The Book Group and Shirley Hazzard’s Transit of Venus

Shirley Hazzard, The Transit of Venus (1980, Virago 2004 … 2014)

transit.jpgBefore the meeting: Serendipitously, I heard that this book had been chosen for the Book Group’s June meeting just after visiting the wonderful exhibition James Cook: The Voyages at the British Library, which features the actual transit of Venus across the face of the sun in 1769. I enjoyed the exhibition much more than the book.

Sadly, though I’m in awe of The Transit of Venus for its passion and complexity and astonishingly subtle prose, I just couldn’t like it. I feel mean saying so, because it feels like a very personal book – Shirley Hazzard and her protagonist Caroline Bell have a lot of history on common. At the same time, it’s the way the author injects herself constantly into the narrative that alienated me. Though she never actually addresses the reader, as in ‘Reader, I had an adulterous affair with him,’ she regularly winks at us over the characters’ heads – informing us of one’s eventual fate, giving us just the beginnings of sentences whose cliché endings she expects us to know, or commenting with Patrick White–like snobbishness on someone’s snobbery. The prose is studded with literary allusions, not all of them convincingly attributed to the characters, of which I recognised enough to know that I was mostly being cast as an outsider.

Two young Australian women whose parents died in a marine accident are in the care of their martyrish older half-sister, who brings them to England a little after World War Two. The younger sister, Grace, makes a boring marriage and the novel focuses on the complex relationships of Caro/Caroline, the older sister. Caro is loved by a young scientist of working class origins, Edmund Tice, but she falls for a sophisticated playwright, Paul Ivory, who is engaged and then married to a nasty piece of aristocratic work named Tertia. Caro eventually frees herself of Paul’s charms and finds happiness with a wealthy US social justice activist, Adam Vail. Vail’s death years later introduces the final act, in which both Grace and her husband are separately tempted to adultery (it would be a spoiler to tell if either or both succumb), and circumstances bring Caro back to her youthful love triangle, where there are as many revelations as you’d find at the end of an Agatha Christie novel, delivered pretty much in an extended monologue by one of the characters. Then there’s a final scene that, like the ending of The Sopranos, is illusorily inconclusive.

It’s not as soapy as that summary makes it sound, but that’s the bare bones. Here’s a sample of the writing, picked pretty much at random. Caro and Paul are visiting a megalithic site, and Caro is in awe. Then:

Some stones were rounded, some columnar. That was their natural state, unhewn, untooled. Paul Ivory said, ‘Male and female created He them. Even these rocks.’
The presence of Paul offered something like salvation, implying that the human propensity to love, which could never contradict Avebury Circle, might yet make it appear incomplete. Aware of this advantage, Paul awaited the moment when Caro’s silence would be transferred back, intensified, from the place to himself. He was calm, with controlled desire and with the curiosity that is itself an aspect of desire. As yet he and she had merely guessed at each other’s essence, and her show of self-sufficiency had given her some small degree of power over him – power that could only be reversed by an act of possession.
Preliminary uncertainty might be a stimulus, if the outcome was assured.
Caro had a wonderful danger to her, too, that derived not only from the circumstances, but also from her refusal to manipulate them. The danger and the attraction were the same. There was, in addition, her strong, resilient body, strong arms and throat, and her aversion to physical contact. Beyond the pleasure of defying his own circumstances, Paul pursued a further impulse to violate Caroline Bell’s pride or her integrity.

The quote from Genesis is the kind of thing most characters in the book come out with, except that the Bible crops up less than Yeats or eighteenth century London gossip. I’ve recently visited a megalithic site a little like the one in the book (mine was near Évora in Portugal), and while I completely get Caro’s awe, I simply don’t believe in her need for ‘salvation’ or her resulting vulnerability to Paul’s seductive intentions. And all that stuff about essence, power,  possession, uncertainty and violation … well, to me it’s very high-level hooptedoodle. If it’s to your taste or sheds light on the human condition for you, you’ll enjoy this novel a lot more than I did.

But don’t let my comments put you off. When I’d finished the book I read an excellent article about it circulated by a member of the Book Group, ‘Across the Face of the Sun’ by Charlotte Wood in the Sydney Review of Books. It’s an excellent article, though not something you should read before reading the book. She writes:

It has been fascinating to observe, in other writers’ responses, how often they remark on seeing its greatness only on a second visit – often decades after first buying or reading it. Michelle de Kretser, Geoff Dyer and Michael Gorra have all written of their early resistance to the book, only to have returned to it later and been shocked by its brilliance. Even Hazzard’s husband Francis Steegmuller remarked that nobody should ever have to read this book for the first time.

Well, there you have it. I’ve read it for the first time.

After the meeting: It was a small meeting, just five of us, of whom four had read the whole book – though one of the completers confessed to skipping slabs of it.

It turned out we’d all responded to the same elements in the writing, but our responses were vastly different. Two of us, neither of whom usually does this, had marked a number of short sentences that had delighted them, and when they read them aloud it turned out that some of them were exactly the kind of thing that had increasingly turned me off the book. Someone said he had laughed out loud at parts that I registered as annoying smart-arsery.

I had read the book as permeated with a kind of expatriate contempt for mid 20th century Australia. Others read it very differently, as challenging English assumptions of cultural inferiority. One chap spoke of visiting Britain as a young man and being surprised to discover that there were people there who had a mental hierarchy of cultural worth, in which he had been given a low place as an Australian. There are a number of moments in The Transit of Venus that challenge that ranking: snobbish Christian Thrale observes silently that the two young women don’t seem to realise that they are just a couple of Australian girls living in rented accommodation.

We made the non-completer leave the room at one stage so we could discuss the ending, something everyone who read the book for the first time needs to do.

Everyone had enjoyed the book more than I had, and though I don’t think anyone thought it was a truly great book, we were unanimous in our awe of it. I certainly had to rethink my own response. Maybe I’ll get to a revelatory second reading some time.

The Transit of Venus is the ninth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

2 responses to “The Book Group and Shirley Hazzard’s Transit of Venus

  1. When I was in my 35th year I enrolled in OZ LIT III at Sydney – a single subject – to bring me up to speed – so I thought – on contemporary Australian Literature – I was making it – after a fashion – my field – even if a specialised aspect of that – Oz-Lit which reflected our culturally diverse society. There were some remarkable people teaching/lecturing on that course – Peter Kirkpatrick – who was also my tutor – who later suggested I introduce myself to another of the group – Ivor Indyk – and then there was Leonie Kramer. Who confounded my opinions of her – as it turned out – by introducing me to two remarkable writers drawing on or highlighting the Anglo-cultural connections between Australia and England. We read Martin Boyd’s The Cardboard Crown (1952) published when Boyd was nearly 50 (born in Switzerland – his own family forever moving back-and-forth between Australia and England the reason for that lieu-de-naissance). There were certain aspects of that story – the cultural/familial back-and-forth connective tissue – which I was already then consciously pursuing – in some respects. And then there was The Transit of Venus.

    It’s interesting before going further here to note that Shirley Hazzard attended Queenwood School for Girls – as did some 40+ years later one of my own genius students (a scholarship out of Hay War Memorial HS in 1973) Gayle Kennedy – who wrote the Streetwize Comic [Manga] Reconciliation – in the mid-1990s – print run of over half-a-million – and winner in 2006 of the David Unaipon Literary Prize for Me, Antman and Fleabag pub. 2007 UQP – among other achievements) – the same school now being headed by Ramsay Centre Board of Directors member Elizabeth Stone – along with Tony Abbott et al.

    In any event – though much of the novel is buried deeply in my grey matter – there is a part early on which I have thought on and quoted multiple times which suggested perfectly the way our cultural and physical reality here in Australia was downplayed by that same “mother country” assumed superiority you have referred to! In fact I suspect that the most significant contributor to my contact and appreciation for Australian Literature was in my 1950s Primary School days – The School Magazine (I dips me lid to you, Jonathan)! Anyway – here is the piece from the start of Chapter 5 – The Transit of Venus:

    Grey Winter hath gone, like a wearisome guest,
    And, behold, for repayment,
    September comes in with the wind of the West
    And the Spring in her raiment.”

    You might recite it in Elocution Class, but could hardly have it in English poetry. It was as if the poet had deliberately taken the losing, and Australian side. He had grasped the nettle. But a nettle grasped remains a nettle, and grasping it an unnatural act. What was natural was hedgerows, hawthorn, skylarks, the chaffinch on the orchard bough. You had never seen these but believed in them with perfect faith. As you believed, also, in the damp, deciduous, and rightful seasons of English literature and in lawns of emerald velours, or in flowers that could only be grown in Australia when the drought broke and with top-dressing. Literature had not simply made these things true. It had placed Australia in perpetual, flagrant violation of reality.

    Little girls sang, sing-song:

    “Come down to Kew in in lilac-time (it isn’t far from London!).”

    Involving themselves in a journey of ten thousand miles. For a punishment you might, after school, write one hundred times:

    Self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control: These three alone lead life to sovereign power.

    The little girls licked nibs of tin and fingered pigtails, preparing for sovereign power.

    History was the folding coloured view of the Coronation that had been tacked on the classroom wall – the scene in the Abbey, with the names printed beneath. The Duke of Connaught, the Earl of Athlone, the slender King in Ermine. Dora bought a coronation mug at Woolworth’s Long May They Reign. That was History, all of a piece with the Black Prince and the Wars of the Roses. Grace and Caro had been allowed to stay up one summer night to hear the Abdication crackle over the short-wave. Something you’ll remember always.

    Australian history, given once a week only, was easily contained in a small book, dun-coloured as the scenes described. Presided over its briefly pristine birth by Captain Cook (gold-laced, white-wigged, and back to back in the illustrations with Sir Joseph Banks), Australia’s history soon terminated in unsuccess. Was engulfed in a dark stench of nameless prisoners whose only apparent activity was to have built, for their own incarceration, the stone gaols, now empty monuments that little girls might tour for Sunday outings: These are the cells for solitary confinement, here is where they. Australian History dwindled into expeditions of doomed explorers, journeys without revelation or encounter endured by fleshless men whose portraits already gloomed, beforehand, with a wasted, unlucky look – the eyes fiercely shining from sockets that were already bone.

    I’m not trying to persuade you Jonathan – but there some significant aspects to this novel – described by The New York Times as “An almost perfect novel.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks, Jim. Part of that passage was one of the things read out at the meeting. It’s very good writing, I agree. And it certainly chimes with my own education a generation later (different coronation). My discontent comes from the lack of an alternative to this forelock-tugging: or at least, the alternative that the novel offers seems to be, in part, to outdo the English at their own game. I guess the culture as a whole has moved on.

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