A Modern Classic Addresses Elemental Questions About Love and Power

A Modern Classic Addresses Elemental Questions About Love and Power

A Modern Classic Addresses Elemental Questions About Love and Power

A Modern Classic Addresses Elemental Questions About Love and Power

It’s a fact readily acknowledged that one can encounter some books simply too late in life to appreciate — or, in some cases, even tolerate — them. The famous examples include “The Catcher in the Rye,” most of the Beats, all of Anaïs Nin. But I’m more curious about the counterpoint: Those books said to require experience, and age, to unlock.

Shirley Hazzard’s newly reissued novel “The Transit of Venus” (1980) reigns in this category. Critics declare it a masterpiece while sharing strangely similar stories of first encountering it in youth with confused irritation. “Why the fuss,” the Australian novelist Michelle de Kretser recalled thinking, in her recent monograph on Hazzard, who died in 2016. Twenty years later, they chance upon it again and are thunderstruck by its genius. “One of the most important postwar novels,” Geoff Dyer has described it, speculating that he might have been too young the first time around, when he gave up around page 72.

Too young for what? The plot is chaste, and simplicity itself. I can stuff it into one sentence. Two orphaned Australian sisters arrive in England in the 1950s: placid, fair Grace, who marries a wealthy and officious bureaucrat, and independent, dark-haired Caroline, who falls in love with the unscrupulous (and attached) Paul Ivory, while another man, the shabby and sweet Ted Tice, pines for her.

Nothing unduly challenging — except, perhaps, that the book is precisely about the misapprehensions of youth, of missing the point and those late-in-life revelations that return us to elemental questions — “Who are the weak?” Caroline wonders. “Who are the strong?” It’s a novel about being wrong about this question and so many others, about our gorgeous and distressing human confidence, the way we march around, plucky protagonists in our minds, armed with horrifyingly partial knowledge of the motivations of those around us. To say nothing of the forces we cannot see. Hazzard’s stories are always enfolded in larger histories, of geological time, of empire’s “jagged devastations” and the long shadow of World War I, which darkens almost every page of this novel, in the broken bodies of former soldiers, the “scabs” of blackout paint on the windows, the cowed fright of the characters, even at their calmest. As the sisters sit, eating desert, Hazzard lingers on their necks — “intolerably exposed,” she writes. “You could practically feel the axe.”


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