Over the past several months, a pair of Alexandrians (Nic and Jo) have been having a gloriously rambling email discussion with Niall Harrison, Adam Roberts, and Abigail Nussbaum about Ursula Le Guin's wonderful Aeneid-retelling, Lavinia (2008 in the US, 2009 in the UK).
Since the end product was, to put it mildly, quite long, we've split it between the participants' blogs. The first part can be found at Torque Control, the second at Punkadiddle, and the third at Asking the Wrong Questions. Below is the fourth and final part. Enjoy.
Nic Clarke: Unlike Jo, I have to say I'm largely content with Le Guin's decision to mingle fantasy and sort-of history. Firstly, from a purely practical point of view, I've no idea how you'd go about finding historically-accurate information about the inner religious life of a woman in pre-Roman Italy; archaeology aside, I'm pretty sure everything that comes down to us from anywhere near the period was written from firmly within the Roman mindset. Secondly -- and I'm drifting away from Jo's objections now, into my own ranty little world -- if there's one thing that unfailingly irritates me in retellings of this nature (whether on film or in books), it is the push for historical accuracy, as if somehow the story is thereby made more important/relevant/real. (Stand up, Troy ... On second thoughts, don't.) The war in Latium, the fall of Troy, King Arthur, Robin Hood: they were never really history in the first place, for the most part. Rather, they have always been stories, and to my mind they should be allowed to still be stories, and valued as such; the fantastical is intrinsic to them and to the world in which they were originally (!) told. Plus, the original poem was all about idealising a not-terribly-historical Italian past.
Niall Harrison: For all that I like it, my reservation with the novel lies in its in-between-ness. To put it in the terms Adam was using, perhaps I'm not convinced that Le Guin quite translates from the lyric to the narrative thoroughly enough; for all that Lavinia's life is a life, with the joy and the heartbreak and the tedium and the excitement attendant on that, it's also very instructive;, there are those epiphanic moments. The world that Lavinia constructs is a world where moral choices may be difficult, but they are always clear, a world where even if still nasty, brutish and short, lives are meaningful in a way that they I don't believe they ever were in our past.
Perhaps if I'd found the last third of the novel relatively disappointing, as Abigail did -- if I felt that the shape had gone out of Lavinia's life with the end of Virgil's story -- I wouldn't be so bothered by this. But actually, I thought Le Guin did such a good job of giving Lavinia's life its own shape that, although I felt the end of Virgil's story very clearly, I never felt that the book lost its way after it. Possibly this is because Lavinia's motivations match up with those presupposed by Virgil: it lends the feeling that Virgil was just observing events, rather than creating them; travelling to this world and reporting, rather than creating it. The upshot is, though, that I feel there's an undercurrent of the bad kind of escapism in the book, a sort of consolation that, as Jo says, idealizes the past.
Nic Clarke: As Abigail said, Lavinia's story is all about; her fate, and what happens when that fate, as it were, runs out without her life doing likewise. And I'd like to pick up on Abigail's point about Lavinia's choices. I think I, too, had expected Le Guin's Lavinia to kick against her fate (as determined for her by both her father and her poet-creator) more than she does. It's a testament to how well Le Guin builds Lavinia's world, and Lavinia's fidelity to its gods and spirits, that Lavinia's choice is believable
It's not an uncomplicated choice -- in marrying the interloper to prevent worse bloodshed, Lavinia also ensures Italy's conquest, and the eventual smothering of the world she knows. But the book's emphasis on Lavinia and thus the marriage make for an interesting counterpoint to the poem, which makes much less of the marriage and ends on Turnus' death -- or, more particularly, on Aeneas' (Rome's) uncontrolled wrath (furor) sending the unreconciled shade of Turnus (Italy) screaming from the world. Lavinia compromises, and lives, and perhaps enables something of her world to survive into Rome, and the realm of story.
Abigail Nussbaum: Though in general I agree with your point that the drive towards historical accuracy in retellings like Lavinia or Troy is a deceptive, and ultimately perhaps destructive one because that reality isn't as important as the story, I think Le Guin is making the opposite point -- that by infusing a minor and, in the original work, nearly inhuman, character with humanity, she is bolstering the story (and this might go some way toward addressing my complaint that Lavinia's desires seem to dovetail so perfectly with her role in the story).
That's the first half of the novel, however. The metafictional reading rather breaks down once, as Nic puts it, Lavinia outlives her destiny, which leads me to conclude that I have no idea what Le Guin was trying to do with the novel.
On the inherent limitedness of Lavinia's options, and the assumptions the other characters make that she is a pawn in a greater political game ... It occurs to me that one of the ways Le Guin defuses that reading is by stressing Lavinia's commitment to her duty, and even more so the fact that in her mind, duty, morality, and piety are roughly the same thing.
Nic Clarke: Yes. This is very Roman. My impression is that Lavinia is almost paradigmatically a proto-Roman matron.
Abigail Nussbaum: And it is, I think, another aspect of Lavinia's alienness, much like her belief that she walks with her gods (and especially given the famous anthropological bent of Le Guin's SF I wonder whether Lavinia isn't closer to that genre than to fantasy). This still, however, doesn't address the problem that Lavinia chooses Aenas over Turnus not because duty dictates it, or even because she wants to prevent bloodshed and avoid becoming another Helen, but because she just happens to have fallen in love with him. This as opposed to the story of Aenas and Dido which, as Virgil tells it and Lavinia perceives it, is the tragedy of people caught between their desire and their duty. Lavinia is praised -- by her contemporaries, by Virgil, and by Le Guin herself -- for her dutifulness and piety, her clear-eyed comprehension of what is right and proper, but there's a difference between knowing what's right and doing right that Lavinia is hardly ever confronted with. The closest she comes is when Aenas's son kills her friend's pet and brothers, and even then she's mostly sorry for having to lose her friend, not conflicted about whose side she should be on. There is, in fact, very little conflict in the character, which in a way makes her as flat as Virgil's original.
Jo Coleman: I absolutely agree that there is very little conflict in Lavinia's character, and that this makes her somewhat flat. I think this is one of the things that left me with a sense of blankness at the ending of the novel. Yes, we are reading about someone whose fate has already been decided, but the fact that Lavinia's fate and her own desires are so close seems for me to raise the question, why are we reading about her at all -- apart from the interest raised by the metafictional comparison? But then, perhaps we are too used to finding conflict in our characters, and Le Guin is purposefully challenging her reader by portraying someone whose fate and will/decisions/autonomy are not in conflict -- a sort of anti-Oedipus, as it were!
Adam Roberts: I don't see that Lavinia's character is 'flat', although I think I have a sense of what everybody else means when they talk in those terms. As narrator she is necessarily before us all the time. Jo's Anti-Oedipus reference intrigues me enormously. I don't know whether or not the point of the reference is to pick up on the celebrated Deleuze-Guattari rejigging and upending of Freud. But it seems right to me, actually: one of the main things Deleuze-Guattari are arguing in that book is that human desire is always immanent in what they call the social field of production ... not production in the sense of tractor factories, but in the larger sense in which human beings are genuinely machinic, generating or producing affect, culture, themselves, history, things, feelings and so on.
I'm not suggesting Le Guin has been reading Deleuze-Guattari, but I think she is aware that it is not really enough to contextualise a character within a familial setting only (the original Freudian myth; one of the things on which D-G set their sights); nor even within the larger social context of village or nation. It's necessary to situate her also in history, which is one of the roles Vergil plays, and the larger discourse of fate.
Looking again at my old student-copy of the Anti-Oedipus, I came upon their discussion of the connections between "alliance" and homosexuality; and it strikes me that one thing we haven't touched on in this (I know: already lengthy) discussion is Asacanius's gayness, and the way he is trapped by (literally) patriarchal expectations in that role. Talking of "primitive" societies, they say:
Wherever men meet and assemble to take waves for themselves, to negotiate for them, to share them etc., one recognises the perverse tie of a primary homosexuality between local groups, between brothers-in-law, co-husbands, childhood partners. Underlining the universal fact that marriage is not an alliance between a man and a woman, but "an alliance between two families", "a transaction between men concering women" ... through women men establish their own connections. (Anti-Oedipus, 180)
What's interesting about this, I think, is that the main thrust of Lavinia is precisely to delineate both this sort of social nexus and a proper man-woman marriage (ie not one that is simply dynastic); and to show that it takes a huge amount ... it takes a whole war ... to enable somethig so rupturing and radical to come into the world. Although of course the marriage of Lavinia and Aeneas is also dynastic.
But I'm conscious now that I'm opening another can of worms at the end of a discussion which, though fascinating, has already gone on for many thousands of words.