Shirley Hazzard's The Transit of Venus has been a challenging and often perplexing read for me. I've had a copy on my shelves for ages, so when the Slaves chose it as our next group read I was happy to finally give it a go. I must say I've felt quite a range of feelings, however, in reading it. Had I picked this one up on my own I might very well have set it aside very quickly in favor of something a little less demanding, but now that I've finished it I have to say I'm pleased with myself for sticking it out. She's won a variety of awards for her work, a mere four novels and two short story collections. Considering the quality of writing in The Transit of Venus, I can't say I'm surprised on either count. Given how hard it was for me to read it, surely it couldn't have been easy to write. Her books don't seem (well this book doesn't anyway) like they're written for mass consumption rather they verge on art.
I learned a new word reading this (actually had I stopped to look up all the words I was unsure of in this book, I could have learned many, many more). But the word is a literary word, and one I had only come across previously in high school geometry. Elliptical. Hiding between the pages of this book, having sat many years on my shelves, is a story that is at once both quite powerful and beautiful but also so ambiguous as to leave me confused and at times exasperated. I can tell you the plot easily enough. It's everything else that has overwhelmed me. Although I didn't realize it initially, it didn't take many pages to discover that this would not be an easy novel to read. But there was something strangely compelling about it, too, that made me want to keep going. And one that rewards you if you're willing to read closely and carefully. I'm not sure how successful I was on all counts, but that's why we reread books, right?
This is a story that has stories within stories and you're not exactly sure how they are going to connect up, but you don't want to discount any information because everything has meaning and you're going to need it all to tie things up at the end. The story revolves around two Australian sisters, Caroline and Grace Bell, who lost their parents in a ferry accident and were raised by an older half sister. Dora is a selfless woman and is happy to let you know just how selfless she is. She lives for her younger sisters, and eventually they move to England for a better life. The novel opens, however, with the arrival of a man during an awful storm that causes much devastation. Caroline and Grace are living in the home of astronomer Sefton Thrale, Grace's future father-in-law. Ted Tice has come to work for him and immediately falls in love with Caroline and fully expects to become her lover, but she falls instead for someone else. She becomes the on and off lover of Paul Ivory over the course of several years. Paul, however, is engaged to and eventually marries heiress Tertia Drage.
The story hops from continent to continent and covers a span of many years. Probably the love triangle between Caro, Paul and Ted is the weightiest matter of the story, but other characters come into play and each has something to say, or show the reader, about the nature and experience of romantic love. It sounds relatively simple, doesn't it? Here's where Hazzard's elliptical prose style comes along and complicates matters. Often her prose is beautifully elegant--I caught myself turning down page corners left and right, yet equally as often she would leave off half a sentence, half a thought and if your mind happened to have strayed just the tiniest bit you'll have missed something. I did anyway. Occasionally some seemingly unimportant side story would come into focus and I must admit she would almost lose me entirely. Somewhere three quarters of the way through I started to tire and get restless and wondered if I could finish. Then all of a sudden she does something that pulled the rug right out from under me. She pulled me back in and caught me back up in the story and all of a sudden I wondered how did she do that?
I'm not going to pretend that I understood everything in this story, because I know I didn't. I'm just happy that thanks to chatting with others also reading the book I caught the flash forwards, sentences that seemed like throwaway observations, that helped explain the ending. Reading this has been something of a mental workout--surely not a bad thing--something I ought to do more of. I was curious about the meaning of the title, and here's what critic Sven Birkerts had to say about it:
"The transit of Venus is a particular and rare astronomical alignment--transits come in pairs separated by eight years at 243-year intervals--one that last only briefly, for just a relative instant (six hours) if we are scrupulous in our definition of a phenomenon involving objects in motion. The transit is a symbol, a figure, for the ephemeral as it flashes forth the working of celestial physics. Except the ephemeral is anything but. The ultimate consummation of Transit is a convergence of hearts that represents a fulfillment of two private destinies, and as such is a vanquishing of the transitory. It is a romantic apotheosis: Love not conquering death, but making it feel almost beside the point. Venus does indeed accomplish a transit." **
The next transit of Venus is in June of 2012 by the way. Now I am hoping for a little clarification since the Slaves will be discussing the book here. Please stop by the Slaves blog to read more thoughts on The Transit of Venus.
**"The Course of True Love Never Did Run Smooth: Shirley Hazzard's The Transit of Venus" by Sven Birkerts, The Southern Review.