Shirley Hazzard, The Transit of Venus

Litlove was first out of the gate at the Slaves of Golconda site, and her wonderful post about The Transit of Venus, ‘The Art of Being Difficult,’ goes right to the aspect of the novel that seems to me, also, most provoking: its language. Not that the story or characters or setting of The Transit of Venus aren’t interesting–on the contrary, I thought the people had a superb distinctness to them; the story was elegantly constructed, with its crossings and recrossings, its mirrors and inversions and misreadings and accidents; and the settings had a fascinatingly lucid particularity in the details Hazzard used to put them before us. How well this little set piece evokes, for instance, a mildly acerbic colonial bitterness (a tone not altogether unfamiliar to Canadians):

There was nothing mythic at Sydney: momentous objects, beings, and events all occurred abroad or in the elsewhere of books. Sydney could never take for granted, as did the very meanest town in Europe, that a poet might be born there or a great painter walk beneath its windows. The likelihood did not arise, they did not feel they had deserved it. That was the measure of resentful obscurity: they could not imagine a person who might expose or exalt it.

Or, more particular yet, here’s a London morning, damply unwelcoming: “At that hour all London was ashudder, waiting for the bus.” We feel, as well as see, the place. I thought a lot of Hazzard’s descriptions had this tactile quality.

That slightly estranging, too-poetic word “ashudder,” though, is a tiny example of just how stylized Hazzard’s prose is. It is, as litlove says, difficult, elliptical, opaque. There’s a lot of utilitarian prose, or worse, in mainstream and especially genre fiction. Writers whose work I like nonetheless bore me with their assumption that the writer’s job is to get the story told without the language getting in the way; they seem to aspire to prose that is as transparent or functional as possible. That is a safer option, no doubt, than venturing into the dangerous territory of overt artistry. It is not easy to tell a story directly and clearly, but it is far riskier to tease and play and experiment with language–riskier, because, for one thing, the measure of success becomes immediately more elusive. Hazzard is a risk-taker.

On the whole, for me, Hazzard’s style was successful. One measure that I use is whether the style of the book suits what I discern as the organizing ideas or interests of the book: do the author’s verbal tricks seem like sheer display, or does the aesthetic whole have integrity? The Transit of Venus is intensely interested in the degree to which people are opaque to each other, with the uncertainties of their external appearance as indicators of their thoughts and intentions. It sometimes seems that the more literally naked her characters are, the less that is revealed about them; their physical proximity exacerbates rather than overcomes their mental distances, their tendencies to misinterpret or to fill in blanks. So, a prose with gaps and omissions, precise about surfaces but constantly fraught with meaning that seems too weighty to be contained in the sentences that carry it–that seemed right. It’s not a realistic mode exactly (I agree with litlove that the dialogue often strains credulity): the novel proffers a heightened reality. Does it make sense to the rest of you if I say there seemed to be something cinematic about it, not because there’s a grand panoramic sweep, or a plot of secrets and revelations (though in a way, I suppose both of these things are true), but because there are a lot of effects in each scene and as they play out, you can so easily imagine the ebbing and receding of an emotional score? Music, in films, often brings out emotions that can’t be easily displayed through words or actions. I felt like Hazzard’s language sought to do the same, without making every thought or emotion explicit. “Everything had the threat and promise of meaing,” Hazzard says early on. That threat and promise permeate both the story and the language.

Another measure I use is the balance of pleasure and annoyance. I was sometimes annoyed, reading along. I found the missing word trick (more accurately, the omitted word trick) especially annoying, even though I have offered sort of an explanation for its thematic fitness. One example: “Caro might have asked, How old. But was silent . . .” It’s like a writing exercise, or an excercise in close reading: What difference does it make, to the sentence, to the rhythm, to the meaning, to our reading experience, to put “she” back in? “Caro might have asked, How old. But she was silent . . .” What is lost in that smoothing out of the syntax, that restoration to normalcy? Or, what is Hazzard doing to us by refusing us that smoother process? The immediate result for me, each time, was to force me to reread: had I just missed something? Had I not grasped the actual grammar of the sentence? These moments always made me stumble and have to gather myself up again. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. And annoying as it could be, the prickly sense of irritation at what seemed, sometimes, just a mannerism was outweighed by the number of times I sighed with appreciation over a sentence that seemed pure and satisfying in its precision. Every word seemed chosen and placed (or omitted!) with such care, which is not to say that the language becomes precious, just that it has a deliberate cerebral quality that is just what you don’t find in so much other fiction. And this is not to say that the book is ponderous: wit can be cerebral as well. I particularly liked this little bit, for example, on the changing fortunes of the perversely pastoral poet Rex Ivory, who keeps on writing poetry about the natural “glories of his native Derbyshire” even during and after his time as a POW:

[H]is story was soon one of the items of victory, for the newspapers took it up and he became “the poet Rex Ivory” in publications where an indefinite article had formerly done for him well, and rarely, enough. A Selected Poems went into print on coarse, flecked wartime paper, and there were no more witticisms about ivory towers. He read that he had been correct in spurning the First World War, and prescient in endorsing the Second; and he pondered the new idea that he had shown acumen. The BBC brought electrical equipment into the Dukeries in a van and a camera followed the well-known and prescient poet Rex Ivory as he walked between flowering borders with a pair of Sealyhams borrowed from a neighbour. Despite his unrehearsed analogy between the British mental asylum and the Japanese camp, the interview was a success; because, when people have made up their minds to admire, wild horses will not get them to admit boredom.

The otherwise quite dark conclusion of the novel is lit up with some fine satire on his posthumous academic prestige, marked by the publication of a “brilliant critical biography” with the spot-on title Abnegation as Statement: Symbol aand Sacrament in the Achievement of Rex Ivory: “Dr Wadding had suspended his groundbreaking work on the Lake Poets so that Rex Ivory might benfit from critical elucidation. . . . ‘My task, as I see it, is to adumbrate the sources of his entelechy.'” Perhaps, with that darting stab at an entirely different order of difficulty, Hazzard seeks to justify her own degree of elusivenss, which is, at least, in the service of human feeling.

A few of us exchanged some thoughts on Twitter as we worked our way to the end, and I think we were all equal parts startled and puzzled by the revelations about Paul Ivory’s past. I wonder if we were surprised on purpose, to make a point about the layers of deceit or performance that come between us and certain knowledge of each other. It works as a plot device, giving Caro a new perspective on her own choices and relationships, but still, why that particular backstory? It seemed discordant, somehow.

4 thoughts on “Shirley Hazzard, The Transit of Venus

  1. Da nielle April 4, 2011 / 8:40 pm

    Does it sound awful to say that I think I am appreciating this so much more now in thinking back on it that I was at times during the actual reading? I feel like I am now ready to go back to the story and read it in earnest and will actually get it. I did have to go back a lot of times and reread a paragraph, but often I would just keep going as otherwise I would be reading still. Still, I did enjoy much of the story as I was going–some of what she wrote was so amazing though a lot went over my head, too. I missed a lot, but it helped so much to just talk about it a little along the way. I loved the way she brought it back around, and while that story of Paul Ivory’s was sort of shocking and felt like it was out of left field, it made the story for me. It was like a lightbulb going on all of a sudden. Now I do feel like I could go back and read again and get all the stuff she wasn’t blatantly saying (or that I just wasn’t getting). And it makes me feel better to know I wasn’t the only one to find it hard going!


  2. litlove April 5, 2011 / 1:35 pm

    I love what you say about the threat and promise of meaning, yes, that does seem to account perfectly for the density of the prose. And I do agree that the character’s inability to properly see each other and of course themselves does match the gaps and omissions in the narrative. Those chopped off sentences were often used to express cliches – or half cliches by the time we got them – I guess because Hazzard wanted to hint towards something that we could fill in, which you could also say was another way for her to keep the reader mentally alert and responsive. I’m glad we read this, and I was very glad to have the opportunity of discussing it and seeing what other people thought and felt. It has certainly enriched my experience of the novel.


  3. Susan Messer April 6, 2011 / 11:09 pm

    I’ve been looking forward to seeing what you and your reading group had to say about Transit of Venus. I read it too long ago to remember everything I thought and felt back then. Actually, it was during phase one of the last Transit, so it must have been 2004, according to Stephanie’s post at the Slaves of G discussion.

    That night, my husband, and my friend, and I who had all recently read the novel, sat in the yard, swatting away mosquitoes (ugh; they came in droves) as long as we could stand them, and toasting to the night sky.

    Your comments and those of your reading group brought a lot of the novel back to me–the intricate structure that comes together with that astonishing click, the complex array of characters, and the annoying aspects of the language. I appreciated hearing that you and others felt that way about the language (in parts). There was a great discussion of Hazzard over at Readerville, back when it was in operation, and I tried to see if I could find it today, but alas. Someone over there, as I remember, had a deep understanding of the astronomical Transit and how it related to the novel, but the thing I remember most was the idea of triangulation–the sun, the earth, and Venus–and then all the triangles in the book, the various threesomes reflecting off each other, casting shadows over each other, passing by each other.

    Hazzard was here in Chicago for the Humanities Festival shortly after that, reading from the Great Fire. She said that years ago, someone bought the movie rights to Transit, and they keep re-upping their rights to it, but still no film. It certainly does have cinematic potential. Thanks for bringing all this back to me.


  4. Rohan April 7, 2011 / 10:22 pm

    That point about triangulation (which I hadn’t thought of–nice!) adds to my sense (which was echoed by all the participants in the S of G discussion) that this is a book that would really reward rereading. I, for one, completely missed one key detail crucial to the ‘click’ you mean, and once it was pointed out to me, I started seeing how a lot of other seemingly incidental details or moments were actually carefully laid out for us, almost like clues to the novel’s form as well as its meaning. It started to remind me of Atonement, which is also a very different book on rereading.


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