Shirley Hazzard’s “The Great Fire” is a novel out of time. Not because it comes 23 years after Hazzard’s last novel, “The Transit of Venus,” and not because its setting, Occupied Japan two years after the end of World War II, belongs to the distant past (it doesn’t). “The Great Fire” feels as if it comes to us from another time — really, other times — because Hazzard combines emotion on a scale we associate with 19th century novels with language that has the freedom and lucid precision of early 20th century modernism. There’s nothing academic, nothing of the pastiche in Hazzard’s approach. The literary epochs she invokes are not adopted styles but her natural forebears. Her fiction aims to do the precise work of defining shifting psychological states, while sweeping the reader up into something larger even than the particulars of the story it’s telling.
Stating the subject of “The Great Fire” — people who, having been through war and seen and felt the presence of death, are trying to reconnect with life — may make it sound familiar or even trite. But often we dither so much over the themes and, God help us, the ideas of novels we forget that a novel’s worth has less to do with the newness of its subject than with the intensity of its emotions and the keenness of its perceptions.
The title “The Great Fire” refers specifically to the bombing of Hiroshima, and generally to the maelstrom the characters have passed through. Hazzard’s hero is Aldred Leith, who has distinguished himself in battle and who has arrived in Japan to begin a study of the effects of the bomb on the country. The island he stays on is administered by Driscoll, a blustering martinet of an Australian brigadier. With Driscoll on the island are his wife and their two children, both of whom couldn’t be any more different than their rather coarse parents.
Twenty-year-old Benedict and 18-year-old Helen seem almost more conceits than characters, the close, attractive, bookish siblings whose forebears can be found in books and movies like “Les enfants terribles,” “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” and the Garbo silent “A Woman of Affairs.” Their closeness is sustaining and doomed. Benedict suffers from a degenerative disease that seems to emphasize his delicate, artistic nature. We may dismiss that convention now as a remnant of Hollywood melodrama, but illnesses that correspond to or contradict the soul of the afflicted occur in more great literature than it is perhaps considered sophisticated to admit. But if we can accept it in Dickens or Flaubert, then to reject it out of hand in a modern novel is to claim that modern novels are cut off from that kind of scope and depth and greatness.
Benedict’s sickness deliberately harks back to a time when such a symbol was permissible, and the sick boy himself is an embodiment of how delicate the trappings of civilization and art seem against the context of war. Benedict’s fragility is also the seed for the novel’s ray of hope, the love that springs up between Helen and Aldred, which, Hazzard implies, will carry on all that is finest in him as well as make a definitive break with all that was worst in the recent past.
Helen and Aldred’s romance shares space with the story of Peter Exley, Aldred’s friend, an art historian who is now engaged in prosecuting war crimes. Having shared the same experience and a similar intellectual sensibility, Peter is the one who can best comprehend what the war has meant to Aldred. But mainly, “The Great Fire” is about the stirrings and realization of a love between two characters.
You will notice I have said it is “mainly” that, instead of “just” that or “simply” that. Because in Hazzard’s view there is nothing paltry about the subtle genesis of love, and if this makes “The Great Fire” seem trivial to some — as if the fact that an author who has been absent for almost a quarter of a century should produce something more than a love story — it only illustrates that greatness is never determined by theme or subject alone.
Hazzard’s prose is one of the glories of English literature. She makes us realize both how little we settle for in other novels and how much there is to know of every character who appears. The reflection of any character in “The Great Fire” can encompass years of experience, the uneasy balance between immediate needs and lifelong aspirations, the tension between the duty to others and the duty to ourselves. It’s often hard to capture the qualities that permeate the structure and blood and bone of a novel, but this passage about Exley, who has been temporarily felled by an illness he has contracted because of an act of kindness, comes close:
“His own experience was not great, yet had filled up his thought at the expense of other powers. His consciousness was like half-excavated ancient cities he had seen — incapable of future, expecting only a further accretion of the past.”
This is the dual function Hazzard fulfills: fidelity to both the psyches of her characters and to the larger picture that used to be demanded of novelists. That she manages both — the penetrating psychology that, fairly or unfairly, we associate with the “modern” novel, and a larger encompassing vision of the world — suggests why she seems both of her time and beyond it. She is not a writer to be read casually. She does not write in the expository sense of giving characters and events theatrical introduction. At times it may take us a paragraph or two to figure out what characters are talking about — they would not explain it to each other, because they know what they’re talking about and having them explain it to us would, for Hazzard, be a violation of their voices. But she is never willfully obscure or torturously literary.
Anatole Broyard, not an easily pleased critic, talked of reading “The Transit of Venus” with an “almost indescribable pleasure.” For me the pleasure of reading Hazzard is the pleasure of feeling your brain at work, not to puzzle out meaning or narrative but to keep track of the steadily accumulating perspectives that account for the book’s feeling of wholeness and to savor their rendering in prose that is both hard and mellifluous, precise and flowing.
Above all, reading “The Great Fire” reminds us that a living novelist is so much more than a working novelist. This is only the fourth novel Shirley Hazzard has published since 1966 (there have also been two books of short stories and several volumes of nonfiction). She has not been a constant presence on the literary scene, as some more prolific writers have been. But she has kept the fine, close observation that characterizes earlier novels (like “The Bay of Noon”) while enlarging their scope, their capacity for tragedy and, as here, transcendence. “The Great Fire” breathes. And the final sentence, utterly simple and profound, is the perfect merging of the “personal” scale of Hazzard’s stories with the enormous consciousness of history and fate behind them. In that sentence, she lifts us to heaven without losing sight of the earth. She’s one of the few living novelists who seems able to traverse the distance.
– Charles Taylor
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