Saturday, May 31, 2008

Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin

We tend to think of the writing gift as something that can wear out. Even if we’re not conscious of thinking about it, it seems that one of the things we value most highly in an author is youth, and then we lower our expectations as authors age, force deadlines, disappoint us.

I wasn’t even really aware of any of these feelings until I was reading Lavinia (Harcourt), and was transported by the vibrance of the story as well as that of the voice that tells it. Le Guin, bless her, has been around a long, long time. And, for perspective, she was born in 1929 and thus is even older than John McCain. For some reason -- perhaps nothing more than Le Guin’s name -- Lavinia keeps getting shelved (and sometimes dismissed) as SF/F. It’s not. In certain significant ways, this is a historical novel of the highest order or, as Le Guin herself puts it in an afterword, Lavinia is “a meditative interpretation suggested by a minor character in [Vergil’s] story -- the unfolding of a hint.”

Essentially, Le Guin lends her voice to the character Lavinia, Vergil’s creation from Aeneid. Lavinia is a dreamy, contemplative work. I am tempted to call it Le Guin’s best, but considering the consistently remarkable qualities of Le Guin’s writing, that might be an overstatement. After all, over the years Le Guin has been awarded the Hugo and the Nebula Awards -- actually, five of each. She’s been given the Kafka Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Howard Vursell Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. And the National Book Award. That’s a lot of celebration for a single career. But Lavinia is wonderful. I’m betting that the next award lands not far from this remarkable book.

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