A review of Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin

Reviewed by Bob Williams

by Ursula K. Le Guin
2008, ISBN 978-0-15-101424-8, $24.00, 288 pages

Harcourt, with mysterious stinginess, lists in the front matter only the Le Guin books available from Harcourt, but she has written many more books than those listed here and these include poetry, essays, short stories and books for adults and young readers. Lavinia poses too many questions to permit a simple review. The novel is, to begin with, a retelling of The Aeneid from Lavinia’s point of view. In the original Lavinia receives scant attention, and this fact becomes the nub of several important considerations. Because Vergil (the older spelling of Virgil) did not use up her vitality as he did that of Aeneas, Lavinia has thus left over life, a kind of immortality that permits her to outlive her coevals and tell her story.

But we are faced with immediate questions that demand consideration. In her Afterword Le Guin considers the question of Latin. It has long been described as a dead language, but since it is no longer taught, it may already be truly dead except for the comparatively few scholars who will always find it necessary. Le Guin bewails the inadequacy of English to match the sonority of Latin and ‘atque ipsos potuit submergere ponto’ is a poor equivalent for ‘and she was able to drown them in the sea.’ There is a splendid roll to the original that captures the turbulence and immensity of the image.

I requested a review copy of Lavinia because I found the concept of the book captivating. My expectations were low for, although I had read many of Le Guin’s books, I was not greatly taken with any of them. The Earthsea trilogy was written in an archaic language that was a wearisome affectation. Many of her major fantasy novels were less rewarding than long and lumpy. In Always Coming Home– lighter and better managed – she was so involved with the idea that she forgot or neglected to bring her people to life. In Malafrena she wrote a realistic novel of a sort, but Malafrena is a kind of mythical or alternative universe country that is loosely somewhere on the Adriatic and intensely irredentist (think Trieste). I found it impossible to finish.

But Lavinia posed no such problems. Le Guin knew what she wanted to do and set out to do it with skill and economy. There is little of misplaced historicism where characters from another age are motivated by ideas and principles that are present to us but had no existence in early times. Le Guin brings forth without fuss the conditions of a time without the conveniences on which we rely and she concentrates on the characters and the perfectly plausible motivations that direct their lives.

The one departure into fantasy is the relation between Vergil and Lavinia. This is too poignant to be sensed as fantasy and is the novel’s central great accomplishment. Lavinia goes to a hallowed and sacred place. In a dream Vergil appears to her. He is on his way back to Italy and is dying. In a series of meetings he tells her much of what he has written on Aeneas and the future that lays before him and, of course, Lavinia as the wife of Aeneas. She recognizes that they are all contingent and depend not on historical fact but on the creation of Vergil. They are all products of the exuberance of his imagination.

This is an incredible book. It far surpasses anything that Le Guin has written and stands out against the tawdry products of much contemporary publishing.