(New York: Catapult Books, 2020)
“I ask myself: how to account for the impression of splendor?” de Kretser writes at the outset of her thoughtful tribute to Shirley Hazzard, acknowledging how it is famously difficult to capture the mystical in language — but even as words fail, literature like Hazzard’s “evokes the value of phenomena that resist description,” inducing in the reader something akin to the partial ego-death experience that comes along with a low-dose psychedelic trip. This “ecstatic yielding of the self,” which tamps down our analytical minds, “while not canceling out assessment, seeks to illuminate rather than usurp the work in question.” Both of these writer’s writers, Hazzard and de Kretser, agree that at its best, reading is a form of enchantment, a “submission” to the “erotics of interpretation,” a delight “in the rainbow of creation,” art “reach[ing] into the reader’s soul.” A book is a party we bring ourselves to, and when so moved we dance, swaying to the sardonically comic…poignantly tragic…sweetly melancholic vibe.
How else can a writer communicate the sublime but through elision, what is suggested, rather than what is said? De Kretser shows off her understanding of this technique, loosely associating her words with Hazzard’s, quoting her directly, “giving readers unmediated access to her prose.” “I repeat my mantra,” she writes, “literature lives in sentences.” — and, I’ll add, in the space between them. De Kretser’s associative critical conjectures are wonderful because they mess with our sense of orthodox, academically sanctioned truth. In the following passage, de Kretser shows us the difference between interpreting and interacting, demonstrating how a novel transcends the page by interfering with the reader, inspiring a response. I don’t know for sure, not having read The Transit of Venus, whether the quoted thought is authorial or from the mind of the character, but it is of no matter, as de Kretser’s purpose is not to isolate a permissible thematic interpretation, but to delight in the splendor of an expression, eliding the stuffy segue, responding to poetry with poetry:
…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.
More of this type of criticism in the world? Yes please.
As in the above passage, which hints at gender dissonance, de Kretser does not overtly ask us to indulge in a feminist polemic with her, but this tension is felt as a strong sub-textual through-line in her tribute. The opening movement verges on a lyrical prose poem that leans hard into the intellectual paternalism women have had to endure since they started projecting their unique voices out in the world, calling out those men who have chosen to fashion a contrary argument because they simply could not abide. Enter Graham Green, that twentieth-century paragon of letters of the bipolar variety. The way de Kretser features him is telling, suggesting that she wants to vicariously and posthumously defend (apologize for?) Hazzard’s deference to difficult men bestowed with shiny accolades. Check out the regret implied in the space between these two paragraphs; for me, it is not that de Kretser doesn’t feel the need to guard against all disorientations — I had to look at the Further Reading list to note that The Transit of Venus was published in 1980, Greene on Capri in 2000 — but rather, here, disorientation seems purposeful. The first closes off an accounting of the undoubtedly ill-considered and reflexive criticism of Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus by Nobel laureate Patrick White. The next, beginning with the words then came, makes the content of the sentence that follows seem like an unavoidable biographical afterthought:
Perhaps White simply missed the point of the novel. It happens. Francis Steegmuller [Hazzard’s husband] 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.
Regarding that book on Greene, I have this sense of active inattention, like de Kretser knows there is territory in her personal library in which to place the object, but she perhaps doesn’t much care if it is ever found again, unlike Hazzard’s work, which she wishes were not obscured by the shadow of an overbearing man.
The only place de Kretser substantively talks about Greene on Capri is in the next chapter, Ghost Stories, a page and half long interlude, but here, too, he is a scant reference haunting the text. “The book is memorable chiefly for an effect I can’t remember now,” de Kretser writes, the response related to the semiotic punch of the “[m]agnificent yet derelict” Villa Fersen — and this effect, this splendor, she refuses to analyze, favoring another patch of metaphysical meditation:
There’s the moment when you see yourself in a book, and the moment when a book sees you. And a third kind, rare, spooky: when something recognized that isn’t a memory comes out of a book to find you; it might be something that’s waiting to arrive. When time is revealed not as a flow but a tangle. The moment passes. A shimmer is left behind.
I love this. There is more than what mere as-lived experience can offer. These moments in literature are essential, meaning of the essence, and this has nothing to do with Graham Greene. So, I feel I must apologize to de Kretser, but I couldn’t resist a Google search to understand the deal between Hazzard and Greene. I quickly happened upon Richard Eder’s excellent New York Times review, twenty years old now, which he caps with a paragraph of Hazzard’s writing from the end of the memoir that recalls “her husband and Greene, both long and gaunt, on Capri afternoons”:
These recollections are bound up with glimpses of that place, and with memories of its men and women; above all, with images of two tall men sitting at ease in the cafe, as years pass, talking of the great writers: living impressions that may stay vivid into the Millennium—or so very little longer.
Hazzard’s or so, making the dash an equal sign, is quite brilliant. The moment and thought captured here are as ephemeral as the holder of the memory — and this is her shimmer we sense, not theirs.
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Trevor Payne teaches English at Radnor High School in suburban Philadelphia.