Finally getting around to at least a quick review of this latest book by Ursula Le Guin; it won’t be as in-depth as I had hoped, due to time constraints, but I do want to encourage as many people as possible to read it, because it’s wonderful.
Lavinia is the Latin princess that Aeneas marries in Vergil’s Aeneid – the ancestress of Rome, who nevertheless for Vergil was clearly just window dressing (she has one line in the entire poem). Le Guin set about to rectify this situation, and has done so masterfully. Lavinia is historical fiction at its best – obviously informed (in the afterword we learn that not only did she research the period, she reread the poem in the original), but not dry or pedantic. Le Guin’s primary motivation was obviously to rescue the character of Lavinia from unfair obscurity, and this she does – in my opinion – in full measure.
Aside from giving us a thoughtful, self-aware (on a number of levels – more on that in a moment) and engaging heroine, and, along the way, at least partially rescuing Aeneas himself from the cloud of moral ambiguity that he is left in at the end of the Aeneid, Le Guin presents a wonderfully sympathetic vision of the ancient, pre-Roman religious and moral worldview. Her Latins are pious and morally conscious; modern readers might not always agree with either the moral basis for some of their actions, or the actions themselves, but it is clear that they do have a moral base and, generally speaking, act from it… and when they fail to, the result is suitably shocking both to the characters and – so effectively does she draw us into their world – to the reader.
I can’t resist sharing just a couple of my favorite passages dealing with piety and religion:
* “Maruna grew up here. She’s pious.” By that word I meant responsible, faithful to duty, open to awe. My father had taught me the meaning of that word, and the value of it.
* The world is sacred, of course, it is full of gods, numina, great powers and presences. We give some of them names – Mars of the fields and the war, Vesta the fire, Ceres the grain, Mother Tellus the earth, the Penates of the storehouse.
This sense of the sacred, the near-constant awareness of the presence of the numinous and of human duty towards it, breathes through practically every page of Lavinia. As one who tries to cultivate this awareness myself, how could I not be moved?
There is another sort of awareness in this book, that I alluded to earlier. Early in the book, Lavinia becomes aware that she is a character in a story – not Le Guin’s story, mind you, but Vergil’s. As a girl she is visited several times by the spirit of the dying poet as she sleeps in the sacred grove of Albunea, where she goes to seek the will of the gods. How this works is left deliberately vague, since the characters have no way of knowing that themselves, but the conversations they have will inform Lavinia’s sense of herself throughout her life.
In the hands of a lesser writer, this would have come off as a cheap trick, or just not come off at all. Under Le Guin’s gifted pen, this extra level of awareness is a large part of what gives this book its particular magic, and makes it one of a handful of modern books that I expect I will reread, with profit, a number of times in years to come.