Monday, April 04, 2011

The Art of Being Difficult

How hard should a reader be made to work when confronting a piece of literature? At what point does an elliptical sentence become an opaque one that causes the reader to set the book aside in irritation? Or is the complex book, the demanding book, something to be welcomed like a really good mental work-out? A version of sit-ups for the brain? These questions were very much to the forefront of my mind as I was reading the latest pick for the Slaves of Golconda book group. Having wondered in yesterday’s post whether language could be too simplistic for pleasure, Shirley Hazzard’s award-winning novel The Transit of Venus, gave me the opposite experience of wondering whether language could become too weighty, too portentous, too pregnant with meaning for its own good.

The Transit of Venus is essentially a love story that spans several decades of the twentieth century, involves the romantic fortunes of a web of protagonists and moves between England and America. The main focus of the narrative falls on Caroline Bell, who, with her sister, Grace, has come over from Australia in search of meaningful experience. The Bell sisters were orphaned young, their parents drowning in a ferry accident off Sydney Bay. In consequence the girls were brought up by their older half-sister, Dora, whose vibrant negativity makes her one of the most engaging, if dislikeable characters in the novel. Dora has been required by fate to make an unreasonable sacrifice of her youth, and her revenge is never to let anyone forget it. Escaping Dora is an influential factor in Grace’s rapid engagement to a man she meets in a cinema, Christian Thrale, and when the novel opens, we are at the home of the Thrales. Christian’s father is an eminent astronomer, involved in siting a telescope in the UK. Ted Tice, displaced from his class by his mind and his education, awkward but with the strength of his own integrity, comes to stay at the house as an assistant to Professor Thrale and falls in love, deeply and irrevocably, with Grace’s sister, Caro. But Caro is not attracted to him other than as a friend; instead she begins an impetuous but passionate affair with an arrogant young playwright, Paul Ivory, who is himself engaged to be married to someone else. The fates and fortunes of this cast of characters are revealed in a series of beautifully examined tableaux that extends over many years.

The transit of Venus stands over the narrative as its guiding star. In the first pages of the novel, we are told a cautionary tale by Professor Thrale and Ted Tice, of a French adventurer who longed to see this particular, extremely rare event, when Venus partially eclipses the sun. Having been delayed by wars and misadventure that caused him to miss one transit, he waited in a form of exile for eight years until Venus should pass again, only on that day conditions were too poor for the spectacle to be seen. It would be another century before it happened again. The transit of Venus mirrors the trajectories of Caro Bell and Ted Tice, who circle each other repeatedly over the course of the narrative, but seem destined never to unite. In this first, early encounter, the love Ted feels for Caro is not reciprocated, but will he finally win her in the end? Venus, the planet of love, is notably capricious. “The calculations were hopelessly out,” Ted Tice explains about James Cook’s equally disastrous attempt to view the transit. “Calculations about Venus often are.”

The sense of complex delays that are inevitable but perplexing structures the entire narrative, which inserts into its opening scenes a seemingly casual remark about a man’s body being found after a flood. It will come back to haunt the protagonists only towards the very end. Equally gnomic is an off-hand remark about Ted Tice, accompanying the early descriptions of him, that he will one day take his own life. Perhaps if nothing else, this structure indicates the necessity for the reader to exercise great patience with the text. Hazzard slows her action down to a crawl, with each gesture and thought of her characters inviting narratorial intervention, as its significance is teased out and analysed. For the most part, I was happy to go along with this, because it produces some splendid observations: ‘nothing creates such untruth as the wish to please or to be spared something’, ‘the absence of self-delusion in itself is liberty’, ‘[i]n its first appeal, security offered an excitement almost like romance, but that rescue might wear down, like any other.’ The tone of these remarks is not so much lyrical as philosophical, but philosophical with a cosmic edge. We are given love and life through a telescope that brings us closer to these huge forces that sear through existence, but seem almost impersonal and beyond our control, spiritual in the way they inhabit us but also transcend us. I wondered at first whether the story, so focused on romance, would not be too slight for the weight of observation Hazzard brings to it, but in the end I capitulated; primary emotions, like love, desire, rage, fear, are ordinarily downplayed so we might keep living without incurring too much damage, but given their true significance, we might have to admit their overwhelming, potentially devastating importance.

However, it takes a certain kind of reading attitude to accept that characters might say things like: “She mistakes suspicion for insight.” Or, “I loathe the undernourishment of this country, the grievance, the censoriousness, the reluctance to try anything else.” Whilst the intelligence of Hazzard’s prose never falters, her protagonists risk at times becoming mouthpieces for existential insight, rather than flesh and blood people. In fact, the huge weight of significance that the narrative is made to bear makes it at one and the same time startlingly true and suspiciously artificial. We have so much contact with the discerning, interpreting writerly mind, that we can feel oddly shielded from the action, as if it takes place behind a gauze curtain of wise remarks. I passed through many emotions myself reading this; I found it surprising and profound and frustrating and sometimes disengaging and sometimes piercing. Overall it was a triumph of language, but one that came, for me at least, at the cost of emotional immediacy. But it was also a book that I longed to discuss with others, so I’m hoping my fellow Slaves will hurry up and post so I can know what they felt about it.

1 comment:

Stefanie said...

I completely forgot about the beginning mention of Ted Tice's fate! Crud, that just makes me want to swear even more about the ending.

The book was emotionally distant in many respects but it didn't put me off at all. To me it made everything seem that much bigger and more intense and then all those little clues and quiet revelations leading up to the end of the book. Wonderfully maddening.