The Art of Being Difficult

How hard should a reader be made to work when confronting a piece of literature? At what point does an elliptical sentence become an opaque one that causes the reader to set the book aside in irritation? Or is the complex book, the demanding book, something to be welcomed like a really good mental work-out? A version of sit-ups for the brain? These questions were very much to the forefront of my mind as I was reading the latest pick for the Slaves of Golconda book group. Having wondered in yesterday’s post whether language could be too simplistic for pleasure, Shirley Hazzard’s award-winning novel The Transit of Venus, gave me the opposite experience of wondering whether language could become too weighty, too portentous, too pregnant with meaning for its own good.

The Transit of Venus is essentially a love story that spans several decades of the twentieth century, involves the romantic fortunes of a web of protagonists and moves between England and America. The main focus of the narrative falls on Caroline Bell, who, with her sister, Grace, has come over from Australia in search of meaningful experience. The Bell sisters were orphaned young, their parents drowning in a ferry accident off Sydney Bay. In consequence the girls were brought up by their older half-sister, Dora, whose vibrant negativity makes her one of the most engaging, if dislikeable characters in the novel. Dora has been required by fate to make an unreasonable sacrifice of her youth, and her revenge is never to let anyone forget it. Escaping Dora is an influential factor in Grace’s rapid engagement to a man she meets in a cinema, Christian Thrale, and when the novel opens, we are at the home of the Thrales. Christian’s father is an eminent astronomer, involved in siting a telescope in the UK. Ted Tice, displaced from his class by his mind and his education, awkward but with the strength of his own integrity, comes to stay at the house as an assistant to Professor Thrale and falls in love, deeply and irrevocably, with Grace’s sister, Caro. But Caro is not attracted to him other than as a friend; instead she begins an impetuous but passionate affair with an arrogant young playwright, Paul Ivory, who is himself engaged to be married to someone else.  The fates and fortunes of this cast of characters are revealed in a series of beautifully examined tableaux that extends over many years.

The transit of Venus stands over the narrative as its guiding star. In the first pages of the novel, we are told a cautionary tale by Professor Thrale and Ted Tice, of a French adventurer who longed to see the extremely rare celestial event when Venus partially eclipses the sun. Having been delayed by wars and misadventure that caused him to miss one transit, he waited in a form of exile for eight years until Venus should pass again, only on that day conditions were too poor for the spectacle to be seen. It would be another century before it happened again. The transit of Venus mirrors the trajectories of Caro Bell and Ted Tice, who circle each other repeatedly over the course of the narrative, but seem destined never to unite. In this first, early encounter, the love Ted feels for Caro is not reciprocated, but will he finally win her in the end? Venus, the planet of love, is notably capricious. “The calculations were hopelessly out,” Ted Tice explains about James Cook’s equally disastrous attempt to view the transit. “Calculations about Venus often are.”

The sense of complex delays that are inevitable but perplexing structures the entire narrative, which inserts into its opening scenes a seemingly casual remark about a man’s body being found after a flood. It will come back to haunt the protagonists only towards the very end. Equally gnomic is an off-hand remark about Ted Tice, accompanying the early descriptions of him, that he will one day take his own life. Perhaps if nothing else, this structure indicates the necessity for the reader to exercise great patience with the text. Hazzard slows her action down to a crawl, with each gesture and thought of her characters inviting narratorial intervention, as its significance is teased out and analysed. For the most part, I was happy to go along with this, because it produces some splendid observations: ‘nothing creates such untruth as the wish to please or to be spared something’, ‘the absence of self-delusion in itself is liberty’, ‘[i]n its first appeal, security offered an excitement almost like romance, but that rescue might wear down, like any other.’ The tone of these remarks is not so much lyrical as philosophical, but philosophical with a cosmic edge. We are given love and life through a telescope that brings us closer to these huge forces that sear through existence, but seem almost impersonal and beyond our control, spiritual in the way they inhabit us but also transcend us. I wondered at first whether the story, so focused on romance, would not be too slight for the weight of observation Hazzard brings to it, but in the end I capitulated; primary emotions, like love, desire, rage, fear, are ordinarily downplayed so we might keep living without incurring too much damage, but given their true significance, we might have to admit their overwhelming, potentially devastating importance.

However, it takes a certain kind of reading attitude to accept that characters might say things like: “She mistakes suspicion for insight.” Or, “I loathe the undernourishment of this country, the grievance, the censoriousness, the reluctance to try anything else.” Whilst the intelligence of Hazzard’s prose never falters, her protagonists risk at times becoming mouthpieces for existential insight, rather than flesh and blood people. In fact, the huge weight of significance that the narrative is asked to bear makes it at one and the same time startlingly true and suspiciously artificial. We have so much contact with the discerning, interpreting writerly mind, that we can feel oddly shielded from the action, as if it takes place behind a gauze curtain of wise remarks. I passed through many emotions myself reading this; I found it surprising and profound and frustrating and sometimes disengaging and sometimes piercing. Overall it was a triumph of language, but one that came, for me at least, at the cost of emotional immediacy. But it was also a book that I longed to discuss with others, so I’m hoping my fellow Slaves will hurry up and post so I can know what they felt about it!


13 thoughts on “The Art of Being Difficult

  1. I loved this book…savored every sentence. Reminded me of the letters of Emily Dickinson,the elliptical quality, how each sentence takes one in three different directions simultaneously. Delicious! But then, this is what I like about poetry, and why fiction more and more just bores me. I find the immediacy IN the language, not in what it supposedly represents or points to. I want the referential meaning to be so deeply embedded in the language you can’t tell them apart. The illusion of transparency strikes me as false–in the worst way: demanding I turn off part of my brain, forget that it’s all made of words. I want all the pulleys and screens to be visible, and STILL be dazzled by the magic… like The Tempest, which never lets you forget it’s a play, and yet transports you into a state of pure imaginative wonder.

  2. I’m fascinated by your account of this book, which I don’t remember ever hearing of. Shirley Hazzard’s name was not familiar to me and the only one of her novels whose title rings any bells is The Evening of the Holiday, though I don’t think I have read it. Your review tells me all sorts of very particular things about this novel, but gives me no idea of whether I would like it – with such a book, I don’t think it could. Difficult books, if I like them, are the ones I like best. But if I don’t, of course I just resent the effort required. One to look out for, definitely.

  3. After reading your post I feel better that I managed to get most of what Hazzard was doing though I will say it was at times an uphill battle. I also was wondering as I read–do people really talk like this–my conversations never sound like that, but then I know I am not an intellectual like I’m imagining Hazzard to be. I had mixed feelings as I was going but in the end thought it really well done and worth the effort. I’m sure I missed a lot–she never gave you a break in her writing, but there were moments of real genius that did make me stop and reread. And sorry, this is a really shallow comment, but I love the cover of your book–so much nicer than mine.

  4. I haven’t read this (nor had I heard of Hazzard before) but I am really interested in reading the reviews at Slaves. Not sure if I would use one of my B&N gift cards on buying a copy (those precious things are usually reserved for “sure bets”), but I might see if my library has it. Your review, however, is superbly written (what else is new, heh?) and I feel I learned something notwithstanding not having read the book itself.

  5. People don’t ‘really’ talk the way they do in books. Any books. Ever. And never have. Authors use tried and true conventions that readers learn to translate as verisimilitude. If you’ve ever read a word for word transcript of a conversation you have only to compare what’s on the page with what you read in conventional novel.

    I take a small exception to the use of the word ‘difficult’ here. I don’t think it’s about difficulty, unless one means by difficult, something that doesn’t nicely fit what one expects or thinks one wants, or thinks is what a book should be. Granted, if one is looking for conventionalized verisimilitude, Hazzard doesn’t pass muster. No, that is not how people talk… in book where when quiets one’s critical faculties enough to make the conventions, the linguistic painted screens and pulleys, vanish.

    The subject then has nothing to do with difficulty, and certainly not about representative fidelity, but rather, an aesthetic question of the use of conventions, of what kind and for what ends.

    Hazzard’s prose asks the reader to accept–to find pleasure–in what it does, on its own terms. It’s full of swerves and indirection, particularly her dialog.. and in that, perhaps its more, not less, ‘realistic,’ though it uses aesthetic indirection to do that.

    I’d highly recommend reading the letters of Emily Dickinson–there’s an almost uncanny resemblance at times, to Dickinson’s warily revealing evasions when she’s answering questions.

    “While my thought is undressed–I can make the distinction, but when I put them in the Gown — they look alike, and numb.
    You asked how old I was? I made no verse — but one or two — until this winter — Sir … When a little Girl, I had a friend, who taught me Immortality — but venturing too near, himself — he never returned. ”
    … in speaking of her parents, she writes: “They are religious –except me — and address an Eclipse, every morning –whom they call their Father.’

    This is the language of a passionate desire to be understood, balanced (or thwarted) by an equally powerful fear that it might be… that what you wish to communicate would place you disapprobation, if not actual danger … this, with a conviction that no one unwilling to translate the indirection would understand, there being no use then in trying to be ‘plain.’

    As one who can readily identify with all those states, I find Hazzard’s writing balm to my soul.

    Or maybe I could suggest that this book be read in the frame of mind appropriate to opera–something that can be ravishing… precisely because it has nothing to do with representative reality.

  6. jacob – I think I’ll take your two comments separately. My immediate response to this one was, simply, that you’d found a book that corresponded perfectly to your desires for reading. And that’s lovely. If you look at the previous post I wrote, you’ll see that transparency to meaning isn’t my prime requirement from a book. But, as I was reading Hazzard, I felt that some of her sentences were exquisite, and some felt like they were trying too hard. Some of the passages really held my attention and some made me wonder where she was going with her story. Language is not my sole criterion for enjoying a book. And what this all boils down to is purely taste. We are both experienced readers, who know what we like, and we’re not going to agree always on every book – that says nothing about the books, and nothing significant about our ability to read deeply. Just that different things give us pleasure at times.

    Jean – you hit a nail on the head there – this is a book I just couldn’t call if I were to give it to someone else. But I would love to know what you think of it. There are some really wonderful parts in it that definitely make it worth a read.

    Danielle – it is a pretty cover! I can be very disarmed by a lovely cover too! Yes, I was so glad I was reading this for the Slaves and I must say that everyone else’s perspectives have been fascinating to read. It was a perplexing novel on a number of levels, what with the language being complex and the plot surprising. But I was very glad that we chose it and pleased to have read it in the end.

    Lilian – we definitely agreed on this one!

    Grad – aw bless you, you are so kind. I would definitely suggest this as a library loan, as you could always buy it if you loved it. I’m really glad we chose it as a Slaves’ book, as having a discussion about it gave me some interesting perspectives. I would love to know what you think of it if you do get hold of it!

    Jacob – no people don’t replicate ‘real’ speech acts in narrative. But dialogue generally serves a purpose that is different to descriptive and explicatory prose. It is used in distinction from other kinds of writing to put across a sense of orality. If Hazzard wasn’t interested in distinguishing her dialogue from her other prose, then why bother with dialogue? Why not write the whole thing in free indirect speech? And there are plenty of places in the novel where her characters do say perfectly mundane things, too.

    I’m thinking that you must be experiencing the word ‘difficult’ as pejorative in some way. I don’t see why this should be. Mallarme who was the king of difficult understood it as just an accurate description. People choose to do difficult sudoko puzzles because it pleases them to be able to complete them. Plus, you loved this book, so it’s not going to strike you as difficult. Whereas readers who don’t take to the style probably are going to find it more taxing than some other kinds of read. I completely appreciate the passionate defense you put forward for this book only… I don’t think it needs defending. I don’t really think I’m attacking it. My experience of the book was different to yours and that, alas, is the nature of reading, and I couldn’t transport myself into your experience with the best will in the world. I appreciated the book very much, but didn’t love all of it. I will certainly try to find some time to read Emily Dickenson, though!

  7. Litlove,

    Fair enough. The word ‘difficult’ conjured up a kind of complaint I often hear–quite apart from anything you wrote, or that I attributed to you–which I find annoying.

    Your openness to so many kinds of writing, and your ability to adjust your criticism to fit the particular demands of the text–and to reveal the very different kinds of virtue these books offer, is one of the things I most enjoy and respect in your reviews. I can’t really think of anyone else with so broad an aesthetic perspective who does anywhere near as well. I have rather more narrowly focused aesthetic goals, because my central interest isn’t as a reader as such, but as a reader who writes, or should I say, a reader who reads TO write, and FOR writing… who reads to discover affinities and stimulation for my own writing. This is why I avoid writing reviews! I couldn’t begin to do what you do–not only, not as well, but at all!

    I’m too focused on developing a particular aesthetic–one that is at odds with what passes as ‘realist fiction’ & the idea of ‘representation.’ This is probably what has pushed me away from writing fiction, and almost exclusively now, to poetry.

    I think there is more to these questions about aesthetic judgment than ‘taste,’ that they are deeply embedded in politics, in philosophical concerns–but this is not at all the place to go into that. That’s for a different kind of forum. Meanwhile–I wouldn’t have you change your approach for the world. You are a treasure, a great servant to the pleasures of reading.


  8. In case it’s of interest, I’ll just mention a book that addresses difficulty as a concept and practice, in the specific context of modernism–The Difficulties of Modernism, by my colleague Len Diepeveen.

  9. I really want to read this. You make it sound even more challenging than Danielle. I wonder if these dialogues will work for me. There is nothing like a realistic sounding dialogue to give authenticity to a book. This does not sound like authentic dialogue at all but then again, I like poetical prose. I wonder if the writing is a bit like Toni Morrison. I remember I read her “Jazz” and thought that was just too much. “Beloved” is different. Unfortunately many Nobel Prize Winners writer like that. Maybe that’s why they get the prize. Morrison wants to give you a hard time, or so she said in an interview.

  10. jacob – that is a very handsome and generous comment from you. Thank you. There’s nothing wrong on focusing in on what particularly pleases you, and beautiful language is after all the foundation stone of any piece of writing that works. When I first started this blog, I was much closer to the kind of academic writing that seeks only ever to hold a work up to the light and see how it functions – these days I have grown a bit too easygoing for my own standards and often come out with value statements that really don’t add much to a reading! Taste is a fascinating question, and I agree that it is bound up in politics and ideology – that’s perhaps a blog post for another day. There’s certainly enough to say about it! And poetry is something I really don’t read regularly enough. Can you read French? Only I was thinking that you would really like the poems of Bernard Noel and I’m not sure anyone has translated him. Yves Bonnefoy, too, who is a favourite of mine (and I’m sure he does exist in translation as he is also a translator himself, with some of Shakespeare’s works to his name).

    Rohan – thank you for that suggestion! That’s very helpful and a most intriguing book that I’d very much like to check out. In fact my title here is taken from Malcolm Bowie’s book on Mallarme (gosh I wish I knew where the accents were on this keyboard).

    Caroline – lol! Good for Toni Morrison. Make those readers work for it! Actually, I think there’s something in that, because books that offer a bit of a challenge are often the books that do stay with you over time. I have to admit I have never read Morrison. Really, the more you read,the more you realise there is out there to be read. But that’s a nice thing, on the whole.

  11. I agree that this book evokes a wide range of responses from the same reader — I felt in moments that I was enjoying myself immensely, and in other moments that the pages crawled by and I wished she would get on with it. But mostly it was a positive experience, and I’m glad I took time with this book. I was amused by the presence of both very melodramatic elements and high-flown language.

  12. I chanced upon this book in a second hand book market in New Delhi. Somehow the cover piqued my interest. Sadly I never got around to reading it and I think it got lost somewhere. Reading your excellent review makes me want to search for it and start reading it.

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