For any act done consciously may be defiant, may be independent, may change life utterly. –Ursula K. Le Guin, Malafrena
Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of Ursula K. Le Guin’s death. An award-winning fantasy and science fiction writer, whose published work spans more than five decades, Le Guin was (among other things) a woman in a male-dominated field (specifically, the science fiction genre), a life-long student of Taoism, an astute observer of human nature, and an unparalleled tale-weaver, word-smith, and world-builder.
Le Guin sold her first novel at the age of thirty-seven (a fact that, at thirty-one, gives me great hope), and the years she’d already spent as a scholar (as an undergraduate at Radcliffe, as a graduate student at Columbia, and as a Fulbright recipient in France) — not to mention as a mother, wife, and generally thoughtful, engaged human being — lent her books a care and depth that is unquestionably literary (despite their broad public appeal).
I’ve long been a fan — a lover — of Le Guin’s work (especially her Earthsea cycle, which, in contrast to so much contemporary fantasy, manages to create worlds of depth and originality with an economy of pages and words), but it’s only recently that I’ve started to realize the true breadth of her genius. There is a particular kind of joy in discovering that a favorite author is not only brilliant, but prolific — and prolific across genres. I’ve read fifteen of her books to date, and numerous short stories, ranging from fantasy, science fiction, and retold myth to young adult novels and historical fiction, yet there remain a veritable feast of books, essays, and short stories to discover.
This quote comes from my most recent Le Guin read (which also happens to be the first book I finished in 2019). Set in the early 1800s, in an imaginary central European country, Malafrena was utterly refreshing and unexpected. Published in 1979, it was written (at least in draft form) over twenty-five years earlier, and thus represents the oldest of Le Guin’s published work. It reads . . . well . . . like a text written in central Europe in the early 1800s.
Despite my love and appreciation of Le Guin, her ability to write so far outside her expected canon still took me by surprise. The prose, characterization, and narrative are each rich, complex, nuanced, contradictory, and, ultimately, alien. Not familiar as even her most far-flung worlds are familiar, rooted as they are in a contemporary genre whose questions, contours, and tropes are our own. In contrast, the world of Malafrena is remarkably other: these are not our people (not contemporary minds and hearts, playing dress-up in historic clothes); this is not our time.
Yet the very strangeness echoes like a memory, reminding us of something important we’ve forgotten. As with Chesterton’s “moor eeffoc” (“coffee room” encountered backwards), we are startled awake — and the world is strange and wonderful and new once more.1
It is a book, ultimately, about the nature of freedom, intentionality, necessity, and all the paradoxes and perils of our entangled, tragic, beautiful, brief, and confounding existence. What a perilous thing is choice; what a marvel to be human and alive.
If this was her world, she was strong enough to live in it. She was a woman, not trained for any public act, not trained to defiance, brought up to the woman’s part: waiting. So she would wait. For any act done consciously may be defiant, may be independent, may change life utterly. –Ursula K. Le Guin, Malafrena
1. This is an effect I’m more used to attributing to fantasy, than realism (and thus the shock is somehow greater and stranger encountered in a historical novel like Malafrena, hiding as it is in plain sight), but Chesterton himself declared it “the motto of all effective realism.” So who am I to argue?