Click any multicolored Portico to see the frameset (whole site)

The Great Fire

With The Great Fire (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), Shirley Hazzard has produced a singular novel that charts a new course through the territory of passionate love. It's a decidedly grown-up book, not so much unsuitable for as incomprehensible by children - and, I daresay, most young people. I am persuaded with age that truly adult books make little or no reference to the carnalities of love for the simple reason that mature people learn whatever they know about sex from experience, not from books, and can be trusted to infer what happens when the fictional bedroom door closes.  Ms Hazzard carries discretion a step further, and counts upon her readers' experience of love itself. Instead of describing love yet again she refreshes it for us by showing the behavior that it inspires in two very fine characters. If you have never been very much in love, The Great Fire won't tell you what it's like. But if you have been, then the novel will reawaken love's longing with something like the urgency of Tristan und Isolde, if at considerably lower volume. Very much the classic English stylist (although of Australian birth and long a New Yorker), Ms Hazzard understates as a matter of course, and leaves it to us to discern the big moments.

The story of The Great Fire, we're told by interviews with the author, has a strong autobiographical element. Like her heroine, Helen Driscoll, Shirley Hazzard fell in love with an older man when she was still in her teens. Her parents - her father was a diplomat - put a stop to the relationship, and things did not go well thereafter for the officer. The Great Fire transforms this tale, the sadness of which for Ms Hazzard was in any case largely alleviated by her long and happy marriage to another older man, Francis Steegmuller, by giving it a happy ending. It would be more accurate to call this a happy beginning. Most love stories interest us with the difficulties that circumstances put in the way of lovers, and end when these difficulties end. The Great Fire, in contrast, is not about such difficulties, although they do provide the narrative framework. It is, rather, about the ever-intensifying feelings that bind Helen to Aldred Leith.

And again, unlike most love stories, The Great Fire lavishes far more attention on the man than it does on the woman. The novel's strong suggestion that, while men must have some wide and demanding experience before settling down, women may know their own hearts and minds before they leave the shelter of childhood's home, puts Ms Hazzard in the psychological camp of Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope. This may disturb some modern readers, but it can't be denied that her portraits are convincing. Helen's education has been accelerated by the moral vacancy of dreadful, vulgarly sophisticated parents, and by the mortal illness of a beloved brother, whom she nurses and with whom, on voyages to and from England, she has read the important books. Although there is nothing bookish about her love for Aldred Leith, books do seem to have sharpened the moral sense that permits her to recognize in Leith a kindred spirit. That both lovers are physically attractive is wholly taken for granted; what each of them demands beyond that is that the beloved be good. This is what Aldred and Helen perceive about each other immediately, drawing inferences, for the most part, from a shared reticence. When they meet, Aldred makes a charming remark about Helen's hand.

He said, "Like a caricature of a beautiful hand."
She might have liked, now, to look at her hand, in order to see it in that light. But the pleasure would keep, and was best enjoyed alone.

Such restraint may not appeal to everyone, but it signifies a moral tact capable of overcoming the egotism of romance. 

Leith has of course lived the longer, more varied life; there is accordingly more to tell.  The son of a famous novelist, Aldred is made out of finer, if more muted, stuff.

The son knew himself more resilient and less egotistical than the father - even if possessed, as he had always been given to understand - of less genius.


Aldred, in Japan, thought judiciously of his father, who had never cheaply courted fame, yet could not live without it; who, despising sycophancy,  exacted submission from those about him. Not a great man, but interesting and singular. Not loving, but seized, even grandly, with the phenomenon of love.

Aldred himself has had two serious affairs, and one marriage; events haven't so much interrupted these relationships as underlined their futility. The first is with the very young mother of a school friend, a woman later becomes seriously attached to his father. The second woman in Aldred's past is the daughter of a Florentine family with whom Aldred boards in order to learn Italian (required for a Foreign Office career then envisioned); antagonistic to Mussolini, the family suffers reverses and becomes dependent, financially, on Aldred - a development that, because it forecloses the possibility that the girl might voluntarily accept his suit, nips the barely burgeoning romance in the bud. The marriage is vitiated by wartime separation. These relationships may be seen as delusions that Aldred must cast off in order to be as fresh and innocent as Helen - and so to pierce and transcend 'the phenomenon of love.' 

Another of this novel's distinctions is a patience, given to Aldred Leith by his love for Helen, with the rest of life - with what a younger, more obviously ardent lover would dismiss as distractions. His father dies just as Helen is preparing to voyage with her parents to New Zealand, and Aldred returns to England, which is about as far from New Zealand as it is possible to get. From the family home on the North Sea, he uses the influence attained by having won the Victoria Cross to boost the pension of a local laborer, and he sees the book on postwar China and Japan that brought him to Helen's door through to publication. He also writes to Helen's parents, from whom he receives a predictably negative reply. Their opposition to the distinguished and, since his father's death, wealthy officer is never spelled out, but one can gather that it has less to do with Helen's age than with a profound resentment of Aldred's superiority, that hatred of the genuinely superior indulged by so many ambitious middle-class people. They can't really mean to stand in his way, for when their son dies in California they allow Helen to remain behind in New Zealand, where, it's pretty clear, Aldred will join her as soon as he can.  

Although shorter than three hundred pages in length, The Great Fire is a book in which to luxuriate. The writing is deeply considered. Some readers might find it somewhat mannered, or obviously self-conscious; to me it is simply discriminating. There are passages in The Great Fire that have the feel of late Henry James, severely reduced to the essence of engaged consciousness. There are many phrases of great felicity. The defeated Japanese in a dingy postwar train are consigned to 'the miasma of endurance.' And here is Helen, on the night of her first kiss (not Aldred's): 

In the night, she got out of her bed and, without lighting the lamp, fetched her new coat and went and sat on the low step, in the setting of the moon. There were cold planets and a cold quiescence. She put the coat around her shoulders and sat, hands clasped over her knees and her chin resting there. She could smell the Pacific, churned up by the storm. Thought how in childhood she had watched the eight-metres and the smaller boats, even the Vee-Jays, sailing Sydney Harbour - whitely, soundlessly, as if unmanned. Only when the regatta veered near the shore and the wind blew from that direction, there came, with swish of hull on water, the shouts and curses, the bellowing and bullying about the boom and the cleat and the sheet, and the billowing jib: all the hysteria of manliness. A rush of copper limbs, a thudding of bare feet, and the whipshot thwack of a slackened jib that should have been taut. 
Because of the kiss, she might have liked to consider the evening a turning point, momentous. But, with the ill-timed precision of women in such matters, only felt what was lacking. Something that either of them could have put a name on. 

If you catch the joke in 'the hysteria of manliness,' The Great Fire will be a great treat. 

Aldred and Helen share the pages of The Great Fire with a host of interesting supporting characters, of whom the principal is Peter Exley, an old army friend of Aldred's currently stationed in Hong Kong, where he is compiling dossiers on war crimes. Tentative and unlucky, Peter has nothing to do with the love story, beyond wishing Aldred, who pays him a brief visit, good luck, and this has led at least one critic to fault the book. But Peter's story gives shading to Aldred's, by outlining a different man's response to similar circumstances. (Peter was even in Florence at the same time as Aldred, although the two were unacquainted.) He also allows the author to write beautifully about the extraordinary city of Hong Kong. And Peter shares with Helen an Australian background. His family expects him to return and take up the practice of law; to Peter this is a prospect of burial alive. 

Ms Hazzard has little to say in favor of 'Antipodean' life. When I read the book next time, I'm going to count the disparaging sentences that begin with reference to 'the Australian male' - not that the women come off much better. Helen's sojourn in New Zealand is oppressed by the nightmarishly extreme social conformity that Ms Hazzard attributes to life in Wellington, but she is so numbed by Aldred's absence that this barely registers. She makes a few friends and finds sympathy, if not consolation, in the landscape. It becomes, finally, the setting of her reunion with Aldred Leith.

Shirley Hazzard has assured us that we will not have to wait another twenty-odd years for her next book, which is very good news indeed. (December 2003)

Permalink  Portico

Copyright (c) 2004 Pourover Press

Write to me