ANDREA SEABROOK, Host:
Writer Ursula Le Guin has long been known for inventing fantastic worlds. She's published 20 novels - many of them science fiction. And whether her stories are set far into the future or in a mythical past, she often draws on legend, anthropology and history.
My colleague Jacki Lyden spoke with Ursula Le Guin about her new novel, "Lavinia." Le Guin picks a bit player out of Virgil's epic poem, "The Aeneid," and builds that character's story into its own epic. Here's Jacki.
JACKI LYDEN: Let's begin with Lavinia's story. Would you please read a little bit where we meet her, where we meet this woman with a very impassioned and distinctive voice?
URSULA LE GUIN: Sure.
(Reading) I won't die. Of that I'm all but certain. My life is too contingent to lead to anything so absolute as death. I haven't enough real mortality. No doubt I'll eventually fade away and be lost in oblivion as I would have done long ago if the poet hadn't summoned me into existence.
Like Spartan Helen, I caused a war. She caused hers by letting men who wanted her take her. I caused mine because I wouldn't be given - wouldn't be taken, but chose my man and my fate. The man was famous; the fate obscure. Not a bad balance.
LYDEN: Now, that really makes me want to get to know this character that you basically did not invent. You invented her life. Why did she speak to you so forcefully?
LE GUIN: Virgil's Lavinia is kind of, like, a stark figure. In the last six books of "The Aeneid," he's doing war. He's not doing love anymore. And she is kind of the stark maiden who has to marry the hero. And that's all he had time for in a sense with her. And yet knowing how well Virgil understood women and respect that he had for them, I felt that was not taking any liberties with Virgil for me to imagine who Lavinia really was and what she was like and what her life was like.
LYDEN: Mm-hmm. When we meet her, she's about 19 years old and that's the time in which she's going to become a wife. She has many suitors, and Lavinia hates having all these suitors.
LE GUIN: She simply is not in love with any of these guys, is not particularly attracted by them. She isn't ready yet.
LYDEN: She is a feminist heroine. She has a quiet voice but a very assertive one.
LE GUIN: But, you know, this book was not written, like Margaret Atwood's "Penelope" book, to sort of right or wrong or set Homer straight. You don't need to set Virgil straight on women. I mean, look at Dido. Everybody knows Dido for goodness sake. She's much more famous than Aeneas, really.
But Lavinia was my way into Virgil's world and his discourse about power and about war. Because what Virgil is talking about in those last six books, I think, partly is what makes a real hero and what is the moral cost even of heroic victory. And that seemed a really relevant question to me.
LYDEN: Was there anything conscious that you were writing in which the war that grinds on and on and on here in this book, does it have any resonance for us, a culture having been at war for the last five years?
LE GUIN: Absolutely, absolutely. I think that's one reason why these last six books of the epic hit me so hard. He's talking about a war that you really can't stop fighting.
LYDEN: Now, you read "The Aeneid" to prepare for this, and my understanding is that you yourself read it in Latin rather than using any of the translations that are available.
LE GUIN: Well, I was actually teaching myself Latin to read Virgil, which is what I always wanted to read in Latin. And so I finally - in my 70s, I though, you know, you better do it now or you won't have time. So, I sort of dug into the Latin again and got to where I could read Virgil very slowly. I mean, ten lines a day is good for me.
But the fact is he is a very great poet, and he's the kind of poet who doesn't really translate very well. The poetry just gets lost.
LYDEN: Would you like to try to read some of the Latin for us, Ursula Le Guin? Would you be willing to give us a little blast?
LE GUIN: If all the Latin scholars listening will not write me angry e- mails afterwards, all right...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LE GUIN: ...because, then I...
LYDEN: Put a little warning label on that.
LE GUIN: Here's three lines.
LE GUIN: This is Turnus, pleading for mercy from Aeneas, who's wounded him and is standing over him at the very end of the book. And he says:
And it means you've won. The Italians saw me lift up my hands defeated. Lavinia is your wife; take your hate no farther. But Aeneas sees that he's wearing a gold belt that he stole from a Greek kid whom Aeneas was fond of and he loses his temper and he kills him. And that's - there the book ends.
Oh, why did he do that? Why did he show his good, patient, obedient, pious hero doing something so brutal and essentially unnecessary, perhaps even unwise? Why did he do that? He knew what he was doing, because this is what happens in a war, I think.
LYDEN: Mm-hmm. So we have to remember that when you hear Virgil read aloud in Latin and you're understanding Latin, your passions are meant to be stirred. This is an epic. What you had done is very much a meditation on war.
LE GUIN: Yeah, but I got the idea from Virgil, from his meditation on war too. It appears that "The Aeneid" was in part written as a sort of message to Augustus who was, you know, his patron, who had just become emperor and had just kind of - well, he ended the civil wars but at a very high cost in liberty and a few other things.
And it seems to me that Virgil was very clearly saying is Augustus look out, count the cost of empire. You see what I mean?
LYDEN: Mm-hmm. Sometimes the war gate gets opened purposely and at least on one occasion the gate of war in this ancient kingdom is just left open and no one knows why.
LE GUIN: Right. It seems like a good metaphor to me.
LYDEN: Well, Ursula Le Guin, it's been a real pleasure speaking with you about your new novel, "Lavinia." Thank you so much.
LE GUIN: Thank you, Jacki.
SEABROOK: My colleague Jacki Lyden speaking with novelist Ursula Le Guin.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.