Shirley Hazzard Webster Schott - Essay

Webster Schott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Transit of Venus] unfolds in rural England, the Chelsea district of London, Japan, the Algarve of Portugal, New York City, Chile and Stockholm. Therefore it evokes place as a necessary condition of its style and the circumstances of its six pivotal characters. It begins at the time of the Korean War and ends with Detente. Therefore it ponders Europe drifting toward anarchy, Soviet tanks grinding into Hungary and Czechoslovakia, political murder in Latin America and social assassination in the United States, and a relentless catastrophe laying waste Southeast Asia. (p. 1)

But the larger world of ideological competition and social hunger serves Hazzard like her ice-water lakes in Sweden, Kleenex-box buildings in new York or lacerated countryside in Britain. She is a projectionist. She focuses her characters into place. They and their climates, terrains and social contracts become one.

The essence of her narrative is that life is a sequence of chance encounters acquiring meaning chiefly through human commitment to a purpose, a belief, a passion. Her primary characters are two women, Grace and Caro, orphaned in Australia, blooming in England, and making their different ways into middle age through jobs, marriage, children, love affairs, disappointment, money, death.

Caro takes risks. Grace plays it safe. Consequently Caro gets most of Hazzard's attention. There's more to learn from her. (pp. 1, 9)

[All] of The Transit of Venus is human movement, and seen from near the highest level art achieves.

Shirley Hazzard's novel seems to me almost without flaw. Aphoristic and iridescent, her language turns paragraphs into events. Her perceptions of gesture, voice, attitude be-speak an omniscient understanding of human personality. The story she tells is, for the most part, so usual as to sound irrelevant. What she brings to it is virtually everything that story alone cannot tell about human lives. (p. 9)

Webster Schott, "Journey with Love and Chance," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), March 9, 1980, pp. 1, 9.