The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard

There are times when you don’t get into a book as a reader and you can say that you don’t think much of it. I would think this is most often the case. Sometimes you can recognize that the problems you had with a book are personal and that many others will find the book wonderful. Still, at least there are reasons.

I’m a little more stymied when I think great things about the various aspects of a book, but just don’t end up getting into it much for reasons I can’t pin down. This unfortunately was the case for my reading of The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 9th for Roxana Robinson and 1st for Anita Shreve.)

The Transit of Venus follows two sisters (Caroline and Grace Bell) who come to England from Australia to be raised by an older sister after their parents are killed in a boat accident. The book intimately follows their lives: jobs, lovers, marriages, adulteries, betrayals, and all that. From the nineteen fifties to the eighties.

And the story is rich, complex, and moving. Grace marries the son of a prominent old astronomer who becomes important in government. Caroline is loved by an up and coming young astronomer, but falls for a rising playwright who is marrying the daughter of a lord. Both men have secrets:

“In the war, I helped a prisoner get away. A German. It was in Wales, where I spent a couple of years at a school when I was sent on from that place you saw today. A few miles inland from us there was a camp for prisoners of war, and we heard that an offices—a general, of course, the story went—had got out. There was a long stiff walk to the coast that I took sometimes, when I was let, to be alone and see the sea. The sea had a sort of prohibition on it at the time, the beaches forbidden and the barbed wire piled in hops and the gun emplacements thick as bath-houses. The ocean beyond looked like freedom. You couldn’t think it led to Ireland or America—it was infinity, like the firmament. The open sea. I was sixteen, wanting solitude more than anything else and miserable enough when I got it—except on those walks to the coast. And having only the school in my present and the army in my future. We were hardly ever allowed out on our own, yet in a year or two would be in battle, possibly dead. In fact, eighteen months later I was sent for the radar training, at the very end of the war….”Well, that’s almost all of it. I gave him my sandwich, and pullover. And a flask of awful stuff we called beef tea. The police themselves would have done much the same. It’s the not turning him in that makes the public outrage, but I didn’t even think of turning him in.”

Of course, the sisters end up with secrets of their own:

When Paul drove past the station and turned into the main road, Caro said nothing. Having Gathered himself for an effort of persuasion, he took his time before addressing new circumstances. In these moments, the girl’s stillness was such as to create, paradoxically, a bodily alteration.

“You knew I wasn’t going to London?”

She nodded.

“Wasn’t going to crop you off at your train?” He would not have exchanged for anything the suspense generated by her short nods. “And you knew why. When did you realize these things?”

“The night of the dinner.”

“You always know everything, then?”

She said, “I am inexperienced.”

“Something we must rectify.

As you can see from the above, there are some beautiful sentences in The Transit of Venus. It moves well emotionally and the storyline engages. I was well satisfied with the complexity and interactions in the storyline by the end. But still, I only got into the book so much. I’d read and think that’s nicely done, but that was about all.

I certainly can’t point to any defects. It’s a wonderfully written book. For whatever reason, The Transit of Venus just didn’t pull me that much. I hate to leave you with that…but it’s all I’ve got to give. I simply have no more.

I’ve heard a lot of people talk about how they absolutely adore The Transit of Venus. They seemed to freak out over it. I can understand respecting the fine writing inside, but I just didn’t freak out over it. Frankly, I’m a bit puzzled.

The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa

You see a good number of books about the rich and powerful falling when the world around them changes. However, you don’t usually see it so quietly or calmly as it seemed to me in The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa. A culture is lost in the depths of time, but it isn’t violent. It’s almost as velveteen and elegant as the prose.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 8th for Julian Barnes, 7th for Roxana Robinson, and 5th Jim Shepard.)

The Leopard centers on Don Fabrizio, a wealthy Sicilian prince with thousands of acres of estates a long, distinguished lineage. He is loyal to the Bourbon king. Unfortunately, the year is 1860. Garibaldi is about to land. The Bourbon king is about to go and the unification of Italy is coming.

Don Fabrizio sees this, he knows what is coming, but he doesn’t do a whole lot other than continue to live his life as he has. He doesn’t do much to stop it, or to aid it, or to come to terms with what is coming:

Never had he been so glad to be going to spend three months at Donnafugata as he was now, in that late August of 1860. Not only because he loved the house at Donnafugata, the people, the sense of feudal ownership surviving there, but also because, unlike other times, he felt no regret for his peaceful evenings in the observatory, his occasional visits to Mariannina. The truth was he had found the spectacle of Palermo in the last three months rather nauseating. He would have liked to have the fun of being the only one to understand the situation and accept that red-shirted “bogeyman” Garibaldi; but he had to admit that second sight was not a Salina monopoly. Everyone in Palermo seemed pleased; everyone except a mere handful of grumblers[.]”

Before Garibaldi, his nephew is a scamp for supporting insurrection, but Don Fabrizio still loves him. After Garibaldi comes, Don Fabrizio’s fortunes decline and a crass acquaintance gains more wealth and influence. Don Fabrizio would like his nephew to marry one of his daughters, but he knows that the marriage would be bad for the young man’s ambitions, as the match would not bring the young man much money or influence. Instead, he betrays his own daughter and encourages a marriage between his nephew and the daughter of the crass acquaintance.

Further, the new rulers court Don Fabrizio. They want him to help them rule. However, he declines. He instead recommends the crass acquaintance. He is declining, knows it, and is pretty ready for it to happen:

“I don’t deny that a few Sicilians may succeed in breaking the spell, once off the island; but they would have to leave it very young; by twenty it’s too late: the crust is formed; they will remain convinced that their country is badly calumniated, like all other countries, that the civilized norm is here, the oddities are elsewhere. But do please excuse me, Chevalley, I’ve let myself be carried away and I’ve probably bored you. You haven’t come all this way to hear Ezekiel deplore the misfortunes of Israel. Let us return to the subject of our conversation: I am most grateful to the Government for having thought of me for the Senate, and I ask you to express my most sincere gratitude to them. But I cannot accept. I am a member of the old ruling class, inevitably compromised with the Bourbon regime, and tied to it by chains of decency if not affection. I belong to an unfortunate generation, swung between the old world and the new, and I find myself ill at ease in both. And what is more, as you must have realized by now, I am without illusions; what would the Senate do with me, an inexperienced legislator who lacks the faculty of self-deception, essential requisite for wanting to guide others? We of our generation must draw aside and watch the capers and somersaults of the young around this ornate catafalque. Now you need young men, bright young men, with minds asking ‘how’ rather than ‘why,’ and who are good at masking, at blending, I should say, their personal interests with vague public ideals.”

Don Fabrizio is fading. He’s fading and he just proceeds along, letting it happen.

I don’t know how historically accurate The Leopard is, though it certainly seems to be to me. I just know how beautifully The Leopard created the time, place, and tone. It’s a beautiful work chronicling the slow fadeout of the life that Don Fabrizio represents.

I can’t believe I’ve never heard of it before.