Lauren Groff on the Subtle, Poetic Voice of Shirley Hazzard
The Transit of Venus “Returns Quietly to the Mind”
The Transit of Venus is astronomical: as sharp, remote, and dazzling as a celestial body. To read Shirley Hazzard’s masterpiece for the first time is to be immediately submerged into a world in which language and character carry the reader along, gasping, in a current too strong to fight. To read the novel for the second, third, even the nth time, is to see Hazzard’s careful orchestrations of echo and rhythm, her quiet deployment of foreshadowing and omniscient irony, and to be astonished anew. This is a book—like George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower—that I have revisited every year since I first discovered it in my early twenties, when I devoted my best self to writing fiction. Even after so many reads, this novel fills me with equal parts disquiet and awe.
Shining brightest among the elements that give this novel both its strangeness and its authority is Shirley Hazzard’s prose style, which is unlike the more straightforward realistic sentences of her earlier novels—The Bay of Noon (1970), People in Glass Houses (1967), and The Evening of the Holiday (1966)— and her only collection of short stories, Cliffs of Fall (1963). In the ten years that elapsed between her third novel and The Transit of Venus, a revolution occurred in her writing. Dialogue submerged itself so that it is mostly inferred; it bursts out into quotation only when it’s important or worthy of remembering with exactitude. A crispness entered the phrasing, an economy that relies on a deliberate delaying of the verb until at least halfway through the sentence. Many of Hazzard’s sentences now finish at a hard stop upon their most powerful word. She begins her book this way: “By nightfall the headlines would be reporting devastation. It was simply that the sky, on a shadeless day, suddenly lowered itself like an awning.” “Devastation” is a word that ripples with power; “awning” is a concrete image that is both vivid and unexpected. A specific world begins to form in subsequent sentences: it is summer in England, some year during the Korean War; there is an ominously dark sky branched with lightning, a rainstorm. “Every nerve—for even barns and wheelbarrows and things without tissue developed nerves in those moments—waited, fatalistic. Only he, kinetic, advanced against circumstances to a single destination.” Four paragraphs in, and the writer has demonstrated her exquisite control.
It is necessary that the authorial voice be so powerful in this novel because it is a tragedy, circling ideas of fate, time, secrets, the nature of true goodness, the transitory nature of love. Ted Tice—who, we will soon find out, is that small and kinetic figure walking in the rain through the English countryside—will say later, “The tragedy is not the love that doesn’t last. The tragedy is the love that lasts.” The dazzling subject of the book is this particular form of tragic love, which, in any hand but the firmest and coldest and most omniscient, could quickly spin into a kind of cloying sentimentality. But Hazzard is too brilliant for sentimentality; her book is patient and wise. She shows us nearly the entire lives of her protagonists, often in painful flashes or scenes, and her images build in a sort of sotto voce musical fugue.
The figure of Venus, the goddess of love, returns again and again, first in a discussion about how Australia was discovered by Captain Cook on a mission when he was attempting to observe a rare transit of the blue planet and went off course; again, almost in passing, in a spiteful character’s denigration that another character is no Venus de Milo. She appears once more on the wall of a manor house, in a painting by Peter Paul Rubens that had been boarded up when the house was used as a military base in World War II: “Commanders had sat here in battle dress and the map of France had hung, in its turn, over the boarded canvas of flung drapery and glistening flesh; and Mars in truth had covered Venus.” This is a sly double meaning: “covering” here is also the way a stallion “covers” a mare in copulation. The omniscient narrator’s voice, though remote, can often be wily and amused. Sometimes, it is exceedingly funny.This is a book that treats its characters with tenderness, as though to mitigate the pain that will be inflicted upon them by time.
It is a hypothesis of mine that Hazzard’s humor extends to the title of the novel. The Transit of Venus, spoken quickly, becomes The Transitive Venus: young, headstrong, Australian Caro, who is strong, smart, and brave, with the potential to do anything at all with her life, finds her life’s completion only through a series of loves, from Ted Tice’s unrequited affection to Paul Ivory to a cad chosen in desperation to Adam Vail to Ted Tice again. She is a Venus who is transitive in a grammatical sense: perhaps despite her wishes, she is not the direct object; she takes the direct object. Her love is transitive also in the mathematical sense: a relation between elements that holds in a sequence. A great surprise of the book is that it lingers, too, on the agonizing loves of those whose passions take the reader by surprise, because the characters seem too sensible or boring to experience the quick dark mystery of love affairs. There is Christian Thrale, who is sober, selfish, and unimaginative until he has a summer fling with a secretary from the typing pool, Cordelia Ware. There is his wife and Caro’s sister, the innocuously sweet Grace Thrale, who, in her satisfied bourgeois middle age, will fall into a wild longing for her child’s doctor, Angus Dance. There is wit in this, the narrative voice gently demonstrating that one cannot predict the tempests that will arise in the hearts of others. The arrow of love falls where the fickle god aims it. As the narrator of the novel says, “If you knew enough, antipathy would rarely be conclusive.” Neither would be assumptions of potential, capacity for strength, for desire, for compassion.
But Hazzard’s humor expresses itself most fully in her characterizations. Awful Dora, the half-sister who raised Caro and Grace after their parents died in a boating accident, sits “on a corner of the spread rug, longing to be assigned some task so she could resent it.” She is “one of those persons who will squeeze into the same partition of a revolving door with you, on the pretext of causing less trouble.” Tertia Drage, the haughty aristocrat who vies with young Caro for the playwright Paul Ivory’s attention, is described as handling objects “with punitive abruptness, seeing no reason to indulge an uncompliant world. The occasional human anger felt against inanimate things that tumble or resist was in her case perpetual.” Tertia’s snobbish mother is “crushing a billowing blue sofa . . . a creature too heavy for its element, a cormorant on the waves.” The immense cad Major Ingot (what a name!), who marries Dora and briefly takes her off the sisters’ hands before abandoning her while attempting to steal her money, has “a citified paunch and large pinkish jowl . . . his scalp was smooth except for a splaying of strands over the crown; his eyes a hurt blue, were the eyes of a drunken child.” And uptight, meanhearted Christian Thrale is described as “now rising in his profession. Those peering into the oven of his career would report, ‘Christian is rising,’ as if he were a cake or a loaf of bread.”
This is a humor that is built out of close observation and the precision of poetry. Shirley Hazzard lived a life steeped in literature: she and her husband, the extraordinary translator, critic, novelist, and biographer Francis Steegmuller, would read aloud to each other at breakfast “plays of Shakespeare continually, also Byron’s Don Juan inexhaustibly, anything we felt like. Clough’s ‘Amours de voyage,’ Paradise Lost. Gibbon. Poetry has been the longest pleasure of my life. It literarily and figuratively saved my life, and enabled me to live inwardly,” as she told J. D. McClatchy in an interview for The Paris Review. Literature would also prove useful in her friendships: she met her husband at a party that was thrown by Muriel Spark, and she met her lifelong friend Graham Greene in a cafe when she overheard him trying to remember the last line of Robert Browning’s “The Last Mistress.”
Shirley Hazzard was bookish even as a girl. She was born in Sydney, Australia, in 1931, raised by what she described as “wounded, selfish” parents: her father was a heavy drinker but functional enough to play golf, belong to a club, and have a boat, and her mother, though “strikingly beautiful,” had untreated manic depression. (Though Dora is truly awful, Hazzard described the character in her Paris Review interview as only “a very mild dose of my mother—a destroyer who sees herself as a perpetual victim.”) To escape, Hazzard became a fluent reader at four years old. She became a child who had “evidence, on the page, of other worlds, other affinities,” which made her own country seem like “a sad little brown book of failed explorations, intrepid deaths of those who tried to map the interior of the Australian continent . . . a place that one might want to escape from.”
At sixteen, she moved with her family to Hong Kong, where she left formal schooling behind but took a job with British intelligence. She says of this time that “the young English officers there knew Asian languages, had fought in the war, were clever and amusing. The only card I had to play was literature. They were all full of poetry and so was I. We were walking anthologies.” At around this time, Hazzard fell into her first great love; the breathtaking potency of this early experience ripples through The Transit of Venus. Later, she would hold positions in New Zealand and, for ten years, with the United Nations in New York, a time that she would lean on while writing two very political books of nonfiction, Countenance of Truth and Defeat of an Ideal. In later life, she would live in London, Paris, Naples, and Capri, and write about each of her homes with care.The book is only most obviously about love; perhaps it is far more deeply and subtly about power.
But it was in 1960, while she was working in New York but vacationing for the summer in Italy, that she sent a story to William Maxwell at The New Yorker, which he pulled from the slush and published. It was her first published story. Although she would write only one collection of short stories, The Cliffs of Fall, she was adept at them, and said, “I love the form of the short story, and still hanker for it.” Some of the chapters in The Transit of Venus were first published as stand-alone stories in The New Yorker, and one can see the hand of a story writer in her chapters’ precise and surprising shapes and the way she plays with the development of time.
I feel a close affinity to Shirley Hazzard because, like her, I love poetry deeply. For a time, I even thought I was a poet. Like many fiction writers who came out of poetry, I feel myself go incandescent when I find a writer like Shirley Hazzard who deploys perfect sentences as precisely as weapons. I read swiftly, but I have to let myself slow to a crawl to savor Shirley Hazzard’s work. Her prose is too good to do otherwise: her ideas are extraordinarily rich even though her sentences sit so very lightly upon the page, and her prosody is exquisite. Most characters in this book have a monosyllabic last name, a stomping foot: Bell, Tice, Vail, Thrale, Dance, Ware. They assert themselves as solid facts. From poetry Hazzard also draws an understanding of how to pattern a work so that resonance shifts and builds under the surface of the plot. This is a book that is constructed musically: small moments turn and are seen from another angle. The downpour and subsequent flood of the first page will return much later; gestures will repeat themselves; an angel painted on a board will be put up in a succession of apartments and houses; the same airplane will take off multiple times, but we will never see it land. Goodness will be found in silences kept for decades through incredible force of willpower. The death of a central character mentioned coldly in passing in chapter two will gain full resonance only with the very last lines of the book.
As an example of what Shirley Hazzard does so astonishingly well, in the middle of a horrid, stilted dinner party, the narrator reveals a secret wound in Christian’s mother, Charmian Thrale, with a parenthetical:
(In 1916, during the Battle of the Somme, Charmian Playfair, volunteering as a nurse’s aide, was assigned to ambulance duty at Victoria Station where casualties were arriving on hospital trains . . . Enclosed with these specters in swaying gloom, a nineteen-year-old girl put her hand to her soft throat. Yet moved as best she could, to supply water or answer questions, among the gray blankets and the red, rusty, or blackened bandages. There was a boy of her own age to whose whisper she had to bend, her face nearly touching his: “So cold. Cold. My feet are so cold.” And, almost capably, the girl answered, “I’ll fix that”; turning to adjust the blanket, and discovering he had no feet.)
We see an echo of this futile touch of the foot much later in the book, when Charmian, now an older woman at the hospital where her husband lies dying, “stood at the foot of the bed, and gently touched the outline of his feet, then covered them
with a blanket.”
This is a book that treats its characters with tenderness, as though to mitigate the pain that will be inflicted upon them by time.
With my most recent reading of The Transit of Venus, it struck me that the book is only most obviously about love; perhaps it is far more deeply and subtly about power. Michelle de Kretser—an Australian novelist, like Shirley Hazzard— perceptively notes in her book-length essay on the writer that The Transit of Venus is “a great narrative of observation—an ‘antipodean’ way of seeing is described as ‘a clear perception unmingled with suspiciousness.’ Antipodean seeing is radical, interrupting ‘the smooth flow of acceptance. It draws attention to what has been normalized and rendered invisible.’” If you see antipodally, you see how unquestioned custom and privilege nudge the door open for injustice. De Kretser goes on to describe the moment early in the book when Caro sees a huge armoire in the corner of an upstairs room; instead of being awed at the wealth implicit in the ownership of such a piece of furniture, she thinks of the men who had to carry the enormity up the flights of stairs. Hers is a naturally democratic eye. Australia is distant from the seat of English power and privilege and as an émigré from Australia, Caro is young, female, poor, without influential family in England; she stands outside of the highly regimented social strata of the mother island and is thus able to see its flaws clearly.It is time itself that Shirley Hazzard so deftly stops with her great novel, by which I mean the time outside of the book—the frantic, shouting, explosive time of our modern life.
A constant flow of power runs between the characters. The reader watches with admiration as, despite her vulnerable position, Caro firmly insists on her will over her life: “She would impose her crude belief—that there could be heroism, excellence—on her self and others until they, or she, gave in.” Sexual power is a large part of this interpersonal struggle: Paul Ivory moves to seduce Caro out of a sort of foolish, terrified assertion of bravado over his rival, who could destroy him. Caro tries to change her fate when she’s in bed with Paul Ivory before his marriage and his fiancée, Tertia, shows up suddenly in her car. Paul is standing in the window of the room where they’d just made love, in his shirt and tie, with nothing else on his lower body, talking to Tertia on the ground below, “when from the fixing of Tertia’s limbs he knew that Caro stood beside him. He knew that Caro had come up behind him and was by his side at the window. Her bare shoulder, perfectly aloof, touched his own. He did not turn, but, as if he himself were Tertia Drage, saw Caro standing naked beside him at that high window and looking down; looking down on the two of them. It was he and Tertia, and Caroline Bell looking down on them. Caro’s hand rested on the sill. She was wearing nothing but a small round watch.” We see time stop for a moment, the panic in Paul, the stutter step in his thinking with these circling sentences and repetitions. But Caro’s calm and thrilling claiming of her own sexual might over Tertia in this moment fails; she finds herself left alone, humiliated, discarded for the better prospect.
Later, there is Caro’s assertion of her own sexual power over Tertia by having an affair with the now-married Paul, but he can only reconcile himself to the shift in the balance between them by making her physically vulnerable: “He had opened her dress, and the exposed streak of flesh within outdoor clothes was rather shocking Unlike many images of Caroline Bell he later sought to preserve, this one did fix itself in Paul Ivory’s memory: the stark wall, the stairs up and down, her red dress: and the flare of her breast which she left gravely revealed, like a confession.” There is Caro’s new value in the world when she marries Adam Vail (she is “an obscure work newly attributed to a master”); he is the most powerful man in the book, because he has an ethical purity that leads him to fight for humanitarian efforts, even when they’re lost causes. He is also the possessor of crass potency, as his wealth is so vast it makes even Tertia envious: “Penthouses papered with Picassos, yachts, private planes, limousines.” There is the vital knowledge that Ted Tice holds that he could use to gain his heart’s desire; most devastatingly, there is Ted’s vast, noble power of mercy in holding this information back for decades. Only time is more mighty than any other form of love in the book. Even those bursting with life succumb to time.
And yet it is time itself that Shirley Hazzard so deftly stops with her great novel, by which I mean the time outside of the book—the frantic, shouting, explosive time of our modern life, which the reader sets aside for the hours it takes to travel from the story’s stormy beginning to its end. I am grateful for Hazzard’s mastery, her voice, her subtle skill, her poetry. This is a book to be contemplated, to be shared, to be discussed with smart friends over a long night and a bottle of wine. It is a book that returns quietly to the mind for years in the strength of its images. A jar of unopened Marmite will hold in its shape the essences of resilience in the face of death, the callousness of thoughtless children. A girl with her face in shadow standing at the top of the stairs will signal the beginning of something terrifying, gorgeous, as large as life itself.
From The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard, published by Penguin Classics, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Introduction copyright (C) 2021 by Lauren Groff.