by Ursula K. Le Guin
Le Guin’s latest novel is incredibly strong, moving, and human. It’s the story of Lavinia, the wife of Aeneas, the legendary ancestor of Rome; it gently revises and expands Vergil’s Aeneid, with Vergil himself in a supporting role. So at one level the book is dealing with matter at the root of the Western cultural tradition — but at another level it’s the simple human tale of a woman in an unsophisticated society navigating her way in the world, building a life for herself and her loved ones. It’s a success both ways.
The language of the novel is simple, but resonant. Le Guin consistently finds the right phrases for the characters and their situations; the phrases echoing with the most meaning. One of the first descriptions of Aeneas comes when Lavinia, later in life — the novel elegantly shifts back and forth in time — describes her husband’s gear: “To see his armor hanging there is to realise what a large, powerful, man he is. He doesn’t look large, or even very muscular, because his body is in perfect proportion, and he moves lightly and gracefully, considerate of who and what is around him, not shoving forward as many big, strong men do. Yet I can hardly lift the armour he wears so easily.” How much is in those three sentences; how much of the character of Aeneas, how much of his essence, and how much of Lavinia’s emotion for him, how she sees him relative to other men, her understanding of power and responsibility.
The first two-thirds or so of the book follow the Aeneid from Lavinia’s perspective, with the remainder following her life after the close of the poem. There is a subtle but distinct shift in this later part of the book. The action is less pre-ordained, but also less freighted with meaning. But then this also means Lavinia is freer; this part of the story has not been written for her.
One of the most impressive aspects of the book is its consciousness of its status as a story, and Lavinia’s own understanding herself as a character. Early in the book, she meets the figure of Vergil, a ghost of the future; she learns much of the story he will write. But then he himself admits he has been wrong about some things. Lavinia is haunted throughout the rest of the book by her knowledge that she herself is a character in this writer’s text, perhaps not even a text he finished or was particularly satisfied with.
Le Guin plays with the question of how alive even the most self-aware of characters can be — “I am, now, only in this line of words I write,” says Lavinia near the beginning of the book, acknowledging her own status as a fiction: “As far as I know, it was my poet who gave me any reality at all.” Hardly living, she cannot die. “My life is too contingent to lead to anything so absolute as death.” And yet, and yet. After her husband’s death, Lavinia lets his best friend tell the tale of his slaying again and again: “So long as Achates told me the story,” she says, “Aeneas was not dead.” Life and death have a complex relationship to stories.
Earlier, Lavinia mourns the poet’s absence in an unwittingly resonant phrase: “I have lost my guide, my Vergil.” And this recalls an earlier passage in the book, when she asks Vergil if he was with Aeneas in the underworld: “Who else would I be with?” asks Vergil, before becoming suddenly uncertain. “What man did I guide?” he asks himself. “I met him in a wood, like this. A dark wood, in the middle of the road. I came up from down there to meet him, to show him the way ...” And so we are gently reminded that even poets can be characters; and that this poet certainly is, a character in a book called Lavinia. Thus Lavinia has just as much life as he. By making Lavinia a character, a living, breathing character, Le Guin paradoxically gives her the ability to die — to go among the shades and to be with her husband, if only in our imaginations.
Lavinia is a subtle, marvellous book, which gives more rewards the more closely it is read. Le Guin has a knack (you can see it in many of her earlier books, the Earthsea series not least among them) for imagining and conveying the nature of life in a pre-literate or nearly pre-literate society; for bringing out the relationship of the people and the gods, for showing the shapes of communities, for illuminating the distance and the power of words. This in addition to her gifts for character and language and structure. All these things come together in Lavinia. Fittingly, like the best Roman art, it’s austere in style, and from that austerity derives a harmonious beauty; one imagines that Vergil himself would approve.