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In Praise of Shirley Hazzard

Filed under: The Katharine Wheel: On Fiction   Tagged: , , ,

Rereading Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus (1980), I found it difficult to adjust to her elliptical, portentous narrative style. After a few pages, however, something clicked, and I realized I was reading a master work: indirect but smoothly and intelligently told, with compelling characters and gorgeous prose.

In brief scenes densely packed with revealing detail and irony, the novel covers the lives of two Australian sisters, Caroline (or “Caro”) and Grace, orphaned as girls in 1938, who embark upon their romantic lives when they arrive in London, all grown up, some years after the end of World War II.

Caro receives the lion’s share of the novel’s attention—Hazzard clearly prefers her self-possession and independence of mind. She is pursued throughout the book (and her life) by an astronomer named Ted Tice, who, like Hazzard, idolizes Caro. She doesn’t reciprocate his passion, and most of the book is about love affairs with two other men; yet Ted is nothing if not constant, and he meets her from time to time, still hoping.

I have to stop a moment, though, and observe that the problem with this sort of summary—the problem with the summary of any novel—is that it typically fails to convey the book’s unique attractions. Because Transit is primarily concerned with the romantic lives of its characters, you may have concluded that I’ve latched on to some early species of “chick lit.” Hardly. In fact, it’s a tragedy, though the ending is so oblique that readers sometimes miss it.

Fortunately, you don’t have to take my recommendation on faith: you can fire up the Complete New Yorker and see for yourself. Hazzard published four excerpts from Transit in The New Yorker: “A Long Story Short” (July 26, 1976), “A Crush on Doctor Dance” (September 26, 1977; hilariously categorized under “dance” in the CNY), “Something You’ll Remember Always” (September 17, 1979), and “She Will Make You Very Happy” (November 26, 1979).

As a set, these four stories work remarkably well. “Something You’ll Remember Always” does a marvelously economical job of showing Grace and Caro’s childhood; Grace is courted by Christian Thrale in “She Will Make You Very Happy”; years after they marry, Christian has an affair with a secretary in his office, which he ends with brutal coldness, as we learn in “A Long Story Short”; and then Grace herself, unaware of Christian’s affair, falls in love with the family pediatrician in “A Crush on Doctor Dance,” though the good doctor’s principles and her own timidity conspire to keep their relationship unconsummated and brief.

To give you a sense of Hazzard’s gifts, I offer this passage from “Something You’ll Remember Always.” It begins with a verse that refers to the reversal of the seasons between England in the northern hemisphere and Australia in the southern: spring starts in September. Hazzard goes on:
You might recite it in Elocution class, but could hardly have it in English Poetry. It was as if the poet had deliberately taken the losing, and the Australian side…. What was natural was hedgerows, hawthorn, skylarks, the chaffinch on the orchard bough. You had never seen these but believed in them with perfect faith. As you believed, also, in the damp, deciduous, and rightful seasons of English literature and in lawns of emerald velours, or in flowers that could only be grown in Australia when the drought broke and with top-dressing. Literature had not simply made these things true. It had placed Australia in perpetual, flagrant violation of reality.
In that single paragraph, Hazzard captures the attitudes of two societies, English and Australian. But this is a story that is at least partly about the transference of cultural hegemony from Britain to America. So things are changing. Before World War II, little girls in Australia might sing,
Come down to Kew in lilac-time
(it isn’t far from London!)
But then the war arrives, bringing with it American soldiers (who “could not provide history, of which they were almost as destitute as the Australians”) and plastic gimcracks:
It was the first encounter with calculated uselessness…. The natural accoutrements of their lives were now seen to have been essentials—serviceable, workaday—in contrast to these hard, high-colored, unblinking objects that announced, though brittle enough, the indestructibility of infinite repetition….

Never did they dream, fingering those toys and even being, in a rather grownup way, amused by them, that they were handling fateful signals of the future.

It was not long after this that the girls began to wave their unformed hips and to chant about Chattanooga and the San Fernando Valley. Sang, from the antipodes, about being down in Havana and down Mexico way. Down was no longer down to Kew. The power of Kew was passing like an empire.
Definitely not fluff.

Also introduced in “Something You’ll Remember Always,” is Dora, Caro and Grace’s half-sister. Twenty-two when the death of their parents thrusts the two younger girls into her care, she is gradually revealed to be narcissistic and emotionally draining. “Keeping up emotional appearances,” Hazzard writes, “they were learning to appease and watch out for her. Dora’s flaring responses to error might now be feared, or any kindling of her enchafed spirit.”

“Enchafed spirit”—what an amazing phrase. But there’s more:
She said she could do away with herself. Or she could disappear. Who would care, what would it matter. They flung themselves on her in terror, Dora don’t die, Dora don’t disappear. No, she was adamant: it was the only way. How often, often, she drew upon this inexhaustible reserve of her own death, regenerated over and over by the horror she inspired by showing others the very brink. It was from their ashen fear that she rose, every time, a phoenix. Each such borrowing from death gave her a new lease on life.
And that’s Dora, perfectly drawn with a touch of irony. When Grace’s future husband, Christian, meets Dora in “She Will Make You Very Happy,” he observes to himself, “She was one of those persons who will squeeze into the same partition of a revolving door with you, on the pretext of causing less trouble.” Zing! Christian, in turn, is given little quarter. A methodical young bureaucrat, he makes an uncharacteristically impetuous decision to attend a concert, where he meets Grace and makes a date to call on her. When he arrives, Caro is there as well.
He found these women uncommonly self-possessed for their situation. They seemed scarcely conscious of being Australians in a furnished flat. He would have liked them to be more impressed by his having come, and instead caught himself living up to what he thought might be their standards and hoping they would not guess the effort incurred. Quickness came back to him like a neglected talent summoned in an emergency: as if he rose in trepidation to a platform and cleared his throat to sing.
Christian’s snobbery is evident; the scene comes alive, however, because the sisters are sure of their dignity. So sure, in fact, that he can’t play the lordly Englishman, deigning to call on the colonials. It galls him a little that they’ve not made special preparations for his visit. “A room where there had been expectation would have conveyed the fact—by a tension of plumped cushions and placed magazines, a vacancy from unseemly objects bundled out of sight; by suspense slowly dwindling in the curtains.” But he is not in such a room.

Still, he can’t help who he is, and he manages only to tone down his condescension, rather than stifle it altogether. Momentarily, he realizes that “he was the one in need of rescue, that Grace might easily do better than take up with him…. But health was hard to maintain: self-importance flickered up like fever.”

And there you’ve got Christian.

These are fine, believable characters, caught and held in Hazzard’s exquisite prose. To enjoy them yourself, I strongly recommend you find her book. But these four stories make an excellent introduction.


Thanks! Now I’ve got to find my copy and read it again. (And pay more attention!)

My pleasure. Here’s a hint: watch for what she says early on about Ted’s death.

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