When you come to a widely-praised novel a year late, your expectations risk being unmatchable. The most exciting thing about Ursula Le Guin’s Lavinia, which I finished this week, is therefore that it not only met mine, but confounded them. I hadn’t read about the novel in detail, which perhaps helped; but largely Lavinia is simply a very special book. Until you have read it, I’m not sure your expectations could be quite right.
A few years ago, Margaret Atwood helped inaugurate the Canongate Myths series with The Penelopiad. A retelling of the Odyssey from the perspective of Odysseus’s wife, left behind on Ithaca during his years of siege and sea-voyage. It was a bold if intermittently brittle feminist reclamation of its subject. “If you see someone you’d rather not speak to,” Penelope observes early in the book, “you can always pretend you haven’t recognised them.” [pg. 15] The implication is clear: this is what Homer did, and his readers, in following him, have also done. Penelope is merely in the way of the greater story of her fabulous husband. So we affect not to see her.
This is what you might expect from Le Guin, too: Lavinia, if anything, is even more elaborately over-looked by Virgil than Penelope by Homer. At least Odysseus’s missus (say it twelve-times fast) shows agency, putting off remarriage, and exhibiting much of her husband’s guile in setting a high bar for any suitor who wishes to win her. Lavinia, on the other hand, is practically a marginal note in Virgil, existing largely to provoke the Latin war between Aeneas and Turnus. One of the joys of Lavinia, though, is that Le Guin resists the obvious way to rectify this under-writing. “I am not the feminine voice you may have expected,” Lavinia warns us. “Resentment is not what drives me to write my story.” [pg. 65]
Le Guin’s Lavinia wants to do all she is expected to do – she wants to marry Aeneas, and wants to fulfil the role alotted to her by society and by fate. But none of this, crucially, is due to a lack of thought: Lavinia is an intensely reflective narrator, who considers and analyses all around her. Her voice is calm and even cool, flowing through the story serenely and confidently; it is the voice of a woman at home with herself, and committed to the benefit of those around her. This isn’t the feminine voice we may have expected, but it is gorgeously done – and thoroughly proper. Atwood’s Penelopiad, with its forced modernity and precocious narrator, felt at times like a game; Lavinia is never confected, and never rings false. It is, like Lavinia, fully itself, and fully realised.
In the first part of a discussion about the book, Nic Clarke, Jo Coleman, Niall Harrison, Abigail Nussbaum, and Adam Roberts spent some time going over what a familiarity with the Aeneid adds to a reading of Lavinia. In part, I’d argue, nothing: the novel is its own story, delivered with an immediacy of narrative which Virgil lacks (on which more shortly). On the other hand, knowledge of the world of the Aeneid might underline more than anything the extent to which Lavinia is part of it. A familiarity with this world, in which feminism as we understand is impossible, can help the reader become more alive to the book’s central project. The danger of the Atwoodian approach is to suppose that, if Penelope did not think and behave like Germaine Greer, then womanhood in distant periods of history was somehow incomplete. Le Guin does not accept this.
What Lavinia is, then, is a novel of co-existence. In the second part of that noble quintet’s colloquy, Adam Roberts memorably and perceptively separates Le Guin’s chosen mode, the narrative, from Virgil’s, the lyric. This distinction is a key to the novel, but I think it should not be taken too far – there are in Lavinia moments of intense lyricism, and passages deeply Virgilian in style. Lavinia is, as noted, reflective, constantly settling in the moment and finding in it a modest epiphany. Her exhortation to “go, go on” is certainly a statement of her storytelling style; but it is not, as it were, the full story. Lyric and narrative cohabit in Lavinia as womanhood and patriarchy do.
(Incidentally, there is, as Cheryl Morgan has noted, a vague discomfort in the novel with homosexuality, or perhaps more properly homoeroticism; but this, I think, as well as emphasising Lavinia’s deeply pre-modern conceptions of the world, is a condemnation not of Ascanius’s sexual preferences but his pursuit of the masculine to the exclusion of the feminine. Problems with this treatment remain, but it is in this sense thematically justified.)
The one choice of Le Guin’s I might properly dispute – and here I side with Nic Clarke in the, yes, third installment of that discussion – is her exclusion of the gods. In Lavinia, the gods are constantly evoked, indeed are a part of the fabric of the day-to-day, but do not appear as active participants as they do in the Aeneid. I find this curious – particularly as Le Guin inserts the time-travelling spirit of a dying Virgil into the narrative, and gives him the god-like abilities of foresight and the control of fate – and yet, if we accept co-existence as the novel’s key theme, then had Le Guin included the personified, active, fixed gods of Troy and Greece, she would necessarily have rejected the dispersed, passive, unlocated gods of the Latin peoples. Her novel takes place when one polytheistic tradition meets another, and holds the two in beautiful tension throughout. Had she followed Virgil this would have been impossible.
The Penelopiad begins by emphasising Penelope’s fictionality: “they [are] turning me into a story, or into several stories.” [pg. 3] Lavinia ends with Aeneas’s wife accepting her own immortality: “he [Virgil, of course] did not sing me enough life to die.” [pg. 249] The similarities between the two novels, and their awareness of the power of story, are clear, but Le Guin’s approach is immeasurably more sophisticated. Some have felt the final third of the novel sags, limping on as it does past the bounds of its great canonical forebear; I found it in its own way more compelling than the middle section, which owes most to Virgil. The poet’s story is greater than itself; once set in motion, it continues – though never ends – without him. As he recognises when perceiving Lavinia as a greater woman than the one he wrote, the poem has a life, a reality, beyond itself. Virgil is a god who cannot fully control the human drama laid before him. In other words, fate and agency possess a simultaneity with each other. The tripartite structure of the book – pre-poem, poem, post-poem – is in itself in a sort of balance.
Lavinia is a pastoral with the nostalgic, elegiac tone that term implies. Its nostalgia, however, is not for a rural, close-to-nature never never land, or even for a world in which empires and male power have flown out of control. It is nostalgic for the balance which inhabits its very structure. Aeneas’s heroism in Lavinia is in his even-handedness: his willigness to act, but his openness to reflection; his respect for women, but his necessary masculinity; his generosity to the Latins, but his championing of the Trojans. The novel’s is a nostalgia for that wisdom – for co-existence and co-habitation, for a world in which women and men are different but not opposed, in which religious differences are tolerated, and we each fulfil the duties we have to each other. That, too, may be a never never land, like all nostalgia a yearning more than a memory; but the Aeneid has only ever been a story.