Shirley Hazzard Laurie Stone - Essay

Laurie Stone

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Marjorie Morningstar is about a curious and good-looking woman whose destiny is entirely wrapped up in the men she chooses. First she picks a flashily sexy but soft-at-the-core lover. But eventually the light dawns, and she sees that the gawk who loved her all along is the real man….

In her fifth novel, The Transit of Venus, Shirley Hazzard retells the Marjorie Morningstar story, only this time the action takes place in England, the ingenue is called Caro Bell, and Mr. Dazzle and Mr. Rightstuff are, respectively, Paul Ivory, a successful playwright, and Ted Tice, whose character, we are told, is "loose on him … like clothes he must grow into." Ill fitting or not, Hazzard is obsessed with his character….

Tice is nice … but one can barely discern this from the action (almost nil) or dialogue (a lot of one-liners), so choked is the novel with purple, image-clotted prose. What's exasperating about The Transit of Venus is not so much that it's a shop worn romance, but that Hazzard ceremonializes the trivia with sententious word-storms. Hazzard's language is humorless and antiquated, but even more disturbing, the sentences often don't really mean anything….

Hazzard spins metaphors so profligately that more of the novel takes place in the realm of almost-as-ifs than in real time and place….

The characters pose rather than act, and Hazzard's attempts to build emotional energy frequently end with a comically listless tableaux: "The embrace, the room, a bar of light on the ceiling, a vacant luggage-rack in a corner could have been part of a seedy insignificance the world over; or might hold the very source of meaning, like the kiss, or flagellation, in the silent background of a master-piece."

It's a wonder that no one convinced Hazzard that there is no "seedy insignificance the world over," or that it's redundant to say "silent background" when speaking of a painting—although I doubt a more lucid style would have reduced the dreary story to any significant degree.

Laurie Stone, "Caro Morningstar," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1980), Vol. XXV, No. 9, March 3, 1980, p. 34.