Friday, February 24, 2012

Duality of Tastes

I owe Shirley Hazzard an apology. The Transit of Venus, which I just finished reading, is not as male-identified as I thought at first. But in fairness to myself, I was more than halfway through the novel before I had any reason to revise my assessment.

There had been a slight hint earlier, when one of the main character's coworkers rebels at the usual division of office labor: when a male administrator asks Valda to sew a button for him ("I am not handy with such things," he tells her), she complies, but a week later asks him to change her typewriter ribbon. "I am not handy with machines," she tells him guilefully. (This is in 1950s London, by the way.) He writes in her personnel file that "she tended to be aggressive over trifles" (141). Later "the queenly and long-limbed Valda" laments to Caro, the protagonist, how male supremacy contaminates heterosexual romance, but she also observes of her coworkers, "The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea" (142). And then there's something just a bit ... odd. Queer, even:
For her part, Valda considered Caro as a possibility lost. Caro might have done anything, but preferred the common limbo of sexual love. Whoever said, "When you go to women, take your whip," was on to something deep, and deeply discouraging [143].
Valda disappeared into the background, but I should have known that in a novel as carefully constructed as this one, I hadn't seen the last of her. That episode had to be a setup for something else, and so it proved. Caro gets involved with an American man, and when she returns to the office one day after a long lunch, she learns that Valda has been tending to be aggressive again.
... Valda had refused to prepare tea or procure sandwiches at lunchtime over ever again. ...

"And is not that somewhat absurd? [asks the same administrator] The purveying of -- ah -- victuals being an accepted part of her functions?"

"By whom is it accepted?" [inquires Caro]

"By every woman here except Miss Fenchurch and, I now take it, yourself. Had there been a wider sense of unfitness, the girls would have expressed it generally."

"Most people have to have unfitness pointed out to them. At first there is usually only one person who does that."

Mr. Leadbetter had, as he was put it to his wife that evening, seldom been so vexed. "And do you not find this a paltry and and selfish attitude? The men in this office are, after all, forgoing the lunch hour altogether, remaining at their desks for extra duty. The girls are merely asked -- required -- to help them discharge onerous extra tasks."

"The men do nothing that lowers their self-esteem. On the contrary, staying at their desk exalts it" [192].
And so on. Perhaps you're wondering why Caro had gone into Mr. Leadbetter's office in the first place.
"In fact I have come to give you my resignation."

His mouth opened and closed: like a horse with carney. "And may I inquire the motive?"

"I am going to be married" [193].
To her American, of course. It's a neatly done scene, but it's also the only time Caro exhibits any sense of politics, of any kind. Well, it is the Fifties, not a good time for politics in Anglo-America. Years later she becomes aware of oppression in Latin America, and briefly befriends a poet from an unnamed country (I'd guess Chile was the model, but the author is carefully unspecific) whose work she undertakes to translate into English. I'm not complaining because Caro doesn't start running guns for the revolution; what bothers me is the hermetic quality of Caro's depicted life. I think all this is due to Caro's personal alienation, not the author's: between "1952 and 1962 Hazzard worked in the United Nations as a clerical employee", and she later wrote two nonfiction books about the United Nations, so I assume she has a wider perspective on the world than Caro exhibits. Presumably her UN job was the model for Caro's job in London, which has some vague connection to international diplomacy. (Like Caro, Hazzard was born in Australia in the early 1930s and moved to England just after World War II.) The result is to make Caro mostly seem especially self-absorbed, rather than to put her personal -- romantic -- life into any kind of relief.

That episode did open up the book a bit to my mind, but then towards the end it is revealed that one important character is a Sodomite. He calls himself a "homosexual," but his function is more primitive than that: he opens up a moral abyss with the shock value of "the underside of my nature" and "me and my kind," so I think Sodomite is more apt as a label for him. You can almost smell the fire and brimstone as he tells his sordid story. It made me withdraw the goodwill I'd begun to extend to the novel, which never recovered from this detour. But "detour" isn't the right word, because it's clear that Hazzard intends it to be part of the main road of the story. The abyss then recedes into the distance, and heterosexuality triumphs -- I'm deliberately trying not to give away too much, though it's not a big surprise in context. But the ending rings false to me. I'm only really surprised that I had forgotten this episode from the previous time I read The Transit of Venus. (On the other hand, I also forgot that Frank Herbert's Dune had an important character named Duncan -- a more uncommon name in those pre-Highlander days -- until I saw the 1984 film version.)

Hazzard writes really well; it's her prose that carried me through the book's 337 pages. Her depiction of her characters' aging was interesting too. At the end, though, I was struck by the drabness of the world and people she created.