Bleak but beautiful

Ragusa (modern Dubrovnik)

Orsinian Tales
by Ursula Le Guin.
Panther Books 1976

These eleven tales set in the Ten Provinces of the imaginary country of Orsinia are bleak yet beautiful, vivid but melancholic, tinted with the grey dust of limestone plains, the wet surfaces of urban streets, and the golden light of autumnal groves.

Peopling these landscapes are quarrymen, nobles, musicians, factory workers, doctors, academics; whether eking out their lives in the Middle Ages, the Thirty Years War, or the tumultuous years of the twentieth century, characters speak of the fragility of human existence, of their cautious optimism and of individual heroism.

Writing during the long postwar period of the Cold War Ursula Le Guin invests her subjects with the humanity they deserve, allowing us episodic views of a land that draws not on one specific country but from many Central and Eastern European polities; extraordinarily she depicts an entirely credible geographical entity rooted in reality, despite telling us in the final tale in this collection, set in 1935, that

all this happened a long time ago, nearly forty years ago; I do not know if it happens now, even in imaginary countries.

Design by Peter Goodfellow

Her stark landscapes are incorporated in Peter Goodfellow’s cover design for the first UK paperback edition: a snowy countryside inspired by the Bruegels shows a distant tower, Vermare Keep, above which corvids wheel; breaking the whiteness are poles topped by what may be platforms for stork nests or for exposing human bodies; closer is the curve of a burial mound and, nearer still, a cairn from which protrudes a sword, the stones stained by fresh blood from which rooks tug bits of flesh. This illustrates the second tale, ‘The Barrow’, with its ideological conflict between the Church and what it sees as heresy, and behind that an older religion.

Before this tale ‘The Fountains’ describes an academic’s brief savouring of intellectual and physical freedom from state surveillance during a 1960 visit to Versailles in Paris, a piece which sets the theme of the collection: Adam Kereth’s specialism is cytology, the study of individual cells in a body, and a discipline which intentionally echoes Le Guin’s intention for the themes in Orsinian Tales. It’s the only story set outside Orsinia, for throughout what follows we embark on a tour of the country’s provinces — Sudana and Montayna, the Northern Marches, Polana, Molsena, the Western Marches, Perana, Kesena and Sovena, and Frelana — with many tales also featuring the capital, Krasnoy.

I could spell out at length the strengths of each individual piece but that would rob potential readers of the delight of discovering them themselves, so instead I shall mention a couple of features that most impressed me. Many of the tales were focused on relationships, whether sibling (as in ‘Ile Forest’) or heterosexual (‘The House’) or homosocial (‘A Week in the Country’); whether characterised by familiarity, or tragedy, or regret, the lives portrayed are ones one can’t help feeling empathy and compassion for. Music is another strand running through the collection: an early short story, from 1961, borrowing its title from a Schubert song ‘An die Musik’, is a meditation on the creative process, while song refrains emerge in ‘Conversations at Night’ and in ‘A Week in the Country’. Orsinia itself represents a third strand — its provinces, its geographical variety tempered by human activity, its Mitteleurop climate:

A long cloud slowly dissolved into a pinkish mist in the eastern sky, and then the sun’s rim, like the lip of a cauldron of liquid steel, tipped over the edge of the world, pouring out daylight.
— ‘Conversations at Night’

Seemingly separate narratives, the eleven tales in the collection are linked through the recurrence of certain localities and, in a couple of pieces, through one family across generations. Above all there is a uniformity of sensitivity, observation and tone which makes this book far more than the sum of its parts. I’ve now read Orsinian Tales three times since the 1970s, and it’s a measure of its intrinsic quality that I’ve appreciated it even more each time. For those who see Le Guin as only a author of speculative fiction here is evidence of a great lyrical writer, one who also has much to say about an individual’s contribution to the river of being:

For heroes do not make history — that is the historians’ job — but, passive, let themselves be borne along, swept up to the crest of the tide of change, of chance, of war.
— ‘The Lady of Moge’


A review for my Library of Brief Narratives series. I hope to post more about Orsinia after I’ve read and reviewed Le Guin’s Malafrena, also set in this world

24 thoughts on “Bleak but beautiful

        1. Definitely – I used to love looking at the cover illustrations of her books when I found them in the library as a kid – I don’t know how I never got into them. As one gets older, the idea of entering into a long work of fantasy fiction seems more of a time commitment somehow, but it’s a must for me now – I’ve heard so many good things about this author from people I trust.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. The Earthsea books are many a reader’s entrée into her fiction, though they work even better with maturity. Of her more SF speculative work, my introduction was The Left Hand of Darkness which I think I may have read three times over the years but haven’t yet got round to reviewing. What I love about her work principally is that she challenged accepted norms in speculative fiction whilst keeping the focus on individuals.

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    1. Recent editions have included the related novel Malafrena and retitled the compendium simply Orsinia but I’m sure it’s still available secondhand, Bart. Anyway, I intend to finally read that follow-up novel in 2021, Bart, so maybe you’ll have to add that too! 🙂

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  1. I started reading Malafrena last week in a bid to clear some of the unread books from my shelves (I have the Library of America Complete Orsinia) … I have not gotten far because I need time and peace to savor LeGuin’s language and her pensive approach to imaginary history. But I hope to manage some of that during this holiday, pushing back all the hectic tasks that distract me from things of real importance. Your review encourages me to persist.

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    1. “Pensive” is a good word to describe her approach here, Lory: at times it has a classic Russian feel to it (writes the man who has read very little 19th/20th-century Russian literature) in its expansive narratives, full of telling detail. Do persist, as I will in exploring Orsinia further!

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      1. I sat down and finished the first section just now. It’s perfect to follow up my recent nonfiction read, Danubia, which was about exactly this region and its insanely convoluted politics. Looking forward to delving futher!

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  2. For all the adventure I seek in other lands, I love the point you make here that there is pleasure to be found in a lived-in world. You’ve got me debating about that short story I wrote a while ago about a rural community struggling to keep its home-grown magical ways while the “big city’ has its manufacture magic dominating the country, for good or ill. (It doesn’t help the head sorceress of that small town got arrested for illegal Tampering.) The conflict of urban vs. rural may span a country, but it’s people that are impacted, relationships that are impacted. Hmmm. Perhaps there are other stories to visit there…

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    1. There are action-packed novels — fun to read, with thrills galore but a tad unrealistic — and there are narratives that feature recognisable people, with real dilemmas and understandable flaws and faults, living as best they can lives that are heroic in small ways, being able to face another difficult day, confront an aggressive neighbour, even abandon a long-held but impossible ambition.

      Those kinds of stories remind us that we don’t have to be superheroes, secret agents or magic users to have personal worth. Seems like your short story scenario may fall into this camp, Jean. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Gilion Dumas

    I struggle with LeGuin, but since I live in Oregon and we are required by law to read and love her books, I might give this one a try.

    Thanks for signing up for the European Reading Challenge in 2021. I look forward to seeing which books you pick and countries you visit. Happy Reading and bon voyage!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Gilion! You could, at a pinch, include Orsinia in your 2021 tour of European countries of course — in fact, a tour of imaginary European countries like Le Guin’s Orsinia, China Miéville’s Besźel, Anthony Hope’s Ruritania, and Philip Pullman’s Razkavia might be an interesting parallel challenge! Hmm, I wonder what other parallel nations I could explore…

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  4. piotrek

    I’ve only read Malafrena, and I felt very much like you do about the short stories… it’s a subtle and beautiful recreation of my part of Europe that only gains when seen through the lenses of our actual history. No magic was needed there – although at some points Orsinia could use some powder mages a la McClellan…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Not read any McClellan but, having looked him up, his first trilogy at least looks tempting and I see what you mean, given the period in which Malafrena is set!

      It’s interesting that UKLG had never been to central Europe when she began these stories but felt she had to create her own imaginary country, partly as a way to reflect on contemporary events in Europe (the Prague Spring, for example, and the Hungarian Uprising) as well as to write in a more lyrical literary style. Maybe if I promise to read Malafrena you’ll give this collection a go? 🙂

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      1. piotrek

        I definitely want to, but the list is so long I can make no promises…. I have this “The Complete Orsinia” from Library of America, though, it looks so tempting…

        Also wanted to add – “Bleak and beautiful” is a great title, it fits the content perfectly and subtly warns people blind to such delights 😉

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Thanks, Piotrek, I do try and create apt titles, but sometimes they’re so obscure I forget what the review was about!

          That Library of America edition is so, so tempting, I’m feeling very avaricious! Maybe a birthday present for myself when my paperbacks start to fall apart (which can’t be long now) …

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