on July 13, 2004
After loving The Transit Of Venus in 1981 and waiting impatiently for Hazard's next novel, I am horribly disappointed by it. I enjoyed her prose, very much liked the settings, appreciated glimpsing a fascinating time....but the characters are one dimensional paper dolls. The Bad Guys, Mr and Mrs Driscoll and Slater, are tacky and cruel while the Good Guys, Helen, Ben, Aldred and Peter, are kind and graceful and should be examples to us all. They ponder The Meaning Of Life and do naught but good. Why, their very thoughts are generous and wholesome at all times! Finally, everything I liked about the book is spoiled.
The Great Fire brings to mind one of Nevil Shute's postwar novels of The Pacific and England (eg The Trustee From The Toolroom or A Town Like Alice). Both authors are interested in the personal, cultural and political changes brought on by the war. Shute's characters were also black-and-white for the most part but they surprise one on occasion, as if all this meaning-of-life pondering has changed them in some way. I doubt that Shute considered himself a literary writer--he probably considered them "fightin' words"--but I have to give this matchup to him.
on January 29, 2015
It's one of the most beautiful novels I have ever read. It captivated me since the beginning with the charm and the sofistication of the language, never becoming heavy. The images the writer uses to describe moods, feelings, situations, states of mind, settings are mesmerizing. I read it a second time just to savour the language without being rushed by the development of the plot. Shirley Hazzard's style, the way she writes, is absolutely unique, very original and poetical. The love story between a girl on the threshold of womanhood and a more mature man, who has just come out from the horrors of the II World War, is fascinating and intense. He seems to cleanse his soul from the evils he just witnessed by breathing the freshness and the innocence of this ethereal girl, whom she worships while waiting for the right time to fulfill their love. This beautiful delicate love seems to acquire even more meaning and intensity against the haunting, terrifying backgound of the war. These two lost human beings, filling each other's void and solitude, live on a different dimension, carving into the surrounding darkness a world of their own, only for their souls and their minds.
on July 18, 2004
Shirley Hazzard, the celebrated authoress from Australia who obviously subscribes to the dictum of less is more, took more than 20 years to follow up her famous 1981 National Book Circle Award winning novel ("The Transit of Venus") with yet another award winner. This time, she bagged the 2003 National Book Award for fiction with "The Great Fire (GF)". While critical reviews have been ecstatic, the reading public appears to be polarised between those who adore it and those who loathe it. Me, I love it because it's right up my alley - ethereal and cerebral, yet curiously gothic. The experience is akin to one gained from staring at a great painting and imagining the lives of its subject on canvass. Turner's impressionist painting on the cover of the British paperback version is particularly resonant. Readers who draw on the immediacy of emotions for their enjoyment of a novel may find the effect of Hazzard's writing style distancing, bloodless, sometimes even unreal.
Hazzard's descriptive prose is spare, picturesque and precise, each word crystallising on the printed page like a hand picked gem. Her dialogue is terse, sometimes awkward. Nobody speaks like that, you catch yourself thinking, before you realise that maybe Hazzard never intended to capture the flow and cadence of natural speech anyway. Each word is laden with so much meaning there's almost a history behind it. GF is a challenging read but the riches within make the effort worthwhile.
The post-2WW landscape in Asia as described by Hazzard is one of utter desolation, filled with ashes from the ruins of torn lives. The burden of victory oppresses the survivors as much as death and humiliation haunts the conquered. There are no winners. Aldred and Peter, the novel's two protaganists find themselves awash and adrift, emotionally disconnected and unable to resume with any conviction the lives they left behind. Fate, as it pans out, is kinder to Aldred than to Peter. He finds courage in reaching out for an innocent love and is finally redeemed by it. Peter is jolted by a squalid encounter with sickness and disease but his act of compassion signalling an unconscious desire to rejoin the living only brings devastating consequences.
The novel's thematic coherence and rich tapestry of colours is reflected in its wondrous characterisation. Some, like the elder Driscolls - frightening in their ugliness, or the prophetic "Ginger" (Japanese POW), may not occupy much page space but they remain firmly etched in our minds long after they have disappeared from the foreground. They and the many others who make fleeting but memorable appearances are the glue that bind the story together.
"The Great Fire" is like a finely chiselled work of art whose appeal may be limited to readers of serious literature. Clearly too, Shirley Hazzard won't be everybody's cup of tea, though readers who're so inclined will find GF an intoxicating read. A gorgeous novel.
on July 10, 2004
Here's a story many readers would love: on the outskirts of Hiroshima, members of the victorious Allied forces look for love, for redemption, for recovery. A 17-year-old girl, caring for her terminally ill brother, and a much older British veteran, finishing his research for a book on Asia, fall in love amidst the ruins. The (still chaste) couple are then separated by her "evil" parents and they (more or less) wander the earth hoping to be reunited.
And I did love the story; it's about as old-fashioned a romance as you can find these days. But the author's prose threatens to swamp an otherwise insightful, magical book. The New York Times reviewer is kind, noting that although "Shirley Hazzard has a blithe disdain for postmodern pieties. . . . her elliptical style will quickly try the patience of all but the most devoted reader." Another reader comments here that "The dialogue and speech [are] completely inappropriate for the time. She seems to forget that this novel was not set in Victorian England."
Both these criticisms hone in on the problems I have with this book. It's not her prose style that's Victorian: Hazzard's writing is definitely modern (i.e., "elliptical"), but her narrative voice is from a previous century. She borrows Trollope's brain and writes with Joyce's pen. The result is a clinical detachment that can be intrusive and jarring: as omniscient narrator, she tends to spell out the psychological state of her characters rather than allow their actions and behaviors to speak for themselves. At times, it's like reading a New Age psychology text: "Attempts, with Rita Xavier, to deliver something of his soul always miscarried. But he returned to them--because he could not help believing in the sensibility of wounded persons. Or because he could not leave well enough alone."
A second, equally irritating fault is the character of Helen; her depiction is fiction as hagiography. Her romantic perfectionism is tiresome: I found her believable neither as an adolescent girl nor as a youth wise beyond her years. Hazzard seems intent on proving that, without miracles and martyrdom, it's difficult to make saints all that interesting.
Nevertheless, those readers who are willing to tackle the challenging prose and forgive the thin characterizations will be gratified by a stirring romance.
on April 29, 2004
The Great Fire is full of languid afternoons and young men beset by obscure diseases and weary from the war. I enjoyed the setting; the sense of war nearby, war recently ended and perhaps soon to be reignited. It was like a less bleary version of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises it also reminded me a lot of the film Casablanca, but maybe just because I happened to watch it around when I started reading the book. The book revolves around a couple of former soldiers, Aldred Leith and Peter Exley, who have been cast far and wide, to Japan and Hong Kong respectively, in the aftermath of World War II. They are surrounded on all sides by others, women and older folks, whose lives have been similarly touched by the war, and all of whom seem to be searching in vain for normalcy in the aftermath of shattering conflict. The central drama of the book concerns a budding love affair between Leith and a student of his, Helen Driscoll. Helen's dull and menacing parents as well as the vast age difference between Aldred and Helen set up what turns out to be a fairly filmic love story. The chief drama for the reader lies both in wending one's way through Hazzard's elliptical, lyrical prose and in wondering whether or not the May - December romance will ever be consummated.
One expected the long awaited novel from Shirley Hazzard to meet with adulation. Hazzard enjoys the reputation of writing award winning books over a considerable period of time. She also is her own person and defies classification as a novelist, so unique is her style. THE GREAT FIRE was twenty years in the writing and reading it reveals why that is so. Hazzard writes with thick, pungent, fragmented prose. Her manner is one of revealing bits and pieces of a story in non-linear fashion: at times within one page she has covered several decades of reference without even a demarcation of a paragraph or inserted space. This technique demands total concentration from the reader and at least with this reader requires retrograde reading, reviewing previous paragraphs and sentences to assure that the story is intact!
And of course it is. Any time spent re-reading Hazzard's luminous prose is time twice blessed. Few other authors can bathe in phrases so articulate and wise that not only are they descriptive and additive, but they also can be read as isolated poems. "Our pleasures. He and I have killed, hand to hand, and have absorbed it. Can recall it, incredulous. Our pleasures were never taken that way, as by some in battle. Once, after a skirmish in the desert, a fellow officer whom he had never considered vicious had remarked. 'A man who hasn't killed is incomplete, analogous to a woman who has never given birth.' Embracing the primitive; even gratified."
The story: "The Great Fire" references the global devastation of WW II with particular empahsis on the nuclear attack on Japan. The year is 1947 and the characters are two men forever bonded by their experiences in battle. One is writing a book on the effects of the war on Asia and the other is trying Japanese war criminals. The lives tie and untie in the most fascinating ways. There is a family spilt asunder by the times - a brother and sister cling together, he with a degenerative nerve disease, she with the commitment to caring for him. There is a love story; no, there are love stories, and each fragment of story unveils the damage inflicted upon bodies and souls by a War without equal. Hazzard captures the post-war fallout that has become all too familiar in the past century as well as the present one. And it is this weaving together of disparate souls in a tapestry of fire and smoke and eventual vacuum that is the driving force of this novel. Romance has never been written so bittersweet. "As she walked, she put her hand to her mouth to hold his kiss, and to her breast to enclose his touch. The man, instead went to his own room and to his table - to those papers where the ruined continents and cultures and existences that had consumed his mind and his body for years had given place to her story and his. He could not consider this a reduction - the one theme having embroiled the century and the world, and the other recasting his single fleeting miraculous life. Having expected, repeatedly, to die from the great fires into which his times had pitched him, he had discovered a desire to live completely; by which he meant, with her."
No, this is not a novel for a quick read on a plane or to keep in the car for unexpected delays. This is a rare gem that deserves full attention. The rewards are inestimable. Think Virginia Woolf. Think Reliquary.
on February 9, 2004
The illustation on the jacket of the novel reproduces J.M. Turner's famous painting, "The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons," a conflagration that threatened a civilization based on law. Its counterpart in the novel is World War II and the fiery destruction of Hiroshima. This straightforward comparison is the only obvious thing about this novel, which makes for a difficult read. There are certain books that however beautifully written, do not amount to the sum of their parts. Hazzard gives us a gorgeously robed empoeror, or so it seems, but the question is if his robes are what they seem, or if they are made of air.
The novel opens with the arrival in Japan of Aldred Leith, a hero with a background the details of which we learn only in time, and even then indirectly, through what other characters say and how they react to him. Divorced, traumatized by the war, he is in Japan to study the impact on the survivors of Hiroshima. Right away, he meets Benedict and Helen Driscoll, the brilliant, young--twenty and seventeen--son and daughter of an impossible Austalian couple with whom Leith is billeted. Benedict is dying of a degenerative disease and soon Helen will be left alone, loveless, and at the mercy of her awful parents.
Helen and Leith fall in love, and the novel is the story of their overcoming of the odds that confront them in the shape of their age difference, the antagonism of Helen's parents, and a world in despair, still devastated by war. Few of the characters know what they want or how they will get it when they do know; everyone is passive, suspended, demoralized by the effects of the great fire, the war. Leith returns to England, Helen is taken to Australia by her parents, Benedict is dying alone in California. When the lovers finally take the initiative and come together, Leith having traveled to Australia to rescue Helen from exile, Helen having rebelled against her parents, he thinks to himself, "Many have died. But not she, not he; not yet."
This is, in fact, the last line of the novel, and it is the most direct statement of what Hazzard is up to in a narrative that works almost entirely by understatement and indirection. Beautifully written, it is nonetheless a frustrating book to read, perhaps because the portentousness and weightiness of the prose lead the reader to expect more than Hazzard gives. At the heart of the difficulty is the central love affair. The attraction between Leith and Helen is first sparked by their mutual love of literature and Helen's appreciation of Leith's kindness to her dying brother. She falls in love with his love for Benedict--almost, at least according to Othello, Desdemona loves him first for "the dangers I had pass'd / And I lov'd her that she did pity them." Indeed, there is a Shakespearean quality to Helen, who sometimes resembles the youthful heroines of the comedies, Rosalind in As You Like It, for instance, or Viola in Twelfth Night.
But ultimately, as with any fictional relationship, the reader has to accept this unlikely pair, and therein lies the rub for those who cannot, of which I am one. In the end then, although I found myself constantly rereading paragraphs simply to savor the beauty of Hazzard's prose, I decided the emperor was naked.
on January 26, 2004
On the back cover of "The Great Fire," Michael Cunningham, author of "The Hours," has a blurb raving about the book. I thought this was fitting, as Hazzard's book, stylistically speaking, is very similar to "The Hours". In this novel, Hazzard does not rely on characters or plot to absorb the reader, but instead lets the writing style speak for itself. If you enjoy reading books such as "The Hours" or "The English Patient", then I think you will enjoy "The Great Fire" very much.
The plot is this: Aldred Leith, a decorated hero of WWII is writing a book on the Asian war, and living in Japan, where he falls in love with a literary youngish girl, Helen. Their love story is the centerpiece of the novel, although there are other varied characters that Hazzard introduces. All of the characters are struggling to find life in the dark aftermath of war.
All the characters are likeable, and all are rather poorly developed. Instead of focusing on individual character traits, the book instead unfolds along a single theme of redemption, and the characters move along with this theme unquestioningly. There is little conflict and little excitement. But before you dismiss this book as too boring and too drab, Hazzard does offer something that few recent novelists have: a beautiful and entrancing writing style that will pull you along, slowly but surely. Because of the literary nature of the book, the converstation is stilted, and it is true that the characters do not talk in a 'realistic' style, but instead in a high form of English that is hard to settle with modern society. I felt this did not subtract from the book, but instead added to its dreamlike and pensive quality, making this a truly escapist novel. But it is not an easy one. Expect to spend a good amount of time reading this book, and to take a lot of rests between chapters.
If you pick up this book hoping for a war novel that will rivet your attention from beginning to end, look elsewhere. But if you are looking for a book that is worth the time it takes to invest, that will make you think, and will make you appreciate the beauty of the written word, "The Great Fire" will more than satisfy you. Enjoy!
on January 20, 2004
Unlike other reviewers on Amazon.com, who also did not have such a pleasant time with this novel, I did manage to struggle through to the end. And though I wish I could report that there was a reward awaiting me at the book's finish, I am afraid that I don't have such great news. As I approached the endless horizon of page 278, I started to experience a sinking feeling. The feeling of having been had. All of the prose and extensive vocabulary, (get a good dictionary if you sit down to read the book,) amounted to nothing more than the aesthetic of an intricate and ornate frame being shoehorned around one of those pictures of sports stadiums they sell at kiosks in shopping malls. A book that doesn't have a great ending can get itself off the hook as long as it provides us some pleasure getting to the end. This novel moves like a glacier, leaving vast canyons of lost time in its wake. Shirley Hazzard took a leisurely twenty years for this novel and now can say that I feel as if I spent it with her.
Ms. Hazzard's post WWII novel is a perfect example of what Harold Bloom criticized Stephen King for when it was announced that King would be receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award at the same ceremony where Hazzard would be receiving the National Book Award for The Great Fire. While showing considerable talent, Shirley Hazard has used that talent to produce a second-rate romance novel. Harold Bloom, referring to the King award, asked, "Whom are we going to give the award to next? Danielle Steele?" I would reply to Mr. Bloom that he should not worry, for they basically already have.
The more interesting characters of the novel are pushed to the sides, while we are subjected to the gossamer musings of the protagonist, Alder Leith, an interesting, well-traveled and brave British soldier, whom we are to believe is deeply in love with a 17 year old girl. After reading Ms. Hazzard's biography on the book jacket, I can see where she would want to portray a young girl as having the competency of Helen, the book's heroine/ingenue. Hazzard, according to the bio, was engaged by British Intelligence at the age of sixteen. However, I cannot believe that the emotional maturity levels of this relationship could support the true love that we are asked to take quite seriously in this story. I mean, didn't Nabokov render the last word on these types of relationships? Didn't he show us the hilarity and the pathetic self-centerdness at the heart of these May-December male fantasies?
Helen, who is the apple and the orange of Aldred Leith's life, is the literary set answer to the Britney Spears phenomenon, only she is decidedly more insidious. While the young pop-divas of today's teen hip-hop scene seduce men with their adult sexuality, but they also present a one-night-and-I'm-gone type of aura. The young Aussie girl, named for the "face that launched a thousand ships," is presented not only as an intellectual equal to the extensively educated and well-read protagonist, she is also loyal and easily able to maintain a mature and dedicated relationship over great distances. What? Please, somebody tell me that I am missing some sort of sharp satire. Please tell me that I didn't struggle through the book for what I ended up getting.
Oh, and if you need any more evidence of the unnecessary glacier pace of the novel look no further than the creation of some of the supporting characters. Peter Exley, one of Aldred's war buddies, who is prosecuting war crimes in Hong Kong, and his relationship with Rita Xavier, a native of Hong Kong, are far more interesting and the book jumps to grand life whenever they are mentioned. It is a sharp contrast to the nap-inducing travails of Aldred Leith and his little baby doll. (If you think I am exagerrating, read the end of the book.) After taking decades to complete this novel, you would think that Ms. Hazzard would have been able to see the appeal of these supporting players and would have dealt with Exley and Xavier more, or at least have effectively shown them as a mature contrast to Leith and his liason with his luscious, literary girl-woman.
There are better books out there. There really are.
on January 12, 2004
Shirley Hazzard has been MIA from the world of published fiction for so long that I would guess that most of my generation has never heard of her. Her last book, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, was written more than twenty years ago, and though it is now considered a modern classic it remains in relative obscurity. Having just finished reading The Great Fire, I can hardly imagine why a tremendous talent like this would take such a long hiatus from writing novels. One can only wonder at the many wonderful works of literature she would have produced, and we would have treasured, during these past two decades.
Hazzard writes with stunning emotional gravitas. She is one of the few writers who truly make each word count. This is a 278-page book that feels like it's twice that long, and I mean that as the highest of compliments. Each page is so full of meaning and feeling, each sentence so perfectly crafted, each word so carefully chosen. So much attention was put into the writing of this novel that one feels an obligation as a reader to devote extra time and attention to the reading of it. This is one of those rare books that could be read over and over, each time offering new insights and never losing its power.
The subtlety of the prose lends an understated sense of passion to the beautiful yet somewhat painful love story that unfolds between the main character Aldred Leith and the young Helen Driscoll. He is a decorated war veteran, recently arrived in Japan to document that country's post-war transformation. She is a 17-year-old girl, wise beyond her years, the brave companion to her older brother who is slowly dying of a degenerative disease. Their love is unlikely, and naturally forbidden by her parents, and yet it is so undeniably right. Hazzard convinces us of this, but gracefully so, as if simply leading us to our own discovery of what is true.
What truly amazes about this book is that it is about so much more than just this one relationship. There are no superfluous characters here; each has a purpose and identity in and of themselves as well as in their relation to the main characters. Peter Exley is the intriguing foil to Aldred, also a war veteran but one whose battle scars have not healed so easily. Benedict, Helen's ailing brother, lives with great spirit and courage and serves as a mirror reflecting the beauty within his sister's heart. Aldred's estranged father looms as a distant ghost. Aurora, the father's long-time mistress, brings Aldred somewhat painfully back to a past from which he has perceivably moved on. Even Professor Gardiner, whose appearance at the beginning of the novel lasts but a few pages, adds depth and significance to the pages that follow even though he never reappears.
Note especially the elegance of Hazzard's prose, how she seemingly reads the minds of her characters and gracefully transitions from dialog to narrative with a third-person omniscience that reads like first-person self-reflection.
The National Book Award committee has chosen well this year.