Hugh Lupton, The Times April 25, 2009
Virgil, on his deathbed 2,028 years ago, asked for the manuscript of the Aeneid to be burnt. The request was overruled by his patron, the Emperor Augustus, and the surviving poem has become a keystone of Western literature — and the blueprint for Ursula Le Guin’s new novel, Lavinia.
Why would Virgil have made this request? Was it (as generally supposed) because it was unfinished, or because, as a poet, he knew it to be deeply flawed?
Throughout the Aeneid there is a sense of a great poet being compromised. It’s as though a sculptor of genius had been commissioned by the State to decorate a huge patriotic gateway. He pillages Homer (Iliad and Odyssey) to construct a national epic for the Romans, but never achieves Homer’s sweep and sympathy. How could he? Homer never takes sides and is answerable to nobody. No sense of nationhood rests on Odysseus’ journey or Achilles’ rages. Virgil, on the other hand, is in the pocket of the state. He struggles against the straitjacket of the commission and this gives the poem a particular poignancy, a tension between his own sense of the pity of war and the heroics of the founding fathers. But, with the exception of Aeneas (who embodies that tension) the characters do not spring to life on the page. True, there are some magnificent set-pieces, but it is as if a Rodin had agreed to carve the Albert Memorial.
In his poem Secondary Epic, Auden has written of Virgil:
Behind your verse so masterfully made
We hear the weeping of a Muse betrayed.
Surely a sense of that betrayal prompted his request to burn his masterpiece.
Of all the characters in the Aeneid it must be Lavinia who is the most thinly drawn. She is the only daughter of Latinus, the King of Latium. Latinus has been told by the oracle at Albunea:
Never seek to marry your daughter to a Latin . . .
Strangers will come, and come to be your sons
and their lifeblood will lift our name to the stars.
Their son’s sons will see, wherever the wheeling Sun
looks down on the Ocean, rising or setting, East or West,
the whole Earth turn beneath their feet, their rule!
The strangers, of course, will be the Trojans, following oracles of their own, and the “Earth that turns beneath the feet” of the descendants of a Latin queen and a Trojan king will be the Roman Empire. But unfortunately, Lavinia already has several suitors among the Latins, most particularly Turnus, king of the Rutulians. The second half of the Aeneid is an account of the war between Latins and Trojans for her hand. She is, in a sense, the Helen of the Aeneid. But what do we know of her? Almost nothing. She is a chattel, a bargaining chip. Virgil gives us three glimpses of her. We see her hair catch fire as she lights torches at the altar — a sign that foretells glory for her and gruelling war for her people. We see her blush “as crimson as Indian ivory stained with ruddy dye . . .” And we see her mourning her mother, tearing her golden hair and “scoring her lustrous cheeks”. In a poem of 12,000 lines we are given only three clichés around which to construct the future bride of Aeneas, the Romans’ ancestral grandmother.
It is from these thin pickings that Ursula Le Guin has constructed her novel, or rather, it is as a challenge to them. Her Lavinia, the voice of the narrative, is her own woman, a real, breathing presence whose substance we do not doubt. She’s a living princess caught between girlhood and womanhood, between a doting father and hysteric mother, between courtly duty and the freedom of the fields. The world she inhabits, the city, her father’s palace with its corridor of gods and ancestors opening on to the courtyard with laurel tree and fountain, its kitchens are described with such a vivid attention that we see them ourselves. The two-dimensional world of the Aeneid springs to animated life before our eyes.
And so, too, does poor Virgil. At the heart of the novel are three visits to the oracle at Albunea in which Lavinia encounters the poet. He has fallen ill and is in the fever that will kill him. In his delirium he comes to the place where the princess is sleeping hundreds of years before his time. He meets his scant creation and finds that he was wrong about her; she is dark-haired and full of life.
“She came to Albunea by herself,” he said, speaking into the darkness, “and knew the sacred names of the river, and had no wish to be married. And I knew nothing of all that! I never looked at her.”
Lavinia meets her creator and finds that she is caught up in the inevitability of a story; she finds that he carries her destiny. A tenderness develops between them that is deeply moving. He offers her the knowledge of her future, but she refuses it. So instead he tells her the past, the story of Aeneas, the man she will marry. He makes it possible for her to fall in love with her arranged and destined husband. He speaks to her brimming with the full pity of all that has been and all that is yet to come.
As the novel progresses the reader begins to reassess the Aeneid: it seems to become a huge tide that drives the lives of men and women, sweeping them into their destinies. And Virgil too, like the characters he created, seems to be trapped in it, thrown between the forces of necessity and piety, and we begin to love him for it.
If Le Guin had finished her novel at the point at which Virgil would surely have ended the Aeneid had he completed it — with the wedding of Lavinia and Aeneas — I would hail this novel as her masterpiece. Unfortunately, her narrative loses its wonderful momentum in its last 80 or so pages as Lavinia tells of her marriage to Aeneas and the gradual ascendancy of their son Silvius. It’s as though the ghost of Virgil, urging her to put his own flawed story to rights, has stopped whispering in her ear.
But it is still a magnificent act of reimagination, best read alongside a good translation of Virgil (such as that of Robert Fagles, whose translation is quoted here) so that Le Guin’s brilliant interweaving of Lavinia’s story with the original can be fully appreciated.
Lavinia by Ursula Le Guin
Gollancz, £14.99; 304pp