While I was updating my Le Guin collection with the Hainish books I lacked, in preparation for my Big Re-Read of 2018, I also decided to pick up Ursula Le Guin’s last book, a collection of blog posts and essays, some of which I had already read when they were posted online on sites like Book View Café, but that only meant that this book too might qualify (at least technically) as a “re-read”. Hence its inclusion in my Le Guin re-read write-up, although some of it WAS new (to me).
It’s the last book she wrote. It won a (posthumous) award. But it is the last published thing with her name on it. Call me completist, or sentimental, or whatever you think applies – but it was something that I felt belonged on my shelves.
And I dipped into it in bed, at night, just before I turned out the light and went to sleep – taking Ursula with me into the shadows of my dreams.
It is, unsurprisingly, a treasurable book. Its topics are wide-ranging and fascinating, as you might expect. She speaks of greatness –
“Greatness… is a cryptogendered word. In ordinary usage and common understanding, ‘a great American’ means a great American man, ‘a great writer’ means a great male writer. To regender the word, it must modify a female noun (‘a great American woman’, ‘a great woman writer’) to de-gender it, it must be used in a locution such as ‘great Americans/writers, both men and women…’ Greatness in the abstract, in general, is still thought of as the province of men.’
– followed by thoughts on the “great American novel”, and how such a thing speaks to you in the now, in the moment, giving an understanding of things you never knew you did not understand (underlined by an account of actually meeting – and sitting at the knee of – John Steinbeck…) –
– followed by a passage that made me sit up and rub my eyes, speaking of jealousy, of the kind of jealousy and envy that stalks every writer when they look at other (lionized) writers, and coming up with the obvious (when you think about it) idea that such feelings are rooted in fear – “Fear that if Hemingway, Joyce, and Roth are really The Greatest, there’s no way I can ever be very good or very highly considered as a writer – because there’s no way I am ever going to write anything like what they write or please the readers and critics they please.” She speaks of this as based on the fact that she does not necessarily LIKE what those authors she named are writing, but if the things she doesn’t like are being called great, then what of her own stuff? But I rubbed my eyes because at this point in history it is almost unbelievable that a writer of Ursula Le Guin’s stature and caliber can ever be “jealous” of other writers – surely that river runs the other way? People who look up to her, and say, “oh GOD I can never do what she does…”? But the most salient point of all is that she feels what she feels and that every writer who reads about it is going to recognize it. We are all alike, after all. Unbelievably so. Lying there in bed, reading these words, I feel as though the two of us – Ursula Le Guin and myself – are both moths fluttering at the same bright lamp to get closer to the light – okay, she might be a grand and beautiful hard-to-miss Luna Moth and I’m one of those little tiny brown nondescript ones of the sort whose powdery wings you sometimes see smeared on your walls if you manage to smoosh one – but we are both moths, dammit. And it IS the same light.
She excoriates unfettered capitalism and the effect it has on people’s lives.
She talks about escapism: “As for the charge of escapism, what does escape mean? Escape from real life, responsibility, order, duty, piety, is what the charge implies. But nobody, except the most criminally irresponsible or pitifully incompetent, escapes to jail. The direction of escape is towards freedom. So what is ‘scapism’ an accusation of?” – A very excellent question; one that Tolkien touched on, before. It’s a whole another essay for me, I think, at some point…
She ranges far and wide, and is warm and vivid and funny about the oddest things.
On exorcism: “Church updated the rite of exorcism in 1999 – advising that ‘all must be done to avoid the perception that exorcism is magic, or superstition’. This seems rather like issuing directions for driving a car while cautioning that all must be done to avoid the perception that a moving vehicle is being guided.”
On Christmas trees, and on how a fake tree is a “nonentity” but a real tree “has as much presence in the room as a person or an animal”, and it has to be positioned by the window because “…a Christmas tree should be seen from outside and also to be able to see outside… aware of light and dark, of insideness and outsideness.” – making of that Christmas tree almost a friendly alien alighting in the corner of your living room to share the silly season with you (I myself began losing enthusiasm for Christmas trees after we shifted from real – because handling it was increasingly problematic – to fake, and it was never quite the same again… so I understand completely…)
On the pleasure of eating a soft-boiled egg – ending with, “The Oregon legislature has at last decided to ban poultry batteries… the ban to take effect in 2024. I will not live to see the birds go free.” Reading that last sentence is actually oddly like being stabbed, a little, each word bearing (now) the weight of a prophecy, because of course it was no less than the truth. She has left us, and the battery hens are still in prison. One feels a little like starting a petition to free the poultry NOW, and to do it in Ursula Le Guin’s name…
She writes – with simple love and the acute observation of a lifelong storyteller – of her cat, Pard, and the things he gets up to – like bringing her a “live toy mouse” to bed at 3 in the morning, for her, too, to play with it, with predictable consequences. But she speaks of it in terms of an “unfinished education” because her cat is obeying predator instincts by hunting the mouse but then doesn’t quite know where to go after the prey has actually been caught. Le Guin finds – and disposes of – the tiny mouse corpse on the morning after the night before, and then, because she is who she is, writes a poem for the mouse. Not just any poem, but a an elegiac, poetic envoi – you can almost see the mouse, in a Disney cartoon afterlife, looking down at this and bringing its tiny paws up to its heart, sniffing in disbelief – “For me? That was for me?…” And this is another way that we are similar, she and I, in the end – not because I write funeral poetry for my cats’ mice kills but because I too have cats, and I smile as I recognize the Universal Cat as they pertain to her Pard, and to my own companions. We share cat-parenting, Ursula Le Guin and myself. It’s an oddly warming thought.
There are many things – oh, SO many things! – here that underline for me that there was potential here, had I had the chance to know this woman, of a friendship, not only because she was a great writer whom I have always admired but because she is sharp, and funny, and observant, and seems to share my own propensity to glom onto details and ignore a bigger picture by pointing to a single thing and asking, “but why THIS?” Never is that more evident than when Le Guin pens an essay both amusing and oddly poignant while discussing the old chestnut saying of “you can’t have your cake and eat it too” – how, she asks, admitting that the question has puzzled her for a long time, can you eat a cake you don’t have…? And if that unanswerable question is left to stand, then the whole saying… But then she hits the eureka moment, and gleefully “explains” the saying to herself and her reader. And, being Ursula Le Guin, comes to her own conclusions about it, speaking about writing, about words:
“Words are my matter – my stuff. Words are my skein of yarn, my lump of wet clay, my block of uncarved wood. Words are my magic, antiproverbial cake. I eat it, and I still have it.”
Yes, you do, Ursula Le Guin. You have always had it. And we have always been privileged to share it.
Here, at the gate between our world and the undiscovered country beyond, I pause while walking for a while beside a great writer whom I might also hail as my sister, and my friend – and I raise a hand in farewell as she walks on, alone. The slight woman with the dandelion-silver hair vanishes into the mist. But this book – this collection – this was her turning just for a moment to wave back at me. And I find myself oddly speechless in articulating how much that has really meant to me.
For all she has left behind, for being able to share it, I am grateful.
These essays first appeared on my Patreon.