Required Reading: Orsinian Tales, by Ursula K. Le Guin

by Randy Murray on April 11, 2012

Here’s an excellent recommendation for your reading written by Penny Mattern


First of all, if you have heard of Le Guin and think of her as a “science fiction” or “fantasy” writer, please don’t. Certainly she has won pretty much every prestigious award in the field, awards given by both fans and fellow writers, for specific works and for lifetime achievement, but the genre of a work is a categorization applied from outside. Her works have also been finalists for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and she has received the National Book award among many other “mainstream” literary awards. And almost all of her works, early or recent, are still in print, itself no small attainment.

I have picked Orsinian Tales as my subject here not only on their merits as great stories, perhaps the best you’ve never heard of, but specifically because they are “mainstream” stories, indisputably not able to be typed with any genre label. For details on Le Guin and her works as a whole, look here and on the Orsinian Tales themselves, look here.

When Le Guin was asked to write an introduction to a book of stories by James Tiptree, Jr. (as she tells us in that introduction itself), the request, after some backing and forthing, was to write “a two-line introduction saying, ‘Here are some stories.’ ”

So Le Guin takes us with her as she considers, then rejects, several two-line attempts, including

“Here are some superbly strong sad funny and very beautiful

and goes on to discuss much about Tiptree and the stories, and finally comes to rest on these two lines:

“Here are some
real stories.”

Reader, I cannot do better than to say of Le Guin’s own Orsinian Tales,

Here are some
real stories.

Yes, they are superbly strong sad funny and very beautiful stories — but that’s where we have to start, not where we finish.

Great stories, like any great works of any art, are not expressible in any other form, least of all by talking about them. For any work of art, we can express our reactions to them, talk about the artist, discuss aspects such as structure, symbology, etc., detail technical aspects of composition or making, of tools, habits, procedures. We can even catalog or describe the works of a given artist, of a movement, or a perceived type of art — and we do, often at great and sometimes tedious length. But we cannot express the work itself fully by verbal discussion.

For the best fiction, in particular, recounting stories or plot points, describing settings or characters, discussing metaphors or (something I avoid at all costs) attempting to say what it “means,” or what the author means by it, will never get close.

This makes discussing eleven varied, brilliant, subtle, piercing stories set in Eastern Europe in both the recent and the far past — but not, mark you, in the future, much less in another galaxy — in a short piece like this blog post a little difficult: a pale shadow of the difficulty faced by Le Guin when trying to write her introduction to Tiptree’s stories for the print edition.

What I can say is that I will never forget these stories. I have come back to them and re-read them over and over, through the years. After reading these stories, paying close attention (you can’t help paying close attention to Le Guin’s writing, subtle, fluent, magnetic prose that it is) you are reminded of the characters, the incidents and settings, the situations and events, even the props, so to speak, props such as the bass violin in its case and the hazards of trying to carry it around anywhere — on a passenger train, say, going home after A Week In The Country. Or of the scarves worn and left behind by one character as she passes through rooms, through the garden, through Ile Forest; of the cane chair seats woven by another, who overhears Conversations At Night.

I think of the character termed “the handsomest man I ever saw,” a simple but not unimportant man who is somehow “a king within his own country,” and of his brother who is not. There is a story of diplomatic defection — or is that what it is? There is the unexpected reaction of The Lady of Moge to an unexpected meeting, years later, with her heroic rescuer. We learn of the correlation (or is it indeed the causality?) of blood sacrifice. We see, by indirection and contrast, the implacable creative urge of the musician who is pressed hard against circumstance, and of another who is not.

A Week in the Country; Brothers and Sisters; An die Musik; Ile Forest; Conversations at Night; The Lady of Moge, and all the rest, each one, as the fairy tales say of the king’s (or the woodcutter’s) several daughters, more beautiful than all the rest. Each title — there are eleven — is its own peopled world, immersive, complete, partly recognized by its history and custom, partly completely foreign, to be discovered over and over, revisited often, its pleasures ranging far beyond learning merely “what happened next.”

As Le Guin said in her introduction to Tiptree’s book,

“Here are some
real stories.”


Amazon Link - Orsinian Tales: Stories


UKL’s bookshelf at Powell’s Books



The Required Reading: Orsinian Tales, by Ursula K. Le Guin by Randy Murray, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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