Many years ago, The Washington Post Book World started an online book club, and the first title chosen was Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1969 novel “The Left Hand of Darkness.” This science-fiction classic struck me then — and still does, for that matter — as the perfect selection for a book club. First and most important, it is a gravely beautiful work of art. More practically, however, it also readily elicits intense discussion.
A black emissary from Earth arrives on a diplomatic mission to the planet Gethen, where the otherwise human population is androgynous — except during certain periods of “kemmer,” when a person’s body passes into either a female or male condition. By the end of this short, intense book, Le Guin has compelled you to think hard about gender, race, politics and love, told a thrilling story — no one ever forgets the desperate journey across the ice — and, not least, made you cry. More incidentally, she also shows the disbelieving that some “genre” literature can be literature plain and simple.
Born in 1929, Le Guin has long been viewed as one of the three or four most important science-fiction and fantasy writers in the world. She now caps an already exemplary literary career by becoming one of the few living authors to see their work enshrined in the Library of America. “The Complete Orsinia ” gathers all her essentially realistic fiction set in that imaginary Central European country. The 1979 historical novel “Malafrena, ” for example, focuses on the interplay of 19th-century politics, art, family and revolution very much in the high European mode of Thomas Mann’s “Buddenbrooks ” or Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s “The Leopard.”
For all its prestige, the Library of America must nonetheless share the fall with three other Le Guin titles. Like her many earlier collections of talks and articles, “Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000-2016 ” spills over with insight, outrage and humor. In “Making Up Stories,” Le Guin implores her audience not to ask where she gets her ideas: “I have managed to keep the address of the company where I buy my ideas a secret all these years, and I’m not about to let people in on it now.”
Elsewhere she recalls the lessons she learned from Boris Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago,” tells us about her awed admiration for the writer Sylvia Townsend Warner, attacks corporate publishing for treating works of art as market commodities and describes Salman Rushdie as our Ariosto but criticizes his fiction for its sexist treatment of women. She also mentions that she and Philip K. Dick were both in the 1947 graduating class of Berkeley High School — and didn’t know each other.
Finally, there are the two massive volumes from Saga Press. “The Unreal and the Real ” gathers many of Le Guin’s best stories, including her single most famous work, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” A classroom staple, it raises a moral question: If the unremitting torture of a child deep in an underground dungeon would assure the happiness and prosperity of millions, would you consent to that child’s torture? Of all her shorter tales, though, Le Guin’s own particular favorite is “Sur,” the account of an all-female Antarctic expedition.
Among the novellas gathered in “The Found and the Lost” are two — “Dragonfly” and “The Finder” — set in the island world of her beloved 1968 fantasy “A Wizard of Earthsea” (which, by the way, has recently been reissued in a sumptuous Folio Society edition with an introduction by David Mitchell). This novel about young Ged’s education in both magic and self-understanding relies throughout on Taoist notions of complementaries — the balance between light and dark, speech and silence, self and shadow. Appropriately, then, Le Guin’s later tales from Earthsea, starting with the 1990 novel “Tehanu,” redress what some readers felt was an overemphasis on a male perspective in the earlier books. In some ways, “The Finder” can be read as a compact version of the entire six-volume cycle. In the course of his life, Otter — a shipwright’s son with an innate gift for magic — is enslaved to an evil wizard, escapes with the psychic help of a dying young woman, learns about the secret sisterhood of the Hand, travels for years in search of an almost legendary island and eventually, to save himself and those he loves, enters the land of the dead. Throughout, Le Guin quietly underscores how much Otter’s life is shaped by his reverence for nature, respect for women and recognition of the feminine within himself.
All told, these four new volumes gather more than 2,400 pages of a great American writer at her very best. And yet they contain only highlights from a bibliography that comprises poetry, translations, and a lot more wonderful fiction and nonfiction. Once upon a time, an interviewer was talking to Le Guin about her many books and multiple awards when she teased him by saying that she hadn’t won a Nobel Prize. He interjected that they didn’t award the prizes for fantasy, and Le Guin jokingly responded, “Maybe I can do something for peace.” In truth, I don’t think she needs to. By now, a certain literature committee in Sweden must know that Ursula K. Le Guin is as Nobel-worthy as any other author alive.
Michael Dirda’s latest book, “Browsings,” will be out in paperback this fall.
More by Michael Dirda:
By Ursula K. Le Guin
Library of America. 592 pp. $35
By Ursula K. Le Guin
Small Beer. 316 pp. $24
Saga. 715 pp. $29.99
Saga. 801 pp. $29.99