Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Showing off

One last passage from Shirley Hazzard's The Transit of Venus before I leave it and return to Fanny Burney's Journals and Letters. In this one, a woman waits for a friend in a tea-room:
Admitting only seemly sounds, the room sheltered none but the decorous. All tables were occupied by women. Waitresses like wardresses kept a reproving eye on performance, repressively mopping a stain or replacing a dropped fork.
Try reading that last sentences aloud, hearing its lovely rhythm, the back-and-forth of consonance and assonance, enjoying the imagination that casts a waitress in the warder's role, the fine eye that sees a stain mopped "repressively." Then remember that this line is required to do nothing but set the scene in the tea room--yet Hazzard lavished sufficient attention on it to make it a thing of beauty on its own.

That showiness could easily seem too much: when I read that line aloud to rocketlass, though she understood what I admired she found it overwritten. But encountering the unnecessary perfection of that sentence in the midst of a 340-page novel made me gasp with admiration, reminded of the countless hours of writing and revision necessary to work prose up to such a pitch. As I'd already fallen under the spell of Hazzard's writing, that line struck me like the flourish of a great athlete reveling in his talents--like Randy Johnson breaking off a wicked slider to a banjo-hitting backup just because he can. It's extravagant, even flagrant, but beautiful and breathtaking nonetheless.


  1. Your comments about Jim Thompson were of interest, especially as the library has a rasher of such. You've likely noticed that I am a relative stranger to crime fiction, having only read a Rebus novel a number of years back, and that only for a girl -- it didn't work.
    Aside from my sigh, I did enjoy the holiday foray into Rex Stout. Cheers.

  2. For what it's worth, I'm awarding you the Premios Dardos: see http://causticcovercritic.blogspot.com/2009/01/non-covery-aside.html for more.

  3. Wow--thanks for the Premio Dardos, and for the kind words. To have impressed the Caustic Cover Critic . . . that's a good day.

    Now to try to think about how/to whom to pass it on . . .