WIR #1: Lavinia

LaviniaLe Guin, Ursula K. Lavinia. New York: Harcourt, Inc. Copyright © 2008, by Ursula K. Le Guin.

Ursula K. Le Guin's web site:

I said in an earlier post that any books I didn't finish at the end of last year would count towards my reading for this year (insofar as stats are concerned).

I finished Lavinia last night. Fabulous book. Le Guin's story is, she says, "based on the last six books of Vergil's epic poem the Aeneid."

The second paragraph of her afterword saddened me:

For a long time anybody in Europe and the Americas who had much education at all knew Aeneas' story: his travels from Troy, his love affair with the African queen Dido, his visit to the underworld were shared, familiar references and story sources for poets, painters, opera composers. From the Middle Ages on, the so-called dead language Latin was, through its literature, intensely alive, active, and influential. That's no longer true. During the last century, the teaching and learning of Latin began to wither away into a scholarly specialty. So, with the true death of his language, Vergil's voice will be silenced at last. This is an awful pity, because he is one of the great poets of the world.

How true. And how typical, too, of these last couple of generations and their homogenous ways.

Le Guin continues:

[Vergil's] poetry is so profoundly musical, its beauty is so intrinsic to the sound and order of the words, that it is essentially untranslatable. Even Dryden, even FitzGerald couldn't capture the magic. But a translator's yearning to identify with the text cannot be repressed.

The translation I own, this volume in the Barnes & Noble Classics series, was translated by Christopher Pearse Cranch, and I'm sure Le Guin would say the same of it, as well.

Some reviewers have disparaged Le Guin's book, saying that her commitment to having the story follow the prophecies foretold earlier in the book robbed the story of suspense. I don't agree. In the latter stages of the story, where many claimed to have become bored, my interest became more intense. Perhaps this is because of my unfamiliarity with The Aeneid. I don't know. I do know that I enjoy a good story and that I especially enjoy good writing, and Lavinia contains both. Probably the most intriguing twist is that Lavinia actually has something of a relationship with Vergil. There are passages where she speaks to the poet. These comprise many of the aforementioned prophecies. It's the matter of a character in a fiction story speaking with her creator and being self-aware of the fact that she's fiction. Nonetheless, she is a character in her own story, concerned with all that happens to her, the suitors who seek her hand in marriage, the conflicts that arise when she shuns them, her eventual marriage, and the fate of her child, Silvius. Her relationship with Vergil is significant, but doesn't detract, and it makes, I think, for an interesting dynamic.

4 comment(s):

gypsyharper said...
January 26, 2010 5:35 PM

I find that sad also. My mother was in the last Latin class that was taught in her high school. I also remember that she had a wonderful book detailing several of the classic myths. I'm sure she imparted to me my great love of mythology - I remember that I was already quite familiar with most of the stories of Greek Mythology before we studied them in high school English.

I made a special point to take both Greek and Latin in college, as well as another mythology class. Numerous people asked me why I wanted to study dead languages, but I find our own culture and language so much richer for knowing those roots that I can't imagine NOT having studied them.

g d townshende said...
January 26, 2010 5:51 PM

I've a friend in New Zealand who knows Latin very well, and an old co-worker I used to know had studied Latin, as well. The friend in New Zealand studied Latin before she entered university. I'm not sure about the co-worker, whether she studied it in high school or in college, but I think she studied it in high school (which surprises me, since I'm older than she is).

Personally, I think it's terrible that Latin has suffered this fate. The more I learn about English, the more I want to learn other languages, and Latin is among them. I've learned, for example, that in English we have two or three different sets of vocabulary, one that is Anglo Saxon in origin, one that is Latin in origin, and the third, I believe, is French. We also have a lot of Greek words, or words of Greek origin, in our language. So, learning these other languages would only increase our understanding of our native tongue and give us a greater appreciation for its richness.

gypsyharper said...
January 27, 2010 1:18 PM

There's an interesting book called "Mother Tongue: English and how it got that way" by Bill Bryson that I started reading several years ago, but had to give it back to its owner before finishing. I'd love to pick it up again.

I think languages are so fascinating and English is such a melting pot. I've also studied some Spanish and German (not that I can speak either of them fluently) and I would love to learn more of the languages I've already studied as well as study new ones.

g d townshende said...
January 28, 2010 2:04 AM

I've heard about that book. I should check it out.

I've had an interest in learning German, too, given the Germanic roots of English. However, the grammatical syntax of German and English are very different. In English, the syntax is subject-verb-object (SVO). For example, John [subject] threw [verb] the ball [object]. In German, the syntax is subject-object-verb (SOV). John [subject] the ball [object] threw [verb].

I've learned recently that the Northern Germanic languages (Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian) share the same syntax as English, and so they are the easiest languages for English speakers to learn and vice versa, but given the status of English as an international language, there are more Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians speak English than English speakers speaking their languages.

Post a Comment