The necessary passion

Le Guin’s endpapers map of Orsenya in The Complete Orsinia

The Complete Orsinia:
Malafrena | Stories and songs
by Ursula K Le Guin,
edited by Brian Attebery.
Library of America 2016.

I knew it was foolhardy to write fiction set in Europe if I’d never been there. At last it occurred to be that I might get away with it by writing about a part of Europe where nobody had been but me.

Introduction, ‘The Complete Orsinia’

A land-locked country somewhere in Europe. Known as Orsenya to its inhabitants and as Orsinia to the outside world. A land with its own language, culture and history but not so dissimilar to those of its neighbours. Yet beyond the writings of its only chronicler little is known about it. Although that chronicler is sadly no longer with us, she has nevertheless provided us with glimpses into lives lived at various points in its history; a few lives are those of the powerful but most are of ordinary people, though that’s not to say they’re not extraordinary in their own ways.

Containing Orsinian Tales (1976) and Malafrena (1979) you might, if you already have copies of both, wonder what the advantage of acquiring this compendium could be. Well, apart from the convenience of having the two titles in one volume there are the additions: two extra short stories published subsequently, in 1979 and 1990, and three short Orsinian songs, plus supporting material. That material — Le Guin’s 2015 introduction, an extensive chronology of the author’s life up to 2014 (she was to die in early 2018) and notes by the editor on the texts — renders this one-volume edition well worth the outlay.

© C A Lovegrove

Orsinian Tales were a series of vignettes from different periods in Orsinian history, from the twelfth century when Orsinia was emerging into nationhood to the second half of the twentieth century before the fall of communism in Europe, whereas Malafrena focused narrowly on just half a dozen years in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars when fledgling revolutions were attempted, only to be smacked down by established regimes. Common themes soon emerge between the shorter pieces and the longer novel — the nature of power, whether political or on the level of personal relationships; histories of individual struggles with self-fulfilment and finding partners; landscapes shaping one’s future whether in terms of options for work, for friendship, or one’s imaginative horizons; and Orsinia itself taking on the nature of a key character steeped in melancholy.

The longer title in this volume is the novel, which “was about the generation in Europe that came of age in the 1820s and broke their hearts in the revolutions of 1830.” Though beginning in the upland western province of Montayna its three young protagonists — Itale Sorde, his sister Laura and their childhood friend Piera — range south, east and northwest as well as to Krasnoy, the capital; it’s all on a large canvas, though that canvas is bounded almost entirely by the country’s borders.

The author makes it clear when and where she invented Orsinia, at the age of twenty, at Radcliffe College in California. I say ‘invented’ but I mean that in its Latin sense, from invenio, “I come upon, I discover”, for she truly discovered this “unimportant country in Middle Europe”, as she says in her introduction, “a land not too far from Czechoslovakia, or Poland, [… not] one of the partly Islamized nations—more Western-oriented. . . . Like Rumania, maybe, with a Slavic-influenced but Latin-descended language?” (Unsurprising, as her academic studies were in Romance languages.)

Into this country she infused and interlaced her name, and the names and human stories of her family and echoes of events in the contemporary world (as her brother Karl made clear in an introduction to the short story included here called ‘Brothers and Sisters’). At one stage Malafrena was to have the title ‘The Necessary Passion’ but it’s as good a description of her deep exploration of and commitment to Ursula-land, from 1949 to 1990 and beyond.

In addition to fragments of songs in the stories themselves this volume includes three short songs, one in English and the other two in Orsinian, and two short stories, published after the Orsinian Tales and Malafrena appeared. ‘Two Delays on the Northern Line’ is the more personal, written as her mother was dying from cancer, the emotions transposed to the protagonist travelling between the provinces of Molsen and the Northern Marches. ‘Unlocking the Air’ was a response to the so-called Velvet Revolution in 1989 Czechoslovakia, when mass gatherings indicated their intention to unlock the country’s repressive state apparatus by the jingling of keys. Keys also form a motif in one of the songs in Orsinian, The Walls of Rákava (Polana Province): I’ve attempted a rough translation here:

In Rákava its high walls
my love wearies (?).
I want to return to Rákava
but I don’t have a key.
O walls of Rákava,
where is your key?

U K Le Guin, ‘The Walls of Rákava’

Brian Attebery’s notes inform and deepen our understanding: he includes the texts’ references to German, Italian, English and French literature and to European events contemporary with those of Orsinia; there are also cultural references as varied as hagiography, music, Norse myth and Russian fairytale. His chronology of the author’s life up to 2014 is almost as good as a biography, but it is Le Guin’s own 2015 introduction that furnishes the most fascinating account of the formation of Orsinia and a validation, if ever one was needed, that these stories were as vital to her creative life for many years as her more famous fantasy and science fiction, or her poetry and essays.

I am sorry I have heard nothing from my friends in Krasnoy since [1990]. I hope things are going along all right there. I hope there is still a family named Sorde living in Val Malafrena, that dogs wander across the cobbled forecourt of the Roukh Palace, that the Cathedral of St Theodora stands, that the quiet fountains of Aisnar still run.


Despite its valedictory tone we needn’t fear for Orsinia’s continuance: for us to revisit we have only to open the pages of this collected edition and immerse ourselves in its heartfelt and heartening stories.

Ursula K Le Guin

Sixth of my 15 Books of Summer. I’m also working on a post giving a more detailed map of Orsinia, based on the text and on UKLG’s own hand-drawn map.

18 thoughts on “The necessary passion

    1. Yes, I hope my expansion of her map does it justice! While her style and approach is distinctive I don’t think fans of her titles in one genre necessarily like what she’s done in another—I have a couple of her books set on the West Coast (Oregon to California) that I’ve been delaying reading for a while.

      Book 7 now! My next scheduled post is a review of a Maigret novel—but I cheated a bit with the Le Guin as I’d relatively recently read the two titles included, this time focusing on the extras.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Each time you write about Le Guin it reminds me that I’d like to start a personal reading project of reading all of her work in chronological order, but with her wide writing range I need to work out a more nuanced method.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If you’re considering chronological order, Julé, you might like to know that the first drafts for what became Malafrena were submitted to Alfred Knopf — unsuccessfully but with complimentary comments — when she was still at Radcliffe, and that ‘An die Musik’, one of the short stories here, was her first writing to be published.

      If you want a more nuanced approach to your reading, both the novel and the tales can be said to be literary (as opposed to the speculative stuff she’s best known for), only the imaginary country of Orsinia itself suggesting a paracosmic setting. And ‘Imaginary Countries’, another short story here, is a subtle metafictional hint of what she was about in Orsinian Tales. You couldn’t do better than to start here, I think!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, I do love the Orsinia tales though I haven’t read the additional material included in the Library of America collection.

        I’ll probably do a combination of chronological and ‘series’. It’s so interesting to see how a writer’s work develops and changes over the years.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I misread what you’d meant, so apologies for not realising you were well versed in UKLG; and yes, those extra bits in the LOA edition are well worth having. I have a few short story collections to either read or read and review, and copies of Searoad and Always Coming Home to aspire to when I’m feeling brave.

          Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh do, Karen, I’m sure you won’t regret it! I found the realism and melancholia just right for the times we live in without being depressed—in fact there is a sense of optimism sounding constantly as a fundamental note, a feeling that this has happened before but bad things inevitably pass. And the writing and characterisation is superb.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope you do, Jo—it’s a slow read but the whole is one you may well enjoy and savour! As for maps, well, I hope to complete my Orsinian maps in the next little while so if you do get stuck in you’ll have some visual material to help orientate yourself!

      By the way, the links to the two works in my post take you to my reviews of them, in case you hadn’t realised, but you may have read these before now of course.


    1. Thanks, Liz! And it’s a super edition, I’m so glad to have forked out for it because these are stories I’m planning to revisit in the not too distant future.


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