Live free, or die

Engraving of ‘Liberty Leading the People’, by Eugène Delacroix (1830)

Malafrena, by Ursula K Le Guin.
Panther Books, 1981 (1979)

He would look unseeing out over Malafrena, with a heaviness in him. It was as if a spell was laid upon him here, which he could not break, though he might escape from it; a charm that grew strongest in certain hours, certain conversations.

The spell that binds young Itale Sorde to the family estate in Val Malafrena holds the same charm for this reader: but the French revolutionary motto, Vivre libre, ou mourir (“Live free, or die”), offers sentiments which tug him away from his mountain home. His progressive idealistic impulses draw him to Krasnoy, the capital of Orsinia, leading him to a sequence of events which impact not only on himself but on family, friends and acquaintances.

This restless, roving novel developed from the author’s early forays into writing fiction, fired up by her reading of Russian literature; it has proved to divide opinion, from those who expect something either more radical or in her later more speculative style, to those who relish her way with language and her ability to create a believable alternative reality and credible individuals.

Myself, I fall into the second category and one doesn’t have to go very far to find the reasons.

This alternative reality is vested in Orsinia, a country nested — as if a component in a Russian doll — somewhere within the Austrian Empire in the late 1820s. Revolutionary fervour remains in the air even as hegemonies try to tamp down any suspicion of rebellion. The touchstone which imparted to many French revolutionaries their zeal was the phrase Vivre libre, ou mourir! and this is precisely the motto that inspires Itale and other students at Solariy University to instigate subversive activities, and an up-and-coming poet Amadey Estenskar hailing from Polana province in southeast Orsinia.

Hopes are further raised by rumours that the Estates General — in abeyance since a Hapsburg duchess became nominal head of state — may be reconvened and thus signal a return to a constitutional monarchy. In expectation of being in the midst of the febrile atmosphere Itale becomes, as it were, an exile from Malafrena, the family estate in the eastern province of Montayna, and travels to Krasnoy. The question is, will the rallying cry, Live free or die, determine the direction his own life will ultimately take?

Originally entitled The Necessary Passion (now the name of one of the seven parts the novel is divided into), Malafrena is not just the chronicle of one apparently jejune graduate, though in fact everything and everyone can be tracked back to him. We hear much about friends, colleagues and extended family, seeing through their eyes as well as his and witnessing both humdrum happenings and momentous events. We learn about the provincial lives of the Sorde family, their close neighbours the Valtorskars and relatives in nearby Portacheyka; we observe the straits of the disadvantaged and the dispossessed in the capital and in the mills of the eastern province. Also in evidence are Itale’s journalist associates from the journal Novesma Verba, his friends in the nobility, and intellectuals such as the poet Estenskar and novelist Givan Karantay, all of whom form a web of connections that draws the suspicions of the Austrian authorities: remember, the Carlsbad Decrees of 1819 were designed so that the Empire could contain and even eradicate any likelihood of dissent.

Le Guin’s first choice of “the necessary passion” as a title for the novel relates, I think, to all forms of human feelings and emotions — political, sexual, and familial — and how Itale applies them according to belief, inclination and personal stamina. In Malafrena he felt bespelled with a certain heaviness that he’s compelled to escape. He tells his childhood friend Piera that “Life’s not a room, it’s a road; what you leave you leave, and it’s lost. You can’t turn back. That’s how it is.” Amadey the poet confirms this viewpoint, describing a dream: “I saw my own life — behind me and ahead of me. As if it were a road.” This is one way to view the novel, it seems; if some Orsinians see themselves as on a road where there’s no turning back, what happens when they run out of energy and impetus, fall prey to exhaustion, come up against impassable barriers and lose the necessary passion to continue? Youthful ambitions such as Amadey’s vincam (meaning “I shall conquer!”) are, even if carved into stone, all too soon eroded by seasons and weather.

This sense of melancholy seems to be one which Le Guin absorbed from her reading of Russian fiction. I’ve only read some of this literature — some Chekhov short stories, for example, and Dostoyevsky’s House of the Dead — but I detect the same atmosphere in Le Guin’s novel, the feeling that individuals setting themselves up against an oppressive system may not have it as easy as David against Goliath. When Itale’s family hear he has been imprisoned for sedition his lawyer uncle attributes this moment of enlightenment which comes to Itale’s father:

That injustice could be institutionalised under the name of law, that inhumanity could embody and perpetuate itself in the form of armed men and locked doors, this he knew but did not believe, had not believed, until now.

Itale’s friend Piera comes to realise this part of realpolitik, reflecting that “The builder of the prisonhouse, the sneakthief, the weakener, the enemy, was fear. There was no way to serve fear and be free.”

In actuality Le Guin’s epic is not simply about the ripples caused by one young wouldbe progressive idealist and his coterie: it’s also about the women Itale associates with, females who, as with many women of the time, had circumscribed existences but somehow still managed to make an impact. For instance there’s his sister Laura who, though at one stage learns to understand what the phrase “borne down” may signify, attempts to forge a function for herself on the Malafrena estate; there’s also Piera who like Itale has to leave her Valtorsa estate to discover whether it indeed is no longer ‘home’ or not. We mustn’t forget either Baroness Luisa Paludeskar, who arranges Itale’s release from prison and nurses him back to health, displaying a political nous that does her justice, but at what cost?

There’s so much else to delight the attentive reader in Malafrena, such as le Guin’s descriptions of weather, and nature, and landscapes: for example the incident of an owl that “flew in front of them from one oak to another, hunting, soft as a tossed ball of dark wool in the dusk.” I like the occasional quiet joke, as in this little dialogue which punctuates — though not quite puncturing — a scene which follows momentous incidents of potential import:

He glanced at his friend and said, with his hands in his pockets, smiling irrepressibly, ‘Do you believe in God, Francesco?’ — ‘Of course. Don’t you?’ — No. Thank God!’

Ultimately, in a novel about an imaginary land, the shoreless kingdom of the poet Estenskar which Le Guin brought into being in default of experiencing Europe herself, this vast wide-ranging narrative is about home. Where does it stand? Is it a place, or is it a phantom of the mind?

For five years he had been sick for home, and now, forced to it as a fugitive, he must come to it knowing that he had no home.

Far from being a novel of dashed hopes and tragic consequences Malafrena for me is a work which fills my heart to bursting: peopled by players who’d like to effect change in a time of tumult, they seem to reflect our own hopes and visions; it is a land not unlike our own, in a time which in so many ways closely matches the one we live in now.

7/21 TBR Books of 2021. Orsinian Tales is a short story collection reviewed here; I hope to review The Complete Orsinia (2016) in due course

28 thoughts on “Live free, or die

  1. Reading your reviews of Ursula le Guin has stirred my interest in her. I have now bought her take on the Tao Te Ching, her book about writing, Steering the Craft, and have ordered Always Coming Home. Have you read that? It is another of her books that people seen to disagree over.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve been gifted a copy of Always Coming Home but it looks so immersive that I may have to find a desert island with no internet to get fully into it! Steering the Craft does attract me though. But anything she wrote is bound to be rewarding.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hmm… To me, Malafrena shared some similarities with Les Miserables too—the political part of the stuff, the praise of youthful idealism. I’ve never looked at it from the side of Russian literature, so thank you for this reflection!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting point, she will’ve been very familiar with 19th-century French novels, and certainly a lot more than me!

      She had actually got as far as Paris when she was starting to explore Orsenya, as I now see from her introduction in The Complete Orsinia and of course her master’s was in French, so it’s unsurprising that Malafrena has Gallic touches, and why she chose to invent a Slavic culture heavily influenced by a Romance language like Romanian.

      I’m hoping to do a review of the Orsinian compendium presently as there is so much extra detail there as I’m discovering.


  3. I must admit I’m very drawn to this. I love LeGuin’s writing, but am less drawn to fantasy nowadays. However, books set in non-existent bits of the world always intrigue me (The Other Side, On The Marble Cliffs) and the additional element of the French revolutionary influence may be a clincher. Might have to investigate further…

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Izabel Brekilien

    I had only heard of Ursula Le Guin as a sci-fi writer, it’s only recently that I discovered she had written books that went much beyond – I need to investigate that. Thanks very much for sharing et vivons libres – as much as we can these days !

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolument! And as for UKLG, she was so much more than a fantasy or SF writer: a poet, a reviewer, an essayist and, in this case, authoring mainstream fiction, even if it’s historically based and in an imaginary land.


    1. I started with the Tales because I’d read them long before now — twice! — and only this one just lately. The Tales are a good way to get into the notion that this is a ‘real’ country, I think, but it’s a matter of taste.

      As for the compendium, there are two extra tales thrown in, the last published in 1989 (you’ll recognise the significance of that date in Europe), plus an intro, a Le Guin chronology up to 2014 and some notes for idiots like me who might not get all of the German references without googling. (I jest, of course.) Probably better to look for the Gollancz Orsinia, it’s a third of the price of the Library of America hardback!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Magnificent review, Chris, and I’m so glad to see you’ve sparked many readers’ interest!

    Always Coming Home seems a bit daunting to me, I confess, but I’m working my way through everything else of UKL’s work — I’ve not gotten to any of the essays or poetry yet but I’m sure they’re wonderful. I read her version of the Tao te Ching recently and it was fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you mentioned or reviewed the Tao te Ching on your blog recently, no? Anyway I owe you a big thank-you for nudging me into reading >Malafrena, Lory, as I was all set to get back into the next Hainish novel after Rocannon’s World; but I’m glad I didn’t, this was really immersive. And I shall be boring the pants off everyone with further discussion over the coming weeks! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve only read The Left Hand of Darkness by her so far, and realise I need to explore her more.

    It was such a coincidence opening this post and my eyes falling first thing on the Delacroix painting. A postcard of this just fell out of one of my Great Artists books that I was pulling out of my shelf and then I open this, and there it was again!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love synchronicities like this, Mallika, but then I think of all the times they don’t happen so give up any notion that Fate might be taking a hand! But it is a striking image, isn’t it.
      If you’re looking for inspiration as to what you might like to read from Le Guin’s work here is a link to what I’ve reviewed and discussed so far of her work: Scroll down to my review of Gifts

      Liked by 1 person

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