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.

Continue reading “Live free, or die”

A shoreless kingdom

Cover illustration of a generic Middle European walled city for Le Guin’s Malafrena by an uncredited artist for Panther Books 1981

Having recently completed and been impressed by Ursula K le Guin’s Malafrena (1979), a novel set in her imagined country of Orsinia in the early 19th century, I thought I would compose a few thoughts about its history and geography before posting a review.

I’ve already discussed her bleak but beautiful short story collection called Orsinian Tales, in which a series of vignettes detailing lives lived during a thousand years of Orsinian history gives us a flavour of this fictional nation somewhere east of central Europe. Referenced as Orciny in China Miéville’s fantasy The City and the City, Le Guin’s landlocked country is the sort of polity that may well have existed in Europe’s chequered history which — not unlike Miéville’s twin cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma somewhere at the edge of Europe — seems to have slipped out of most Europeans’ consciousness.

Now may be a good time to set the scene for what we may expect in a review of Malafrena, and for that we need maps and a bit of historical context.

Continue reading “A shoreless kingdom”

Turn, turn, turn

Photo © C A Lovegrove

“To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose
Under heaven.”

As we drift past Imbolc and Candlemas, halfway points between the midwinter solstice and the spring equinox, I have been considering how season-centred some of my recent reading has been. And even my current read, Le Guin’s Malafrena, has so far been calibrated by principal periods of the year, especially the long hot summers and the winter feasts.

It might be an interesting exercise to consider how much fiction relies on not just space — and I’ll discuss this a bit more presently — but on the passage of time, especially certain liminal occasions; for, let’s face it, every moment is a liminal experience, balanced on a fulcrum of the present, between past and future, and frequently fraught with promise and danger.

Continue reading “Turn, turn, turn”

Twenty-one books

Ursula K Le Guin 1929-2018

There’s a meme going around under the heading of 21 books in 2021 — and I’m very tempted to adapt it for my own purposes as yet another prompt to guide my reading. I’ve already decided on a number of other prompts to take me month by month (or season by season) through the year, so you’d think I’d have enough by now to get on with. So did I until an anniversary hoved into view.

Today marks three years since the untimely death of Ursula Le Guin and I’ve realised that I have one of my periodic yearnings to revisit her worlds. I’ve therefore been trying to decide whether to reread one of her novels (as I did recently with Orsinian Tales and Rocannon’s World) or to tackle a title new to me (such as Malafrena, The Eye of the Heron or Four Ways to Forgiveness). Or indeed whether to go for both options.

And then I thought of how I might in fact use this meme: in amongst all my other prompts I’d not calculated how to create space on my bookshelves for any new tomes, so why not formulate my own twist for this twelvemonth, when lockdown has knocked down any physical bookshop browsing? I present to you … 21 TBR Books in 2021.

Continue reading “Twenty-one books”

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.

Continue reading “Bleak but beautiful”

The House Beautiful

Sebastiano Serlio, Set design for a comic scene

“Behold there was a very stately palace before him, the name of which was Beautiful; and it stood just by the highway side.”
— John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress

Reading Susanna Clarke‘s novel Piranesi awoke all kinds of echoes for me. The repetition, especially, of the narrator’s paean of praise to the place in which he resided — The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite — reminded me of texts such as John Bunyan‘s Pilgrim’s Progress and the refuge to which Christian sought entry, the Palace Beautiful, the way to it guarded by a pair of chained lions (not unrelated to Aslan, I suspect).

But there were other literary reverberations which were set up in my mind, stretching from classical Greece and Rome to this century; in the event that you may find of interest I’ve put together the following illustrated essay.

Be warned, though: in discussing the ideas behind various works of fiction I shall be giving away the odd secret or spoiler so, if you haven’t read them, you may want to skim over or even skip the text and just enjoy the illustrations.

Continue reading “The House Beautiful”

Blue jewel in the darkness

Starry sky (WordPress Free Photo Library)

Rocannon’s World (1966)
by Ursula K Le Guin,
in Worlds of Exile and Illusion.
Orb Books 1996

“I ride with Olhor, who seeks to hear his enemy’s voice, who has traveled through the great dark, who has seen the World hang like a blue jewel in the darkness.”
— Chapter VII

An ethnologist from the League of All Worlds is studying one of the hominid species on an unnamed planet, formally known as Fomalhaut II, when his returning team are killed by a bomb. It appears that the League’s opponents, the inhabitants of the planet Faraday, have established a secret base on this uncharted world from which to launch a preemptive strike against the League. This is the major inciting incident that propels the novel forward.

But before this scenario establishes that we are in science fiction territory a prologue (based on a short story from 1964) places us firmly in a fantasy setting with an account of an heirloom being retrieved from underground troglodytes: we are introduced to a pseudo-medieval society, living in castles, mounted on flying steeds, treating with elvish and dwarvish beings, and a heroine who visits and journeys from a subterranean kingdom, only to return home to find everyone she knew has either died or grown old.

The author’s first published novel, Rocannon’s World was also the first title set in the author’s Hainish universe; as a work we could justifiably term a science fantasy it lays out many of Le Guin’s principal concerns — balanced and sustainable living, environmentalism, psychology and anthropology, morality, human imagination, and much more — all contained within a rarely predictable narrative framework.

Continue reading “Blue jewel in the darkness”

The wisdom of wizards

Cardiff Waterstones wizard by Chris Riddell

For in dreams we enter a world that is entirely our own. Let them swim in the deepest ocean or glide over the highest cloud.
— Dumbledore

Harry Potter turns 40 today (he was born on 31st July 1980, fifteen years to the day after his creator) so I thought I would offer you a few choice words from just three of the best known fictional wizards in modern times.

Continue reading “The wisdom of wizards”

Crossing in mists

The Lathe of Heaven
by Ursula Le Guin,
SF Masterworks,
Gollancz 2001 (1971)

For me the sign of a good — or at least stimulating — novel is how much I think about it while I’m reading it and for some while after. Reading The Lathe of Heaven for the first time a couple of decades ago puzzled me, but I knew I’d want to return to it in due course. While there are still aspects that puzzle me I feel I have more of a foothold on the scree slope that Le Guin’s novel presents to us.

Part of the strength of this novel comes from the visual images that function as leitmotifs, along with the sense of place that the novel’s setting in Portland, Oregon provides, in which the three principal players and one or two other supporting characters act out their parts.

Buttressing all are quotes from Daoist texts and references to literature and popular culture which, though placed like bits of collage in the overall schema are actually integral to the author’s composition.

Continue reading “Crossing in mists”

“Greed puts out the sun.”

Islands

Ursula Le Guin: The Other Wind
Orion Children’s Books 2002 (2001)

O my joy!
Before bright Ea was, before Segoy
Bade the islands be,
The morning wind blew on the sea.
O my joy, be free!

When Lebannen, king of all the isles of Earthsea, remembers this fragment of a ballad or lullaby from his childhood he is sailing on the Inland Sea. A storm has passed; whether it is the words, the tune or being on deck that has brought the words to mind matters less than that it is a leitmotif for this final novel in the Earthsea sequence, and perhaps for the whole sequence. It recalls a beginning and even an ending, for on the last page Tenar whispers the final words to Ged: O my joy, be free . . .

The Other Wind is, however one looks at it, the last novel in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea sequence: the collection Tales from Earthsea includes episodes which predate the events in this swansong instalment but these two books, along with Tehanu, form a balancing trilogy with the first three books which, the author came to recognise, gave a rather unbalanced worldview of her creation in terms of gender.

As Earthsea’s existence and survival is bound up with balance, it was only morally and poetically right for its Creator to follow the male-dominated first trilogy with a second reasserting female contribution; and if that involved if not retconning then at least establishing that the fulcrum of power on the Island of Roke was initiated by women as much as men justice could not only be done but seen to be done. And though some benighted erstwhile fans saw this somehow as too politically correct, to this reader at least Earthsea’s yin was finally complemented by its yang and Le Guin’s passion made manifest.

Continue reading ““Greed puts out the sun.””

Tales within tales

The Sleep of Reason (Wikipedia Commons)
The Sleep of Reason (Wikipedia Commons)

Ursula K Le Guin
A Fisherman of the Inland Sea: Stories
Harper Perennial 2005

Ursula Le Guin is best known for her fantasy and her science fiction writings, though she also writes other fiction as well as poetry, articles and reviews. The short stories in this 1994 collection, while firmly in the SF genre, also demonstrate her ability to compose in various tones, from light to dark, from gentle humour to philosophical musings. Originally published in various periodicals between 1983 and 1994, the narratives are clearly placed in context by an excellent introduction in which she not only discusses the tales but also mounts a spirited defence of SF as a genre, a defence which twenty years on may be less urgent though no less valid or effective.

She explains that she experiments with SF by using the form to explore character and human relationships, rather than exploring the ‘scientism’ and elitist technocracies that much traditional ‘hard’ SF was associated with and which put off the unconverted. She also denies that SF (and by extension, I suspect, fantasy) is necessarily escapist; instead, by exploring human characteristics, even or especially in alien humanoids, she throws light on our own humanity, humaneness, human-ness; she focuses on the potential strengths of SF, most particularly on a quality that is not always attached to this genre: beauty.

Continue reading “Tales within tales”

The map fantastic

Contemporary sketch map of Rye (17th century?)

Contemporary novels, set in the real world, rarely if ever need a map included in the text. Historical novels occasionally offer one, especially if they show old territories or ancient names for places. Dystopian futures and distant planets do often require them and, ideally, so should fantasies: the more fantastical they are the more we need a cartographic guide, however sketchy, to orientate ourselves.

What happens though when either no map is available or, if one is offered, it’s so sketchy as to be next to useless?

The answer, for people like me, is to make my own from whatever clues are offered in the text, letting logic — and occasionally imagination — fill in the rest.

And that’s what I have been doing recently: tripping the map fantastic, as it were.

Continue reading “The map fantastic”

An archipelago of stories

Smoke drifting across a copse

Ursula Le Guin: Tales from Earthsea
Orion Children’s Books 2002 (2001)

A story may be pieced together from such scraps and fragments, and though it will be an airy quilt, half made of hearsay and half of guesswork, yet it may be true enough.
— From ‘The Finder’

In the middle of Earthsea, nestled within the vast island archipelago, is the Inmost Sea. In the centre of that sea is the island of Roke. And on that island is the Immanent Grove, by the eminence that is Roke Knoll. And above all, the sky. Earth, water, wood and air: elements that we meet time and again in Tales from Earthsea and, indeed, in the whole saga. And to those we should also add fire.

Ursula Le Guin’s five Earthsea novels, expanded from the original trilogy to a quartet and then, three decades on, to a pentad, have felt at times like the saga of Duny, later called Sparrowhawk but now known as Ged. True, it drew in other participants — Tenar, Lebannen and Tehanu, for example — but principally we have followed Ged from boyhood to Archmage and on to old age.

We will have always known however that there were — that there will have to have been — other stories to tell, and in this collection we are offered five of them, along with an essay giving us some of the who, what, when and where of this magical world. And I mean ‘magical’ in all the senses of this word.

Continue reading “An archipelago of stories”

Once-upon-a-time realms

Inverted commas 9: Imaginary Worlds

Imagination like all living things lives now, and it lives with, from, on true change. Like all we do and have, it can be co-opted and degraded; but it survives commercial and didactic exploitation. The land outlasts the empires. The conquerors may leave desert where there was forest and meadow, but the rain will fall, the rivers will run to the sea.
— from the foreword of Ursula Le Guin’s Tales from Earthsea (2001)

The late Ursula Le Guin knew all about fantastic realms. She created several, including the abiding world of Earthsea, that archipelago of islands amidst a boundless ocean.

In her foreword to the collection of short stories about this world she took a tilt at what she called commodified fantasy which, she asserted, “takes no risks: it invents nothing, but invents and trivialises.” We’re well aware of that derivative impulse that somehow diminishes what it feeds on: we see it constantly in never-ending book franchises, films, TV series, video games and assorted spin-offs: it’s a desperate experience to watch as they dilute the originals, before squeezing every last drop of merchandising out of them.

But she is optimistic about the capacity of the imagination to mount rearguard actions whenever needed, to defend against insidious exploitation whether of the commercial or intellectual kind:

The unstable, mutable, untruthful realms of Once-upon-a-time are as much a part of human history and thought as the nations in our kaleidoscopic atlases, and some are more enduring.

Continue reading “Once-upon-a-time realms”

Cardiff BookTalk Le Guin event

Cardiff BookTalk describes itself as “the book group with a difference: we listen to experts on great literature and then explore the big themes from the books in lively conversation.” Recently its members have been exploring science fiction and fantasy genres, including a screening and discussion of the biopic Mary Shelley as part of Cardiff FrankenFest, a contribution to a worldwide Frankenreads initiative.

Earlier this week I managed to attend a special discussion of Ursula LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, and hope you’ll enjoy the report on the evening that follows, not least because Lizzie Ross and I hosted a Witch Week event which included posts on Le Guin. This year marks not only UKLG’s death in January but also the fiftieth anniversary of the groundbreaking A Wizard of Earthsea, and as a feminist she remains a notable figure in a year that has seen the #MeToo movement take off, plus the centenary of partial women’s suffrage being won in the UK, along with unofficial recognition of 2018 as being the year of the woman. And not before time, as most years irritatingly seem to be dedicated to only half of the world’s population.

Continue reading “Cardiff BookTalk Le Guin event”