Author Shirley Hazzard died Monday, Dec. 12, at the age of 85. Hazzard won the National Book Award for her 2003 novel, “The Great Fire,” and received the National Book Critics Circle Award for her 1980 novel, “The Transit of Venus.” In 2001, Laurie Muchnick wrote this appreciation of “The Transit of Venus” for Newsday.
It took me almost 10 years to read Shirley Hazzard’s “The Transit of Venus” (Penguin, $16 paper), but it was worth the effort. Until a few months ago, I had never been able to get past the second or third page, put off by sentences so carefully intricate as to resist understanding. So even though I want you to run right out and buy this book, I’m going to quote the first few lines so you’ll know what you’re getting into: “By nightfall the headlines would be reporting devastation. It was simply that the sky, on a shadeless day, suddenly lowered itself like an awning. Purple silence petrified the limbs of trees and stood crops upright in the fields like hair on end.”
In case you couldn’t tell, Hazzard is describing a thunderstorm; but a thunderstorm of such precisely rendered details that it takes several readings to step back far enough to see the whole event. Hazzard’s gift is to be able to see both the smallest grain of sand and the largeness of the beach — the waves, which are linked to the tides, which are linked to the phases of the moon — at the same time, and to convey both of these perspectives, also at the same time. This can be confusing at first, but once you get the hang of it, it makes reading Hazzard an exhilarating experience.
Into that purple thunderstorm steps Ted Tice, a young astronomer in 1950s England who has arrived to assist an eminent professor in his research. Also staying at Professor Thrale’s house are two lovely Australian sisters, Caroline and Grace Bell; Grace is engaged to the Thrales’ son, Christian. Another frequent guest is Paul Ivory, the professor’s godson and already a noted playwright, who is “all but engaged” to the daughter of the castle down the road. The book follows these young people over the next 30 years, as they fall in and out of love, test themselves and struggle against fate.
Hazzard observes the impact everything from personality to class background to physical appearance can have on a person; during Tice’s first post-storm meal with the Thrale family, she cleverly reveals a great deal about the professor, as well as about the forces shaping Ted’s life, in the interstices of a seemingly forgettable conversation: “ ‘Mustard, Mr. Tice?’ Professor Thrale was thinking it was downright fashionable these days to be a poor boy from a grimy town, a clever boy who got himself — the phrase implying contrivance this time — to a great university and made his impression there.”
“The Transit of Venus” comes as close to the elusive ideal of the “perfect novel” as any book I know; when you reach the stunning last page, you’ll realize that every aside, every seemingly throwaway anecdote has been carefully planted. Hazzard is an almost frighteningly intelligent and unsentimental writer, and she makes no concessions to either her readers or her characters. But she rewards them for their perseverance with a novel like no other.