Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.08.05
Jane Alison (trans.), Change Me: Stories of Sexual Transformation from Ovid. Oxford; New York: $19.95 (pb), 2014. Pp. xxxi, 139; 16 p. of plates. ISBN 9780199941650. $19.95 (pb).
Reviewed by Benjamin Eldon Stevens, Bryn Mawr College (email@example.com)
A volume that offers excerpts from an ancient author organized under thematic headings is valuable to many modern readers, especially when the themes are of interest not only to scholarship but also to the ‘cultural conversation’ more generally. At a time of widespread attention paid to gender and sexuality — this review was written while states were grappling with bans on gay marriage, the Twitter hashtag #YesAllWomen was trending, and academics and others were debating calls for ‘trigger warnings’ regarding potentially sensitive materials in coursework — a volume focused on “stories of sexual transformation” should be welcome indeed.
Change Me uses that rubric to present thirty-two selections from Ovid’s Amores and Metamorphoses, selected and translated by Jane Alison. Alison is the author of, among other works, a novel (The Love-Artist, 2001) that compellingly dramatizes a crucial later stage of Ovid’s career, just before and then during his exile.1 That previous treatment of Ovid, and Alison’s gifts and experience as an author, make for a passionate approach to the ancient poet. Alison also provides a preface, and Elaine Fantham and Alison Keith provide foreword and introduction, respectively. All of this is worthily intended to inspire especially readers new to Ovid.
I therefore regret needing to say that I am not certain whether this volume completely succeeds. It would of course be unfair to criticize any work for not being what it does not seek to be. For example, this volume is naturally not intended to be a sourcebook even on “sexual transformation” in ancient literature, much less on “sexuality and gender”, since it includes only Ovid. (Keith in her introduction discusses some other authors, including Catullus, Horace, and Propertius). Nor is it an introduction to Ovid, despite Fantham’s lucid treatment, in the foreword, of Ovid in his time, since it omits the Ars, the Heroides, the Remedia, and the exile poetry.
But still I must ask whether the volume as packaged offers a viable hybrid. Its major pieces are interesting but seem incompletely integrated. Alison’s preface develops an intriguing image of writerly minds — Ovid’s, Alison’s own — at work in reading and composition including translation. Keith’s introduction is informative on sexuality and gender in antiquity, focusing on Roman poetry. Fantham’s foreword is characteristically thought-provoking (e.g., a discussion of the Met.. and dance). Each is worthwhile, and all shed light on Ovid, but the sum of the parts is harder to see. Does all of this help Alison’s translations “bring Ovid and his vision to many more readers” who might “plunge into Ovid’s full works” (xix)?
I am not certain whether the volume as it stands succeeds in that stated hope. Pace Fantham’s and Keith’s brief appraisals of Alison’s translations (each devotes a paragraph to them) and the high quality of those translations (see below), it seems to me that what might be achieved by a thematic presentation of six Amores and parts of twenty-six stories from the Metamorphoses might well be outweighed by several factors that risk rendering the selections here less accessible rather than more, especially to the intended new readers of Ovid.
Perhaps above all there is a kind of obscurity to the thematic presentation itself. Although the topic of “sexual transformation” is of high potential interest, it is defined loosely (Alison focuses on “desire” (xiv), which Keith elaborates as “facets of sexual and narrative desire” (18), while Fantham refers to ‘stimulation of visual fantasy’ and ‘sharing of characters’ emotions’ (xxxi)). By extension, the headings under which the selections are grouped (Looking, Taking, Ruining, Wanting Someone too Close, and Switching) are left undefined, and the selections themselves are not explained.
This situation could lead to productive reflection on the part of some readers, especially those already familiar with Ovid’s stories. (Familiarity with the Latin seems to be implied by Alison’s preface, which gives the Latin before her English translations, and endnotes, which at points refer to features of the Latin, e.g., ‘golden lines’.) Alison thus writes of her presentation in ways that are suggestive of powerful modes of reading: she has chosen to let “the stories here reveal edges that bleed a little” because “it’s important to remain aware of the body from which the stories came” (xi). 2
But I suspect that many readers, who may not be aware of that “body” to begin with, will find this volume’s selection and presentation confusing. Invited to “glimpse themselves in the shifting characters that pace these pages”, I think that perhaps “especially younger readers” (xix), will be confused by how much goes unexplained. The volume lacks some ordinary tools for readers, including indices or glossaries, in my view a truly unfortunate omission in a work that consciously presents its selections out of their original order and contexts.3
One example of the possibility of confusion is provided by Alison’s concluding image for the reader’s ideal relationship to the work: she hopes “that this new selection might seduce new readers to climb on the bull’s back and plunge into Ovid’s full works” (xix). This image comes from the story of Europa. Confusingly for new readers, Europa is not named in that story, nor do the notes explain that she is “Agenor’s daughter”. More troublingly, Alison does not mention the sequel, in which Europa is raped. I do not understand the implications of Alison’s image for her intended readers.
Of course one could quibble with other choices and omissions. For example, there is no Medea, whose various adventures in Ovid could add much under “sexual transformation”. Some of the selections, like Europa’s, seem skewed by lacking context including their own conclusions: although Orpheus’ story includes a “sexual transformation”, in that he is said to have originated a practice of homosexuality, what might we make of the fact — according to Ovid but omitted in this volume —that he spends the rest of sempiternity happily with his beloved Eurydice?
The translations themselves are brisk and comprehensible. There are striking moments, and overall the translations give a strong impression of Ovid’s fluent wit. Although in general they are rather more prosaic in diction than Ovid’s Latin, this I think has much to do with contemporary English’s less strict separation of prosaic and poetic. On balance I would say that the included Amores are more fluid than the selections from the Metamorphoses: Alison seems to have found a convincing rhythm for the former, while the latter move less smoothly. This makes a certain sense in light of the subject-matter of Alison’s novel and her own passionate interest in the topic of desire.
In that connection, a final subjective comment. Reviewers are rightly enjoined to avoid criticizing a book “for not being the book you would have written”. The problem in this case is that this volume does not seem to be the book any one of its learned, thoughtful authors might have written individually. In particular, since the poetry is central, and since the poetry is explicitly framed as a matter of personal experience, I would say that my interest was immediately piqued, by Alison’s preface, to read a fuller memoir of her own experience reading Ovid. This volume of course is not that, but I for one would look forward to seeing such a work from Alison in the future.
In conclusion, I am not certain whether a potential reader will benefit by acquiring the present volume as a whole. As a frequent teacher of Ovid both in Latin and in translation, I can imagine recommending that the volume be consulted — for its fresh translations, or for its lucid introductory material — by interested students who are already reading Ovid in another form or seeking to place him in context. But I do not think that I would assign the book to a class.
This uncertainty I may have picked up from the volume itself: although Fantham writes that “modern readers can experience in [Alison’s] subtle and stirring translations the expert Augustan readers’ response to Ovid’s narratives told in language that stimulates their visual fantasy and lets them share his characters’ rare joys, and mental and physical pain” (xxxi), she herself does not use Alison’s translations (e.g., Daphne); Keith does, but says in a note that the translations are her own. With these sorts of reasons in mind, I am sorry to say that the volume does not strike me as likely to fulfill its stated purposes.
1. A discussion of the novel may be found at New York Times Books On the Web, May 20, 2001.
2. Like the theme of sexual transformation, such an interest in fragmentation is also timely; see, e.g., debates about the use of a quotation out of context from Virgil for the 9/11 Memorial Museum.
3. Similarly, there are some explanatory endnotes but no endnote references in the text; this is a mystifying format I have seen in far too many translations: presumably the choice not to include note references was made so as to preserve the flow of reading, but I doubt that readers will then seek out notes just in case. Each of the color plates is keyed to something from Ovid (including some material that the volume excludes) but only by brief quotation, without page number, the volume’s own selection number, or Ovid’s line numbers.