I remember driving to a college interview with a copy of The Dispossessed on the passenger seat beside me, in case I arrived too early. My first computer password, at the beginning of college, was an anagram of her name. I remember reading The Dispossessed again when I moved to California, to console myself to the strangeness of the new planet where I found myself. And The Dispossessed is on my bedside table again, tonight.
For the last two falls I have been teaching my graduate students The Left Hand of Darkness. Last fall, I realized their edition had a typo, a crucial, meaning-changing typo, on the novel's last page. I went through my house looking for other editions to compare. It turns out I had five.
I have blogged in the past about the debts I owe to Le Guin as a writer, and those debts have only matured as I have:
I no longer know how many times I have read The Language of the Night. [I]t was my first example of how to write an essay about a piece of fiction. More importantly, it was my first model of an essayist's prose, and I could not have had a better. Le Guin's prose, lucid and evocative, as clear and as complex as running water, still gives me my sense of what a paragraph or a sentence ought to be.
I was all too slow to be aware of it, but this is the truth: I am trying to write like Ursula K. Le Guin. I am always trying to write like Ursula K. Le Guin. This is no less so because I do it without thinking of it; it is only more so. .... She is the essayist I wanted to be when I grew up, and she is the stylist whom I, having grown up, would like to be. ... In the middle of my life, better late than never, I am obliged and honored to acknowledge her as my master.
She was a late bloomer, who published her first novel the year she turned 37, and her first undeniable masterpiece, The Left Hand, the year she turned forty. That has always been a lesson to me.
She was an American Taoist, a real one, in a country where many who profess Taoism are deceiving themselves. She had no space for self-deception; the Tao, after all, is about dispensing with illusions. Her perspective was unblinking and undeceived, looking straight at truths most shy from. Many would call such a perspective cold but, precisely because she was so free of illusions, her viewpoint was astonishing warm. She wrote fantasy, but never trafficked in or tolerated the everyday lies and fantasies that our society breathes. Her novels took you to another planet, where you found yourself facing the truths of human nature that you shied away from every day.
She was fearless. She could not be intimidated. And her craft was profound.
I am thinking of her husband tonight, Charles, to whom she was married for decades, and who clearly served as helpmeet to her in a way that men of his generation expected of their wives and not themselves. Le Guin wrote, again and again, of deep monogamous bonds, the pairing for life, in a way that has to be, in part, a profound tribute to her own partner.
I would take, gladly, another year or two or five of her words, of whatever she was able and willing to share. But she had already written her last novel, and knew it. When she no longer had the physical stamina to write a novel, she faced that truth. Her accomplishment is complete tonight. She has already achieved more than anyone could ask.
Ursula Le Guin did not believe in heaven. She found the idea of an afterlife suspect. So all that remains of her tonight are her words. They will always be there if you want them. Let me say what a comfort they can be.
cross-posted from Dagblog, where all comments are welcome