Shirley Hazzard, The Evening of the Holiday

The Evening of the Holiday tells the story of a love affair between the English Sophie and Tancredi, an Italian Sophie meets during a trip to Italy to visit her relatives. Sophie and Tancredi begin their affair on the night of a holiday celebration, but the novella’s title also anticipates the inevitable end of their holiday romance, and the ending of the holiday from reality that their affair itself represents. Both accept, temporarily, the fantasy that they needn’t ask any questions about the future, but the unspoken but deeply felt knowledge that their relationship is temporary gives it greater intensity, as if the emotional investment of a lifetime must be compressed into an interval of weeks. But that knowledge cannot be suppressed forever:

He was about to speak; or so he told himself, as he sat there silent. Exchanging in his mind one pretext for delay after the other, he was like someone who, at the close of a beautiful day, constantly shifts his chair to enjoy the last of the light.

She said, “Don’t be anxious to find a reason.”

He had forgotten what they were saying. She saw that, and added, “To come to the end of this.”

He smiled at her vaguely, as if it were all a joke.

In the same patient voice, she continued: “Since there’s no need. Since we don’t have much time left together.”

The astonishment Tancredi felt at being thus relieved in an instant of any necessity to describe their position had nothing to do with a sense of deliverance – for by demolishing his belief in her unawareness of their dilemma she automatically brought into focus the dilemma itself, and he was faced not with the discussion of the thing but with the thing itself.

This excerpt actually shows off nicely both the qualities that impressed and captivated me about the book and the qualities that made it less than satisfying for me. I really appreciated the intelligent precision of Hazzard’s language, and the deftness with which she identifies the significance of a particular detail or moment. How nicely her simile of the person shifting his chair, for instance, captures the mood of this moment for the lovers, still enjoying the pleasures of the day but now with some effort, not simply basking in them. The simile also, of course, echoes the title, and so we feel the readerly pleasure of our author’s artful control of her ideas. But Hazzard’s prose is extraordinarily restrained: it has a flat affect, as if, knowing the risk of falling into sentimentality in telling a love story, Hazzard decided to leave passion off the page entirely, leaving us to infer it, to trust that it’s there. I felt as if I was watching the drama play out through a window, with each detail clearly defined but distanced. Here’s another excerpt, this one from just before Sophie leaves. She and Tancredi go for a drive and take a detour near an abandoned villa, its ruins, again, artfully suggestive of the impending ruin of their affair:

The rough surface was comforting after the urgent efficiency of the highway; among its dents and ridges they slowed to a walking pace. On either side grass grew high against the twisted trunks of the trees. When they had gone about fifty yards along the avenue, Tancredi parked the car at a place where the roadway widened slightly and where another car might pass. But nothing approached them in the driveway or from the road behind. Under the hospitable arch of green, sheltered from the light of these last curious days, they were silent in one another’s arms.

Insects and birds resumed their interrupted life outside the car. A leaf or two fell on the windshield, and they heard the flourish of some small animal in the grass. All around them, across the countryside, men and women went about their work or sat down to their lunch, talked and laughed – or wept, as they wept now. Even in that luminous green she persevered, trying to fit this love into some immense, annihilating context of human experience, assailing it with her sense of proportion.

Tancredi, who knew more about proportion, lifted his head from hers. “What could be worse than this?” he asked. “What could be worse?”

Not long ago he had thought it logical that she should leave him. In the face of this pain, it now seemed meaningless, an action deliberately performed against the only life they could be sure of, their prsent existence, in the name of a future that might never come, and that in any case must contain inapprehensible elements.

It’s beautiful writing, evocative, descriptive, and intelligent about their emotions–but where is the emotion in the writing? Do passionate love affairs really end so discursively? I found myself wishing for something to break the glass, something like Dorothea’s outburst when she sees Will Ladislaw leaving, again: “Oh, I cannot bear it – my heart will break!” Call it melodrama if you like, but my own experience suggests it’s closer to the truth, even for (perhaps especially for) love defined by the certainty that it’s only a holiday.

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3 Responses to Shirley Hazzard, The Evening of the Holiday

  1. steve donoghue says:

    Will Ladislaw! Yummy! I’ve NEVER understood how readers can prefer Mr. Darcy! Is it just his piles and piles of money? Or is it that the general reading public simply can’t associate torrid romance with a typically workaday Polish name? Although during the American Revolution, we had a genuine super-hottie with a Polish name so long it made “Ladislaw” sound like “Smith”! Oh Tad … what a vision of loveliness you were in your powder-blue uniform! Sigh ….

  2. steve donoghue says:

    I think you’re (typically? hee) too nice to Hazzard here – surely there’s a chance the reason her prose is so flat and unengaging is because it’s mostly BAD?

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      No, I’m not being nice: if I thought her prose was bad, I’d say so! I like its control; I like the details she chooses and the way she places them; I like the way the moments she describes, and the things her people say, have a weightiness about them. And yet nonetheless I’m not satisfied with it. I was thinking, after I read your comment the first time (before Earl interrupted my first attempt to reply!) about other writers who have a similarly tight style that makes me feel confident that they are choosing their words and images and ideas carefully–Ian McEwan would be one, or Penelope Fitzgerald (I’m learning), or (sometimes) Hilary Mantel. They’re very different writers in other respects: it’s just the sense of writerly restraint that I think they share with Hazzard. But they give me more sense of the emotional resonance of their moments and words, or at least they do when it seems important. I bought The Transit of Venus recently as well; I’m interested to see if I have the same reaction to it, that it’s very well written and yet, somehow, not.

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