Shirley Hazzard’s final novel, ‘The Great Fire’, (U.S. National Book Award, Miles Franklin Award, 2004), took twenty years for her to write, so perhaps unsurprisingly, for what is an average sized book, it is packed with incident, character and detail; this reader lost his way from time to time, not that I would venture this as a criticism, more of a sign of the author’s ambition to leave no stone unturned. Hazard here is consciously, almost publicly, creating her testament, the ‘War and Peace’ for her times: the tumultuous ruinous mid-twentieth century.
In a passage from Hazzard’s 1970 novel, ‘The Bay of Noon’, Italian film-maker, Gianni, describes marble workers in the Carrara quarries that Michelangelo sourced: ‘those men… have an existence that has nothing to do with ours. It’s as if they’re at work on the mountains of the moon’. Historical novels seem to me to fall broadly into two camps: escapist indulgence, or the past as a revealing cipher for the present. Hazzard gives us here, in a way, both types. The background, post-second-world-war Asia and England, with flashbacks to the War, is vivid, real and gripping, and we think but for a roll of time’s dice, this could have been us. But the main story, the foreground tale loosely binding it all, is little more than a girlish adolescent fantasy romance, completely out of place in such sophisticated and adult surrounds.
Jane Austen’s novels also present female fantasy in a realist setting, but the grown-up humour and satire mostly offset the disjunction. Hazzard is not ironic and her ‘Great Fire’, I assume, refers equally to love and war. The girlish romance is as real, as significant, in its own way, as Hiroshima. Can Hazzard really mean this? Her preceding novel, the acclaimed ‘The Transit of Venus’, was basically an exploration of the agony of sexual love, and remembering some of the intense passages of that book, I saw that Hazzard does indeed take love very seriously. If you don’t have it, life is not worth living.
So, to the fantasy object, with the distinctive name of Aldred Leith, who has been funded by a dying French officer to wander at will around East Asia gathering material for a book. Whilst in Japan, he becomes besotted with the fifteen-year-old daughter of an Australian medical officer, variously described as a ‘changeling’ and a ‘mermaid’. She, Helen, is besotted in turn with the battle-hardened warrior with his scars and medals, twenty plus years her senior. You get the picture. She is an intellectual and cultural paragon who reads Chateaubriand and Gibbon with her dying invalid brother described by a former tutor as ‘a literary man at the age of ten’! The rationale connect is the ‘high culture’. Like Henry James, Hazzard openly thinks people of ‘high culture’ are special and belong together in their special world, a prejudice that constantly grates throughout this book.
Which brings me, as a little aside, to Helen’s parents, the brutish and uncultured Driscolls (the father is particularly nasty). Here, and elsewhere, Hazzard fully unloads on what she refers to as ‘the antipodean male’ and Australian middle-class suburban life generally. Now I’m sure there were plenty of brutes in the Australian army and the fifties in a land so far away from European culture no doubt seemed in many ways restrictive for a young ambitious blue-stocking. But living and publishing in the same city as the young Hazzard were poets such as Kenneth Slessor, and post-war, novelists such as Patrick White. Australia in fact had a rich mid-century literary culture. Hazzard was only a schoolgirl but still, by 2004 she might have updated her perspective.
Then there’s the locale. I grew up in the same area as Hazzard, the lower North Shore of Sydney which she remembers as a benighted wasteland and I remember as a kind of childhood paradise. I didn’t read books because I was out in the bushland and the sun and the sea. Despite development (middle-class long gone), much of Mosman, where Hazzard went to school, remains spectacularly beautiful, but she seems blind to it all. Although curiously, I believe, in her descriptions of the Bay of Naples in ‘The Bay of Noon’, Hazzard unconsciously transfers her memories of Sydney Harbour.
Although her snobbery is intrusive, she is aware of it (sometimes proud of it) and does a little rear-guard: one of Leith’s close confidants is both Australian and cultured (although he also disdains Australia), Peter Exley. Exley (a character similar to Leith), is the centre of a very well fleshed-out sub-plot set largely in Hong Kong which is almost like a separate novel, and a good one. Here is a post-war world of dislocation, peoples, cities, nations, adrift, the necessity and impossibility of action and decision against the various ways the historical cards might play out, which we, with hindsight, know and back-project. Much of this is powerful and moving, and while I find it difficult to swallow the characters of Leith and Helen, all the minor figures here and elsewhere are wonderfully sharp. The shifting colonial scenes also give ample opportunity for Hazzard to exercise a waspish wit.
Back to that ambition. As Thomas Hardy stands behind ‘The Transit of Venus’; in ‘The Great Fire’, probably partly because of the setting, the tutelary God is Joseph Conrad. Like Conrad, Hazzard is very aware of her language, and so are we. The writing from beginning to end is dense and high-toned, every sentence must pull its weight, and I found myself having to ‘unpack’ the odd one. This density, at times, as with Conrad, can impede narrative flow. Although Hazzard has exciting stories to tell, at times so concerned is she with literary ‘excellence’, she forgets about pace and tone. On the upside, there are many superb and incisive descriptions that I’m sure will remain with me. Dialogue is a further problem; people speak as Hazzard writes, the conversations are far too aphoristic and lyrical to be credible. Symbolism too, is often overdone, for example the antipodean cringe becomes the ‘great south wound’.
But after all the wonderful writing on war and war’s turmoil, at the end we must return to the lavender romance. What is between these lovers seems insubstantial and undefined, partly because consummation occurs after the novel’s close, but also because we never see a real relationship develop. For what one would imagine to be a very awkward coming together, everything is solemn and sententious, and all is immediately understood in this meeting of true souls. The sustained seriousness spills over into melodrama: the demure young virgin in the tower, the noble warrior brushed with tragedy. For a moment Mills and Boon seems as close as Conrad.
Readers might disagree with this judgement, but for me, here is a very fine novel marred by mawkishness and snobbery. But, still, don’t be put off. There are great things in ‘The Great Fire’ and it is definitely worth your time and attention.