms, and the tarty slave girls with their slippery tongues? And the Greek booksellers, who know literature when they see it! Where is Carus? Where are his friends?

All the doors are closed, the shutters drawn for the night, this, his last night in Rome.


No, what's he thinking: she's already gone. Augustus's own granddaughter — she had to be gotten rid of. Adultery is the official charge, as Augustus doesn't want known what she's really done. She's been packed off like her mother to a remote island, to live and die, alone. You are a boil, Augustus said. I want you out of my sight.

And she, that other, that Xenia? Where exactly is she? She left nothing behind but that jungle in the atrium, a few withered things in the window, and those two chilling lines . . . She even took her door handle.

At the thought of those two lines and all that is lost, a quiver runs through him. "Witch," he whispers. The word flies from his mouth, and his eyes dart up to the night sky with it, as if he expects to see her there, wheeling like the gulls against the lopsided moon. Only blue clouds drift by. She could be anywhere.

Copyright © 2001 Jane Alison

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Love-Artist 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book's lush, vivid language and the way that Jane Alison used the Medea myth as the basis for a new story. Xenia is a memorable character.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book sounded exceptionally interesting...But it's not!! I have been trying to finish this book for a month. It is anything BUT a page turner! I have read 2 other books while trying to finish this one. It is silly, hard to follow, and BORING!
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Love Artist, by June Alison, is a gorgeous first novel by a brilliant young writer. Lush and poetic, the story is both a gripping, suspenseful mystery and a consideration of the nature of creativity, what it means to be a 'muse', and the issues of power, influence and choice that entangle an artist and his or her subject. Set in the Rome of Caesar Augustus, the novel fills a gap in our knowledge about the poet Ovid, whose works The Metamorphoses and The Art of Love are considered two of the masterpieces of classical literature. Why was Ovid suddenly exiled by the emperor himself, at the height of his literary fame and success? What prompted him to write a play based on Medea, the legendary sorceress who betrayed her father and killed her brother for love of a Greek hero, then killed her own children by that hero when he abandoned her for another woman? Why have only two lines of that play survived? Jane Alison creates an imaginary muse for Ovid, a Black Sea healer named Xenia: a mysterious and beautiful woman whom Ovid brings to Rome and makes his mistress. She is an unforgettable character, seamlessly blending elements of the mythic with the human. Alison's own background as a classicist makes her descriptions of imperial Rome and the Augustan court impeccably detailed; her brilliance as a writer makes them nuanced and poetic. This is a wonderful book with a satisfying conclusion that one does not grasp until the very last paragraph. I highly recommend it!