Book: Lavinia

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Lavinia: A Novel

Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Publisher: Harcourt

In a richly imagined, beautiful new novel, an acclaimed writer gives an epic heroine her voice. In The Aeneid, Vergil’s hero fights to claim the king’s daughter, Lavinia, with whom he is destined to found an empire. Lavinia herself never speaks a word. Now, Ursula K. Le Guin gives Lavinia a voice in a novel that takes us to the half-wild world of ancient Italy, when Rome was a muddy village near seven hills.

Lavinia grows up knowing nothing but peace and freedom, until suitors come. Her mother wants her to marry handsome, ambitious Turnus. But omens and prophecies spoken by the sacred springs say she must marry a foreigner—that she will be the cause of a bitter war—and that her husband will not live long. When a fleet of Trojan ships sails up the Tiber, Lavinia decides to take her destiny into her own hands. And so she tells us what Vergil did not: the story of her life, and of the love of her life.

Lavinia is a book of passion and war, generous and austerely beautiful, from a writer working at the height of her powers.


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Ursula K. Le Guin channeling Frank Miller? The poet of the bucolic utopia portrayed in Always Coming Home echoing the macho war cries of 300? The sensitive chronicler of the hermaphroditic culture of The Left Hand of Darkness engaging in the rough-and-tumble brawling characteristic of Sin City? Well, yes and no, but perhaps more yes than no.

Despite any clichéd misperceptions about her feminism and pacifism, Le Guin has always been a remarkably tough-minded writer, fully cognizant of the misunderstanding, contention, and violence that ineluctably characterize human interactions. Although much of her work argues for and postulates alternate and saner modalities of person-to-person and government-to-person relations, she has never been blind to the realities of power, nor hesitant to depict warfare and its consequences. For instance, her latest young-adult trilogy, Annals of the Western Shore, resounds with the impact of strife. Where she and a writer like Miller differ, of course, is on the necessity, glory, utility, and ultimately the morality of organized combat.

But the setting and characters of Le Guin’s Lavinia dictate that she deal with warfare in her most concentrated and vivid manner to date. And while her ultimate stance on violence remains basically and explicitly unchanged from her career-long conclusions on the subject, she nonetheless inhabits the martial milieu of her novel so wholeheartedly that she is swept up in the bloody colors of its spectacle and carries the reader headlong with her.

It was very beautiful, the bristling glitter of lance heads far off there, moving quickly and nearer. The air was shaken with the thrilling drum of the feet of horses at the gallop. All along the lines of men drawn up in front of the city, spears and lances reared up into the sunlight, and horses began to whinny and shift and fight the reins. Then the Etruscan horns and trumpets sounded their battle signals, some deep and hoarse, some silvery sweet.

Lavinia takes up the matter of Vergil’s Aeneid, the final six books of that epic anyway, and its quintessential Bronze Age heroics. In Vergil’s masterpiece, the character of Lavinia—young Italian wife to the displaced Trojan Aeneas, a hardened warrior twice her age—receives the sketchiest of treatments, despite being central to the events surrounding Aeneas’ attempt to found his new home in a strange land that greets him with resistance. Intrigued by this pivotal cipher, Le Guin embarks on her holistic portrait, worked out through three separated but carefully linked sections.

The first 100 pages or so follow Lavinia from childhood until her 18th year, when Aeneas lands on the shores of her father’s kingdom. With both her gender and her royal status acting as psychic fetters, Lavinia receives little guidance from her crazed mother, Amata, while her loving and regal father, Latinus, proves surprisingly ineffectual. Both education and pleasure come largely through woodland frolics with a friend, the daughter of a herder. It is in this section that Le Guin introduces and makes real the main conceit of her narrative. At a sacred site, Lavinia undergoes a set of mystic conversations with the shade, or shade-to-come, of Vergil himself. He instructs her in her mythic status and the course of her future, leaving her with a feeling of “contingency,” a sense that she is to some degree a fictional personage rather than a flesh-and-blood woman. She becomes the essence of poetry—or a poet’s vision—much in the manner that the protagonist of John Crowley’s Engine Summer became literally the telling of his own story. Despite this heavy knowledge, Lavinia manages eventually to feel a personal immediacy and spontaneity to her life.

It takes roughly the next 100 pages to cover the short-term tumult surrounding the intrusion of Aeneas and his people into the lives of the Latins, especially regarding his desire to marry Lavinia in the face of her local princely swain, Turnus. Much detailed plotting and conspiring result in open warfare, which ends with Aeneas triumphant and wedded to Lavinia. And there the tale as we have it from Vergil concludes.

Le Guin continues beyond that climax for the final third of her book, painting the married life of Aeneas and Lavinia, her widowhood and dissension with her stepson Ascanius, and her eventual old age unto her very deathbed. And it’s through this extension of the story that Le Guin succeeds in fleshing out a mythic icon and those around her in fully human dimensions. Lavinia is revealed as neither an Amazon warrior nor a timorous naif, but rather as a thoughtful woman of above-average character who has to urge and push herself to respond to crises and generally ends up doing the wisest and kindest thing. Aeneas, by contrast, gets less of a rounding-out (of course, he’s already had his own book). Lavinia’s hapless parents are drawn memorably, echoing at points Lord Sepulchrave and Countess Gertrude from Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan.

With its counter-epic focus, it’s no surprise that Lavinia recreates a vanished historical period with a meticulous, novelistic emphasis on quotidian details. The reader gets an intimate sense of the daily life of the era, from its superstitions to its domestic comforts. Explaining her sources and methods in an Afterword, Le Guin describes how she abandoned the “Augustan magnificence” of Vergil for “a more plausible poverty.” As in Richard Adams’s Watership Down, a compact geographical canvas is made to play host to enormous doings out of all proportion to the tiny landscape. And it’s equally satisfying to dive into the spooky non-modern mentality conjured up by Robert Graves in The White Goddess.

Perhaps the most immediately resonant aspect of the novel, however, is the author’s meditation on warfare and power, the virtues and defects of leaders, which, just like Miller’s 300, cannot help but be interpreted as an allegory on modern politics. We inevitably ponder current wars when we encounter a passage like this one:

Almost every household in Latium grieved for a father or brother or son killed or crippled. I think one cannot be left alive among so many deaths without feeling unendurable shame. They say Mars absolves the warrior from the crimes of war, but those who were not the warriors, those for whom the war was said to be fought, even though they never wanted it to be fought, who absolves them?

Le Guin’s tale suffers from a few innate stumbling blocks. Because Lavinia is not present at important battles and meetings, crucial action is sometimes recounted secondhand and after the fact. And cramming some 50 years of living into the compass of 300 pages necessitates a few rushed, compressed sections where Lavinia is made to dump a mass of condensed information on the reader.

But these minor infelicities fade away like the wraith of Vergil when one considers how much sheer poetry and empathetic insight Le Guin has packed into this book. At the end of her life, Lavinia becomes aware of her own immortality—a moment that feels no less moving even if her legacy is contained by the boundaries of this stirring novel. —Paul DiFilippo

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