The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread

Orsinian Tales: Le Guin’s Melancholic Stroll Through an Imaginary Central Europe

A biweekly series, The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread explores anew the transformative writing, exciting worlds, and radical stories that changed countless lives. This week we’ll be covering all of Le Guin’s short story collection Orsinian Tales (1976). My edition is included in the 2017 Gollancz collection Orsinia.

Ahem. Where were we? Last month, we left off having finished Le Guin’s YA novella Very Far Away from Anywhere Else, a mundane, not-so-SF novel that nonetheless touched on a great many things that we’ve (re)read together throughout this past year.

2020 has been a shit show, to put it mildly. Le Guin—along with you, my co-readers, from the Le Guin’s “masterpieces in Earthsea and radical SF in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and back in time to her beginnings in the early novels of Hain, her acclaimed novel(la)s Lathe of Heaven and The Word for World Is Forest, and more recently the first collection of her short stories—has been here with us through it all. And yet we’ve barely tasted the entirety of the feast she left behind. So we continue, because it is all we can do these days: on to Orsinia.

Orsinia: A nation vaguely located in Central Europe, somewhere near to and inspired by the histories of lands that became Czechia (yes, it’s no longer the Czech Republic), Western portions of Romania and Hungary, the northern Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia. It is a land close by to Austria and the cultural reach of the Hapsburgs’ intracontinental empire, in lands that turned communist but went the way of Yugoslavia and Albania, that fell outside the Iron Curtain even as a similarly repressive state arose in the fantastically elusive, magical-realist, and oh-so-melancholic Orsinia. 

Orsinia first appeared in Orsinian Tales, a collection of eleven original stories that appeared in a hardcover edition in 1976 and was shortly followed three years later by a novel, Malafrena, also set in Orsinia. After that, Le Guin wrote a few more Orsinian short stories and vaguely referenced Orsinia here and there. Orsinian Tales is a travelogue through the history and identity of a land that was, but never was—an odd, impossible possibility, a liminal zone skirting the edges of real time and space. 

Hain was a sandbox for anthropological extrapolations, for exploring how culture, environment, and technology radically change humanity. Orsinia is a sandbox of a different sort, a place for Le Guin to dip into the complicated cultural-historical heartland of a Europe she only imagined—having read widely in Early Modern European literature and only travelled to France, where she lived in 1953 and married Charles Le Guin—but returned to in important ways throughout her career (see, for example, her translation of Romanian SFF). Moreover, the stories are both an homage to the plaintive traditions of twentieth-century Czech and Germanophone literature (think Milan Kundera meets a less-disturbed Franz Kafka), and a whetstone for honing her skills at writing quiet, emotional vignettes. Such is the tone of these Orsinian tales: sad lives in a grey world, carving out little happinesses when and if they can. They’re familiar, comforting, and beautifully written with an eye to that unachievable but nonetheless futile thing, the universality of literary experience.

The stories in Orsinian Tales don’t really follow a clear narrative trajectory. Each is similar in that they’re relatively short vignettes (with the exception of “Brothers and Sisters,” at almost 40 pages) about a small group of people, hyperfocused on a particular moment or set of encounters in their lives, and that the larger history of Orsinia is only learned by reading between the lines or picking up on context clues dropped here and there in dialogue. They’re something like an imaginary Central European version of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, though they don’t tell a story about contemporaries living in one small town. 

Le Guin’s tales traverse the range of this small country, occasionally bring us back to the same towns and cities, once in awhile reference the same family (the Fabbres, who appear again in her 1996 collection Unlocking the Air, AKA More Orsinian Tales), and span centuries, from a small high-medieval Gothic set in the 12th century to a scientist’s dream of escaping state surveillance in the 1960s. Most stories take place in the first decades of the 20th century, likely because in Central Europe this was indeed a period of rapid social, political, and economic change that saw the fall of the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires, rise of Nazi Germany, creation of several repressive communist regimes, and the ravages of two world wars that devolved into hundreds of smaller skirmishes and conflicts, as well as the post-Stalinist attempts to consolidate power at the hem of the Iron Curtain, particularly in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968).

I don’t think it’s worth recapping and responding to every story in this collection, as I did with the previous collection I reread, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters. In part, it’s because The Wind’s Twelve Quarters was a collection of stories published in the early part of Le Guin’s career. In Orsinian Tales, the stories do not stand out like jewels each glinting separately on one crown, but are more like threads in a single tapestry. This is partly purposeful on Le Guin’s part, as she is attempting to weave a literary background for this imaginary country, and partly because, well, the stories don’t stand out as powerfully and individually to me. Something like “Ile Forest”—about a woman falling in love with a man despite knowing he killed his previous wife (Bluebeard’s Castle, much? Kinda, but not really), as well about the strength of homosocial male bonds in a world where the rural has a strong, romantic pull on young urbanites—is ultimately unmemorable. I simply don’t know what to do with it and don’t think I’ll remember it past next week. 

So what does stand out (to me) in Orsinian Tales? What unmemories of an impossibly possible country will remain? “The Fountains,” a mini-tale about a scientist who “defects” from Orsinia in 1960 while on a trip to Paris, only to return willingly into the nervous arms of Orsinian secret service (having found something like internal freedom), is thoughtful and quite possibly a love letter to Le Guin’s husband, whom she romanced in Paris. Of particular interest is “The Barrow,” which is possibly the closest thing Le Guin comes to a horror (or Gothic) story, set on Orsinia’s medieval frontier with the heathens who live in the mountains. There are tinges of Beowulf (horrid cries in the distance on fearsome winter nights), disdain for churchmen who bring with them worldly critiques of the peasantry, and a desperate, bloody sacrifice to an Old One-esque god to save the life of an unborn child. It’s eerie and there’s nothing else like it in the collection.

“The Barrow” sets a deep historical tone for a rough, tiny nation that is followed up in “The Lady of Moge,” which takes place in the mid-17th century beneath the banner of courtship, civil war, and the growing primacy of military heroism in nationalist traditions. It’s the story of a young man who meets a woman, a princess who requests in friendship that they not marry; he accedes to give her her freedom. Years later, circumstances force him to siege her castle, at which point the princess’s brother makes a deal to save her. And decades alter, as the Marshall who unified a newly modern nation-state, he discovers that in failing to treat her like a soldier at the siege of Moge (i.e. by not killing her in the siege), he took her freedom as she was forced into marriage and the patriarchal life dictated to woman of the 1600s. “The Lady of Moge” has a Shakespearean quality but is so nicely succinct, deeply skeptical of the ability of anyone to carve out freedom in lives dictated by strict social mores.

Most stories in Orsinian Tales deepen this sense of unfreedom within the growing structures of class and social oppression that transformed the feudal into the bourgeois into the communist over the course of five centuries. But within this unfreedom, characters often find highly individual means of internal escape—all that is afforded them in a world of limited social mobility. Usually, the escape is temporary, imagined, occasionally found in a friendship or romance, but rarely totalizing and hardly revolutionary. This is part of Le Guin’s homage to Central Europe, to literature written under totalitarianism, by people and in times where escape seems only personal, internal, individual.

Stories like “An Die Musik” and “The Road East” exemplify this. The two stories take place twenty years apart, two decades that make a significant difference as Orsinia changes from bourgeois republic to communist state. In “An Die Musik,” a man with no economic hope of finding the time to compose, but who lives “to music” (the German translation of the title of Schubert’s piece Le Guin’s story alludes to), finds solace in learning from a concertinist that his music (what little he has composed in 10 years) is exquisite. The knowledge changes nothing in his material circumstances; his life is still shit, but he can escape nonetheless into the beautiful mass that is his life’s work, that sounds only in his head. Le Guin has here written a wonderful story about the meaning of art, just as Schubert composed a wonderful piece on the same subject, but a more contemporary reader might find in it the same genius rendered in Miloš Forman’s Amadeus (1984).

And if “And Die Musik” renders the revolutionary as pretty much an internal delight in art, since no other escape from life circumstances seems possible (yes, I like this story but really hate the political implications of this premise), “The Road East” shows us something like a revolution. In this story, a man’s coworker is disappeared by the secret police, leading him to increasing disgust with the police state. His mother is an insufferable worrywart who believes only what the propagandists tell her: enemies are everywhere outside the door! Beware! Mr. Eray decides on little resistances, from openly talking about the disappearance of his colleague, to eventually helping a woman skirt the blockades to get out of the city. In the end, he joins a demonstration against the state. Le Guin here writes a fictionalized account of the 1956 revolution in Hungary against the Soviet satellite government, which, like the later 1968 revolt in Czechoslovakia, was violently put down. We learn in later stories (the two about the Fabbre family, “Brothers and Sisters,” “A Week in the Country”) that the Orsinian revolution was, like Hungary’s in ’56, dead on arrival. A utopian movement to pursue a change that never, given the repressive power of the regime, could have come. Not coincidentally, “The Road East” takes place in 1956.

These are to me the memorable and most powerful stories of the bunch. (I also like “Conversations at Night,” which deals with veteran disability in the wake of WWI and, like half the stories, the unfilfilling natue of heterosexual relationships heavily policed by in a patriarchal world). But on the whole, it’s an ambitious imaginarium and experiment in writing a vignette-driven historical fiction collection where all the history is totally fictional, all the fiction is effortlessly historical.

I think the best way to encapsulate my response to Orsinian Tales is that, like all of Le Guin’s writing, it’s technically perfect, emotionally complex, and beautiful to read, but unlike the majority of Le Guin’s writing, I don’t think I’ll care about Orsinian Tales in two weeks, let alone a few years, unless it’s to say, “Yes, I read that. It was technically perfect, emotionally, complex, and beautiful to read.” That said, my response is one response, and I gather from my relative indifference to Very Far Away from Anywhere Else compared to others’ more emotive responses, that others likely found Orsinian Tales a bit more enticing.

How did it sit with you? Were your discoveries of Orsinia thrilling, uneventful, revolutionary, meh, or something else?

***

Join me in two weeks on Wednesday, October 28 as we turn to Le Guin’s novel The Eye of the Heron (1978). Be seeing you!

Sean Guynes is an SFF critic and professional editor. For politics, publishing, and SFF content, follow him on Twitter @saguynes.

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