Shirley Hazzard John Leonard - Essay

John Leonard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"The Transit of Venus" is not a perfect novel. One important character—a handsome, intelligent, heroic American—simply isn't credible; he talks like a fancy book. In fact, many of Shirley Hazzard's characters are a little too well-spoken, too knowing; whenever they open their mouths an insight pops out. This knowingness leads us to expect a comedy of manners. "The Transit of Venus" is not a comedy of manners. Its business, instead, is to break the heart. Although I suppose that such emotions are inappropriate to criticism, I finished the novel angry and in tears.

On the other hand, "The Charterhouse of Parma" was not a perfect novel. Miss Hazzard writes as well as Stendhal. No matter the object—a feeling, a face, a room, the weather—it is stripped of its layers of paint, its clots of words, down to the original wood; oil is applied; grain appears, and a glow. Every epigram and apostrophe is earned. A powerful intelligence is playing with a knife. It is an intelligence that refuses to be deflected by ironies; irony isn't good enough. (p. 159)

Honor, as much as love, is the compulsion of "The Transit of Venus." When we first meet Caroline, she is remote and perhaps arrogant: "She would impose her crude belief—that there could be heroism, excellence—on herself and others, until they, or she, gave in. Exceptions could arise, rare and implausible, to suggest she might be right. To those exceptions she would give her whole devotion. It was apparently for them she was reserving her humility." The rest of the novel is an elaboration of the exceptions, a voyage back to the beginning.

By the time we get there … we demand an affirmation. And Miss Hazzard mocks us. There is nothing deceptive in her mockery—we were warned on page 12 and again on page 296—but it is infuriating.

Ted and Caroline, after all, aren't children anymore, making adolescent arrangements. So everything that is modern and absurd and arbitrary revenges itself on everything we hoped was magical and decent. An almost perfect novel will not permit us to breathe; we know too much. (p. 160)

John Leonard, "'The Transit of Venus'," in The New York Times, Section 3 (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 26, 1980 (and reprinted in Books of the Times, Vol. III, No. 4, 1980, pp. 159-60).