Lavinia and Aeneas

Ursula LeGuin

Ursula LeGuin

You’ve heard of Dido and Aeneas (and Purcell, Virgil and all that). Well, a well-known author named Ursula LeGuin decided to pick one of the most obscure but potentially interesting characters of the whole Aeneid and give you Lavinia and Aeneas. The novel is called Lavinia, and I just finished it.

The book came to my attention through my wife. Her book club, having heard that NPR considers the book one of last year’s best, decided to read it. So my wife read it. “You would get more out of this,” she kept saying to me, since there was all this, you know, ancient and Roman stuff in it. I was intrigued.

But when she finished it she and her book club weren’t so convinced. My wife’s verdict: “Sloooow start, but she made the Aeneid accessible to me.”

So I picked it up. And this came to mind:


Always avoid cliché.

So I remember Alfred Hitchcock saying in some interview I once saw. The Hannibal Blog has of late been exploring what makes good storytelling good. But I haven’t said much about the enemies of good stories. I think cliché is the most dangerous of them.

And this is the dilemma of Lavinia: Fantastic conceit for a novel! Really. Exactly the sort of idea that I have time for; indeed not that far away conceptually from the book idea that I myself had. But what a shame about the corny bits.

Here is the genius of the conceit: Aeneas survives the sack of Troy and escapes with his father and son (but not his wife, who perishes in Troy) to wander the Mediterranean. He has a torrid affair with Dido, the wily queen of Carthage, but leaves her and she burns herself (presaging, I might add, what Scipio’s–and Aeneas’–heir will one day do to all of Carthage). Aeneas ends up in Italy, Latium, where his destiny is to found a people, later to become Rome. But it’s not easy. He has to make alliances and fight local wars first. Enter Lavinia. She becomes his second wife (after Creusa in Troy), with whom he will sire the Roman race.

Virgil only mentions her in a line or two. So does Livy. And yet she seems to be so important. A Rutulian king named Turnus had the hots for her and felt upstaged when Aeneas swooped in, and that–ie, she–is what set off the bloody wars. (Shades of Helen?) Oh, and Lavinia is implicitly the mother of the Roman race.

So LeGuin bravely sets out to make Lavinia come alive. And she succeeds in part, but only after page 100 or so. For the first 100 pages LeGuin colors in this woman about whom we know nothing by making her the eternal damsel in distress, slightly hippie, slightly dreamy, chaste but yearning, right out of a B movie. Everything about this Lavinia is a cliché.

Once Aeneas arrives on the scene and we finally have some mythological material to work with (Virgil’s), it gets good. But what gets good is, in effect, the last part of the old Aeneid.

More accessible, yes, as my wife said. In fact, she recommends the book, and so do I, by a hair.

Still, the last word that wants to roll of the tongue of the reviewer is the one that is so devilishly hard for the storyteller to avoid, the one that no storyteller wants to hear said: cliché.

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4 thoughts on “Lavinia and Aeneas

  1. Andreas,

    I commend your willingness to take the bull by the horns on cliches. I avoid them like the plague. Your observations remind us that one can’t always tell a book by its cover. Unfortunately, for Ms. LeGuin, if she reads your article she may need to get back to the drawing board. Being the bleeding heart I am I hope she doesn’t get bent out of shape. On the other hand, no pain no gain. When I am in the middle of a piece, if I see that I am using too many cliches, I usually do not throw the baby out with the bath water and start from scratch. Bottom line, writers need to keep their chin up, keep their powder dry, live and learn and and avoid stories that are all foam no beer…

    Damnit!!! there I go again. Umm, I better just let sleeping dogs lie.


  2. Recommending the book by a hair is not enough for me. Ursala seems like a pretty hip 79 year old. But, I wonder if she even recognized the cliche. Maybe she was describing one of her kids and didn’t see the cliche for what it is. You know, a Generations thing.

    I did read the Aeneid last night, though. I admit, I dozed a little. I’ll try again when I’m fresh. Exactly two references to Lavinia.

    Scholars must have some criterion for such translations. Does one try to translate word for word and rhyme for rhyme to capture the story? Would it be a travesty to make it less opaque?

  3. I read Hitchcock paraphrased in a book in which he said something along the lines of: “Don’t be afraid to start out from the known situation, the cliché. Then move away from it, step by step, until you arrive at something original”. Or something like that. The point being that the cliché, if tweaked and twisted enough, can be a launch pad of or transform into more original stuff. It’s always nice to have something to start out with, rather than the horrible blank page.

  4. Jens: Very perceptive! (I can tell that the storyteller in you is speaking.)
    I suppose that one man’s cliché is another man’s archetype. If a certain story element–plot, character, scene–is timeless, then it would seem destined to become a cliché eventually. Perhaps originality in storytelling = taking something timeless and adding a new twist. A sort of alchemy…. Must ponder more….

    (Mr Crotchety: You get a fistbump merely for reading the Aeneid.)

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