The National Catholic Review
Kelly Cherry

Most of the time we think of the novel as a temporal art form. Like music, it begins and ends, traversing the time between by way of a plot, the plot determined to a degree by the characters whose fates are bound up with it.

But perhaps we can think of another kind of novel, one that in emphasis, at least, bears a semblance to visual art. In such a novel, there will almost certainly be Vermeer-like scenes of domestic intimacy; there may also be panoramasa seascape by Turner, a battle scene by Goya. The scenes will be arresting, but the passage from one to another will seem less like progression and more like focused observation, a taking in of the details of a framed painting.

Shirley Hazzard’s new novel, The Great Fire, is like that, defining within a frame a picture of the planet following World War II, when the devastation in both the East and the West was nearly paralyzing and the development of nuclear weapons was causing increasing talk of a possible third world war, to be fought between the United States and the Soviet Union. Japan, Marseilles, Hong Kong, London, Norfolk, Australia, New Zealand and California are among the places delineated or sketched here. What we see, looking at them in spatial relation to one another, is a world in ashes.

Another fire rages herethe fire of passion. Major Aldred Leith of the British officers corps, who has distinguished himself in the field and as a scholar, meets in Japan the exceptionally lovely, exceptionally well-educated daughter of a rude Australian brigadier and his equally rude wife. Alas, Helen Driscoll is not yet of age; and her beloved brother Benedict, who has been her mutual savior, is dying. Their passion ignited, Aldred and Helen must deal with the obstacles of age, distance and her parents before they can embrace and embark on the future.

Against so large a backdrop, the problems of two little people, in contrast to the characters in Casablanca, become all the more desperate and emblematic. As readers, we think there must be, for these two, islands of sanity somewhereif not here, there. If not there, elsewhere. It is this tension between hope and reluctant expectation of defeat that gives the novel its heartbeat, and the reader whose heart fails to respond sympathetically is probably dead.

Confident, then, that the situation will hold the reader’s attention, the author can take her time establishing the big picture. In fact, her approach to her story is as she describes the approach to Hong Kong:

 

Looking across the strait, you now saw, as if from a great height, the interior life of the mainland: grouped habitations, laborious paddies, serpentine paths, and the smoke of small necessary fires. There was the detailed foreground; far off, the forms and colours of other, unsuspected hills....

 

Hazzard leads us through those grouped habitations and on those serpentine paths and takes us to the tops of mountains from which we can see other hills. Her use of the omniscient point of view, militarily clipped sentence fragments, and the decision to tell rather than show some of the more exciting events contribute to the overall artistic effect.

One intriguing aspect of the book is the place of women in the 1930’s and 40’s (and, by implication, the 1950’s). There are many women in this book, although the dominant figures are male (Major Leith, of course, foremost among them). These womenwidowed or made spinsters by two world wars, housewives dependent on a man’s income or working mostly low-level jobs in a man’s world, trading the broad shoulders and short skirts of the make-do 1940’s for the New Look of long hemlines and tight waists that advertised femininitythese women have, in all that roaming space, East to West, little room in which to define themselves and create their lives. Unlike men, they are marooned in helplessness, even the most perspicacious and effectual and intelligent of them, as if, by existing at all, one had become a victim.

Eventually, young Helen has to move with her family to New Zealand. Her escape from that life is epistolary. In her letters to Aldred, who has returned to England, she describes her quotidian experiences not because the experiences are important or enlightening but because writing letters is an opportunity for expression, even for artistry. A girl transported to the last curve of the globe might write what a great man would read at the self-sufficient northern heart of the world. One wonders if Shirley Hazzard’s personal story touches Helen’s at this particular point: the girl writing, the girl learning to write. To tell one’s story, one character offers, is to do something fearsome, if only because it makes the mere suggestion that one matters.

Hazzard, born in Australia, worked for British intelligence in China as a young girl. The Great Fire is her sixth book of fiction and ninth published book. For an earlier novel, The Transit of Venus (1981), she received the National Book Critics Circle Award. The Great Fire has recently won the National Book Award.

I went to the Philippines once to talk about writing in America. The sponsoring agency put me up at the Manila Hotel. In the evening, listening to an out-of-tune orchestra play Viennese waltzes, I nursed a gin and tonic, reading The International Herald Tribune. Even on that brief trip, I had a sense of the vastness of the East, of how easy it would be to become lost there, to live, anonymous and forgotten, in a world with satisfactions so different from our own. The Great Fire retrieves a world whose wild immensities had not been tamed by technology. It cherishes the subtler scale of human love.

Kelly Cherry’s most recent novel is We Can Still Be Friends (Soho Press, 2003).