Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Transit of Venus, part two

Friday's post about Shirley Hazzard's The Transit of Venus (1980) focused on her prose; today I'll turn to how she uses that prose to delineate character. Hazzard brings to her descriptions of people the same tone—grave, authoritative, and confident—that she uses to depict landscapes and objects. Her words are pronouncements as much as sentences, judgments on the way that people have always been at the same time as they are descriptions of a particular set of people. This account of a difficult step-daughter is a good example:
Josie had the eyes noticeable in troubled young women, eyes that are sidelong even when direct. She had the inanition that announces self-engrossment. She was already setting up an apparatus of blame, in apprehension of failure.
In a single paragraph, Hazzard offers three broad generalizations, drawn from a specific character. It's an approach that demands the reader's complicity, his willingness to accept these judgements—and it could easily wear, if mishandled. But in the 300-plus pages of The Transit of Venus, Hazzard rarely missteps, in part because she is also good when she resorts to the truly specific, the details of a person, as in this introduction to a young heiress:
So sleekly pretty, so fair and tall that she seemed an advertisement for something very costly. She had driven a car from the castle, and her hair was bound with a strip of pink silk that passed behind her ears. Her eyes were light blue—shining with what at a distance passed for sheer delight, and perhaps in childhood had truly been. Up close, however, the clarity was stinging, and neither gave nor received a good impression. Nothing about her appeared to have been humanly touched.
A few paragraphs later, we are treated to a physical manifestation of her self-regard:
Tertia Drage plucked a leaf from her dress and flung it emphatically in the empty grate. It was something they were to notice again in Tertia—that she handled objects or pushed doors 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.
Then there's this particularly sharp rendering of a relatively familiar type, the person who, through their self-pity and frustration, showers gloom, if not madness, on all around them:
Caro was coming round to the fact of unhappiness: to a realization that Dora created unhappiness and that she was bound to [her guardian half-sister] Dora. . . . At least for the present, Caro was stronger than [her sister] Grace, and was assuming Dora as moral obligation. Dora herself was strongest of all, in her power to accuse, to judge, to cause pain: in her sovereign power. Dora's skilled suspicion would reach unerringly into your soul, bring out your worst thoughts and flourish them for all to see, but never brought to light the simple good. It was as if Dora knew of your inner, rational, protesting truth, and tried to provoke you into displaying it, like treason. On the one hand, it was Dora seeking havoc, and, on the other, the sisters continually attempting to thwart or divert.
This later passage allows a hint of irony to creep in, but without dissipating the seriousness of the difficulty posed by Dora's blightedness:
Dora could always die, so she said. I CAN ALWAYS DIE, as if this were a solution to which she might repeatedly resort. She told them that death was not the worst, as if she had had the opportunity of testing. 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.
Even with its humor, that pasage retains the fundamental seriousness of Hazzard's narration. Every emotion, every action, every reaction must be rigorously analyzed, and all that prodding and poking of her characters invests their story with a feverish intensity and a sense of deep consequence; by the end of The Transit of Venus we fully believe that in the private griefs and irrevocable mistakes of everyday lives lies the stuff of great tragedy.

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