June 12, 2008

Sing Muse, of the woman unsung

By: Sean DeButts

Lavinia is for both scholars and laymen

   Her bride price was a war and her marriage helped found Roman civilization, but Lavinia spoke not a single word in Vergil’s epic poem the Aeneid. She tells her story in Lavinia (Harcourt, 2008), a novel by fantasy and science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin.

   “As far as I know, it was my poet who gave me any reality at all,” Lavinia begins. “Before he wrote, I was the mistiest of figures … He slighted my life, in his poem … If I must go on existing century after century, then once at least I must break out and speak.”

   Lavinia recounts a bright childhood in the pagan Italian countryside where her only duties were honoring the family gods and tending the household hearth. After meeting an apparition of Vergil in a forest shrine, she hears a prophecy that Aeneis, a survivor of Troy and Lavinia’s fated husband, will enter her land and spark a civil war that ends with a murder and with Lavinia’s marriage. The novel's second half continues where Vergil ended. Lavinia remembers her brief but happy marriage to Aeneis, the birth of their only son, Aeneis’ untimely but honorable death, and Lavinia’s struggle for happiness in an age granting women scant importance.

   Unlike Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, Lavinia is not a feminist retelling of Greco-Roman mythology, though Lavinia is strong-willed like Penelope and Dido. Lavinia is a woman telling a life, a fragment of poetry writing herself into existence and imploring us to listen.

   In between reading and speaking at bookstores on the West Coast, Ms. Le Guin granted an email interview about Lavinia.

The Inkwell Review: What unique challenges did you face in writing the two parts of Lavinia?

Ursula K. Le Guin: The first part of my book is a kind of "translation" from epic into novel, following Vergil's story closely, not contradicting anything he says -- but leaving out epic machinery (such as the gods who intervene in the action), adding "thick" novelistic description, and interpreting things on the domestic and personal level, instead of the heroic and mythic level. That wasn't hard, once I got up the courage to do it at all.
     The last part, where I had to go on after Vergil, was very scary to approach. Vergil really was my guide through the story up till then (just as he was Lavinia's). Now, like Lavinia, all I had to go on were some vague prophecies, and my own sense of what "ought" to happen. This is something novels can do, which drama and epic usually cannot: following up on what happens AFTER the tragedy. How life goes on. This is why a lot of great novels seem a little flat at the end; ending things really isn't their business.

IR: What motivated you to teach yourself Latin and to read Vergil in the first place?

UG: Well, I took Latin in junior high, up through Caesar; but you had to read Cicero for a year before they let you read the poets. I wanted to read Vergil, but I thought, "A year reading speeches by a dead Roman lawyer?" So I shifted over to French ... Then in grad school I needed Latin for my degree and took a summer crash course, which got me up to speed to read Ovid, who's the easiest of the poets.
     But then I let it all slip away again ... Till somewhere in my seventies I thought, "If you want to read Vergil, you better get to it." So I got out all my old grammar books and sweated over the Ablative Absolute until finally I just couldn't hold any more grammar. I know the way to read a foreign language is to sit down and read it. I'd done that before. So I got the Loeb Vergil and a good dictionary and started in on Vergil. Writing it out in Latin and English a few lines a day. Doing it that way, you get to know a poem ...

IR: Why were you drawn to writing about Vergil's Aeneid in particular? Why not Homer's Iliad or Odyssey?

UG: Because I don't know any Greek at all. I did have this little foundation in Latin to work with, and I've always felt closer to the Romans than to the Greeks. And because Vergil was a mystery. People who could read him in Latin had been saying, for two thousand years, that Vergil is the best. But the translations didn't amount to much. So what was it he was doing? The magic, the music, must be in his own words -- his poetry. (It is.)

IR: Lavinia puts a great deal of emphasis on the piety. She defines pagan, Italian pietas as being "responsible, faithful to duty, and open to awe. My father taught me the meaning of the word, and the value of it." Do you agree with this definition?

UG: I agree with it because I invented it -- to some extent. It's an interpretation of the connotations of the word pietas -- a defensible interpretation, although I wouldn't claim any more for it than that.
My problem was that the word piety in English has come pretty close to meaning hypocrisy. Vergil calls his hero pious. He even has Aeneas call HIMSELF pious -- and we flinch, reading it ...
     So, having come to admire Aeneas as a real and tragic hero, I had to figure out why did Vergil call him pious? What were the heroic qualities he meant to imply? And then try to convey that -- via Lavinia -- to my readers.

IR: Which of the virtues in Lavinia's era do we most lack in the present?

UG: I usually dodge this kind of question, but an answer came to me so fast and clear that I guess I better say it: Shame.
   Not that shame is a virtue, but it seems to me it's a ground from which several virtues grow -- or anyhow it keeps people from some of the vices we seem to specialize in at the moment, such as greed, deliberate lying, violence against the defenseless, breaking a promise, limitless self-indulgence -- shameless behaviors, modeled for us by our government and on TV, and preached to us through advertising by the corporations who run our world.
     Lavinia's era was the Bronze Age, and I don't think they'd yet worked out a moral code that would fully satisfy you or me if we had to live by it. But still it's amazing how a sense of shame can control some of our uglier tendencies -- I guess because it involves an awareness of what others think and admission that it matters.

The Inkwell Review: Ms. Le Guin, thank you for giving Lavinia a voice and for guiding us through Vergil's poetry. We look forward to reading your future work!

Ursula K. Le Guin: Thanks very much!

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