Wednesday, February 22, 2012

In the Room the Women Come and Go

I've been reading Shirley Hazzard's 1980 novel The Transit of Venus (Viking) -- rereading it, rather. I first read it soon after it was published, because of the rave reviews it garnered, but it made absolutely no impression on me. Hazzard writes very well, her prose is the main attraction, but I suspect I'll forget the book again right after I finish it. It reads like a Virago reprint of a novel from the 1930s or 40s, and indeed it's set (except a bit of backstory) in the 40s right after the end of the Second World War. The trouble is that it seems to have no perspective on the period, as one has a right to expect from a novel written, or at any rate published, thirty years later.

This passage, for example, from page 146. One of the principals, a young woman in her early twenties, is in a department-store tearoom overlooking Piccadilly in London, waiting for a friend to arrive.
Admitting only seemly sounds, the room sheltered none but the decorous. All tables were occupied by women. Waitresses like wardresses kept a reproving eye on performance, repressively mopping a stain or replacing a dropped fork. Something not unpleasant, a nursery security, came along with this. Yet in such a setting you might sicken of women -- sicken of their high-pitched, imperious, undulant gender, their bosoms and bottoms and dressed hair, their pleats, flounces, and crammed handbags: all the appurtenances, natural and assumed, of their sex. In such density they could hardly be regarded as persons, as men might be; and were even intent on being silly, all topics sanctified by the vehemence brought to them.
There is some validity to these observations, but exactly the same could be said of men in all-male environments, be they gay or straight, butch or nelly: in such density they can hardly be regarded as persons. I don't know much about Hazzard, but I get the impression from this novel that she's rather male-identified: the kind of woman whose friends are mostly male, who thinks of herself as above the fripperies and foolishness of most women. Or maybe not, who knows? The novel, so far at any rate, is highly gendered, a glimpse into the heterosexual lifestyle that makes me feel quite content not to be part of it.