Shirley Hazzard's The Great Fire

Reading between the lines.
Oct. 30 2003 3:06 PM

Old-World Style

Shirley Hazzard's long-awaited novel.

Book cover

Greene on Capri, Shirley Hazzard's memoir of her friendship with Graham Greene, contains a photograph of the lesser-known novelist in which she perches on some ancient steps in Capri, flanked by her husband, writer Francis Steegmuller, who has turned so as to admire her—a slender, radiant woman whose boarding-school posture and tight coiffure give her ugly '70s outfit an unaccustomed elegance.

It's bad form to rummage for meaning in an author photograph, of course, but also impossible not to notice the correspondence between the persona and the prose. Hazzard is unusually old-world, and so is her writing. She fashions tales of undying love and thwarted union from a handcrafted style, a prose palpably worked-over and made oblique, almost Jamesian, in the effort to weave nuance into the text. Politically, too, Hazzard is anachronistic. Though she grew up in Australia, she has no apparent sympathy for the exuberant post-colonialism celebrated today by so many English-language writers from former colonies. In Greene on Capri she quotes Evelyn Waugh lamenting the passing away of the old Europe after World War II: "Had we known that all that seeming-solid, patiently built, gorgeously ornamented structure of Western life was to melt overnight like an ice castle. ..."

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Her latest novel is published 23 years after her last, the deeply romantic Transit of Venus. The Great Fire is set in American-occupied Japan two years after the end of World War II, and in it Hazzard appears to develop the theme of antipost-colonialism. She depicts the new postwar, post-independence bureaucrats of Japan and Hong Kong as self-centered, provincial, just as racist as their predecessors, importunely egalitarian, and void of curiosity, imagination, and a sense of history. This she contrasts to the refined reticence of the Englishman who is her hero. Aldred Leith is a natural aristocrat, the son of a famous British writer, a veteran of World War II in his early 30s, a man whose uniform is burdened by medals. He's the kind of soldier who returns to the field after being wounded, even though he doesn't have to. He arrives in Hiroshima having finished another tour of duty, a trip through China to record the last days of ancient cultures being swept away by modernization and war, and finds himself subject to the authority of some very ambitious and ill-bred New Zealanders who run the base at which he is billeted.

And yet, having established all this promising political context in the first few chapters of her novel, Hazzard promptly loses interest in it. The Great Fire is a lyrical rather than social novel, its richest writing reserved for landscapes as seen in the fresh, full light of day. Early on, for instance, just after an elderly scholar of great courage and wisdom has died, unknown and unmourned except by Leith, he watches as the ship that should have taken the dead man from Hiroshima to Hong Kong departs early the next morning. The boat leaving Japan is the perfect vehicle for the realization that life goes on, indifferently luminous and violent: "The little ship, sailing to its appointments, passed among islands all glorious with morning, on a blue course channeled by minesweepers." On another occasion, a frustrated love achieves consummation as dawn breaks over the same town: "There would never be any other such time."

Such matutinal transcendence is not simply Hazzard's response to a certain slant of light. It is the central trope of the novel. The Great Fire is not about Hiroshima as an extinguishing event in its own right, but about the individual's quest for a way to wake up from it—for an emotional dawn. Leith is numbed, uprooted, lonely, and prone to excessive introspection. He comes to Hiroshima to study its devastation but winds up falling in love with Helen Driscoll, the young daughter of the New Zealanders, and also with her brother Benedict, who is dying of a rare neurological disorder. These two are rather unlikely precocities, as wise and learned as their parents are clumsy and ignorant. Leith's courtship of the girl is filled with recherché literary exchanges and complicated by the fact that she is 17 and her parents loudly resent his judgmental reserve.

In short, The Great Fire is a familiar and even perhaps overtold tale about the clash of sensibilities, the fine versus the crude, and the power of love to rehabilitate men eviscerated by war—one thinks of Tolstoy's War and Peace, though Hazzard's Helen is in no way as witty and charming as Tolstoy's Natasha, nor as deluded, either. For all her subtlety and depth, Hazzard does not create memorable or particularly believable characters, or, if she manages to, she doesn't seem to favor them. Leith, Helen, and Benedict evince neither a glimmer of irony or humor nor a moment of petulance; they are almost suffocatingly admirable. Helen and Benedict's parents, on the other hand, are unfailingly awful. There is one credible character, a neurotic bungler named Peter Exley who is Leith's best friend, but he exists only in a subplot seemingly designed to demonstrate how easy it is for men to succumb to the psychological effects of destruction and displacement. Moreover, all of Hazzard's characters lapse at intervals into unconvincingly poetical speech: "Decent people, but the place is laconic. Surprised by peace" is how the old scholar describes conquered Hiroshima to Leith upon first acquaintance.

Hazzard, however, is that rare phenomenon, a writer whose formal exquisiteness does seem to compensate for her deficiencies as a plotter or creator of characters. We are not startled by the news that soldiers and the war-pocked world around them exude an air of stunned exhaustion, but we may be taken aback by the complex beauty of her description of that exhaustion:

Now they were starting. Finality ran through the train, an exhalation. There were thuds, hoots, whistles, and the shrieks of late arrivals. From a megaphone announcements were incomprehensible in American and Japanese. Before the train had moved at all, the platform faces receded into the expression of those who remain.

Aldred Leith sat by a window, his body submissively chugging as they got under way. He would presently see that rain continued to fall on the charred suburbs of Tokyo, raising, even within the train, a spectral odor of cinders.

Consider the resonance of "Finality ran through the train, an exhalation." It is an apt description of that last, bone-rattling shudder before a train departs, effected by what we come to recognize as a standard Hazzard trick, in which an abstraction is rendered concrete and given its own agency and power. At another point Hazzard describes the action of a man swabbing down a sickroom from which a patient has been removed as "creating vacancy." This is a novel about and in protest of the abstractions that work upon us—war, history, bureaucracy—and Hazzard has found a language evocative enough both to make us feel them and to worry about them.

It is also a novel about the redemptive power of place. In The Great Fire, countries reveal themselves slowly to their foreign occupiers, taking a very long time to become real. "The island itself was less fictitious now," she writes of Hong Kong as seen by Exley after he'd been there for months, "newly populated, as it seemed, by quilted crowds, newly smelling at dusk of charcoal and wood smoke. You were no longer out from Europe or out from anywhere, but drawn inward into a continent. You approached the immense reality, or your own acceptance of it." There are layers to be peeled away from any world a character enters, and Hazzard seems determined to peel away every one of them. Such meticulousness can make The Great Fire a difficult, even tedious book to get through, but taken line by line, almost like poetry, Hazzard's prose has the capacity to work quiet transformations.

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