“For any act done consciously may be defiant, may be independent, may change life utterly.
But one can only act thus if one knows there is no safety… One must wait outside. There is no hiding away from storm, waste, injustice, death. There is no stopping, only a pretense, a mean, stupid pretense of being safe and letting time and evil pass by outside. But we are all outside, Piera thought, and all defenseless. There is no safe house but death.”
– from Malafrena, by Ursula K. Le Guin
Le Guin says in the introduction to this collection that she began writing about Orsina because she fell in love with the 1820s. I am ignorant enough of history to not have known much about the revolutions of 1820, but thanks to this book I am tempted to fall in love with them as well. Le Guin wanted her first novel to be set in this period, but felt too unsure of her knowledge of European history to choose a real setting. Hence the creation of Orsinia, an imaginary country “not too far from Czechoslovakia, or Poland.” The primary work of this collection, Malafrena, is that novel, first drafted in 1952 and finally published in 1979. The accompanying short stories are also set in Orsina, but skip around in chronology. Various revolutions hover on the temporal horizons of almost every story. Some countries are like that.
I picked this book up because I was familiar with Le Guin’s Earthsea books, but Orsina is a completely different animal, similar only in the depth of its history and the extraordinary detail of its imagining. Heart and soul, Malafrena is a European novel of the nineteenth century. It calls up comparisons to works like Les Miserables and The Brothers Karamazov. I have not had the willpower or stamina to read a great many novels of that period, but I have read those two, and this one is unmistakably from the same family. It’s tragic, really, like meeting someone and knowing they should have been born into a different era. If Malafrena could have somehow been published in Orsinia in 1860 or so, it would be a classic by now. I don’t know how much traction it will ever gain when it has been so far displaced from its rightful time, but I adored it.
Malafrena is probably the best novel I’ve read this year- or at least, I loved it the most. It’s the story of a young man who leaves his ancestral estate in the mountains to help start a revolution in the capitol. Like The Neapolitan Novels, which I read earlier this year, Malafrena is the story of a country wrapped up in a story of individuals, where people, politics, and patriotism are too entangled to ever separate. Le Guin handles distance very well– I remember noticing this in Earthsea too– you never feel close to the characters, it is never intimate, but you trust them and can see that they are good people and their quietness on the page somehow makes them exponentially more fascinating. Itale, the lead character, is a man you can fall in love with, because no matter how much you trust him you can never quite figure out what’s going on in his head. Nothing makes people fall in love faster than that deadly combination of trust and mystery. Enough said about Malafrena. If you’ve ever liked any nineteenth century lit (not Dickens, the continental stuff) you should give it a shot, or if you like revolutions (ergo, you are a romantic, full stop).
My only criticism of this collection and of Le Guin’s work in general is that it is almost never funny. A true nineteenth century novel would have some clownish side characters for comic relief, and lord knows I’m not asking for that, but it can be a bit exhausting to live in such a serious, earnest, heartbreaking world all the time. The strongest of the short stories are the few with a touch of humor: “Conversations at Night” with its incredibly accurate family bickering, the awkward, sweet courting in “Brothers and Sisters,” and the family in “Imaginary Countries,” who occupy the same summer house but live vastly different lives in it, according to their ages and inclinations.
At the end of “Imaginary Countries,” the family of five throws all their luggage into a car and heads back to the city for the winter. As the car pulls away, they peer back at the summer house, trying to remember and hold on to some of its magic. I felt much the same when I came to the end of this book.
“But all this happened long ago, nearly forty years ago; I do not know if it happens now, even in imaginary countries.”