Lavinia, by Ursula K. Le Guin, has been sitting in my to-be-read pile ever since it was published, way back in 2008 (eep!). But, as of 1:00 pm, I can now say I have read all of her novels...and I can finally put Lavinia in her place on the special shelf of Le Guin books (shown here--front and center, at eye level; Le Guin is actually occupying two shelves, and there actually isn't space for another book, but there it is.).
Lavinia, a Bronze Age princess of a small Italian kingdom, appears at the end of Vergil's epic poem, the Aeneid. When Aeneas, after years of wandering, finally arrives in the place where he plans to found a new homeland for his band of exiles, Lavinia gets to watch her countrymen and the Trojans kill each other, with her hand in marriage as the prize to the victor. After much bloodshed, she gets to marry Aeneas. What she doesn't get, in Vergil's poem, is much screen time. And Ursula Le Guin, coming late in life to the Aeneid, was struck by this, and decided to give Lavinia a voice.
From a Kirkus interivew quoted here: “In the Aeneid, Lavinia is a mere convention, the blond maiden, a background figure barely sketched. Yet this is the woman the hero is commanded by the gods to marry. She so evidently has a voice, and Vergil knew how to listen to women; but he didn’t have time to listen to her. He’s in the war part of his story and has to get all the battles fought. So all Lavinia gets to do is blush. I felt it was time she got to tell her view of things. Inevitably this is also an interpretation of the hero’s story, in which I think Vergil shows the price of public triumph as personal tragedy."
Lavina is the autobiographical reflections of a character who knows that her existence is contingent (as she puts it) on her place in Vergil's poem. But, as she makes clear to the reader, there is more to her than is found in his words. She tells of her girlhood, running free in the woods, of her family, and the local people--small things of no great import, except to the people involved. She tells of her discomfort with being courted, and the distasteful thought of being married off, and being moved away from her place in the world. And then she tells of the arrival of Aeneas....and the blood that spilled, and the city that was built, and the love that she had for him.
Much of the book reads as straight historical fiction, the good type, that explores gender, and religion, and power, and how people make themselves who they are (Le Guin is especially good at the last in general, and does a particularly fine job with it here!). Although I enjoyed these aspects of the story, and although I liked the first part, about Lavinia as a girl, quite a lot, there were, quite frankly, too many people killed in the middle of the book (blame Vergil). I skimmed this part, and wish Le Guin had too, even though the dispassionate side of my brain realizes that the bloodshed is an integral part of the characters' story....
Here's what she said about that aspect of the Aenead, in a 2009 Time interview: "It’s pretty gross in the Aeneid. It’s ugly. And that too struck me as part of what the book is about. I think Vergil wrote that book partly to tell Augustus, OK, you made it, you won, you’re on top. This is the cost of winning, of getting on top. Enough is enough. I see it as kind of an anti-war story. Vergil doesn’t enjoy battles the way Homer does." And nor does Aeneas, which is why he is a hero so much easier to care about than any of Homer's!
Lavinia (the book) is more, however, then the simply telling of the life of Lavina (the woman) in her historical context. Alongside that story, Le Guin explores Lavinia's understanding of herself as a creation of Vergil's writing. Few characters get to meet their creator; Lavinia, however, meets Vergil's spirit quite early in the book--she hears his doubts, and regrets, and learns more than she might want to know about her future, and her own actions and emotions are tempered by this. It adds a rather poignant, meditative note to the book, and it left me with an aching empathy not just for Lavinia, but for all who try to be their true selves, and for all those who powerful, beautiful stories have been lost to master narratives. (At least that's what I think I was feeling).
It was not the death of Aeneas that made my eyes briefly blurry, but this passage at the end of the book--
"I was fated, it seems, to live among people who suffered beyond measure from grief, who were driven made by it. Though I suffered grief, I was doomed to sanity. this was no doing of the poet's. I know that he gave me nothing but modest blushes, and no character at all. I know that he said I raved and tore my golden tresses at my mother's death. He simply was not paying attention: I was silent then, tearless, and only intent on making her poor soiled body decent. And my hair has always been dark. In truth he gave me nothing but a name, and I have filled it with myself. Yet without him would I even have a name? I have never blamed him. Even a poet cannot get everything right." (p 263).
In any event. If you are a fan of Le Guin's fantasy and science fiction, you might be disappointed--it's not much like her other books. Except that it is, in its thoughtful, graceful exploration of what it means to be a person, like so much else that she has written.
You can find lots of links to other, more detailed, reviews of Lavinia and interviews with Le Guin here at her website.