Monday, September 27, 2010

Guest Review: Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin

For those of you who missed the post, we here at the Blue Bookcase are looking to expand our horizons and add a new writer! (Or more than one, perhaps) This continues our session of "test-runs" for writers who look promising, so let's give a warm welcome to guest reviewer/aspiring BB writer, Zee! Be sure to comment and tell us what you think! (And for other interested writers, it's not too late to apply! Check out this post for more details)

Hi, I'm Zee and I'm fairly new to the book blogging world. I live in the UK and besides reading I also enjoy painting, drawing and writing stories. My blog 'Zee's Wordly Obsessions' has been online for nearly four months now and I thoroughly enjoy sharing my thoughts with other like-minded bookish people. As a self-confessed bibliophile and English graduate my tastes tend to lean more towards the classics, Contemporary and Literary fiction. Like all serious readers I'm always worrying about time, so I like to choose books that I know I will to some extent enjoy, and more importantly learn from. However that doesn't mean I limit myself to a few genres. I also enjoy reading detective fiction, Cyber fiction and lately even some Sci-Fi. I'm hoping to explore a wider variety of genres as I continue to blog, and as an aspiring writer myself my reviews tend to focus on trying to understand the craft of the writer.

Published: 2010
It's about: Trapped between the verses of 'The Aeneid' is the ghostly figure of Lavinia, daughter and princess of Latium. Conjured briefly into being by the Etruscan poet Vergil, she exists as a forgettable figure in that Trojan epic of war and conquest. From a half-light that is neither life nor death; she calls out, pale and thin. She speaks of her long, narrow existence and the injustice that was done to her. To be sure, she is dead; but neither has her soul returned to the underworld where it belongs. Like all poetic figures, words grant her immortal life, yet her fictional self mourns the mere sketch she has been reduced to. Lavinia's song is incomplete; her life much more than a fleeting verse. Even the poet bewails his shortcoming, calling her his unfulfilled, his unfinished.
Thus Lavinia emerges from under the weight of meter and verse to narrate her own story. Her life as an expendable pawn in her father's court is not as simple as Vergil made it seem. With her mother mad from grief and her father an aging king; Lavinia has no choice but to regard marriage as peace alliance between the various kingdoms of Latium. Yet one night at the sacred springs, she is visited by an apparition which is none other than her poet. As his body lies dying on a boat, his spirit breaks free and finds Lavinia, praying about the uncertainty of her future. As she meets the author of her being who begins to tell her her fate, he also realises that Lavinia is more than he gives her credit to be. He describes the foreigner that she will wed, the bloodshed that ensues, and the glory that will eventually be the city of 'Ruma', which will be born from her union with the celebrated warrior Aeneas.
Having learned her fate, Lavinia decides to obey the oracle no matter what. She goes against her mother who favours the handsome and arrogant Turnus, setting herself and her people on a perilous path. 
I thought: The beauty of this story lies in the perspective it's written from. Taking the figurative saying 'immortalised in poetry' and applying it to the historical figure of Lavinia is inspired to say the least. Even though I'm not a big fan of Women's fiction (preferring the classics and more literary books) I found that 'Lavinia' posed some very important questions about the role of poetry. And it did so successfully without using any difficult academic theory. Le Guin chose to 'act out' these ideas through the character of Lavinia, giving her character the opportunity to talk about how it feels to be powerless over the image she has been given. By the third chapter I was rethinking the whole image of epic poetry and just how much these legendary characters are faithful to their real selves.
I also found the prose to be very smooth and uncomplicated, which is refreshing when you think about the subject matter. With a topic like Greek poetry, there is a great tendency to emulate the arcane language of the ancients. But thankfully Le Guin completely ignores this, and chooses to stay faithful to a contemporary style that does not alienate the reader. Le Guin's novel is also different in that it also adds many new dimensions to a character that is little-known. Why she chose Lavinia is something that she comments upon generously at the back of the book. I would like to think that like all great authors she is an excellent 'method writer'. Le Guin felt out each of her characters, trying to portray them in a 'human' light rather than depict them as mythological figures or demi-gods. 
The novel ends on an ambiguous note, as we do not know exactly where Lavinia is telling her story from. In fact, I had a feeling that Le Guin saw herself as a kind of soothsayer, allowing Lavinia to speak through her. And this very nicely mirrors the dying poet in the book who also writes Lavinia's first fictional version of herself. It brings the notion of writer as a type of 'medium' full circle, which I think isn't that far from the truth.     
Verdict: Definitely on the shelf. This is one of those books that come under Women's Literature, but so greatly differs from the genre, in that it has something for everyone. From the academically-minded, to the easy-reading type. Be assured that whatever floats your boat, Le Guin delivers.
Warnings: Apart from a little battle gore (and some very mild at that), there is nothing to worry about. 
Suggestions: Le Guin drew inspiration from 'The Aeneid' for this novel. Since the 'poet' is such an important character in the story it would be a good idea to at least attempt a reading of it. Also, my edition of the novel (Phoenix fiction) contained some really good notes at the back, which might be useful for group reading and discussions.
Favourite Excerpts: This book has so many beautiful passages. It really is a readers' delight. Here are some memorable moments that stayed with me.
"I know who I was, I can tell you who I may have been, but now I am only in this line of words I write. I’m mot sure of the nature of my existence, and wonder to find myself writing... No doubt someone with my name, Lavinia, did exist, but she may have been so different from my own idea of myself, or my poet's idea of me, that it only confuses me to think about her. As far as I know it was my poet that gave me any reality at all. Before he wrote I was the mistiest of figures, scarcely more than a name in a genealogy. It was he who brought me to life, to myself, and so made me able to remember my life and myself, which I do, vividly, with all kinds of emotions, emotions I feel strongly as I write, perhaps because the events I remember only come to exist as I write them, or as he wrote them."
"I can never get used to the fact, though I know it, that women are born cynics. Men have to learn cynicism. Infant girls could teach it to them."
"Who was my true love, then, the hero or the poet? I don't mean which of them loved me more; neither of them loved me long. Just sufficiently. Enough. My question is which of them did I more truly love? And I cannot answer it."
 "But I will not die. I cannot. I will never go down among the shadows under Albunea to see Aeneas tall among warriors, gleaming in bronze. I will not speak to Creusa of Troy, as I once thought I might, or Dido of Carthage, proud and silent, still bearing the great sword wound in her breast. They lived and died as women do and as the poet sang them. But he did not sing me enough life to die. He only gave me immortality."