Lavinia

I was amazed when I found this book at Chapters. 1) Lavinia! I’d never even thought about taking such a minor character in the Aeneid and writing a book! Clearly, no one else had until now. 2) I’ve always been very interested in Ursula K. LeGuin as an author, though I haven’t read much by her. This is because I absolutely love a couple of her short stories, and an essay I read by her. She’s a beautiful writer. The problem is, a lot of her stuff is a little too sci-fi for me. Also, I once attempted to read Tehanu. Which I got about half way through and still didn’t understand. This, I have concluded, is my own fault because I should have read the other three books in the series first. Which I also own. But Tehanu had the prettiest cover… hahaha.

Anyway! So, Ursula K. LeGuin + rewrite of the Aeneid (Penelopiad style!) = a must buy.

I think I read the first half of this book holding my breath. It was gorgeous. It just seemed right to me, the character, the ideas. The idea that Lavinia had no voice in the Aeneid, that this was her voice… it was wonderful. I adored it. I fell in love with Aeneas as she did, as I think all Romans did when they read (or heard) the Aeneid. Lavinia has had lots of criticism on the more modern approach, saying that it wasn’t accurate, it was too romantic, etc. But I think that that was the point. It was a modern epic. Because epics are supposed to be like that. Romance and reshaping truth.

I think what LeGuin said herself in her afterword was really how I felt. She said that she wanted to make these people Roman. She wanted to show them as the first roots of the Roman Empire, she wanted to show how they would have seen themselves and each other. And it suceeded.

It reminded me of watching 300. A lot of people criticize 300 for not being historically accurate. But what people don’t realize with the ancient texts is that there’s no separation between history and myth. Myths are true. The inexplicable heroics are true. To them. So for me, 300 is the movie that Herodotus or Thucydides would have made if they could make a movie. More propaganda than fact, but the truth is there, whether factual or not.

The point of Lavinia is to tell the story again (to use a Winterson-ism). To tell it in a way that two thousand years after the Aeneid, we would understand it and feel it and be a part of it. In myth - in greater truth rather than in true fact.

Some favourite lines, as usual:

“But then I think no, it has nothing to do with being dead, it’s not death that allows us to understand one another, but poetry.”

“I know who I was, I can tell you who I may have been, but I am, now, only in this line of words I write. I’m not sure of the nature of my existence, and wonder to find myself writing.”

“My mother was mad, but I was not. My father was old, but I was young. Like Spartan Helen, I cause a war. She caused hers by letting men who wanted her take her. I caused mine because I wouldn’t be given, wouldn’t be taken, but chose my man and my fate.”

“The poet sang me the fall of Troy, his story told of the king’s daughter Cassandra, who foresaw what would happen and tried to prevent the Trojans from letting the great horse into the city, but no one would listen to her: it was a curse laid on her, to see the truth and say it and not be heart. It is a curse laid on women more often than on men. Men want truth to be theirs, their discovery and property.”

“They lived and died as women do and the poet sang them. But he did not sing me enough life to die. He only gave me immortality.”

LeGuin admits that she is in love with the words of Virgil. This is very apparent in the book. Lavinia, aware of her fictiousness, aware that she is created by a poet living hundreds of years later, also falls in love with Virgil. It’s lovely. A tribute to Virgil, and rightly so.

All this being said, I found the end of the book a little less exciting than the beginning After the death of Aeneas, LeGuin went on to summarize the rest of Lavinia’s life in a very narrative way, which sort of lost my interest in parts and really lacked the insight and character of the first half.

I really love this new trend to reexamine the classics (obviously). I also love this new(ish) idea of a text that is aware of it’s textuality. Of characters aware of their own fiction and storytelling. There’s a real word for this, but it escapes me right now.

Lavinia was, in my opinion, well worth the read, and much better than the Penelopiad if it need be compared. Though it did share a lot of the themes of the Penelopiad (feminism, retelling, characters aware of their own fiction and grounding the epic hero.)

Makes me want to read the Aeneid again. The Aeneid, I would say, is written with much more craft and ease than its predecessors, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Virgil tells a better story. However, Homer tells a better battle. But that is a nerdy discussion for another day.

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