Friday, January 09, 2009

The Transit of Venus

On the first page of her novel The Transit of Venus (1980), Shirley Hazzard describes the approach of a storm:
That noon a man was walking slowly into a landscape under a branch of lightning. A frame of almost human expectancy defined this scene, which he entered from the left-hand corner. Every nerve—for even barns and wheelbarrows and things without tissue developed nerve in those moments—waited, fatalistic. Only he, kinetic, advanced against circumstances to a single destination.
The prose of this paragraph offers much to admire: the action occurring "under a branch of lightning," as if lightning were as much a part of our landscape, and as near, as the trees; the phrase "almost human expectancy" to describe the tension inherent in the ion-charged pre-storm air; the man being "kinetic," advancing "against circumstance" just as the prose of the paragraph advances the action against its own deliberate pace.

Best of all, and what made me pause in admiration, is the line about "every nerve" waiting, "fatalistic." It's the sort of thought I might have put down, had I tried to write a scene of incipient violence, human or natural. But on re-reading, I would certainly have stricken the thought: there's only one human in the landscape, only one set of nerves to tense--to write of every nerve tensing is to invite skepticism. Hazzard, however, not only allows that suggestion to stand, but adds the assertion that, in such teetering moments, inanimate objects do have nerves—"develop" them, even. She almost dares the reader to disagree, to deny what he himself has felt in similar situations. It's the heart of a brilliantly realized paragraph, and it's emblematic of the pregnant qualities of Hazzard's prose.

Hazzard's metaphorical richness is reminiscent of Dickens. Though her stately prose bears none of Dickens's manic intensity, it shares with his a fecundity that imbues the many inanimate objects of our thing-filled world with discernible life. A Bentley is "rolled backwards to a herbaceous border, where it crouched to spring." A new road is "fanned out across a rise, houses splayed back like buttons released over a paunch." A barn squats "by the roadside like an abandoned van." A bus "plunged forward. At its roaring, a small car withdrew into a hedge: an animal bayed." Between two headlands "the Pacific rolled, a blue toy between paws." A room is described as appearing
unawed by him—not from any disorder but from very naturalness. 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. This room was quite without such anxiety. On its upholstery, the nap of the usual was undisturbed.
This is description that acknowledges the constant interplay between person and surroundings, the way that our every action ripples out into our environment, soaking it with our intentions and emotions; it sets scenes indelibly and with economy.

Jenny Davidson at Light Reading the other day quoted from a Gary Lutz article from the Believer about the sentnce:
[N]arratives in which the sentence is a complete, portable solitude, a minute immediacy of consummated language—the sort of sentence that, even when liberated from its receiving context, impresses itself upon the eye and the ear as a totality, an omnitude, unto itself.
While it would be a stretch to claim that The Transit of Venus quite fits that description, it is nevertheless rife with that sort of sentence, as piercingly perfect as an aphorism:
"Whatever heresy had existed in this house had come from upper servants."

"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."

"You felt that the walls of such houses might topple inwards, that they would crush but not reveal."
The perfection of these and many other of Hazzard's sentences is such that their polish makes invisible the worrying and working over that surely were their origins; they feel natural, as if they had sprung from her pen fully-formed.

Hazzard sets a deliberate, stately pace which even such arrows as the above cannot disrupt. Her prose unfolds extremely slowly, the meanings of her sentences shifting word by word, as much left unsaid or implied as is said directly. One cannot read The Transit of Venus quickly. Like Ivy Compton-Burnett, Hazzard demands close attention; anything less risks missing her meanings entirely, as into any descriptive passage might be interwoven a moral insight or observation of character.

Hovering near every line is the authorial presence, yet that proximity somehow avoids seeming overbearing, coming across instead more like the kindly attentions of a guide or assistant. Hazzard's words slow the reader to molasses pace, and cast a powerful spell, one not dissimilar to that which descends on the solitary reader of a horror novel: the world itself sinks into a background silence, little registering, and re-emergence—especially if occasioned by noise or surprise—is jarring, even disheartening.


  1. I'm glad to see someone else singing the praises of Shirely Hazzard,a s I think she is one of the most accomplished writers I've read. I agree that she requires a slow and appreciative approach. I must re-read her this year.

  2. Shirley Hazzard is one of few authors for whom our book group has returned to read again and again. Last fall we read and discussed "The Bay of Noon" and her short memoir "Greene on Capri". But it all started with "The Transit of Venus". Your insightful comments suggest to me I need to take up this novel again to enjoy the beauty of her prose once more.

  3. As an Australian, I can't tell you how pleased I am whenever I hear of a non-Australian reading Shirley Hazzard. We tend to believe she is criminally under-read. I read The Transit of Venus towards the end of 2008 and as you say, there is a lot of beauty in her prose (especially for the diligent reader).

    I wonder whether you have read what I consider to be her greatest book The Great Fire? A Miles Franklin winner, Hazzard took twenty years to write it (and you can tell).

  4. I join the other commentors in thanking you for paying attention to a fabulous writer. I've admired Hazzard for many years. Have you ever read Sybille Bedford? Hazzard and Bedford sit side-by-side on my bookshelf for reasons that are hard to explain other than the fact that I just love the way they write. You've done a great job calling attention to Hazard's special way with sentences.