Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin

February 27, 2010

Harcourt, 2008

Read February 15, 2010

Source: Nymeth’s year in review post

Genre: historical fiction

On the scales: heavyweight

I am so, so happy Le Guin wrote this book.  The “feminist retelling” moniker is laughable.  Lavinia is so much more than that.  And such a much better book than the other two recent ancient-Greek’s-wife-tells-all novels that I could wish The Penelopiad and Black Ships had never been written, just to forestall the comparisons.

From her afterword:

The setting, story and characters of this novel are based on the last six books of Vergil’s epic poem the Aeneid.

For a long time anybody in Europe and the Americas who had much education at all knew Aeneas’ story: his travels from the underworld were shared, familiar references and story sources for poets, painters, opera composers.  From the Middle Ages on, the so-called dead language Latin, was, through its literature, intensely alive, active, and influential.  That’s no longer true.  During the last century, the teaching and learning of Latin began to wither away into  a scholarly specialty.  So, with the true death of his language, Vergil’s voice will be silenced at last.  This is an awful pity, because he is one of the great poets of the world.

His poetry is so profoundly musical, its beauty so intrinsic to the sound and order of the words, that it is essentially untranslatable.  Even Dryden, even FitzGerald couldn’t capture the magic.  But a translator’s yearning to identify with the text cannot be repressed.  That is what urged me to take some scenes, some hints, some foreshadowings from the epic and make them into a novel–a translation into a different form–partial, marginal, but, in intent at least, faithful.  More than anything else, my story is an act of gratitude to the poet, a love offering.

I read the translated Aeneid for a class in college.  I was overloaded and exhausted.  I had no particular expectations . . . and I loved it.  It is one of those texts that jumps right out of history and leaves you as breathless as a first kiss; sure that time doesn’t matter–a year, fifty, two-thousand: ideas go the distance, and the right words go straight to the heart.

Le Guin reminds us that falling in love is a reasonable response to a great work of the imagination, whether one falls in love with Vergil, Aeneas, or the very words of the poem.  No wonder I respond so strongly to her own work.  As Le Guin makes her, Lavinia is simultaneously a creation of the poet Vergil and a living woman who knows herself to be a creation of the poet.  Is Lavinia in love with the poet who wrote her?  Is she in love with the hero he loved?  Or the begged question: What would Lavinia think of Le Guin, the woman who loved Lavinia enough to tell her story?

If this sounds unbearably literary, don’t worry, it’s not that kind of book.  Le Guin is too good an author to let her love offering to Vergil be anything but the best book she can write, and you certainly don’t have to have read the Aeneid to enjoy it.

Vergil, who is nearing the end of his life, visits the young Lavinia as a ghost.  Lavinia reacts with surprising calm to the news that she is his creation.  They talk, and the poet realizes–to his great regret–just how much he has underestimated her character.  He tells her the story of his poem.  Their short conversations are some of the most touching scenes in the book.

The result?  Lavinia has foreknowledge of the exiled Trojans’ arrival in Latium and the gist of the blood baths that follow.  The grace and courage with which she approaches her not-too-shiny future make her a profoundly sympathetic character.  Lavinia describes a life that doesn’t look like much from the outside: the acts of ordinary, face-to-face nobility that come between the battle scenes that occupy the poets.  Her peculiar childhood gave Lavinia the strength to meet her author without flinching, and meeting her author gave her a rare objectivity.  It allowed her tell her own–and Anneas’–story in a time and place where women were not usually the ones doing the telling.

Silvius suckled insatiably, had almost no colic, slept a great deal, and when awake was wide awake and full of good cheer.  There is not much you can say about a baby unless you are talking with its father or another mother or nurse; infants are not part of the realm of ordinary language, talk is as inadequate to them as they are inadequate to talk.

While Vergil’s Lavinia is a typical milk-toast princess–convenient for swinging over a saddle–Le Guin’s Lavinia is only too conscious of the role she’s been cast to play.  The unusual freedom of her Tom-boy childhood never blinded her to what it means to be the king’s daughter.  Her mother showed her the wrong way to be a queen.  Lavinia is determined to do right.  Her own marriage will be a vehicle for peace.  She must take a horribly unpopular stand to achieve it.

My mind went round and round on these thoughts and my heart was torn and miserable, wanting to rejoice with the people around me but unable to.  I felt myself a traitor, as if I had done the great wrong, had caused it simply by being who and what I was.  My mother had taught me that self-pitying guilt, and I had known it most of my life.  Thought I fought against it, knowing it childish and mistaken, under this stress and pressure it was all to easy to be childish, to be mistaken, to drop back into it.

Le Guin loves the home-and-hearth piety of the Latins.  It shines through her whole book.  She uses the contrast between the bickering, anthropomorphized Hellenic pantheon imported by the Trojans and the Latins’ little household gods, the Penates, to illuminate the difference between war-culture and peace-culture.  As Lavinia describes the clarity she finds in performing the household rituals that are her duty as the daughter of her house, Le Guin shows us a piety which has little–if anything–to do with religion, and much to do with goodness.

Goodness has a way of being very boring in fiction.  Goodness is Le Guin’s genius.  She can unfold it so powerfully, with such a light touch, that it is positively enthralling.  Only a few other authors can do this, and Le Guin is the only one I know who can also convey everything that stands against goodness without either glamorizing it or watering it down.  Her chilling descriptions of the war-gate, which is kept closed in times of peace, are some of the best in the book.

Lavinia’s goodness is up against a lot.  Her mother Amata (a clear case of Borderline Personality Disorder) is just crazy enough to cause trouble for everyone, while having too little real power to be taken seriously by the only people (namely, the men) who could have stopped her, until it’s too late.  If there is a villain, it’s Amata–but there is so much to pity in her situation, it’s really no more fun for the reader to hate her than it is for Lavinia, who both fears and understands her mother.

I think Le Guin has a special axe to grind for Amata.  She does not believe weakness is an excuse for people who allow their frustrations to become cruelty, seizing power over those even weaker than themselves.  When such an even-handed writer gives in to some exquisitely controlled indignation, it’s a glorious sight!  I am thinking of the passage where she describes Amata’s last-ditch effort to force her will on Lavinia by organizing a violent, ugly bacchanal.  Because her mother has framed this excuse for getting Lavinia up into the hills as a women’s religious mystery, Lavinia has no way to escape.  Amata’s egoistic appropriation of ritual makes a wonderfully twisted mirror-image for Lavinia’s grounded devotion to her Penates and her father’s farmer folk.

Everything I’ve said is just skimming the surface of this deep, lyrical book.  Le Guin’s usual themes are in evidence.  Her own brands of pacifism, humanism, feminism are as freshly presented here as they are easy to recognize after reading her others.  But she really doesn’t do -isms.  She does people.  Say instead peace, humans, women.  I can’t tell you how much I love what she writes, even when it’s not her best stuff.  This is her best of the decade.

There was a great sound like a deep breath, like the earth breathing, all around the walls.  I thought it was earthquake, the sound earthquake makes as it comes.  But it was the sound of the end.  The war was over.  Turnus was dead.  The poem was finished.

No, but it was left unfinished.  Didn’t you tell me that, my poet?  here in the sacred place, where the stinking sulfur water comes up from under the earth to make pools on the earth, and the stars shine between the leaves?  Once you said it was not complete, and should be burned.

But then again, at the end, you said it was finished.  And I know they did not burn it.  I would have burned with it.

But what am I to do now?  I have lost my guide, my Vergil.  I must go on by myself through all that is left after the end, all the rest of the immense, pathless, unreadable world.

What is left after death?  Everything else.  The sun a man saw rise goes down though he does not see it set.  A woman sits down to the weaving another woman left on the loom.

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11 Responses to “Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin”

  1. Jenny said

    I want to read this! But I need to read the Aeneid over again first to familiarize myself with it again. I love the Aeneid so much.

    • trapunto said

      I’m glad you love the Aeneid! I had actually forgotten a ton (read: most) of it when I read this book, and part of what I enjoyed was the poem coming back to life in my head as the events in Lavinia reminded me of it. I couldn’t even dig out my copy of Vergil to check on things as all my books are in boxes.

  2. Ms Nymeth read this one last year, an I’ve been wanting to read it since. Lavinia is such a fascinating choice for a woman to glorify – I think most authors would have chosen one of the obvious Strong Women of the story (all of whom die tragically of course): the Mother, the Warrior Virgin, the Tragic Lover. The Peacemaker is, like you say, one of those subjects people usually can’t write well, like trying to write an adventure about (legal) diplomacy. And it’s such an IMPORTANT thing to do, because peace, peacemaking, and the quiet and humb;e work of love are things that our culture has trouble bringing into the public consciousness, in part BECAUSE we know all the heroes with a sword in their hand. Thanks for the great review, I’ll have to inch this up my TBR a little 😀

    • trapunto said

      Yes! One word: comic book action movies. (Er, four words.) Much as I love me a renegade vigilante in a corrupt system, it’s not like a bunch of Batmen is what we need in the world. If there is any author I wish everyone could read in their teens, when they are figuring out their moral selves, its Le Guin.

  3. Aarti said

    I just saw this one in the used bookstore and your review makes me want to pick it up! I was debating and debating… and now I know to do so. Such a great review!

  4. Jodie said

    What a great idea to have a creation meet their creator, how confusing it must be for her to realise her life has been made up but still exists. I don’t know much about Le Guin, except about her feminist progression after the Earthsea books, but is there a tie in with religion and the concept of free will vs destiny in there? I’ll have to add this to my list.

    • trapunto said

      You know, I don’t think there is. Or anyway, I don’t think Le Guin would pose it in those terms. Lavinia has a destiny only because she is in the unusual position of knowing how things must be, instead of just having to figure out the right thing to do in a given moment. She’s an anomaly that way. I think Le Guin would say, human nature is destiny. Lavinia can see the wars of the future in Anneas shield, and she thinks about these things.

  5. Nymeth said

    “Goodness is Le Guin’s genius. She can unfold it so powerfully, with such a light touch, that it is positively enthralling. Only a few other authors can do this, and Le Guin is the only one I know who can also convey everything that stands against goodness without either glamorizing it or watering it down. ”

    I know! I don’t know how she does it, but it awes me.

    Lovely, lovely review.

  6. trapunto said

    Thank you. Glad you like.

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