Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Lavinia by Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin is probably the most lauded and widely-respected speculative fiction writer alive, and for good reason. I’ve been working my slow way through her various novels and short stories over the past several years, and she continues to surprise and delight.

Her Earthsea books are among my favorite fantasy novels. Few other novels deserve to be in the discussion. Her short fiction is full of little gems that I come back to over and over – “The Poacher”; “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”; “The Author of the Acacia Seeds”.

Her novels disdain the plot-driven mechanisms so typical to speculative fiction. They are powered not by great battles or endless action, but by the hero's or heroine's internal journey, a journey toward self-discovery. That is not to say her novels are devoid of action - they're not - but that they do not depend upon it. Her characters go where they go and do what they do based upon their internal logic. They are not dragged along like marionettes without wills.

I’ve just completed Lavinia, her novelized account of Vergil’s Aeneid, told from the perspective of Aeneas’ Latin wife of that name. Lavinia is an afterthought in the great poem, a mention in passing at the end of the epic. Le Guin felt the need to expand on Lavinia’s role, to give her the voice she was denied.

Le Guin’s writing is always spare, but perhaps even more so in this book. That is not to say that it does not have splendor. One doesn’t need an ornate writing style to convey poetry. The simplicity just makes it appear effortless.

Of all the great writing qualities that Le Guin possesses, the most evident is her restraint. It is the gulfs of silence, the meaningful glances, the interior dialogue that suggest such emotion and humanity.

Her characters struggle against both internal and external forces, and Lavinia is no exception. She is wonderfully self-aware as a character. She tells us in the very first chapter:

    No doubt someone with my name, Lavinia, did exist, but she may have been so different from my own idea of myself, or my poet’s idea of me, that it only confuses me to think about her. As far as I know, it was my poet who gave me any reality at all. Before he wrote, I was the mistiest of figures, scarcely more than a name in a genealogy. It was he who brought me to life, to myself, and so made me able to remember my life and myself, which I do, vividly, with all kinds of emotions, emotions I feel strongly as I write, perhaps because the events I remember only come to exist as I write them, or as he wrote them.

So her story begins. As a King’s daughter in a primitive culture, she is pawned out to suitors, none of whom she intends to marry. She visits the sacred wood of her people to seek guidance from her ancestors. Instead, she meets Vergil.

He is nothing but spirit there, a dream. He tells Lavinia the story of Aeneas as he has seen it. His arrival, the war that will come, their marriage. The Aeneid has already been written, in that far-off future. Having now met Lavinia, Virgil is morose, disillusioned about his great work – “…what I thought I knew of you – what little I thought of at all – was stupid, conventional, unimagined. I thought you were a blonde!...I will tell them to burn it.”

Le Guin’s gift is an incredible insight into humanity, particularly of her female characters. Lavinia is a worthy successor to Tenar, the heroine of Earthsea. Le Guin captures the complexities, the struggle between the domestic and the sacred, the everyday and the timeless.

    “Who was my true love, then, the hero or the poet? I don’t mean which of them loved me more; neither of them loved me long. Just sufficiently. Enough. My question is which of them did I more truly love? And I cannot answer it.”

Ursula Le Guin gives us speculative fiction writers something to aspire to, something to look upon and say – aha! So that’s how it’s done! We can hope she continues to churn out her timeless writings for many years to come.

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