No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

#70: Lavinia -- Ursula Le Guin

His words were all the music of it, his words were its drumbeat, clack of the loom, tread of feet, oarstroke, heartbeat, waves breaking on the beach at Troy away across the world. (p. 44)


This is Le Guin's self-confessed 'act of gratitude to the poet, a love offering' to Vergil, whose Aenead this explores and transforms. In Vergil's poem, Lavinia -- Aeneas's last love, mother of his son -- is blonde and more than a little hysterical. But the poet's idea of Lavinia has given her a kind of life, distinct from any real Lavinia ("it confuses me to think about her") and not quite real enough. So she says. Le Guin's Lavinia is startlingly real, present, close: she reminds me of something I read (maybe Christa Wolf?) about the past, the people of the past, being so close, just in the next room or around the next corner ...

Which is not to say that Lavinia's any kind of anachronism. What impressed me most (though I am neither classicist nor historian) was the sense of a distant and different society, a world where religion (though not necessarily belief) was a part of everyday life, where the aristocracy were 'those who speak for [the] people to the powers of the earth and sky ... go-betweens' (p. 189). Where there's little distinction between that aristocracy and the other people of the city. Where 'city' is what we might term 'village'. Where a young girl in the woods might fear wolf and bear, but not man. Where Mars is first and foremost the god of boundaries, the god who sets the sword in the farmer's hand so that farmer can protect what is his.

That said, the gods are absent from this tale. Aeneas' mother (Venus) is never mentioned by name or nature. Aeneas himself doesn't speak of divine interventions at Troy. There is no sense that prayer is answered, or that the land is alive. At a point where something slightly supernatural might be going on, a bystander is confused: "he doesn't know if he saw an owl ... or if he saw something Turnus was seeing, that wasn't actually there." (p. 174)

There is a mystical element, the element of prophecy and foresight: primarily Lavinia's oracle, and the visions she sees in the dazzle of Aeneas's shield. Lavinia, like many of her father's lineage, can hear the voice of the local oracle. One evening the oracle brings her a vision of a poet, who speaks to her of Aeneas and her fate, and of how fate is what should happen, 'in spite of need. In spite of love.' It's not her only encounter with Vergil, and he is as important to her, when she looks back on her life, as Aeneas her husband and beloved.

something passed us perfectly silently and lay still ... A bird, I thought, they shot a bird, but I saw it was an arrow. It lay there with its long, bright bronze point and stiff clipped feathers, motionless. (p. 145)

Aeneas is a warrior, a man who murders like a butcher and is called 'hero': Lavinia knows the emptiness and the futility of war. (I don't know if the symbolic and ceremonial War Gate, standing alone in a field, opened as an announcement of the outbreak of war, is a real thing or not: "the gate that led nowhere, whether open or shut" (p. 164). It's a powerful image.) Knowing that to embrace Aeneas as her fated husband will bring war (in specific, with Turnus whom she's due to wed; in general, because Aeneas is a warrior) Lavinia follows her fate.

A friend asked why I'm so impressed with a book that's 'basically a feminist retelling of part of the Aenead'. No no no. I mean: yes, possibly, but the feminist twist isn't what draws me in, isn't the appeal. It is the utter verisimilitude of Lavinia, and simultaneously her own sense that she's not quite real, that she's a creation of the poet. The book is filled with her voice, first-person narration, and every word rings true: the calm simplicity of the language, as when she hears 'the poet's voice overlapping his as a sea wave running up the shore overtakes and overlaps the wave before it' (95). Nothing jars, nothing is wrong, but it's not all placid and comfortable either: defying her mother, she's 'false, frightened, incredulous, scornful and alone'. (101). The scorn makes her real: the loneliness makes us empathise.

I like Lavinia a lot. I like Le Guin's Aeneas (enough to want to go and read Vergil). I love Le Guin for writing this love-offering, this transformative work, this fan-fiction in the purest and most wholesome sense. And I like Vergil, still confused about some man he guided: "I met him in a wood ... a dark wood, in the middle of the road. I came up from down there to meet him ..." (p. 59)

in truth he gave me nothing but a name, and I have filled it with myself. (p. 241)

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