Princess of Discrimination

Shirley Hazzard's masterly descriptions and expertly drawn characters are in full evidence in this new novel—her first in more than twenty years
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It is said of a minor character in Shirley Hazzard's masterpiece, The Transit of Venus (1980), that "although she offered few opinions, her views were known in a way that is not true of persons who, continually passing judgment, keep none in reserve." One feels much the same about this nonprolific author, now past seventy and giving us, in The Great Fire, her first novel in twenty-three years and only her sixth work of fiction ever.

Most of Hazzard's oeuvre consists of slender volumes that once sold in hardback for as little as $3.95: her Italian romances of Jamesian sorrow and subtlety, The Evening of the Holiday (1966) and The Bay of Noon (1970); short-story collections minutely observant (Cliffs of Fall, 1963) and poignantly satirical (People in Glass Houses, 1967). For years her admirers have been awaiting what would be next, begrudging Hazzard even the time she spent on a brief memoir of her friendship with Graham Greene. (Why should this princess of reticence and discrimination expend effort on that voluble lout, who discovered his real genre in the angry letter to the editor?) Now Hazzard has at last, in the language of birth and publishing, delivered, and if The Great Fire lacks the astonishing densities of The Transit of Venus (a novel that, in its own astronomical terms, was really more like a swirling asteroid belt of connected stories), it still streaks through a reader's ken in the manner of a comet, quickly seizing the attention and emotions before disappearing, trailed by hopes for the characters' happiness—which, like a comet's return, the reader only half believes in.

Hazzard's new hero is Aldred Leith, thirty-two years old in 1947, a twice wounded British army major marked by a "strain of fatalism" and the tendency to be "exasperated by unsolicited emotion." Leith grew up the son of a well-known novelist, and the amicable conclusion of his brief, almost inadvertent wartime marriage has left him to the pursuit of his own literary project, commissioned by the army in 1945: an account of travels through China that will convey the "consequences of war within an ancient and vanishing society" from the point of view of someone "not a spy, not a sociologist, beholden to no one."

Leith has decided to add Japan to his itinerary and ruminations, and so finds himself, in the spring of '47, in some hills above Kure, not far from Hiroshima, on the grounds of a hospital administered by a cruel Australian brigadier named Barry Driscoll, whose bullying rage soon leads to the suicide of a Japanese underling. Driscoll is assisted by an almost equally dreadful wife named Melba—whose chilling depiction joins those of Dora, from The Transit of Venus, and Norah, from The Bay of Noon, in this author's Dickensian gallery of crimped female monsters. The mystery of the Driscolls lies in how they have managed to produce two enchantingly sensitive children, Benedict and Helen, "a frail and remarkable young son, and a little girl who is a changeling," as Leith describes them in a letter to his friend Peter Exley.

At twenty, Benedict Driscoll is "hunched and angular" with Friedreich's ataxia, a neurological disease that is hustling him to an early death. Amusingly learned and altogether precocious, he is blessed with the cheerful, complete devotion of his sister, who is just as bright and not yet seventeen: "It was as if, in [Helen], Benedict had been re-created in radiant health, the hair made glossy, the skin vital, the form sound. With a second try, Nature had pulled it off." When Leith entertains these delicate captives with tales of war and travel, he seems like an older, phlegmatic Peter Pan among the Darling children. "My apparent role is avuncular," he tells Exley, though in fact, as he admits, it's actually Benedict who has become the sympathetic guardian of the other two, shielding the obvious and supremely inconvenient love that has sprung up between Leith and Helen.

Thanks to her, Leith's fatalism has been replaced by "a great desire to live completely." Helen has rescued him from "becoming formidable," convinced him he must now "get used to joy," even in the face of the malevolent elder Driscolls, who soon decide to thwart "The Baby Snatcher" (Leith's new nickname around the hospital compound) by spiriting Helen off to New Zealand and sending Benedict away for treatment that is both cutting-edge and hopeless.

Some readers may end up feeling that The Great Fire cheats them of a climactic conflagration. But Hazzard is less concerned with people's blow-ups than she is with the silent, totalitarian rule of enforced distance and disapproved desire. It's the smoke, not the fire, that kills most of us, and readers of this novel will never know for sure whether its ending signals a redemption or merely a respite. One remembers, as a caution, how The Transit of Venus was, in the strictest sense of its celestial title, about the way people perish from an inability to sustain their sudden, improbable alignments.

The story of Peter Exley, Leith's loyal, gentle confidant, seems both discrete from and connected to the rest of the book, as if by a kind of war-induced displacement. The reader loses track of the character for a while, and then seizes upon his reappearance once narrative communications have been restored. Exley's soulful nature and artistic bent have survived boyhood in Australia, where typically a "panic-stricken ribaldry [was] passed off as virility, authenticity." Now in Hong Kong, he works at moving some Japanese war-crimes defendants to trial, even as he "despair[s] of justice" and has "dreams of tenderness in love, as others might dream its eroticism." His physical health and emotional life come to a crisis when he assists a sick Chinese child whom others won't touch.

Warmer and less self-possessed than Leith (and in some ways an easier figure for a reader to love), Exley is the novel's chief subsidiary character; but the numerous others are expertly drawn—as in The Transit of Venus, a novel that, like this one, accrued slowly from stories published at long intervals. In The Great Fire, tales of the Italian sisters courted by Leith before the Second World War, or of Miss Fry, the New Zealand spinster whose fiancé was lost in the First, may seem like set pieces, reminiscent of the shorter stories of Alice Munro, but Hazzard typically reconnects the episodes, sometimes by surprise, to the main narrative.

Hazzard's fiction has always been marked by such precise lyricism and emotional microscopy that it's been easy to overlook her gifts for aphorism ("Nothing creates such untruth in you as the wish to please") and laugh-out-loud skewering ("For Paul, sincerity was something to fall back on when other methods flagged"). None of her books gives freer rein to these talents than People in Glass Houses, her volume of stories about the bureaucrats of the United Nations.

Millicent's only idea of dignity was standing on it.

Swoboda was not a brilliant man. He was a man of what used to be known as average and is now known as above-average intelligence.

Mr. Bekkus stared. Regaining the power of speech, he said, "Words fail me." (A poor workman will tend to blame his tools.)

Given the one recent encouraging development in bookselling—the way even out-of-print titles remain forever available through outfits like Abebooks.com—I shall have failed as a reviewer if a few dozen copies of People in Glass Houses haven't been grabbed back through the fiber-optic ether before the month is out.

The Great Fire is not without these pleasurable satirical piercings; for instance, "[The Driscoll parents are] disquieting as a symptom of new power: that Melba and Barry should be in the ascendant was not what one had hoped from peace. It did not even seem a cessation of hostilities." But conveyance of its meanings depends more often on Hazzard's descriptions of circumstance and setting. Hong Kong provides the author with some of her best opportunities. The city's harbor, struggling back to life after the war, is "an old photograph, a resumption." Its impoverished alleys contain "great clots and blobs of tubercular spittle shot with blood, unavoidable underfoot," while the colony's better-off English, superbly typified, return to life in Hazzard's pages. One sees

[the] colonial women, limp or hearty, filmed with perspiration. The houseguest out from Britain—some boy like a lily, or the strapping daughter of a retired colonel. Lace mats on mahogany, Georgian silver. Hunting prints, foxed, on humid walls. The starched servant holding the platter. The colonel's daughter remarking, "They all have those marvellous teeth, it must be the rice."

The satisfactions here are more straightforward than those of The Transit of Venus, a novel stuffed with description so intellectually active as to be sometimes exhausting, as if metaphysical verse were presenting itself to the reader as prose.

"All speech is an exposure," Hazzard writes in this new book, some of whose dialogue—Benedict's conversational declaration that "there had been, in my father, some conclusive submission to my mother, embitterment towards me"—may strike one as bordering on the precious or implausible. But in fact it never forces a suspension of disbelief, because Hazzard's narration is more articulate than almost anything we're now accustomed to reading: what's within quotation marks seems credible simply by the standard of what's without. Also, one should remember that Benedict and Helen "live in literature and make free with it"—something true for most of the characters we care about in Hazzard's books. Poetry, quoted by one to another, is coin of the emotional realm; in this new novel, two different sets of characters recognize their kinship when they see they're holding the same book.

Just as Hazzard moves with great speed and no obvious effort between thoughts unspoken and thoughts expressed, she is comfortable making fast narrative forays into the future, either by direct statement ("Throughout the coming months of their acquaintance, Captain Dench never did look Major Leith in the eye") or by the nearly unnoticed insinuation of a later era's perspective: one character nearing forty won't have a baby because "it was held to be dangerous." Hazzard has always set the clock and calibrated the scales according to her own measure, allowing herself to perform whatever tricks of time and proportion she wished: the brilliant telegraphing of an airplane crash at the end of The Transit of Venus; the confinement of a crucial sexual encounter to the blank space between Chapters 7 and 8 of The Evening of the Holiday; the similarly parenthetical recognition of the romantic love that The Bay of Noon's heroine has for her brother, as if the narrative reticence were an index of the character's efforts at self-control. In The Great Fire the war seems to do the novelist's work of upending time and space: when Leith goes home to England, he experiences "mingled sensations of estrangement and belonging, which for the time being conferred exemption."

However narrow her immediate focus, Hazzard's vision has always been global and historical. It has also been tragic. The Great Fire's title links London's seventeenth-century inferno to the Blitz and Hiroshima, and stands for the whole war that split the past century in two. The "loss and disruption" that Aldred Leith takes for the theme of his written work have become "pervasive now throughout the world." Those same crushing phenomena motivated Shirley Hazzard's decade of service (1952-1962) at the United Nations, an experience that led her to write not only the amusing stories of People in Glass Houses but also a bitterly disappointed nonfiction book called Defeat of an Ideal (1973): "The energy expended [at the UN] in explaining not only why nothing can be done, but why doing nothing is the only constructive course, might, if differently directed, have moved mountains." Leith thinks of how the "entire world ... needs comforting," whereas the UN—in an unimprovable phrase from Hazzard's institutional autopsy—went about "demanding a bedside manner from the world."

Compared with that enterprise, the writing life must have seemed the life of action and honesty, a real vocation for what would, to any of the war's survivors, be forever an aftermath. One thinks of Peter Exley, not yet at the worst of his despair, trying to stiffen his will by reflecting on what he still has left: "Truthfulness was his last whole good, the thing he had not sheltered or kept small for safety. He had brought it out of the fire"—out of the worldwide blaze that forged this fine new novel and the lambent life's work of Shirley Hazzard.

Thomas Mallon is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. His new novel, Bandbox, will be published in January.
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Thomas Mallon’s books include the novels Two Moons and Aurora 7, as well as Rockets and Rodeos, a collection of essays.

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