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Shirley Hazzard’s TRANSIT OF VENUS (& slight rant)

It’s taken me a long time to write this review, mainly because I became aware of how negative it was becoming.

But THE TRANSIT OF VENUS is a marvellous book, a literary love story which ponders beauty and time, and is written with Hazzard’s trademarked sharp, searing prose. Hazzard offers up deceptively tiny moments which come to define her characters and stories later on, and reward careful reading and re-reading (and I will likely re-read this book, despite having re-read about 3 books in my life). Later in the novel you will often find yourself struck dumb by her foresight, having mistaken her verisimilitude for reality, but a more beautiful and meaningful reality than you yourself had so far had access to. There is something painfully sensitive about Shirley Hazzard’s writing, and I love it.

Take for example, the defining piece of writing about Ted Tice, which occurs on page 16 of a 335-page novel.

““His story has such nobility you can scarcely call it unsuccessful.” Ted Tice was honouring the faith, not the failure.”

You will not understand, when you first read this, that the same can be said about Ted. Not until the final pages. And then you’ll be tempted to call him a failure anyhow, for holding something as old-fashioned as faith. But you won’t be able to. Because over 300 pages ago, Hazzard corrected you. And in the end, briefly, Ted Tice’s faith is indeed honoured. Just a little. Just enough to make you admire him and feel sad for him, and wish he’d let the world corrupt him as the world so often does.

Also (more grimly) enjoyable are Hazzard’s sly asides about Australia, a place whose “history soon terminated in its unsuccess” (page 32), a place perhaps unable to offer up “the full prestige of green” (page 26). A place, you end up thinking, that feels like the past for Hazzard, that lacks the future-promise of America where her protagonist winds up.

As to the bad: as someone forty years younger than Hazzard, I admit some of her ‘olde worldeness’ made me uncomfortable. Her description, for example, of “the men with their assertions great and small, the women all submission or dominion” (age 84, yes I really did bookmark all these precise, efficient pieces of prose). And it’s true that Hazzard’s men are often cold and full of bluster, and her women are such passive little things you want to wring their slender necks. When heroine, Caroline Bell, asserts that her true capability may be ‘to love’ (I didn’t bookmark the page: it annoyed me too much), I wondered what she meant. I would have thought her true capability, from the evidence of her behaviour, was to do pretty close to nothing, and let the world act on her, and then feel sort of melancholic about it.

But then you have these wonderful moments, such as this, when a woman confronts a man. “In a long pause he was made to feel her superior strength, and the fact that she had been withholding it for years out of charity” (page 193). And you find yourself, after you finish the book, missing that marvellous, eye-opening and surprising prose with its intelligent humour, its fierce wit.

Because this is where we get to the real ‘bad’ of Transit of Venus, and I’m afraid it’s Caroline Bell, that milksop of a heroine who takes up far too much of the book even though at the beginning it holds out hope of being some kind of ensemble piece (it’s not; it’s mainly about Caroline Bell). I keep calling her Caroline Bell, of course, but in the book she’s more often called Caro, a discordant abbreviation that left me seething. Was it some kind of mistaken ‘Australianism’, a play on the idea we all shorten our names? Because no one calls a Caroline ‘Caro’ instead of ‘Carol’. Just saying.

But no. My frustration drove me to Googling, and I found that Caro is latin for ‘flesh’. (Or ‘meat’ or ‘meat eater’, both of which suit her better.) By this reasoning, then, Caro is flesh while her far more likeable sister Grace is spirit. By extension, Caro is the sister ‘of the body’, the sensual sister, the woman in the text who signifies flesh and the act of love, and of loving.

Which drives me mad. Because it seems to me that any sensual woman ‘of the flesh’ would not be so numbingly placid as Caro (gah! Caro!) Bell. That any woman capable of love – romantic love – would also, surely, enjoy sex. She might even experience orgasm. And this is where it comes crashing down, for me, because I cannot imagine our wan little Caro Bell, in her bloody blue dresses, orgasming. Even though she has sex throughout the book, I’m sure she is capable only of a sigh and a melancholic turning away, and then some ridiculous assertion that her ‘capability is to love’. Not ‘to come’.

But perhaps Hazzard didn’t mean ‘flesh’. Caro can also mean ‘dear’ or ‘darling’, which might make better sense, since Caro is obviously dear to Shirley Hazzard (not so much to me, though). And when Caro is dropped into the world’s most miserable relationship with one of the world’s most miserable men, you can’t help but feel Hazzard’s sympathy for her dear Carol. Sorry, Caro. You can’t help feeling it, and marvelling at Hazzard’s authorial cruelty to have put Caro there in the first place. And when poor, old Caro is surprised by her lover on an evening walk, and reacts with something like fear, and Hazzard steps in to curse the fates that pulled these two, agonised lovers together yet again – when that happened I, of course, more astutely cursed Shirley Hazzard.

But I still bought three more of her books. Because I know a Maestro when I read one.

This review is part of the AWWC2012 challenge & is cross posted on Goodreads.com.

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