Monday, April 26, 2010

Review: Lavinia, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Lavinia My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Lavinia is not a great book. In fact, I think the most it stirred inside me was an urge to reread the Aeneid. I was intrigued by the premise: to finally put a voice to the "Helen who never speaks", Aeneas' third and final wife, Lavinia. But the execution turned out to be rather wispy, ephemeral; I know this woman no better than I did. Her towns and forests, her land of Bronze Age Italy, have remained similarly obscure.

It is no surprise, really, that a time that was ancient and obscure to the Ancient Romans themselves should remain so to us. But this is fiction: Le Guin had total license to shape the world as she wished; however, that great work of epic poetry, hovering over her head and ours forevermore may have proved too much for the mature and talented fantasy writer. Lavinia -- that is, as she is portrayed in this book -- seems far too aware that she is just a character in a book, that she and her entire world may exist, first only in the imagination of Virgil, then only on the musty old pages of his book.

Le Guin wrote Virgil into her tale: at a sacred spot near Lavinia's village, that she visits regularly, Virgil appears to her in a shadowy form and talks to her, tells her of what is to come. Naturally, he laments not having written her story, favoring Camilla, the warrior princess and one of Turnus' allies, instead. He could rewrite his poem, but, *oh* he's dying. How sad. Though I liked the idea of the sacred spot -- every literary character needs a private little garden of her own -- I could have done without the shadowy portrayal of "the poet."

Why, I wonder, are the parents of these kinds of historical dramas either unbelievably liberal or else terribly cruel? Le Guin splits the pair: Lavinia's father, King Latinus, is as kind, wise and liberal as Marcus Aurelius could only dream about; her mother, Amata, however, is cruel and a little crazy, even going so far as to kidnap Lavinia, under the guise of a religious rite, to try to force her to marry Turnus. I rather liked the characterization of Amata: she has not been quite right in the head ever since her two sons died early, and her fixation on Turnus as the preferred husband for Lavinia is largely because they are kin, though the looks she send to him across the dinner table may lead some to wonder.

I could not ask more, either, from the characterizations of Turnus, the hot-head and gallant fighter who is more than a little timid underneath -- or that of Latinus, the dutiful and deeply religious father, who gives his daughter to a foreigner, as destiny decrees. Ascanius, too, Aeneas' son, came out well: the dutiful son who yet lacks most of the luster of his legendary father, who is overeager and makes mistakes.

I would have liked to see more from Achates, however, Aeneas' trusty second in command -- how could comparisons not be drawn to Agrippa? He could have played the cool-headed Voice of Reason, much in the manner of Enobarbus from Antony and Cleopatra. Aeneas himself, in this tale, is a statue, entirely unapproachable. He has dialogue, of course; he does speak, but his characterization is minimal. It is almost appropriate: no one ever will, or should, know exactly what ran through that statue's head. He is too noble, above-it-all, too important to the legendary roots of the Roma Empire, to have such petty things as emotions.

Lavinia, however, is the main character of this book: far too important to leave her portrayal unfinished, skeletal, and wispy. She is deeply religious -- religion, naturally, plays an important part in all proceedings. She is, unsurprisingly, a sort of proto-feminist -- why else write a book like this, if not to divulge a woman's point of view? And she is dutiful, to her family, to her destiny, to the world and its perceived will. So she is everything that was expected of a Roman matron, with a few modern twists thrown in. But she is not a full character. Her world is not complete. This book is not complete.

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