Finding—and writing—the worlds where only I had been.
Robert Walter Weir, watercolor, 8 15/16″ x 6 11/16″, 1825.
In high school I was, like many American intellectual kids, a stranger in a strange land. I made the Berkeley Public Library my refuge, and lived half my life in books. Not only American books—English and French novels and poetry, Russian novels in translation. Transported unexpectedly to college in another strange land, the East Coast, I majored in French lit and went on reading European lit on my own. I felt more at home in some ways in Paris in 1640 or Moscow in 1812 than in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1948.
Much as I loved my studies, their purpose was to make me able to earn a living as a teacher, so I could go on writing. And I worked hard at writing short stories. But here my European orientation was a problem. I wasn’t drawn to the topics and aims of contemporary American realism. I didn’t admire Ernest Hemingway, James Jones, Norman Mailer, or Edna Ferber. I did admire John Steinbeck, but knew I couldn’t write that way. In The New Yorker, I loved Thurber, but skipped over John O’Hara to read the Englishwoman Sylvia Townsend Warner. Most of the people I really wished I could write like were foreign, or dead, or both. Most of what I read drew me to write about Europe; but I knew it was foolhardy to write fiction set in Europe if I’d never been there.
At last it occurred to me that I might get away with it by writing about a part of Europe where nobody had been but me. I remember when this idea came: in our small co-op dorm at Radcliffe, Everett House, in the dining room, where you could study and typewrite late without disturbing sleepers. I was twenty years old, working at one of the dining tables about midnight, when I got the first glimpse of my other country. An unimportant country of middle Europe. One of those Hitler had trashed and Stalin was now trashing. (The Soviet takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1947–48 had been the first event to rouse the political spirit in me.) A land not too far from Czechoslovakia, or Poland, but let’s not worry about borders. Not one of the partly Islamized nations—more Western-oriented … Like Rumania, maybe, with a Slavic-influenced but Latin-descended language? Aha!
I begin to feel I’m coming close. I begin to hear the names. Orsenya—in Latin and English, Orsinia. I see the river, the Molsen, running through an open, sunny countryside to the old capital, Krasnoy (krasniy, Slavic, “beautiful”). Krasnoy on its three hills: the Palace, the University, the Cathedral. The Cathedral of Saint Theodora, an egregiously unsaintly saint, my mother’s name … I begin to find my way about, to feel myself at home, here in Orsenya, matrya miya, my motherland. I can live here, and find out who else lives here and what they do, and tell stories about it.
And so I did.
My first attempt at a novel, begun in a tiny notebook in Paris in 1951 (for I had at last got to Europe), was intrepid, immodest, and unwise. An attempt to relate the fortunes of an Orsinian family from the late fifteenth to the early twentieth century, it was called A Descendance. I did not know enough about people to write a novel, and barely enough European history to support my invented history, which included the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation and a civil war resulting from it, several invasions, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and a couple of revolutions. The characters were mostly men, because in the early 1950s, fiction was mostly about men and history was all about men and I thought books had to be about men. I wrote it at white heat and submitted it to Alfred Knopf, who rejected it with a letter that said (in essence) that ten years ago he’d have published the crazy damn thing, but these days he couldn’t afford to take such chances.
A rejection like that from a man like that is enough to keep a young writer going. I never sent the manuscript out again. I knew Knopf was right, it was a crazy damn thing. I suspected he was possibly just being kind because he knew my father, but also knew he was too hard-nosed an editor for that. He’d sort of liked it, he might have published it. That was enough.
All my next (unsold) novels were about contemporary America, except for one set in Orsinia. I began it in 1952. In various revisions it was called Malafrena or The Necessary Passion. It was about the generation in Europe that came of age in the 1820s and broke their hearts in the revolutions of 1830. Of the earlier versions of the book, the only piece I have at hand is a carbon-copied typescript page annotated “First p. of 2nd version.” It exemplifies the mood, tone, and style of the earlier drafts of the novel, directly influenced by European writing of its period, the 1820s, when Romanticism was gathering steam.
Excerpted from the author’s introduction to Ursula K. Le Guin: The Complete Orsinia (Library of America, 2016). Reprinted with permission.
Copyright © 2016 Ursula K. Le Guin.
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