December 18, 2018, 13:38

The Subversive Imagination of Ursula K. Le Guin |

The Subversive Imagination of Ursula K. Le Guin |

The first words I read by the writer Ursula K. Le Guin, who died this
week, at the age of eighty-eight, were “Come home!” The plea—a mother’s
to a departing child—opens Le Guin’s novel “The Tombs of Atuan.” I was
twelve years old and hooked. Home and homecoming were among the most
powerful themes of Le Guin’s work, but she was a deep and complex
writer, and “home” stood for many things, including being true to one’s
art. In her essay “The Operating Instructions,” she wrote, “Home isn’t
where they have to let you in. It’s not a place at all. Home is
imaginary. Home, imagined, comes to be.”

Le Guin was the author of essays, poetry, and fiction, some of it
science fiction or fantasy, some of it realist, much of it
unclassifiable. She took her readers on journeys to speculative planets,
or, in the five novels of her beloved Earthsea series, across an
imaginary archipelago. But she was also a homebody. She once told me
that she had a knack for home life, adding, “I never lived anywhere I
really felt not at home—except Moscow, Idaho, and even it had redeeming
features.” She and her husband, Charles Le Guin, met as graduate
students on Fulbright scholarships, married in Paris, and raised three
children together. Charles protected her writing time, and her family
gave her the freedom of solitude within the routines of the household.
“An artist can go off into the private world they create, and maybe not
be so good at finding the way out again,” she told me. “This could be
one reason I’ve always been grateful for having a family and doing
housework, and the stupid ordinary stuff that has to be done that you
cannot let go.” But writing also balanced her family life, and she
wondered if she dealt with the cabin fever of mothering—she didn’t
drive—by covering long distances in her fiction.

Those distances were spanned by Le Guin’s wondrous imagination, an
instrument that she tuned early in life. Born in Berkeley, California,
in 1929, she grew up in a warm, close-knit family, the youngest child
and only daughter of the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber and the writer
Theodora Kroeber. Her father retold California Indian legends, and it
was in his library that she found the Tao Te Ching, a book that deeply
influenced her thinking. In years when America’s dominant narrative was
one of European conquest and East Coast superiority, Le Guin was aware,
always, that there were other stories to tell.

She had, along with a fierce intellect, a profound sense of wonder,
formed partly by the summers she spent in the Napa Valley, and by her
visits, at ages nine and ten, to the Golden Gate International
Exposition. At the fair, she saw Diego Rivera up on a scaffold, painting
murals, and she was allowed to sit on the back of a Percheron billed as
the Largest Horse in the World. She was, she said, “at just the right
age [to be] drop-jawed at everything.” In her short story “Hernes,” a
rare personal work of fiction, she describes the glory of the fair
through the eyes of a small child, Virginia Herne, who decides then and
there to become a poet. “I know that glory is where I will live and I
will give my life to it,” the character says. Eventually, Virginia Herne wins a
Pulitzer, though Le Guin told me that she found it surprisingly
difficult to give her most autobiographical character a prize.

Le Guin never stopped insisting on the beauty and
subversive power of the imagination. Fantasy and speculation weren’t
only about invention; they were about challenging the established order.
When she accepted the National Book Foundation’s lifetime-achievement
award, the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, in
2014, she said, “Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in
our art—the art of words.” Writers who owe a debt to Le Guin often speak
of her work giving them a sense of possibility, of being invited to
write in ways they didn’t know they could. She made such writers feel
recognized, as creators and as human beings. “I read her nonstop,
growing up, and read her still,” the writer Junot Díaz told me. “She
never turns away from how flinty the heart of the world is. It gives her
speculations a resonance, a gravity that few writers, mainstream or
generic, can match.”

In person, Le Guin was generous with affection. Her letters to me were
often signed with “love.” She preferred not to talk about herself—she
was an introvert, with an introvert’s desire for self-protection—but she
and I spoke often after she asked me to write her biography. My job, as
she saw it, was to find ways to get around her reticence—not an easy
task. Yet our conversations were punctuated by laughter, giggles, and
the occasional indignant snort. To make her laugh felt wonderful, like
an exchange of gifts. She was warm, difficult, brilliant, and not afraid
to defend her prejudices. She disliked self-conscious literature and,
despite years of trying, couldn’t stand Nabokov. (“I see him standing in
the foreground, saying”—and here she put on a slight Russian accent—“ ‘Look at me, Vladimir Nabokov, writing this wonderful, complicated novel
with all these fancy words in it.’ And I just think, Oh, go away.”)

She had been in poor health and suffered from heart troubles, but her
death was unexpected, and she was funny, sharp, and critical to the end.
After I wrote a profile of her, in this magazine, she corrected things
she felt I’d got wrong, particularly my suggestion of darkness in her
relationship with her mother. I last saw her at her home, in Portland,
Oregon, several months ago, when we sat in folding chairs on the porch
while her cat, Pard, claimed the space around our legs. (Le Guin was, on
her blog, a frequent poster of cat pictures.) She asked if she had told
me the story of how, at an awards banquet, she spilled beer down the
back of Robert Heinlein’s wife’s dress. She was jostled in a crowd, her
glass tipped, the dress was low-cut, and the beer went right down. She
laughed ruefully. “I just faded very rapidly into the crowd. I took no
responsibility whatsoever.” Charles joined us on the porch. Behind us
was the house where they had lived for nearly sixty years, with the
portrait of Virginia Woolf over the mantelpiece and the Native
Californian baskets on the bookshelf. “True journey is return,” she once
wrote. Now, as then, it seems her most enduring insight.


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