LAVINIA; Ursula K. Le Guin, 2008

Before setting my hand to writing a novel of my own, I had been reading mainly non-fiction work, and works of classic literature, from Homer (in translation) to Borges (also in translation). Ursula K. Le Guin’s LAVINIA was one of the first books of modern literature I have picked up in a long time.

LAVINIA is a retelling of a portion of the Aeneid from the titular character’s point of view. In Virgil’s repudiated masterpiece, Lavinia is mentioned in passing, only briefly, as Aeneas’ wife, and the mother of his heir. In this novel, Le Guin retells the story from Lavinia’s childhood in the courts of her father, the king of Latium, through to Aeneas’ death, and beyond, raising her son. It is richly detailed and yet lightly written. Reading it was rather like eating Grammom’s Hungarian strudel– The dough, rich with butter and cream, rolled out over, and over, and over, in to thin, crepe-like sheets…. That combination of richness and depth with the light, smooth sweetness was marvelous. I can only hope that one day I will become as skilled a writer as Le Guin.

The story begins with a wonderful conceit; Lavinia is telling us her tale from beyond the grave. The epic poem written by Virgil has conferred a kind of immortality upon her; yet, Virgil spent so little time on her, that Lavinia is somewhat vague and unfocused as a shade. Yet, she “lives,” long after Virgil himself has died. There is a second conceit in the book; that Lavinia meets with the shade of Virgil himself. Virgil is dying, or is recently dead, and his spirit flies across time and place, and he finds himself sitting with Lavinia in one of Latium’s ancient sacred groves. Here, the two talk, and Lavinia learns of her future through her Poet.

The relationship Lavinia develops with Virgil is as subtle as gossamer. Unless one is expecting it, Le Guin eases the reader into the realization that the shade is indeed Virgil. It’s marvelously done in that light, yet rich hand of hers.

Lavinia goes on to tell of her early life at court, of her close, loving relationship with her father, and of her troubled relationship with her mother. I am loath to go into much detail, even the details inherent in a mere synopsis; otherwise, the reader will miss the pleasure of gliding through Le Guin’s prose. Suffice it to say that Lavinia grows up as a princess, performing her ritual duties, and becomes a pawn in the eyes of her mother, once she reaches marriageable age. Aeneas arrives, and the story then gracefully fleshes out what Virgil never related in his poem, regarding Lavinia, Aeneas, and their relationship. And whereas Virgil’s poem ends with the death of Aeneas, Le Guin’s book goes on beyond that point, with Lavinia, as she raises her son and tries to keep him from becoming a political pawn of Aeneas’ eldest son and his men.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is on a par with Robert Graves’ I, CLAUDIUS and CLAUDIUS THE GOD; but with a much gentler style of prose. The edition I read was only 279 pages in length, and yet felt as if it had the weight of one of Dostoyevsky’s novels. Ursula K. Le Guin’s LAVINIA is now officially one of my favourite books.


About Michael Butchin

I was born, according to the official records, in the Year of the Ram, under the Element of Fire, when Johnson ruled the land with a heavy heart; in the Cradle of Liberty, to a family of bohemians. I studied Chinese language and literature at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. I spent some years in Taiwan teaching kindergarten during the day, and ESOL during the evenings. I currently work as a high school ESOL teacher, and am an unlikely martial artist. I have spent much of my life amongst actors, singers, movie stars, beautiful cultists, Taoist immortals, renegade monks, and at least one martial arts tzaddik. I currently reside in Beijing's Dongcheng district
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