Monday, January 4, 2010


by Ursula K. Le Guin, 2008.

As might be gathered from the title of this blog, I'm a great admirer of this work. Reinterpreting the tale of the Aeneid, Le Guin's offers part fantasy, part historical reworking, larger part literary reworking. This description might seem to offer a fragmented and confused type of story, but I found it all wonderfully coherent, inviting and using that invitation to do very interesting thing with the nature of genre and assumptions in stories.

What this book does best is to contextualize the war described by Virgil. It's not purely a condemnation of the conflict, and the other similar actions of pride-driven senseless collective violence--although it certainly has elements of this--but it's about fitting war into a larger story, a narrative that includes but is not defined by the incidents of violence. It shows what happens before, what happens after a war, the psychological and structural forces that can generate conflict, and how a resolution of it works. It also centers the periphery of this, civilians following from a distance the process that turns family members from people into corpses, women on the rooftops trying to follow what's happening in chaotic violence, the ultra-masculine aggression, injustice and violation of combat. The most effective accomplishment of the book is to work in the form of Vigil's war into depiction of wider politics, economics and society, and represent these familiar/heroic backdrops as a functioning community as valid as our own.

For university this past semester I read a number of articles on the topic of reclaiming the past, achieving a female middle voice in the context of old patriarchal narratives. The challenge was, recognizing the inherent worse of women in an inherently patriarchal context where all records are inevitably tainted, can we as feminist 21st century scholars recapture the periphery? Can we take figures like Asphasia as valuable additions to the canon, or is that just a path of invention? I took the latter argument, but now begin to see what value there can be in this type of account. Le Guin's narrative is a pure fiction, but to label it thusly is to underestimate the insight that this kind of fiction can accomplish, and as a project that works, reworks and expands a feminist reading of a classical text, I wouldn't dismiss the scholarly validity. We can't pretend that Virgil left record of Lavinia as an actual person (as this work points out, and as clearly motivated Le Guin, Lavinia doesn't even speak in the original poem, serving only as a plot point) but Lavinia as a text gives a tool to engage with it now. The benefit of her work isn't just to challenge the conventional and exclusive picture of the Aeneid, but to create a subtext that after reading this one is more likely to ask these sorts of questions. To inquire if canonical works are biased, if they exclude. And, of course, the same question can be asked about books published now, items written this year. Who are we excluding? What type of narratives do presume?

Going into this I'd expected it to be a feminist reinterpretation, and to portray the titular character in much more depth than the original source (not hard, that) but this work also treats other characters effectively. Aeneas himself is a complex, sympathetic character, and in several of his discussions with Lavinia it very much seems that he makes the better point. More widely Lavinia does the same respectful additions to the larger scope of Etruscan-dominated Italy, offering an intimacy both with the wider scope of legendary history and the moment to moment details of life. Lavinia's father comes across particularly well, not terribly effective, far from flawless, but sympathetic in his strengths, weaknesses, and how deeply the two are intertwined.

I've labeled this a fantasy (as have most, though not all, readers) but this doesn't hit on the conventional tropes of this at all. In numerous ways it's even less magic-driven than Virgil's account, having no direct action of gods, no miracles, no practicing sorcerers. The one supernatural element occurs with the titular character herself, and the conversations she's able to have with the poet Virgil. Obviously, what this allows Le Guin to do is enter into an explicit dialog with the author of the primary canonical work. This could have so easily been a case of demolishing and condemning the first source, but Le Guin's goals are nuanced enough and she's an effective enough author that writing Virgil literally into the account makes him a sympathetic and interesting character. These scenes stand in the same relation to the larger juxtaposition of Aeneid and Lavinia, as expansions past the canonical without being merely fanfiction, revisioning of core motifs without demolishing the work.

This is a book that I'd recommend for everyone, especially those that have any experience with the Aenied, and even more especially those who think the main focus is too narrow, too blood-drenched, too irrelevant to wider concerns of contemporary times. Le Guin has offered an invaluable expansion to it that is among the very best novels of the 21st century. Le Guin's novel is deconstrutive in the best possible sense--taking apart an old narrative and the assumptions that factor into it, and in the process expanding, putting together and reinvigorating the narrative through her own focus. It's also one of the most powerful, quietly political and engaging stories I've read.

Reminds me of but is better than: Robinson's Galileo's Dreams. It seems Robinson was carrying out a similar approach with regards to the more historically grounded early science figure, but the result is far more muddled. One of the problems is that he makes travel into the future part of an actual plot rather than a reflection on the past, as well his past interludes show far less creativity in focus.
Reminds me of but is worse than: Not sure, actually. I've read books better than Lavinia [1], but none that had quite the same ambitions, style or core content as this one, the one's that are similar in approach are also a lot lower in quality. The book I'd be prompted to think as similar and better than Lavinia might be one of Le Guin's other books, The Dispossessed in particular, but that's more a trick of memory than a real connection. Part of why Le Guin is so ridiculously talented is that she writes massively different types of fiction. If her name wasn't attached to both, I'm not sure I'd be able to tell Lavinia and the Dispossessed had common authorship.

[1] Although none of the 10 I've finished so far in 2010 qualify, and I'll make a special note when one does. Won't change the name of the blog, though.

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