A Discussion About Lavinia, Part 3

Earlier this summer, Niall Harrison organized a discussion of Ursula K. Le Guin's most recent novel, Lavinia, with Nic Clarke, Jo Coleman, Adam Roberts, and myself. The first and second parts of the discussion are up at Torque Control and Punkadiddle, respectively, and part four should be up shortly at Nic and Jo's blog, Eve's Alexandria (UPDATE: here it is). Here is part 3.

Abigail Nussbaum: I have to wonder just to what degree we're justified in calling Lavinia a fantasy. Jo and Nic both point out the natural magic of Lavinia's religion, but it seems just as valid to me to read these descriptions as being of Lavinia's worldview as they are of the actual world she is living in. What I liked about the descriptions of religion in the novel was that they depicted people for whom the divine is mixed with mundane, for whom gods are a constantly palpable presence whose influence intrudes on their lives through dreams and omens. But I don't think it's necessary for us to believe that those gods are real, even within the novel. One of the few things I really liked about the HBO series Rome was that it depicted, with complete respect and sympathy, people who walked with their gods, without ever asking us to believe that those gods existed, and I think that Lavinia does the same. What's important is that Lavinia sees the world in a certain way, and how that perspective affects her values and decisions. Obviously this reading becomes harder to support as the novel draws to a close, but it is also in those scenes that the metafictional aspect of the novel comes to the forefront, so again it doesn't seem completely clear-cut to me that we're dealing with a fantasy.

Niall Harrison: Gary Wolfe's review is interesting on the question of fantasy, I think:
What's even more shrewd is the manner in which Le Guin addresses the fantastical elements of the tale. Gods and goddesses, and Juno in particular, have their paw-prints all over the events of Virgil's epic, but as Le Guin reminds us in an afterword, she's writing a novel, and Ritalin-deprive meddlesome gods don't work too well in a modern novel, so she simply omits them (some might argue with her assertion about gods and novels, but it's certainly true of the novel she's written here). What she offers in their place are some surprisingly postmodern fantasy techniques that work to give her narrative a vibrant contemporary sensibility: Lavinia, the narrator, doesn't hear from the gods, but she does hear from the aging Virgil himself, dying centuries in the future, and more important, she's aware that she's largely Virgil's creation.
Jo Coleman: I'm interested by the question of Le Guin allowing ghosts, but no gods, into her novel. I think I'm less comfortable than the rest of you about Le Guin making the decision to eliminate the gods in the first place. Perhaps they would be unworkable in a novel format, and I certainly take Adam's point about Greco-Roman gods belonging in a lyrical and not a narrative form. And she is, after all, writing about a time pre-Rome where gods were not personified in the first place. I love Lavinia and the Poet's discussion about Juno, for example. Le Guin makes the distinction between the idea of gods as powers, as it would have been for Lavinia, and the idea of gods as people, as it was for the Romans, beautifully.

And yet -- I think for me, I am still missing a true sense of the gods as powers as a "historical" Lavinia would have experienced it. Whilst I, like Adam, praise Le Guin's portrayal of Lavinia's Being-in-the-world, I can't see being in the world, and being in the world with gods/spirits in it, as mutually exclusive. Or at least, perhaps I can, but I am not convinced that the ancient Italians would have been able to. And therefore it seems to me entirely arbitrary to portray the inner world of a woman to whom gods and spirits are an integral part of daily life, as Le Guin does so well, and avoid portraying the gods and spirits within that daily life -- if, after all, you're going to have a ghost turning up there.

For us now, to encounter a ghost is not impossible, it's supernatural that belongs on the edge of natural. But to encounter a god, to have a chat with one while spending time in a forest, that's something thoroughly out of natural. This, for me, is a contemporary mindset that Le Guin maintains -- gods in the dreams, fair enough, and ghosts in the world. But I don't believe it's a distinction that would have occurred to the ancient Italians, and that's where, for me, the novel falls down. It's as if Le Guin attempted to keep the novel closer to history than fantasy in keeping the gods from the action, but for me, it has the opposite effect -- it becomes less historically accurate and more of a fantasy, but a fantasy created from limitations.

As Abigail points out, Lavinia shows us people for whom gods and spirits are a presence in their lives, but doesn't demand that the reader believe in them. But doesn't it demand that the reader "believe" in ghosts, at least to a certain extent? It demands that the reader take ghosts seriously. I suppose the problem that I'm trying to articulate is that I can't accept a literary ghost would have been the core or essential guide to an ancient Italian woman interacting daily with her own ancestors and nature spirits.

Nic Clarke: You make several very good points. I agree that the distinction between ghosts and gods is overplayed; everything I've read (albeit about later periods) suggests that different elements of the supernatural were viewed as equally possible, if not equally common. I liked Abigail's point about the way the novel shows us a society that believes in gods, without expecting us to do the same. I can completely understand why Le Guin chose to remove the gods. I have two problems with this, however. (Actually three, but Jo already expressed one of them very well: Abigail's point notwithstanding, I'm sceptical about trying to separate the natural and supernatural realms if we're seeing the world through the eyes of a pre-modern character, because there was no such distinction.) The first -- and I accept that it's a very personal one -- is that I was thrown out of the narrative in the places where I knew the gods had been excised. For example:
But Turnus himself was nowhere. After killing Pallas, he disappeared. No man I ever talked to knew what became of him during the long hour that Aeneas stalked him through the battlefield, challenging him, calling out to him to come fight. No doubt he was resting, catching his breath somewhere up the hill in the shade, but he chose a strange time to do it. (143)
This is clearly the incident in book X of the poem, where Juno petitions Jupiter to let her rescue (her favourite) Turnus. Likewise, a later reference to Aeneas' "uncanny" escape from Diomedes at Troy is Aphrodite's intervention on her half-divine son's behalf in the Iliad; it strikes me only now, writing this, that removing the gods removes some of the most important and active female players in the original story.

Which takes me to my second, also rather personal, problem: I missed the gods. I enjoy them in the original both for the interplay between them -- an extra layer of human drama, albeit mostly up in the sky, mirroring the emotions and conflicts down below -- and for the insight their presence gives us to the conceptual-world of those who told and retold these stories. So much of the surviving literature of this nature shows an intense interest, even a fatalism, about the operations of fate and/or chance -- whether a hero lives or dies on a given day, whether he is remembered -- and I think that ditching the gods sacrifices some of this. Although, clearly, Le Guin seeks (and finds) her tale's joy and pathos elsewhere, in the much more fully developed (and rather lovely) relationship between Lavinia and Turnus.

Niall Harrison: I don't think the relationship of Lavinia and the fantastic is straightforward; I think we're more forced to ask "to what extent is this fantasy?” than "is this fantasy?”, because there are several different levels at which the fantastic can be perceived within the story. First, you have the characters' belief in their gods. I'm with Abigail, in that I don't think it's necessary for us to believe said gods are real within the novel; yet despite Le Guin's afterword, I think you there is space for a reader to believe they are acting within the world of the novel if they want. Second, you have the overtly magical occurrences within the story, of which the most obvious is Virgil's shield. Third, you have Virgil's appearances. These raise the question of exactly what world Lavinia is existing in, and I'm not absolutely certain the book delivers a clear answer. Lavinia's world is not historically realistic; but it's not purely the world of Virgil's imagination, either; it's something in-between.

Jo Coleman: I agree that the world of Lavinia lies somewhere in between historical accuracy and the world of Virgil's imagination. I think that for me, what is historical about the novel -- the day to day life, as we have said, the vivid details of food and love and war and work -- are wonderfully effective. What is more fantastic -- the idyllic portrayals of nature, Virgil in the forest, isn't, because it seems to me to be rooted in thoroughly modern fantasy. In other words, I suppose what I'm trying to say is the following paradoxical statement -- I simply don't find the fantasy elements of the novel historically accurate.

Abigail Nussbaum: I'm interested in Niall and Jo's observations about the different kinds of fantasy in the novel, since in my reading it never occurred to me to describe the novel as drawing a distinction between gods and ghosts. At the risk of sounding like the worst sort of literal-minded genre reader, I never thought of Virgil's presence in the novel as being an aspect of the fantastic (which is why I have trouble calling Lavinia a fantasy). Rather it seemed to me like the sort of metafictional game that is by no means uniquely fantastic (Karen Joy Fowler used something similar in her recent Wit's End, a quasi-mystery novel). Lavinia is a person, but she's also a character in Virgil's story. The tension of the novel -- at least in its first half -- is derived in part from the gap between the character Virgil created (who wasn't, as he himself realizes, a character at all, and certainly didn't capture the real person's complexity) and the real woman.

Niall Harrison: There are many ways in which I like Virgil's appearances. As I've already said, I think they're an extremely elegant way of getting through to people who don't know the source material, like me; and part of me responds strongly to the sense of Story itself as a fantastical intervention, occasionally touching on and shaping the world in which Lavinia lives. I respond very strongly to those lyric moments, just as I respond very strongly to Lavinia's foreknowledge, how that gives her at various times both power and uncertainty. Yet in the end I wonder whether the novel wouldn't have been better without Virgil, whether he doesn't just take the place of the gods that Le Guin deemed to have no place in her story; whether his explicit presence, rather than an implicit presence, doesn't limit the whole just a little.

But of course, Lavinia without Virgil would be a very different book, and I don't know that I'd enjoy it as much.


Tony Keen said…
I have responded to the whole discussion here.

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