If you grew up in the country as I did, then you will know those old-fashioned engagement parties and 21sts, in woolsheds or football clubrooms, trestle tables groaning with savouries and salads and cakes and cakes and cakes catered by the CWA or church women’s guild. My uncle Allan’s 21st was the same, a long table all down the middle verandah of the old farm house, seven year old me in a far corner eating and eating until I had to open all the buttons on my pants, cream cakes and pavlova, fruit cake and mince pies, jelly, trifle, lemon meringue pie and icecream.
And that’s how this collection of short stories by one of the greats of modern fiction struck me. I had to open all my buttons and lean back groaning in the corner. That’s how short story anthologies often strike me. When I open a book I want a meal not a plateful of cakes, and I love cakes.
In a lovely cheerful Introduction Le Guin explains how the two volumes of Selected Stories were chosen:
[First] .. no novellas – even though the novella is my favourite story-form, a lovely length in which you can do just about what a novel does without using all those words.
[Then] .. arbitrary restrictions, [no] stories closely tied to novels … [or] stories forming an integral part of story suites, where the pieces are linked by characters, setting, and chronology, forming an almost-novelistic whole.
So there I was with enough stories, still, to make a book about the size of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary.
After much more culling, she was down to two volumes, this one, Where on Earth for “mundane” stories, and the second, Outer Space, Inner Lands, mostly for SF, which I will review when that bloated feeling is finally gone.
If you ignore Le Guin for being a writer of genre fiction then that is your loss. She is (or was) both a fine writer technically and maybe the best story teller of the past 60 years. Where else but in SF could she explore the ideas behind Feminism, Environmentalism and Utopianism which were bursting out of her, and which she was so skilled in conveying. Nevertheless, in Where on Earth which while it is not without whimsy, she explores the problems of ordinary people dealing with ordinary people.
[In college] I had been writing realistic stories (bourgeois-USA-1948) because realism was what a serious writer was supposed to write under the rule of modernism ..
But I was soon aware that the ground it offered my particular talent was small and stony. I had to find my way elsewhere.
[The invented Eastern European country] Orsinia was the way, lying between actuality, which was supposed to be the sole subject of fiction, and the limitless realms of the imagination.
So, the first four stories are from Orsinian Tales, sharing a common geography, a backward, barren, mountainous country ruled by a distant Soviet bureaucracy; and sometimes sharing or alluding to characters in other stories (and so of course, breaking one of her own rules, above).
When Konstant Fabbre was hurt in the rockslide in the quarry he was twenty-six years old; his brother [Stefan] was twenty-three; their sister Rosana was thirteen. She was beginning to grow tall and sullen, to weigh upon the earth.
Konstant has saved the life of a deaf fellow worker. The deaf man’s daughter comes into town to care for Konstant. Stefan wants her. Unlike all his fellow townsmen Stefan has been away to school. Eventually he takes a mule and heads across the desert plain and into the mountains, through driving snow, heading for the capital. (Brothers & Sisters).
Stefan and his friend Kasimir travel by train and bus to Kasimir’s home town, for a break. Stefan falls in love with Kasimir’s sister Bruna. Then, Kasimir is shot by the police, Stefan is jailed. (A Week in the Country)
Bruna Fabbre is home, cooking when her daughter comes in from college. Stefan is at his desk at the university. Young people armed with paving stones are facing off with soldiers guarding the palace. The daughter is on the organising committee. Soon, Bruna and Stefan are in the street. (Unlocking the Air)
It seems there is an ‘Orsinian’ novel, Malafrena, of which I was unaware and which I must have.
There are 15 or so subsequent stories, most of which didn’t stick, many fanciful in one way or another, taking a fairytale or perhaps Native American style. Three stories at the end caught my attention. Each proceeds by a series of internal monologues.
A family is staying at the beach house they have long owned on a remote stretch of Oregon coast. We swap backwards and forwards between three women – daughter (uni student), mother (professor) and grandmother (widow) as they re-settle into long established routines, which are disturbed by the arrival of a researcher, a young woman, working on the life of the grandmother’s well known late husband. (Hand, Cup, Shell)
We are ‘inside’ for short periods each of the inhabitants of the tiny rural town of Ether which is notable for moving around when no-one is looking, sometimes settling on the Oregon coast and sometimes on the eastern slopes of the ranges. But it is Edna and her many lovers (and children) over the years who is the real centre of the story (Ether, OR).
Finally, a story made of eight brief stories linked only by the characters in each having the same names and roughly the same power relationship to each other, which Le Guin says arose out of an assignment she once set her students. Try as you may, you cannot make the Stephen or Ann in one story be the same person as the Stephen and Ann in the next (Half Past Four).
Have I made myself clear? Ursula Le Guin was a genius. Not just in writing, or story telling, though she was, but in her up-close observation and descriptions of human behaviour.
Ursula K Le Guin, Where on Earth: Selected Stories Volume 1, Gollancz, London, 2012. 281pp
Ursula K Le Guin, The Dispossessed (here)