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The Transit of Venus (1980)

by Shirley Hazzard

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1,2702614,228 (3.86)89
"The Transit of Venus tells the story of two orphan sisters, Caroline and Grace Bell, as they leave Australia to start a new life in postwar England. What happens to these young women--seduction and abandonment, marriage and widowhood, love and betrayal--becomes as moving and wonderful and yet as predestined as the transits of the planets themselves"--… (more)

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English (24)  French (1)  German (1)  All languages (26)
Showing 1-5 of 24 (next | show all)
The novel revolves mostly around the life of Caro (Caroline), one of three sisters, who along with husbands and lovers people this dense novel of inner lives.

Recently I was thinking about what makes a literary novel, and suspect it varies a bit for all of us. For me it very much is about use of language and good writing, often exploring place and the inner world of it's characters at least as much as their engagement with what is going on around them. And tone.

It took a little time to get into her writing as in many ways it is denser than writing we have become more used too, and occasionally a sentence needs interrogation. If not quite an original, Hazzard is certainly a writers writer.

I read this novel for the first time in 2009, along with Hazzard's other novels, and recalling nothing about the specifics, but remembered the tone. Quite common for me. Back then I gave it 4*s, and have elevated it to 5*s this time.

I chose to reread this novel now, as I am about to start [Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life] (Briggita Olubas).

Highly recommended for those who enjoy literary novels and good writing ( )
  Caroline_McElwee | Dec 21, 2022 |
it's a brilliant novel, one that will need re-reading. ( )
  bostonbibliophile | Aug 10, 2022 |
"Transit of Venus" is a book about the passion of love -- young love, middle-aged love, shared love, unrequited love, carnal love, disappointed love, disillusioned love, fulfilled love. It has been praised as multi-layered and mysterious.

The language is baroque and upper-class English, more flavored by the 19thc, not really in keeping with the the time period of the 1950s-70s -- though one would be hard put to distinguish one decade from another.

In describing the megaliths at Avebury:
"The little charchyard slabs -- child-height, companionable -- among which Caro and Paul had once sauntered became, by contrast with these huge and mighty forms, epemeral leaflets promulgating a forgotten cause. Compared with this scene, all the rest of Creation appeared a flutter of petals and pebbles, a levity in which the most massive tree was insubstantial. The sweet village itself, through which the farthest monoliths were posted, suggested, with its few thatched and slated centuries, a frail masking of reality. Not that the dark boulders supplied, by their outlasting, any triumphant sense of durability in man's intentions. There could be no winning or even mattering here. You have to pit some larger reason than mere living against these rocks: it was your mortality, your very capacity to receive the wound, against their indifference."

Honestly, I found it all rather tedious and somewhat laughable. By the end of the novel, I really didn't care much about any of the characters. Maybe I'm just too old or have read too many much better novels. ( )
  janeajones | Jan 31, 2022 |
"The Transit of Venus" is an elegant, verbally glittering exploration of the power of love -- or is it the love of power? "Love" in the novel takes possession of characters, in some cases dominating their lives for decades, and in others fleeting quickly away. The structure of the novel moves back and forth from one character (or set of characters) to another, illuminating and deepening each individual as it progresses. If it sounds like a complex novel it is, and the language in which it is expressed is as precise as it is poetic. Not an easy read, but a great book. ( )
  annbury | Nov 16, 2021 |
A beautifully written book of two orphaned Australian sisters, Grace and Caro, whose lives experience profound changes through the people they meet, and/or fall in love with. Grace, the more lovelier and socially astute of the two sisters, settles into marriage and family life. With such cosy domesticity, she still finds herself being catapulted into the burgeonings of a least-expected affair. Caro, with her self-posession and aura of taciturn mystery, has an unsettling effect on those who she meets. Ted Tice, an astronomer, is utterly besotted with her, but she chooses to be with Paul Ivory, who signals the start of her eventful life and relationships.

This is my first time reading Hazzard, who is a thrill to read. Poetic, intellectual and also psychologically inclined, though not in a way that is immediately apparent to the reader. This book is very strange - the more she pulls out her surgical knife, the more puzzling and mythical her characters become. It's like reaching out to grasp only air. But even this sentence cannot explain the strange feeling of being both obliterated and yet being kept as a distance from her work. I am both intrigued and puzzled by her writing. This book cannot be completed on the first read. Maybe there will be more, on the second dive... ( )
  georgeybataille | Jun 1, 2021 |
Showing 1-5 of 24 (next | show all)
The Transit of Venus is one of the great English-language novels of the twentieth century. It’s difficult to make such a straight, simple claim without wanting to modify or amplify it, but it is. It is greater than any novel by Don DeLillo. It is greater than any work by Alice Munro or Thomas Pynchon. No disrespect to those three indisputable geniuses, or to anyone else whose books have been tagged, however deservedly, with the word masterpiece, but I’m hard-pressed to think of a better novel than Shirley’s.
I still don’t fully understand The Transit of Venus, which I suspect is why I will keep returning to it throughout my life. It has been fascinating to observe, in other writers’ responses, how often they remark on seeing its greatness only on a second visit – often decades after first buying or reading it. Michelle de Kretser, Geoff Dyer and Michael Gorra have all written of their early resistance to the book, only to have returned to it later and been shocked by its brilliance. Even Hazzard’s husband Francis Steegmuller remarked that nobody should ever have to read this book for the first time.

It is a curious thing, this need to return. It is as if the book itself gives off a kind of anti-magnetic field at first, holding the readers off until they are ready to face up to the questions it asks of them. ... For it seems to me that in The Transit of Venus, a significant aspect of her artistic motive is to set up a sense of certainty – and then destroy it, capsizing the reader over and over again.
Hazzard's great subject, already revealed in the early novels, is love. In The Transit of Venus, she brings a clarity and steeliness reminiscent of classical tragedy to her material – an extraordinary achievement. The sense of fatality and patterning in this flawlessly constructed novel is strong. Its devastating finale is prefigured in its first sentence, and seemingly trivial incidents reveal their significance as events unfold. Everything that happens seems determined by laws as inexorable as those that govern the stars. Hazzard's sentences burst on the mind like a succession of illuminations. Consider this skewering of a character: "Dora sat on a corner of the spread rug, longing to be assigned a task so she could resent it." The Transit of Venus is an almost unbearably sad book, yet Hazzard is also a wonderfully funny writer, hyper-alert to pretension and cant.
Nothing gave me as much happiness as Shirley Hazzard’s “The Transit of Venus.” When I first devoured the novel, after its publication in 1980, I grew increasingly melancholy—never again would I have the pleasure of reading it fresh. Yet my latest rereading was a reminder that great books travel alongside you, seeming to grow as you do. Hazzard’s characters, who meet in England in the nineteen-fifties and pursue their passions through the decades, are by now old friends I’d recognize anywhere: Paul Ivory, a playwright who manipulates his intimates like characters in a first draft; Caro and Grace, Australian sisters who see everyone else clearly yet fall for disastrous men; Christian Thrale, the rising diplomat and earthbound husband; and Ted Tice, a watchful, hopeful, but increasingly disappointed astronomer.
added by KayCliff | editThe New Yorker, Tad Friend (Dec 12, 2011)

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J'ai reve tellement fort de toi, J'ai tellement marche, tellement parle, Tellement aime ton ombre, Qu'il ne me reste plus rien de toi. Robert Desnos "Le Dernier Poeme"
Once more, for Francis
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By nightfall the headlines would be reporting devastation.
One morning a girl whose father had been in America ... came to school [in Australia] with nibless pens that wrote both red and blue, pencils with lights attached, a machine that would emboss a name and pencil sharpeners in clear celluloid. And much else of a similar cast. Set out on a classroom table, these silenced even Miss Holster. The girls leaned over, picking up this and that: Can I turn it on, how do you work it, I can't get it to go back again. No one could say these objects were ugly, even the crayon with the shiny red flower, for they were spread on the varnished table like flints from an age unborn, or evidence of life on Mars. A judgment on their attractiveness did not arise: their power was conclusive and did not appeal for praise. It was the first encounter with calculated uselessness.
You cannot only give alms to the harmless.
Excess of elementals, like being unable to draw breath in a high wind.
Letters from the Algarve had tended to take, from time to time, the unfathomable huff.
An hour had already passed, of this day they were to spend together. Ted Tice was glad of each additional mile, which would at least, at last, have to be retraced. Every red and noticeable farm house, every church or sharp right turn was a guarantee of his time with her. He said, ‘Are you thinking how tame it is, all this?
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"The Transit of Venus tells the story of two orphan sisters, Caroline and Grace Bell, as they leave Australia to start a new life in postwar England. What happens to these young women--seduction and abandonment, marriage and widowhood, love and betrayal--becomes as moving and wonderful and yet as predestined as the transits of the planets themselves"--

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Caro, gallant and adventurous, is one of two Australian sisters who have come to post-war England to seek their fortunes. Courted long and hopelessly by young scientist, Ted Tice, she is to find that love brings passion, sorrow, betrayal and, finally, hope. The milder Grace seeks fulfilment in an apparantly happy marriage. But, as the decades pass and the characters weave in and out of each other's lives, love, death and two slow-burning secrets wait in ambush for them. This beautiful, intelligent novel won the USA National Book Circle Award for Best Novel of 1980.
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Average: (3.86)
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