Cecelia Holland reviews Lavinia

For many of us the great story of the Aeneid is part of our childhood, arma virumque cano and those shores of Italy, the gates of horn and ivory, beautiful Camilla and pious, heroic Aeneas. Too often in struggling with the alien complexities of Latin syntax (ah for the ease of manibus date lilia plenis!) we lost the glory of the epic itself. Yet the story fascinates us still, and comes well into English. Amazon.com lists dozens of different copies, and brave novelists often have tried to retell the tale. No result, surely, is as wise and subtle, as passionate, as Ursula K. Le Guin’s beautiful Lavinia. The heroine of her splendid little novel is Lavinia, the daughter of the King of Latium whom Aeneas must win to found his city — the city that will become the Rome of Augustus Caesar, for whom Virgil wrote the poem, and whose family and state it was intended to glorify. The story is told in Lavinia’s voice, not always linearly, but as she comes to understand events and her place in them, and the character herself grows from meek girl-child to ruling Queen and fiercely nurturing mother in the course of the book. In Virgil’s poem Lavinia is a shadow, a pretty girl with downcast eyes who never speaks; the fiery warrior-princess Camilla is a brighter, more appealing character. But Lavinia, Le Guin recognizes, is at the core of the story, while Camilla is only a vivid sideshow — so unnecessary that Le Guin subsumes her cleverly into Lavinia and we never notice her absence. (Virgil himself, in the novel, says he failed to see Lavinia’s importance and character, part of Le Guin’s amusing running commentary on his text.)

Twists like this one with Camilla are possible because Le Guin’s story is not a literal rehash of Virgil’s. Like all great historical fiction, it’s a gloss on its sources, and Le Guin gives herself all the room she needs to explore this by bringing the great golden age poet into the poem, as a shade who visits Lavinia in dreams and oracular moments. In fact often Lavinia regards herself as only a character in a book, which is being written before us, but is it Le Guin’s book, or Virgil’s? Thus the reader travels up and down through the novel, as well as from beginning to end; the story of Aeneas layered on the poem of Aeneas layered on Virgil’s thinking about the poem about Aeneas and about his current all-powerful patron; there’s even a sneaky little reference to Dante. Much of the pleasure of reading Lavinia is this time travel, this exercise of memory, the loom of history.

Aeneas is in the book from the very first and although Lavinia is a beautiful, noble, intelligent woman he dominates the first two-thirds of the book. She adores him, anyway, from the very first, and he is truly adorable. Clearly to Le Guin as to Lavinia he is the Perfect Man, strong and decisive and yet humble and compassionate — a defender of the weak, a nemesis to the haughty, beautiful to look at, invincible in fair fight. The son of the Evening Star, he carries a fate far bigger than a human man, and Virgil, chronicling this, made him so real that, in Le Guin’s conceit, he is sealed to the book, and to his time, and to his fate, in a way that Lavinia, barely mentioned and never plumbed, never is.

And so Lavinia exists on, past the end of the book, to complete the story. To some extent the novel cools off with the death of Aeneas. This is Le Guin’s power, though — to make us see the whole story of the founding, and that the whole story is Lavinia’s. The end, when Lavinia, her tasks done, does not die, but fades away into a nightbird crying in a sacred grove, is as sweet as the end of the Aeneid is violent. Because this is Le Guin’s book, not a mere cut and paste of Virgil, but an assimilation of him, plus several other Golden Age writers. Her immersion in the material is complete. The book is like watching an animation of an ancient mosaic or a figured urn. She can report even the sacrifice of a newborn baby lamb as an act of goodness and mercy. Although she knows the poem so well that lines from it (as well as from De Rerum Natura and the Georgics) seem to float behind the lovely English prose, she almost never allows the drumbeat war cadences to intrude — when they do it’s alarming, both to Lavinia and to us.

Most of the time, Le Guin is vivifying a seamless, sacred, blessed time which may never have existed, but which we all fervently long to believe in: the morning of the world, when the whole of nature was suffused with spirit, and people lived in reverence to it. The details of sacrifice and rite and oracle are lovingly described not for their own sake but because they reveal the deep sense of oneness with the world that supported and uplifted the ancients. It’s as if the world of Hesiod rose to counterbalance the fury of the wars of the so-called Axial Age. Lavinia is a magnificent book, an intellectual, moral and emotional achievement, and, like the Latin Queen in her guise as nightbird, I want to say, Go on. Go on.

Copyright © 2008 by Cecelia Holland
First published in Locus, March 2008
Reprinted with the kind permission of the publisher
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Updated Sunday, 26-Feb-2017 17:28:50 PST