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A transit worth taking
on June 21, 2004
So why on earth would anyone want to read The Transit of Venus? Some say the writing is pretentious: Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. That word came to mind last year while I was reading Shirley Hazzard's 2003 National Book Award winner, The Great Fire. Yet I couldn't stop reading. Since I wound up loving that book, I decided to try this one, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award more than two decades ago (1980). Midway through my reading transit, on June 8, 2004, a Transit of Venus occurred, the tiny planet moving like a dot across our gigantic sun. (In 1769, James Cook set sail in the H.M.S. Endeavor to study a Transit of Venus and found Australia, hence the tie-in with this novel, which is primarily an Australian woman's transit through love and life.)
Reading Shirley Hazzard is like climbing a mountain, agonizing over the rocks and rarified air during the long, arduous uphill climb. Struggle is not the same as suffer. Most modern books are downhill sloped, where the reader floats or speeds effortlessly toward a simplistic conclusion. A Hazzard novel is more vertically inclined, where one needs to stop on occasion to catch a breath, and then, when the climax comes, you are on a mountaintop, not the valley floor. It is not a transit intended for aliterates, much less illiterates. Hazzard might not be the author for you if you don't know, and don't care about, the meaning of words like "impercipience" and "abnegation." Also, if you're less than thrilled with such lines as "Magnanimity shaped a sad and vast perspective," and "My task, as I see it, is to adumbrate the sources of his entelechy," then you might want to move along to another bookshelf.
However, if you want to read one of the finest novels ever written, grab a dictionary, take your time and don't miss a single clue in The Transit of Venus, such as the one embedded insignificantly in the middle of the first page. The importance of which is revealed only near the end of the novel. Hazzard does that to you; if she tells you, almost as an aside, that a trivial character is going to die one day soon, it could later on grab you by the gut that the mention was a portent of an even greater tragedy.
Although The Transit of Venus is populated by several interesting characters, and is propelled by their sexual liaisons, the central story concerns the trio of Caroline (Caro) Bell, Ted Tice, and Paul Ivory and the mystery that directs, and warps, their relationship even into middle age. We're told right off that "Edmund Tice would take his own life...in a northern city, and not for many years." The book never explains why, and does not need to, once the reading is done.
In the beginning, Caro, "established as a child of Venus," has come to England from Australia, along with her sister, Grace. Both sisters, orphans, are beautiful. While the "fair" Grace settles for a wealthy but unsatisfying married life, dark-haired Caro works for a time as a shopgirl and dallies with strategically-married Paul the gorgeous playwright, while Ted the astronomer can only simmer and settle for Caro's enduring friendship. When Caro marries a wealthy New Yorker, it seemingly dashes any hopes Ted may have for finally winning Caro's love. But in Caro's transit through life, such stability is not destined to last, and perhaps Ted has one last chance to possess the woman of his dreams.
As they move through the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, we see a lot of the other characters, including Grace and Caro's half-sister, Dora, who seems to revel in misery, and Grace's husband, Christian Thrale, a government bureaucrat. Though interesting and well defined, these characters, and others, are largely irrelevant to the main plot, and I found whole chapters on them to be side rails that simply divert the reader temporarily off the central track. This does not mean the reading is not worthwhile; these diversions establish depth of character, and character exposition is one of Hazzard's strong points. A couple of my favorite lines compare a woman to her car parked outside: "Circular lamps, set over the mudguards, were glassily unlit like Tertia's eyes... Outside the window the car was kinder because suggestive of fluency and eventual animation." A cold woman, for sure.
Nevertheless, it is the Caro-Ted-Paul saga that leads to a revelation worthy, perhaps, of M. Night Shyamalan, and a "Sixth Sense" type of turnabout, one that makes you realize things are not quite what they seem. And it shifts the novel from a complex love story into another genre altogether. Any reader who fails to read the final three chapters misses out on the great reward; and to appreciate those chapters, you must read all the others related to these three main characters. Ironically, it is Ted, with his one disfigured eye, who is the most clear-eyed of them all when he thinks, "...the tragedy isn't that love doesn't last. The tragedy is the love that lasts." He also observes, "Even through a telescope, some people see what they choose to see. Just as they do with the unassisted eye... Nothing supplies the truth except the will for it." And with these sentiments, he opens up the novel's heart.
With so many one-or-more-books-per-year "celebrity author" tomes now afloat in the sea of modern publishing, where the term "author" too often takes the secondary dictionary meaning, "one who assumes responsibility for the content of a published text" (meaning, not the actual writer), isn't it of value to strive through a work that has the feel of complex authenticity? Here, in The Transit of Venus, we can be fairly certain this is the genuine voice of Shirley Hazzard. Isn't it worth the price of admission to read not just a rare and beautiful voice, but a true and honest one as well?
Take the Transit.