Book Review: Lavinia
by Janey Bennett
Ursula LeGuin. Lavinia. New York: Harcourt,
2008. Pp. 280. Hardcover. $24.00.
Suppose for a moment you are a novelist, a writer of imagination. Somebody hands you an outline for a story and says, “Flesh this out for me, please.” It is an appealing idea. When that somebody is Vergil and you are an author of fantasy fiction of the caliber of Ursula LeGuin, the task will be fascinating, the result a delight.
Vergil introduced the character of Lavinia in Book Seven of the Aeneid. She is the daughter and only surviving child of King Latinus, the aged ruler of peaceful Latium, and of his queen, Amata, driven mad by the Fury Allecto (or, in LeGuin’s version, just driven by fury). Lavinia’s story is quickly sketched in the second half of the Aeneid: promised in marriage to Aeneas against her mother's wishes but with her father's approval in accordance with signs and divinations, she waits in silence as the volatile Turnus of Rutulia and Aeneas go to war for her hand. When Aeneas kills Turnus on the battlefield, his marriage to Lavinia secures the Trojans’ right to settle in Italy and the eventual fusion of Trojan and Latin blood to form the Roman nation. And that’s about it for Vergil’s Lavinia.
What Vergil left undone in the Aeneid, Ursula LeGuin has taken upon herself to complete. LeGuin’s Lavinia assesses Vergil succinctly: “He gave me a long life, but a small one” (4). Lavinia herself is intensely aware of Vergil's treatment of her. “The events I remember only come to exist as I write them, or as he wrote them. But he did not write them. He slighted my life, in his poem” (3). And so she tells us she must set down the details of her story, of her viewpoint of the events, her betrothal and the political maneuvers and battles of Aeneas in Latium on his way to establishing the territorial foothold that will become Rome.
The greatest gift of this book to novice students of the Aeneid is its palpable sense of location, social structure, and patterns of domestic life and battles. LeGuin has done an amazing job of painting the scene for Lavinia’s story. In a graceful “Afterword” she details her efforts to supplement the Aeneid’s own hazy topography from other sources, clearly to localize Albunea, Laurentium, Alba Longa, all the important but unfixed locations in the Aeneas legend. “I tried to give a glimpse of the countryside as it probably was then,” she explains, “a vast forest of oak and pine cut by steep river gullies running down to swampy grasslands and dune marshes near the coast” (278).
But this novel offers more than a detailed, reworked story for students. It is a fascinating study of characters, especially of Lavinia's mother, Amata, fleshed out from Vergil’s quick sketch. In the Aeneid, Lavinia’s mother is an unsympathetic character, a bossy and unpleasant woman victimized by Juno,who orders her to be attacked and driven mad by Allecto. I suspect that this characterization of Amata was one of the primary reasons LeGuin was drawn to this project. LeGuin gives Amata a psychological reason for her rage: she has lost her sons to a fever and the only child remaining is a daughter who may not assume the throne. She emotionally distances herself from her daughter until the time when she determines it is politically necessary that Lavinia be wed to Turnus, Amata’s nephew, to strengthen her family's position.
LeGuin’s Lavinia tries to warn her father of her mother’s mad behavior, but he is deaf to his wife’s treachery. The character of the queen is fascinating: she is evil, yet she has reasons for being so. And though madness (like the Fury in the original) invades her and she is a dark force in Lavinia's life, yet her husband (who is sane) will not hear anything said against her.
There is also something unsavory in Amata's feeling for her nephew Turnus, even in Vergil’s version, and LeGuin does not shy away from developing this. A troubled character, Amata captures our interest with her complexity. On some level she is a threat and a grief at the same time.
Particularly intriguing is the relationship between Lavinia and Vergil, who appears as a spectral presence in the novel. At a sacred site in the forest of Albunea, where Lavinia and her father make regular sacrifices to the gods, Lavinia encounters the spirit of Vergil. He has not yet been born at the time she meets him, yet his death is imminent; in fact he has been detached from his physical body by the fever that will end his life. And he is obsessed with the status of his great epic. Vergil’s death will leave Lavinia’s life incomplete. There’s nothing to be done about it, except this effort of her own, writing her life as she relives it. Lavinia’s story feels as if it were being told near a smoky fire on a dark evening, and the reader is invited into the tale's intricate enchantment.
Lavinia is a child entering womanhood in a difficult family; she is an aged dowager queen losing touch with her faculties and reality. But she is also our storyteller, ageless, having lived until our own time. Her observations both participate in and comment on the story as it happens. And yet the book is not a brain-twister. The reader is safely carried along on this amorphous telling, and the world in which Lavinia lives is palpable. The empty, roomy Italian countryside is real. The river, the ships, the messengers, Janus’ gates of war are all convincing. Only the people feel like shadows, as mythic characters should be.