Sunday, October 14, 2018

The Protean Ursula K. Le Guin



Charles Vess: The Books of Earthsea (2018)

i.m. Ursula Kroeber Le Guin
(21 October 1929 - 22 January 2018)


It's hard to think of a time when I hadn't read Ursula Le Guin's work. I suppose I can date it fairly precisely if I think about it. A Wizard of Earthsea was lent to my sister Anne by her standard four teacher, a thin, dark-haired, intense young woman whose name escapes me now. And since Anne was only a year ahead of me at school, that would make it 1971, when the book (first published in 1968) was only a few years old. That means I've been reading Le Guin for roughly 47 years - amazing, really, when you think about it.



Ursula Le Guin: A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)


Already a fan of such writers as Alan Garner, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien, I could see that this was something quite different: different, but equally valid.

The Tombs of Atuan (1971), which we all read next, was a very different kettle of fish: more layered, subjective and intensely personal. I didn't like it as much as the more objective, epic voice of A Wizard of Earthsea, but (once again), even at that age, I could see it was just as valid.



Ursula K. Le Guin: The Lathe of Heaven (1971)


The Farthest Shore (1972), when it came out the next year, seemed to combine the best features of the two styles.

By then I was hopelessly hooked, and - soon after - started my long, slow immersion in her early science fiction: first The Lathe of Heaven (which my father had in a scruffy little paperback edition: still possibly my favourite among all of her books), then the far more difficult Left Hand of Darkness - which still terrifies as much as it enthuses me - and finally her wonderful 'ambiguous Utopia', The Dispossessed.



Ursula K. Le Guin et al.: The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)


After those early books came a long period of disappointment for me. Her early work seemed to me to constitute a touchstone of excellence in speculative fiction that only the greatest could hope to equal. But what was I to make of The Eye of the Heron or Buffalo Gals?

It seemed to me as if (to quote C. S. Lewis's witty denunciation of H. G. Wells) she "had sold her birthright for a pot of message." The wonderfully subtle and nuanced gender relations in books such as The Left Hand of Darkness or the original Earthsea Trilogy had been traded in for the strident excesses of militant feminism.



Ursula K. Le Guin et al.: The Eye of the Heron (1978)


The thing about addicts, though, is that it's very hard for them to break free from their addictions. By now the habit was formed, and I dutifully read book after book of hers, hoping against hope for a return to form. This even after she'd dared to politicise the pristine fantasy world of her own Earthsea with the bitter pill of Tehanu (1990).



Ursula K. Le Guin et al.: Tehanu (1990)


The years came and went, the books piled up: particularly the collections of short stories, a form which has always seemed particularly congenial to her. Eventually even I, the stupid mule, began to get it, began to read back with a bit more insight, began to see how my adolescent judgements of her work simply betokened a lack of political maturity.

Now even those novels and stories of her middle period seem to me clearly integrated into her work as a whole - it makes me blush to realise how blindly stuck in my ways I must have been to think otherwise: to fail (for instance) to see the merits of such a wonderful story as 'Buffalo Gals, Won't You Come Out Tonight.'



Ursula K. Le Guin: Always Coming Home (1985)


Interestingly enough, I didn't share the adverse reaction to Always Coming Home when it first came out - after, that is, I'd learned that it had to be read straight through: songs, folklore, ethnologies, etymologies and all, if one was to have any hope of understanding the narrative all those things frame. Do they exist for the story, or does the story exist for them? It's an interesting question, but one - by its very nature - which remains unanswerable.



Always Coming Home remains her most ambitious novel: the one which really betrays how much she was her father's daughter: Alfred L. Kroeber (1876-1960), one of the most influential ethnologists who ever lived, famous (or infamous, depending on how you read it) as one of the protagonists of the so-called Ishi saga, the story of which was eventually written as Ishi in Two Worlds (1961) by Theodora Kroeber, Ursula's mother - who never met Ishi himself - after her husband's death.



Theodora Kroeber: Ishi in Two Worlds (1961)


Always Coming Home, for those of you who haven't read it, is a strange combination of a fantasy novel set in the near (or far) future, and an ethnography of a people called the Kesh, inhabitants of what is now Northern California. It includes accounts of their religious rituals, castes and guilds, stories and poems, their diet, and virtually the whole of their life-style from birth to death. It’s a hugely ambitious text, involving the creation of a whole imaginary future people, but – of course – also aspires to be a readable story.



Alfred L. Kroeber: Handbook of the Indians of California (1925)


It’s always seemed obvious to me that it was, at least in part, inspired by her father's work: his Handbook of the Indians of California, or one of his many, many other works on Native American culture and folklore, such as Indian Myths of South Central California (1907) or the posthumously published Yurok Myths (1976).

Her mother's influence is just as strong, though: perhaps a unique case of a novelist daughter influenced by her linguist and anthropologist father and her biographer mother - who followed up her first, more scholarly book Ishi in Two Worlds with a more popular, lightly fictionalized version, Ishi: Last of His Tribe - in creating a work which can really only be described as ethno-speculative-fiction.



Ursula K. Le Guin: Searoad: Chronicles of Klatsand (1991)


Whether or not you agree with that reading, it's clear that all three of these writers, mother, father and daughter do have in common a deep kinship with the region they live in: the North-West Coast of the United States.

Perhaps her most potent expression of this feeling came in the book Searoad, an innovative book of linked short stories which combine to create the sense of a single place: Klatsand, a small town on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Given this unity of conception, I've classed it as a novel in my bibliography of her work below, but actually it would fit just as well in the list of books of short stories.

That's quite characteristic of Le Guin, actually. She defies simple classification into genres. Her potted biography on Amazon.com reads as follows:
Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018) has published twenty-one novels, eleven volumes of short stories, four collections of essays, twelve books for children, six volumes of poetry, and four of translation.
Given that they go on to say: "Her recent publications include the novel Lavinia [2008], Words Are My Matter, an essay collection [2016], and Finding My Elegy, New and Selected Poems [2012]," one can't help wondering how up-to-date these statistics are actually meant to be.

Myself, I count 13 'adult' novels alongside 9 for YA readers, which I would say adds up to 22. Given the doubts I've already signalled about Searoad, however, as well as the fact that The Word for World is Forest (1977) and Very Far Away from Anywhere Else (1976) are really more novella than novel-length, albeit published as stand-alone volumes, one could certainly argue for any figure around the 20s.

11 volumes of short stories does sound correct to me (including, as it should, her 2001 book Tales from Earthsea). The four collections of essays is hopelessly out-of-date, however. I count at least seven major volumes of these - although one could easily expand that to 8 if one included the British collection Dreams Must Explain Themselves (or, for that matter, 9, with the addition of the posthumous volume of Conversations on Writing with David Naimon).

The 12 books for children have risen to 13, the 6 books of poetry to 12, but the 4 of translation still seems accurate. By my count, then, 72 books (ignoring - mind you - a number of the chapbooks listed on her Wikipedia bibliography page), plus at least 10 volumes of collected works, ranging from the various editions of the Earthsea series to the four-volume Library of America collection.

It's an impressive total. It's not so much how many there are as how many masterpieces there are among them, though. She really was one of a kind.



Ursula K. Le Guin: The Hainish Novels & Stories (2017)






Dana Gluckstein: Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018)

Select Bibliography
(1966-2018)

    Novels:

  1. Rocannon's World. 1966. A Star Book. London: W. H. Allen & Co., Ltd. 1980.

  2. Planet of Exile / Thomas M. Disch. Mankind under the Leash. Ace Double. New York: Ace Books, Inc., 1966.

  3. City of Illusions. 1967. Panther Science Fiction. St Albans, Herts: Panther Books, 1973.

  4. The Left Hand of Darkness. 1969. Panther Science Fiction. St Albans, Herts: Panther Books, 1975.

  5. The Lathe of Heaven. 1971. Panther Science Fiction. St Albans, Herts: Panther Books, 1974.

  6. The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia. 1974. Panther Science Fiction. St Albans, Herts: Panther Books, 1975.

  7. The Word for World is Forest. 1977. Panther Books. London: Granada Publishing, 1980.

  8. Malafrena. 1979. Panther Books. London: Granada Publishing, 1981.

  9. Threshold. [As ‘The Beginning Place’, 1980]. Panther Books. London: Granada Publishing, 1982.

  10. Always Coming Home. Artist: Margaret Chodos. Composer: Todd Baron. Geomancer: George Hersh. 1985. London: Victor Gollancz, 1986.

  11. Searoad: Chronicles of Klatsand. 1991. London: Victor Gollancz, 1992.

  12. The Telling. 2000. London: Gollancz, 2003.

  13. Lavinia. 2008. Mariner Books. Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2009.

  14. Short Stories:

  15. The Wind's Twelve Quarters. 1975. 2 Vols. Panther Books. London: Granada Publishing, 1978.

  16. Orsinian Tales. 1976. Panther Books. London: Granada Publishing, 1978.

  17. Virginia Kidd, ed. The Eye of the Heron and Other Stories. By Ursula K. Le Guin et al. [As ‘Millennial Women’, 1978]. Panther Books. London: Granada Publishing, 1980.

  18. Le Guin, Ursula K. The Compass Rose: Short Stories. 1982. London: Victor Gollancz, 1983.

  19. Buffalo Gals, and Other Animal Presences. 1987. A Plume book. New York: New American Library, 1988.

  20. A Fisherman of the Inland Sea. 1994. London: Vista, 1997.

  21. Four Ways to Forgiveness. 1995. HarperPrism. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.

  22. Unlocking the Air and Other Stories. 1996. HarperPerennial. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.

  23. The Birthday of the World and Other Stories. 2002. London: Gollancz, 2003.

  24. Changing Planes: Stories. Illustrated by Eric Beddows. Orlando, Fl: Harcourt, Inc., 2003.

  25. YA Fiction:

  26. A Wizard of Earthsea. 1968. Drawings by Ruth Robbins. Puffin Books, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976.

  27. The Tombs of Atuan. 1971. Puffin Books, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975.

  28. The Farthest Shore. 1972. Puffin Books, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975.

  29. A Very Long Way from Anywhere Else. [As ‘Very Far Away from Anywhere Else’, 1976]. Peacock Books. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.

  30. Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea. London: Victor Gollancz, 1990.

  31. Tales from Earthsea. 2001. London: Orion Children’s Books, 2002.

  32. The Other Wind. 2001. London: Orion Children’s Books, 2002.

  33. Gifts. Annals of the Western Shore, 1. 2004. Orlando, Fl: Harcourt, Inc., 2006.

  34. Voices. Annals of the Western Shore, 2. 2006. Orion Children's Books. London: Orion Publishing Group Ltd., Inc., 2007.

  35. Powers. Annals of the Western Shore, 3. 2007. Orion Children's Books. London: Orion Publishing Group Ltd., Inc., 2008.

  36. Children's Books:

  37. Leese Webster. Illustrated by James Brunsman (1979)

  38. The Adventure of Cobbler's Rune. Illustrated by Alicia Austin (1982)

  39. Solomon Leviathan's Nine Hundred and Thirty-First Trip Around the World. Illustrated by Alicia Austin (1983)

  40. A Visit from Dr. Katz. Illustrated by Ann Barrow (1988)

  41. Fire and Stone. Illustrated by Laura Marshall (1988)

  42. Catwings. Illustrated by S. D. Schindler (1988)

  43. Catwings Return. Illustrated by S. D. Schindler (1989)

  44. Fish Soup. Illustrated by Patrick Wynne (1992)

  45. A Ride on the Red Mare's Back. Illustrated by Julie Downing (1992)

  46. Wonderful Alexander and the Catwings. Illustrated by S. D. Schindler (1994)

  47. Jane On Her Own. Illustrated by S. D. Schindler (1999)

  48. Tom Mouse. Illustrated by Julie Downing (2002)

  49. Cat Dreams. Illustrated by S. D. Schindler (2009)

  50. Non-fiction:

  51. From Elfland to Poughkeepsie (1973)

  52. The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. Ed. Susan Wood. 1979. Rev ed. London: The Women’s Press, 1989.

  53. Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places. London: Victor Gollancz, 1989.

  54. Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. Portland, Oregon: The Eighth Mountain Press, 1998.

  55. The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 2004.

  56. Cheek by Jowl: Talks & Essays on How & Why Fantasy Matters. Seattle, Washington: Aqueduct Press, 2009.

  57. Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000-2016, with a Journal of a Writer’s Week. Northampton, Mass: Small Beer Press, 2016.

  58. No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters (2017)

  59. Dreams Must Explain Themselves and Other Essays: 1972–2004 (2018)

  60. Conversations on Writing: Ursula K. Le Guin with David Naimon (2018)

  61. Poetry:

  62. Wild Angels. 1975. In The Capra Chapbook Anthology. Ed. Noel Young. Santa Barbara, CA: Capra Press, 1979.

  63. Hard Words and Other Poems (1981)

  64. Wild Oats and Fireweed: New Poems (1988)

  65. Going out with Peacocks and Other Poems (1994)

  66. [with Diana Bellessi] The Twins, The Dream: Two Voices / Las Gemelas, El Sueño: Dos Voces (1997)

  67. Sixty Odd (1999)

  68. Incredible Good Fortune (2006)

  69. Four Different Poems (2007)

  70. Out Here: Poems and Images from Steens Mountain Country. Photographs by Roger Dorband (2010)

  71. Finding My Elegy: New and Selected Poems (2012)

  72. Late in the Day: Poems 2010-2014 (2015)

  73. So Far So Good: Final Poems 2014-2018 (2018)

  74. Translation:

  75. Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching. A Book about the Way & the Power of the Way. Translated with J. P. Seaton. 1997. Boston & London: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1998.

  76. Gabriela Mistral. Selected Poems (2003)

  77. Angelica Gorodischer. Kalpa Imperial (2003)

  78. Gheorghe Săsărman. Squaring the Circle: A Pseudotreatise of Urbogony. Translated with Mariano Martín Rodríguez (2013)

  79. Collected Editions:

  80. The Earthsea Trilogy: A Wizard of Earthsea; The Tombs of Atuan; The Farthest Shore. 1968, 1972, 1973, 1979. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983.

  81. The Earthsea Quartet: A Wizard of Earthsea; The Tombs of Atuan; The Farthest Shore: Tehanu. 1968, 1972, 1973, 1990. A Puffin Book. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1993.

  82. Worlds of Exile and Illusion: Rocannon's World; Planet of Exile; City of Illusions. 1964, 1966, 1967. An Orb Book. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1995.

  83. The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories, Volume 1: Where on Earth. 2012. Gollancz. London: Orion Publishing Group, 2014.

  84. The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories, Volume 2: Outer Space, Inner Lands. 2012. Gollancz. London: Orion Publishing Group, 2015.

  85. The Found and the Lost: The Collected Novellas. Saga Press. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2016.

  86. The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition – A Wizard of Earthsea; The Tombs of Atuan; The Farthest Shore: Tehanu; Tales of Earthsea; The Other Wind. 1968, 1972, 1973, 1990, 2001, 2001. Illustrated by Charles Vess. Saga Press. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2018.

  87. The Complete Orsinia: Malafrena; Stories and Songs. Ed. Brian Attebery. Ursula K. Le Guin Collection, 1. The Library of America, 281. 1979, 1976. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 2016.

  88. The Hainish Novels & Stories, vol. 1: Rocannon's World; Planet of Exile; City of Illusions; The Left Hand of Darkness; The Dispossessed; Stories. 1964, 1966, 1967, 1969, 1974. Ed. Brian Attebery. Ursula K. Le Guin Collection, 2. The Library of America, 296. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 2017.

  89. The Hainish Novels & Stories, vol. 2: The Word for World is Forest; Five Ways to Forgiveness; The Telling; Stories. 1977, 1995, 2000. Ed. Brian Attebery. Ursula K. Le Guin Collection, 3. The Library of America, 297. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 2017.

  90. Always Coming Home: Author’s Expanded Edition. 1985. Ed. Brian Attebery. Ursula K. Le Guin Collection, 4. The Library of America, 315. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 2019.



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