It’s said that The Transit of Venus took Hazzard twenty-seven drafts. I find it reassuring to learn that those sentences—that novel—didn’t simply arrive on the page.

Equally, I’m moved by Hazzard’s patient labor; there’s humility in assuming that one’s writing requires improvement. And I salute her respect for her readers: her desire to present us with the best she could do.

Hazzard had a remarkable feeling for narrative structure: for twisty chronologies, reversals, delays. Look at the way she handles revelations of death: Justin’s in The Bay of Noon, Adam’s in The Transit of Venus; most famously, Caro’s fate. Like Ted’s suicide, these endings are communicated incidentally, almost dismissively. In fiction, death—like sex—is often overwrought. But in Hazzard, details are scant or nonexistent. Her revelations are built on concealment, withholding; the risk of florid sentiment is dodged. The moment of disclosure arrives, passes swiftly, is over. The reader is devastated. That’s all.

Charlotte Wood remarks on this, likening the end of The Transit of Venus to the way we learn of Mrs. Ramsay’s death in To the Lighthouse. It’s an astute comparison, one that prompted me to think about a difference between the two writers. The audacity of Virginia Woolf’s maneuver affects not only the reader but also the fragmented narrative—I daresay it affected Woolf herself. No one had done anything like it before her: the gasp is hers as well as ours. In Hazzard’s novels, the shock is felt as fully by the reader but is assimilated by the narrative: there’s no disruption of form. Woolf pauses, astonished by her boldness, the risk taken and carried off. Hazzard—cool customer—moves on without a backward glance. It’s the difference between the high modernist moment and its mid-century iteration; the lesson absorbed.

An email from Josephine Rowe remarks on the way novelists can be attentive to “echoes”: “those pantoum-like repetitions, the way they decay or amplify over the course of a life.” Echo patterning is abundant in Hazzard’s work. It’s one reason her novels linger so long in the mind.

Chris Andrews, reading The Transit of Venus for the first time, points out an echo I’ve missed. When the young woman who tried to warm a soldier’s missing feet has grown older, she stands at the bedside of her dying husband and touches the outline of his feet before covering them with a blanket. A hundred or so pages separate the two scenes. A further hundred and fifty pages on, by which time the woman is very old and has dementia, she sees a professor on television explain the origin of the phrase “to have cold feet.”

I play a game called Impossible to Imagine:

Impossible to imagine a Penelope Fitzgerald character who is evil.

Impossible to imagine a J. M. Coetzee character having fun.

Impossible to imagine a Shirley Hazzard character who needs the lavatory.

In Hazzard’s fiction, bodies suffer pain and relish pleasure. She writes about sex and death, about bodies in ecstasy and agony—bodies in extremis, in other words. Her vision is intense, fierce, exalted. It sweeps the heights. It has no interest in the everyday mess and materiality of bodies: jagged toenails, sweaty scalps, fleshly oozings and smells. For all the glorious, worldly detail that ballasts Hazzard’s work, her concern is ultimately with the metaphysical. Her fiction poses the question asked by all serious art: how should a person live?

In proposing an ethics of living, Hazzard’s characters judge: other people, society, themselves. The Transit of Venus is the most perfectly realized of these moral dramas: a novel to which judgment and condemnation are central, a j’accuse hurled at the Western world. Not coincidentally, it’s the most aphoristic of Hazzard’s fiction. Judgments in miniature, aphoristic summations, are built into its prose.

The Transit of Venus left Patrick White unimpressed. He wrote to Hazzard: “What I see as your chief lack is exposure to everyday vulgarity and squalor.” As Hazzard pointed out in her reply, there’s plenty of “everyday vulgarity and squalor” in the novel—the scenes of office life, for one thing. White backpedaled, saying that he was referring to her “charmed existence,” the cushioning that comes with wealth. What that has to do with the novel he prudently didn’t try to say.

The vision White brought to his fiction encompassed the lavatory as well as the temple and found transcendence in both. So perhaps what -really irked him was the absence of bodily squalor in Hazzard’s book. Or perhaps it was the scrupulous yardstick Caro applies to life, which sets her apart from “everyday vulgarity.” Of Caro, the narrator says, “She would impose her crude -belief—that there could be heroism, excellence—on herself and others until they, or she, gave in.”

Caro is tremendous. And scary. She has the idealism and intransigence of a heroine from myth. If she didn’t make mistakes, she would be insufferable—it would be like living up close to a flame. “Very judgey,” would be the verdict today.

In the standards to which they hold others (and themselves), Hazzard’s female characters are considered immoderate by those around them: they are “unrealistic,” they exaggerate, they make “excessive demands.” “She had no sense of proportion . . . and wasn’t that exactly the thing one looked for in a woman?” asks a man in one of Hazzard’s stories. A different female character wishes that she were less -exacting—but it’s plain that Hazzard disagrees. She favors “excess” of this kind and not only in the ethical sphere. In one of her stories, a young man writes wonderful poetry—wonderful because it doesn’t operate within “the bounds of fastidious reticence.”

Excess is an aspect of the romantic. That’s why the romantic is belittled and feared. Considered in this light, the women who feature in Hazzard’s early fiction aren’t dated but adamantine, Antigones in their readiness to act outside social constraints. I wonder if I’ve misunderstood them. Maybe what I’ve seen as a limiting focus on love is really a determination that cares nothing for public opinion. In its stoniest manifestation it’s Rita Xavier in The Great Fire, returning to sit at Peter Exley’s bedside day after day.

Alternatively, the absence of “vulgarity” that White decried might refer to Hazzard’s prose. Throughout her work, her vocabulary and syntax are lucid, formal, high-flown: the language of the bench. Cliché and jargon—the weasel words of commerce and bureaucracy—are satirized, as they are in White, but Hazzard doesn’t have the delight in colloquialism and the vernacular that puts the crunch in White’s prose.

Another thing: I have a hunch that Hazzard read White attentively while writing The Transit of Venus. It’s there that she calls Australian history “dun-coloured,” dipping her lid to White’s notorious complaint about “dun-coloured” realism. The novel also displays several tics characteristic of White’s distinctive style and found rarely, if at all, in Hazzard’s early fiction:

Intermittent second-person narration: “You could also deliver your opinion, seldom quite favourable, while walking home.”

The omission of subject pronouns: “She had of course known [. . .] how leaves fall in deciduous England. But still been unprepared for anything extreme as autumn.”

Transitive verbs used intransitively: “They prowled among chiffoniers and credenzas, and no one had the heart to deny.”

Turns of phrase imprinted with White’s rhetorical stamp: “Caro was becoming flesh. Her hands were assuming attitudes.”

Combinations of these things: “On such a morning you might love the white-flowering earth as if you, or it, were soon to die. Left to herself, Caroline Vail might have run through fields or gardens.”

(The White imprint will reappear, less strongly, in The Great Fire.)

Neither writer might have registered the homage. Yet surely White was attuned to it on some level—he was an excellent reader—and I wonder if it underwrote his reaction to the novel. Imitation might be the sincerest form of flattery but it’s rarely the most welcome kind.

Don’t think I’m letting White—the old -monster!—off the hook. “Your chief lack”: cruelty in three words. Impossible to imagine having written The Transit of Venus and receiving a response like that. From another writer. And not just any writer but Patrick White, Nobel laureate, whose work Hazzard had reviewed with warm intelligence and whom she counted as a friend.

Perhaps White simply missed the point of the novel. It happens. Francis Steegmuller said, “No one should have to read The Transit of Venus for the first time.” When I read it for the first time, I wondered: Why the fuss? I finished the novel and forgot about it for twenty years.

Then came Greene on Capri, Hazzard’s memoir about her friendship with Graham Greene. As I slotted it into my bookshelves, my eye fell on The Transit of Venus. I took it down and, standing there in my living room, opened the book. The sensation came, like a blow to the breastbone, while I was still on the first page: the shock of the great. I read the novel straight through, with barely a pause. I’ve returned to it many times, always with a shiver along the nerves.

So what went wrong all those years ago? In the first place, The Transit of Venus played havoc with my expectations of Hazzard’s fiction. Instead of offering immersion and enchantment, The Transit of Venus—set in the drab postwar -Anglosphere—encourages detachment and appraisal. It presents itself as spectacle, as Brechtian estrangement. Characters are often referred to by their full name; sometimes they’re merely “the man” or “the woman.” These cool designations foster observation rather than identification. We watch and assess the characters like people in a painting. This distancing operates even at the level of rhetoric. The narrative is steeped in irony, a trope that promotes seeing through rather than seeing with, a trope associated with disabused, not enchanted, vision.

Notable, too, are the pivotal scenes of observation within the novel (often involving glass). Transfixed, Ted first sees Caro at the top of a flight of stairs, while she looks down at him in turn. Caro and Grace first notice Paul through a window; similarly, Caro and Adam, her future husband, first see each other through a pane of glass. In the most powerful of these frozen observations, Paul’s fiancée looks up at a window to see Paul there with Caro naked beside him. At each point, the narrative momentum slows and stills: we stand back and observe the characters observing each other.

Even sympathetic characters are held up to dispassionate scrutiny, like heavenly bodies viewed through a telescope. Ted, the most admirable figure in the novel, remains callously indifferent to his wife. Plain, socially awkward Ted Tice, “the ginger man,” is a stubbornly unromantic hero, the antithesis of the tempestuous, darkly handsome Latin male leads in Hazzard’s earlier novels; he even has a comic name.

As for Caro, she values “excellence” but falls for a deeply flawed man. Paul Ivory is an homme fatal who can trace his ancestry to the likes of sexy, amoral George Wickham and Frank Churchill. Paul, too, will be revealed for what he is, and like Austen’s heroines, Caro will see truly and choose correctly at last. But where is the woman whose first pick would be Ted over Paul? The meeting of true minds is a great thing, but sex isn’t about the meeting of minds.

Ted Tice: “a callow ginger presence in a cable–stitch cardigan.” There are epithets that are fatal to a character. It’s possible for a novelist to write against the romantic grain so successfully that when the moment for romance arrives, the reader thinks: Poor Caro. The ginger man opens his arms.

When Charlotte Wood read The Transit of Venus, she found herself “confronted and moved and full of a feeling of wanting, somehow, to live up to [the novel], and to Hazzard’s demands.” We judge Hazzard’s characters and, beyond them, the world that has produced them; and beyond that, frighteningly, the novel invites us to judge ourselves. As the narration pulls back again and again from psychology to linger on surfaces and exteriors, our desire for interiority is turned inwards. We’re surprised into self-evaluation. In these pages, as in Caro, judgment “perseveres like a pulse.”

“Men go through life telling themselves a moment must come when they will show what they’re made of. And the moment comes, and they do show. And they spend the rest of their days explaining that it was neither the moment nor the true self.”

Is there anyone who reads those sentences and isn’t reminded of petty calculations, shabby betrayals, staggering cowardice in matters great and small—in short, the whole shameful accounting that adds up to a life? I am seen by the book I’m reading. The sensation is awful. Oh Christ! It is the Inchcape Rock! Not a reaching into the soul but a summons. My soul had been peacefully submerged in everyday blobbiness. Now it stands blinking, called into the light.

They should forbid the paintings to touch you.

There are moments when we recognize our inner selves in novels. It might be why we read them: to feel that we’re not floundering alone in the indifferent, midnight murk of the universe, for here is the lifeline of a kindred voice. We are saved, reassured.

Being seen by a book is quite another thing. It means being yanked out of self-love and submitted to scrutiny. The possibility of transformation hovers, and that’s always disturbing. Truly, the intimacy of Hazzard’s novel is intolerable. It’s the narrative counterpart to Rilke’s “You must change your life.”

No wonder The Transit of Venus refused my attempt to read it dreamily, like a child. Its call to reckoning is a matter for adults.

Caro and Ted see an amusement park, whose sign “had lost its introductory F, and read, in consequence, UNFAIR.” It’s one of Hazzard’s wry jokes as well as something more: an acknowledgment of the tears of things.

Late in life, Caro realizes that “Even those who have truly lived will die”—a crushing truth. One way to think of The Transit of Venus is as an extended gloss on Auden’s “We must love one another and die” (famously revised from “We must love one another or die”). Like Auden’s revision, Hazzard’s novel is unsentimental through and through. It calls for personal integrity, but never mistakes the “flicker of intense and private humanity” for a prophylactic against “the colossal scale of evil” in the world. Evil can only be “matched” by integrity—not prevented.

Adam fights to save South American activists condemned to death. He fails, and keeps vigil with Caro for the men at the hour of their execution. It’s an almost unbearable episode: a “matching,” useless, necessary, doomed. The best hope is the same bleak one Hazzard outlines in an essay on the nuclear age: that our “history of individual gestures—the proofs of decency, pity, integrity, and independent courage” will make the destruction of the world not “entirely deserved.” She might have been remembering Montale’s “Little Testament,” which puts its faith in “the tenuous spark” of ethical actions as darkness descends on the West.

Graham Greene described Hardy’s novels as “desperate acts of rebellion in a lost cause.” Hardy haunts The Transit of Venus and its fated lives; from the outrageous coincidences in the novel to Christian’s sexual exploitation of a young woman in his office, a modern recasting of Alec d’Urberville’s pursuit and rejection of Tess. Then there’s the sheer inexorability of Hazzard’s novel. Starting with the casual announcement of Ted’s death in its early pages—possibly the most brilliantly handled instance of foreshadowing in literature—the narrative steadfastly propels its characters towards catastrophe. While entirely harmonious with the governing trope of astronomy (destiny, for these characters, is as immutable as the movements of the stars), the impression of preordained doom is also echt Hardy—and who can read Hardy and calmly acquiesce to his iron designs? Why must the vital letter go unread? Why must things invariably take a turn for the worse? I want to shout: It’s not fair!—the cry that rings through childhood. The funfair turns out to be unfair: it still has the power to make me squirm.

One reason I value The Transit of Venus is because it reminds me not to mistake the limits of my understanding for the limits of art.

This is an excerpt from On Shirley Hazzard, out now from Catapult.

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