Lavinia (book, Ursula Le Guin, 2009)
A fantastic book by one of my favourite writers, from Death Ray #19. Read my interview with Le Guin here.
Author: Ursula Le Guin
One of the best writers of the age gives us, perhaps, her best book.
It’s not often that you will hear a journalist to admit this but Lavinia is a book I really do not feel appropriately qualified to review. It’s not just that it takes inspiration from one of the great texts of European literature – the Aeneid, by Vergil (or Virgil, if you prefer), which I fear my minor critical skills provide too small a set of cutlery to properly digest, but that it is such a perfectly balanced blend of feeling, metre and storytelling it is hard to describe.
This is a book that is as perfect as an Autumn day, or a truly great wine. It is possible to break down both of these things into their component parts. What is good about an Autumn day? The warm feel of the sun through cold air, the clarity of light, the smell of wood smoke, clouds of breath on the air, the crackle of leaves and frost. What is good about a glass of wine? Its blend of flavours, the process of its making, the time in which and the company with whom it is drunk. But this mere listing of attributes does nothing to capture the essence of the experience, even for oneself, let alone to convey the fullness of sensation to another. It takes a poet to do that. Le Guin, like Vergil, is up to the task. This is no simple entertainment, one among many such similar entertainments. This is life, coaxed onto the page.
The Aeneid was Vergil’s attempt to emulate Homer, and to glorify Rome and the Julian clan. The first half of it details the wanderings of Aeneas, one of the few survivors of the sack of Troy, as he seeks out his prophesied homeland (Vergil’s Odyssey). The second half the war he fights when he reaches it, with Turnus of the Latins (Vergil’s Illiad). He marries Lavinia, daughter of the King Laternus, and his heirs go on to found Rome.
Lavinia is barely described in the poem. She is incidental to the grand plot of wars, gods, heroes and destinies. Le Guin flips this on its head – Lavinia becomes the focus, the narrator. The war between Trojans and Latins becomes the backdrop, the focus becomes life, life that goes on no matter what (though Le Guin envisages an ultimate end to everything by war).
Le Guin is overwhelmingly, frighteningly wise. Core to her penetrating appreciation of life is her deep understanding of what divides, and unites, the genders. She is a feminist, but hers is an inclusive feminism. She has a woman’s affection for men, she does not despise them or pity them. She shames us with wisdom and glorifies us with love, we men. We’d do well to pay heed. Her Aeneas is a hero. He is a killer. He is lauded for being the former, and tortured by guilt for being the latter. He is loved by Lavinia anyway. Le Guin understands people like few can. We will always need heroes, and we will always have killers. Often, they are the same. She laments war, but unlike some she does not condemn men for it, and nor does she absolve women of guilt for it.
Lavinia carries and air of pensive sorrow for a life run out, while encouraging celebration and an acceptance of those parts that do not bear celebration. In any case, the days roll on, and on, Spring turns to Summer turns to Autumn turns to Winter turns to Spring again. The characters’ individual stories eventually stop, they die, but the seasons never do. The people are remembered, in some way or another, by those that follow, by history, by the landscape. Vergil himself appears, a half-formed wraith from the future of Rome’s glory, he is a dream to Lavinia, she a creation of his. Both of them creations of Le Guin. After we have gone, all that is left of an individual is a story, maybe that is enough. Only life itself is eternal.
Is this a book, perhaps, about Le Guin’s own story? In this way Lavinia is reminiscent of Sheri Tepper’s less focussed The Margarets, a long, fond look back over a life well lived. Unlike Aeneas or Dido or Vergil, Lavinia does not enter the afterlife, her existence fades into that of an owl. The owl’s cry of “i,i,i” is ‘go on’ in Latin. It is also a modest echo of the very much capitalised ‘I’ in Robert Graves’ I, Claudius, with which this book has been compared. But it could also be Le Guin, calling out for remembrance.
Either way, she is telling us that she knows that the world will persist without her, as Lavinia’s story continues past the end of Vergil’s poem, past the death of Aeneas. It is not a book about great deeds, of turning points or moments, it is a book about the persistence of life, the passage of time, the sowing of crops, the sorrow of mothers for sons killed, of disagreements and reconciliations and child rearing. It is a book of bittersweet sorrows, of shared joys. It is an Autumn day, it is a fine glass of wine.