The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard

Shirley Hazard is without question a first rate wordsmith; she can write beautiful sentences and string them together into an exhilarating music. She does it consistently. But she seems incapable of writing a truly first rate novel. The Great Fire nearly made it but failed ultimately for me because of Hazzard’s obfuscating and belittling worship of romantic love. The central relationship in that novel was a fairy story. Hazzard is at her best when her characters are figuratively standing beneath a window in the pouring rain. But it’s a sensibility that belongs to a bygone era. And as such can often come across as something sentimental we still feel affection for but have grown out of. It’s as if she needs to do what Fitzgerald did in Gatsby – stand outside his own romanticism, project it elsewhere and see it for what it really is, a sustained act of heightened imagination that ultimately is an illusion.

The Transit of Venus is a novel about affairs of the heart. Many of them illicit; or at least, outside matrimony. Characters are only really alive when the heart is engaged and pumping. It reminded me a lot of Rosamond Lehman’s the Echoing Grove – the theme of two sisters, one rebellious, the other more willing to compromise to the dictates of domesticity and the romantic lyrical nature of the novel’s sensibility. Lehman though did a much better job of examining the backstage realms of domesticity without belittling it as Hazard often does. Hazard isn’t interested in her domesticated female until she’s contemplating adultery. She isn’t really interested in anyone unless they’re about to step out into a storm.

Also, stylistically this novel is a nightmare for the first fifty pages. So tangled and cryptic are her sentences that you have to read each one twice. It reminded me of both late Henry James and Elizabeth Bowen –the trick-or-treat facemasking of opaque overly wrought prose. The first fifty or so pages are virtually unreadable. Until, it appears, Hazzard begins to enjoy her characters and her story and relaxes. As I said there’s much to admire in the writing itself but as a novel there was too much that jarred for me – her attempts to politicise the text for example when one of her triumphs is to transcend era: her novels always have an encompassing timeless drift – to truly take it to my heart.

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