Wednesday, 6 June 2012

The Transit of Venus

Twice in every 100-odd years, Venus passes directly between the earth and the sun.  For a few hours, if there are no clouds, earth-bound mortals can see her shadow as it crosses the face of the sun and then disappears.  It happened today amidst much fanfare and astronomical excitement.

This means it's a good day for a post on Shirley Hazzard's wonderful novel, The Transit of VenusExpatriate Aussie novelist Hazzard is not prolific by any means but what her work lacks in quantity it makes up in quality and The Transit of Venus is her masterwork.

Published in 1980, it follows the lives and loves of Australian sisters Caroline and Grace Bell from their arrival in the UK after World War 2.  It is a lyrical, elliptical novel, moments of sly humour mingled with an all-pervading sense of tragedy.  Her characterisation is beautifully nuanced, you feel passionate love or scorn for each of her creations. Venus remains hidden for long, dreary years, reveals herself in a blinding moment of glory, then just as quickly disappears.

Grace has her story and her moment of love as do other less important characters, but Caro provides the backbone of the tale.  Early on she is courted by the astronomer Ted Tice, who introduces her to the concept of the Transit and asks her to marry him.  She refuses but his love burns on a slow flame throughout the book, surviving decades of sympathetic but firm rejection and his own companionable but passionless marriage.

Meanwhile Caro plunges into an illicit affair with the playwright Paul Ivory.  There is nothing good about this relationship and it is hard to see why the otherwise brilliant and clear-sighted Caro persists with its routine of secret liaisons in seedy locations, long unexplained silences and general air of emotional poverty. 

Finally Venus has her moment.  Caro discovers some very ugly truths about Paul.  Simultaneously, she discovers that Ted has known these same truths for years, but has kept them to himself instead of using them to thwart his rival.  Her view of him is turned on its head, she sees depths of nobility and self-restraint that she never noticed.  Love blossoms and the pair prepare to abandon everything else in their lives for the sake of that love.

In a sense this is where the story ends, but through the book Hazzard has laid a trail of clues which are stitched together in a final, seemingly inconsequential scene.  If you have been reading carefully it is a glimpse of ultimate tragedy that takes your breath away and makes you want to weep.

This is a profoundly pessimistic book just as Jane Eyre is a profoundly optimistic one.  For Charlotte Bronte love can triumph.  If only the hero and heroine are prepared to suffer enough they can be happy in the end.  For Hazzard you will certainly suffer for love, but its triumph will be random and elusive.  For Bronte as for Hazzard, love strikes unexpectedly and we can't control it, but once it has struck it will stay and is ours to wrestle with.  For Hazzard it is just a brief moment of glory, no more connected to us than the movement of the planets.  All your life beforehand is waiting for it to strike, all your life after is mourning - if you survive.

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