Based on Bryan Appleyard's high regard for Shirley Hazzard, I recently bought her last novel "The Great Fire." Now Bryan's gone and interviewed her (see above link), and his admiration is set out clearly there.
Sadly, I am almost half way through the novel and am finding it close to unbearable; last night I nearly decided to simply give up.
I don't mind the more ornate style of writing of your typical mid 20th century author: I have read nearly everything of Evelyn Waugh, and quite admire Brideshead Revisited in particular. In the last few years, I finally got around to The Great Gatsby, and while I felt the material was somewhat slight, I thought the writing had some of the same appeal as Waugh's. Going back further, Conrad can be a bit of struggle for me, but I could still understand him.
The problem with Hazzard, who is old enough to have started writing mid last century, is that I keep finding apparently carefully constructed sentences or paragraphs (she took 20 years to finish it) which none the less I have to re-read to discern the information or mood they are intended to convene. Even then I am not always successful in getting her point.
I don't think I am a particularly thick reader. As she has generally been very well reviewed, I have to give examples to try to validate my complaint.
This first paragraph is, I think, important to the theme of the novel, set shortly after the end of WWII; but that's only my guess, given the way it is written:
In the pattern of disruption that had been Aldred Leith's life for years, arrival had kept its interest. Excitement dwindled, curiosity had increased. Occasion revived an illusion of discovery, as if one woke in a strange room to wonder afreash not only where but who one was; to shed assumptions, even certainties. On the sea that evening, such expectation was negilible. Earlier in the day, in the swaying train, Leith had written to a wartime comrade: 'Peace forces us to invent our future selves.' Fatuity, he thought now, and in his mind tore the letter up. There was enough introspection to go round, whole systems of inwardness. The deficiency didn't lie there. To deny the external and unpredicatable made self-possession hardly worth the price. Like settling for a future without coincidence or luck.I hope someone out there agrees with me, but I find that to be a semi-opaque mess; not good writing at all.
I learn from Appleyard's interview that much of the novel must have been inspired by Hazzard's real life adventures as a young women in post war Asia. She also makes it clear that she was an artistically inclined youth who longed to escape Australia, and that explains why she has one major character who views the country the same way:
He and Rysom had been raised on the Australian myths of desecration - on tales of fabulous vomiting into glove compartments or punch bowls, of silence ruptured by obscene sound: the legends of forlorn men avenging themselves on an empty continent, which, in its vast removal, did not hear or judge them.Of course, this section makes Hazzard sound like a snob too; but who knows, maybe I would not have been entirely happy in mid 20th century Australia either.
These things, Peter Exley knew, who had been born and raised to it all, and endangered by it. Who had released himself into the lavish hospitality of art. Because of his own hairbreadth escape, the condition did not excite his compassion: the attack on whatever withheld itself in mystery - a woman, a culture, a work of art; the sense of private self. All could be exorcised with a beer and a jeer; the mockery, like the drink, being passing assuagement only, of the wound that would not heal.
No, I restrict my complaint to her prose style, which I guess is a result of what happens when an author keeps revising her writing over twenty years: it becomes elaborate but tedious and unclear.
The review of the book at Slate I can partially agree with. It notes that:
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....Her style is described as "oblique", whereas I definitely would say "opaque".
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.
Actually, now that I read more of the reviews, a lot of them do seem to acknowledge flaws, yet somehow they still come around to forgiving them. Take this from another review:
Hazzard's prose is crisp and whittled, sometimes even cryptic. We never get a fully fleshed story of Leith's heroics, nor of the mysterious mentor, a former Japanese prisoner who, on his deathbed, presciently foretells Leith's passage back to a personal life. Horrors are hinted at but never dwelt upon. Hazzard revels in oblique distillation, but she is by no means a minimalist. Her sentences are rich in clauses, and her observations run deep, as do her characters' self-awareness and interior lives.There's that word "oblique" again. And I would not say that her prose is "sometimes" cryptic; it happens on about every second page, and I just find that intolerable.
Bryan Appleyard wonders why she isn't better known, but it doesn't surprise me at all.