It’s always a momentous occasion when a living author gets their work released in The Library of America. It has rarely happened, and I think the only other living author in there now is Philip Roth, but it has recently happened once again. Ursula K. Le Guin, the 86-year-old whose career started over sixty years ago, is the latest as The Complete Orsinia, the first of at least a few Le Guin volumes to come to The Library of America, was recently published.
Le Guin’s literary reputation rests largely on her works of science fiction and fantasy. She has won all of the major sci-fi/fantasy prizes, most more than once. It’s surprising, then, that this first Library of America volume is not a selection of her work in those genres (to the point I was rather disappointed, actually, before I had the book in hand). Rather, The Complete Orsinia is a career-wide look at Le Guin’s more recognizably realistic stories that take place in the fictional European country Orsinia.
Apparently, the editors at The Library of America intended to start with Le Guin’s better known genre work, but, though her Orsinian tales are not well known — indeed, perhaps because her Orsinian tales are not well known — Le Guin pushed for these to be her first debut in the series, according to this interview with The New York Times here. I found this strange; after all, Le Guin is adamant that we need “writers who see alternatives to how we live now” and who “imagine some real grounds for hope,” the “realists of a larger reality” (quotes taken from her acceptance speech of the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters). Yet, as I’ve made my way through The Complete Orsinia, I can see how this work represents Le Guin’s career.
Along with Le Guin’s short stories that take place in Orsinia, originally collected as Orsinian Tales, the volume also includes her one Orsinian novel, Malafrena. Though Malafrena was first published in 1979, its history goes back to Le Guin’s first manuscript. As an adolescent, Le Guin says in her introduction to this volume, she “felt more at home in some ways in Paris in 1640 or Moscow in 1812 than in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1948.” She wanted to write about Europe, then; it felt like the thing she knew best. But, she says, “I knew it was foolhardy to write fiction set in Europe if I’d never been there.” And so she chose to write about “a part of Europe where nobody had been but me.”
Her first attempt at a novel, then, was A Descendance, set in Orsinia. In 1951, she submitted the manuscript to Alfred Knopf who rejected it in such a way Le Guin retained hope. The manuscript itself never faded away completely as Le Guin started to garner success, and she revised it several times over the coming decades before finally publishing Malafrena in 1979, nearly thirty years after its nascence as her first novel.
Malafrena itself came three years after Le Guin published Orsinian Tales in 1976. A large segment of her early career, then, though in the margin, was spent writing about this fictional European country. She even developed their language — fittingly with mixed origin but largely Latinate given Orsinia’s location in Central Europe — and the volume’s endpapers are composed of her map of the country and its provinces. She also wrote songs, included in the volume, in Orsinian:
The Walls of Rákava
Na Rákava sui altiy muriy
amor miye lassava.
Voliya tornare na Rákava
ove no ten klava.
O muriy Rákava,
uvi tuya klava?
A fictional language, a fictional nation, Le Guin was free to imagine. Yet she does not inject fantastic elements into these tales. The novel takes place in the 1820s, and Orsinia feels very much (to my limited knowledge) like an early-nineteenth century European country. Other stories take place in other times — indeed, Le Guin wrote stories of the country’s history up to the fall of Communism in 1989 — and they fit in that time period.
While I do feel that this volume is uniquely representative of Le Guin’s career, showcasing a world that she worked in for decades, I nevertheless am a bit disappointed that I have to wait longer for a volume of what I consider to be better works. Malafrena is a fine novel, rooted in the tradition of Russian epics (though not nearly as long), that tells the story of Itale Sorde, a young man who leaves his rural estate around Lake Malafrena to go to the capitol, Orsinia being governed by the Austrian Empire. It’s fine, but I much prefer Le Guin’s other novels, perhaps because, though revised by a mature writer, the novel still feels a bit unwieldy, as first novels sometimes do. It feels linked to that earlier time, before Le Guin had quite mastered her ability to call to mind a whole world in just a few words.
That is not the case with the real treasure in this volume: the short stories contained in Orsinian Tales and that Le Guin kept writing up through Communism’s collapse in 1989. In a few pages we go back and forth in Orsinian history, from 1150 or so to 1989, honing in on the lives of individuals caught up in time’s trap, and Le Guin beautifully describes the world, its atmosphere, its politics, its culture, even, all while calling forth the magical world of these individuals’ perceptions. This, from the first paragraph of the first story, “The Fountains,” which takes place in 1960:
They knew, having given him cause, that Dr Kereth might attempt to seek political asylum in Paris. Therefore, on the plane flying west, in the hotel, on the streets, at the meetings, even while he read his paper to the Cytology section, he was distantly accompanied at all times by obscure figures who might be explained as graduate students or Croatian microbiologists, but who had no names, or faces. Since his presence lent not only distinction to his country’s delegation but also a certain luster to his government — See, we let even him come — they had wanted him there; but they kept him in sight. He was used to being in sight. In his small country a man could get out of sight only by not moving at all, by keeping voice, body, brain all quiet. He had always been a restless, visible man. Thus when all at once on the sixth day in the middle of a guided tour in broad daylight he found himself gone, he was confused for a time. Only by walking down a path could one achieve one’s absence?
And this, from “The Barrow,” going back to 1150:
Night came down along the snowy road from the mountains. Darkness ate the village, the stone tower of Vermare Keep, the barrow by the road. Darkness stood in the corners of the rooms of the Keep, sat under the great table and on every rafter, waited behind the shoulders of each man at the hearth.
These stories are not really linked together in any way other than their setting in Orsinia. That they are deeply personal makes it all the more incredible that they come together to form a kind of whole, a portrait of humanity, of each individual, stuck in time and history — indeed, maybe even getting brutalized by time and history — who, though foreigners from an imaginary nation in a distant time, reflect our own struggles today. I loved them, and I can’t wait to see what Le Guin comes next from The Library of America . . . hopefully something that shows us just how well Le Guin can make the strange and even abhorrent poignantly familiar, one that contains, for example, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”