Apr 12, 11
Read in January, 2005
I was torn as to how to rate Shirley Hazzard's Transit of Venus. Hazzard is an enormously gifted writer. But the novel itself had me asking the question, When does a great writer become a great artist? It's a fine distinction that one doesn't come across often, since such things unfold on their own. The discerning reader simply knows when they've read a great piece of literature. But Hazzard's own ambition here had me asking that very question. In other words, one gets the sense that Hazzard, in The Transit of Venus, set out to write a great novel. There are certainly numerous stretches of great writing - but as a novel, I felt its Jamesian (last phase) excesses turned the reading into something of an ordeal by book's end. In fairness, I think I prefer Hazzard to James in that she writes of Love in a more believable way - and I'm talking of Love as in Shakespeare or Donne. (And stuff actually happens!) People certainly don't talk like Hazzard has them talk - but any lover of language has to wish that they did. Hazzard writes prose that is better than most contemporary poetry. And boy, can she frame a scene, like placing actors on a stage - and with good lines! But such staginess is risky, and in long novel it can wear. Some of Hazzard's side stories, such as Christian's affair, or his wife Grace's near-affair, could have been trimmed. Also, the "political" insertions sounded just like that - insertions, or recollections of old anti-American table talk with Hazzard's good friend Graham Greene. Then there's the sense of time - it comes and goes. Yes, I get a sense of the fifties, but not so much the sixties or later. Such historical convulsions should of made more of a reading impression. In all it makes for an uneven reading effort - which is odd, given the precision of Hazzard's writing and plotting. But the good news is that Hazzard has written a great novel - it's called The Great Fire.