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The Transit of Venus (1980)

by Shirley Hazzard

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,0202114,559 (3.84)80
This book tells the story of two orphan sisters, Caroline and Grace Bell, as they leave Australia to start a new life in post-war 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. Gorgeously written and intricately constructed, Hazzard's novel is a story of place: Sydney, London, New York, Stockholm; of time: from the fifties to the eighties; and above all, of women and men in their passage through the displacements and absurdities of modern life.… (more)
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» See also 80 mentions

English (19)  German (1)  French (1)  All languages (21)
Showing 1-5 of 19 (next | show all)
It can be hard to have a good book group discussion when everyone agrees that the book is terrific, multi-layered, superbly written, and subtly subversive of the reading experience. All true. Two orphan girls and their older half-sister migrate from Australia to England after WWII. The two orphan girls experience different traversals of their own social and love lives. So far, it sounds pretty average. But the novel is full of the effects of change, moral choices, attempts to define personal freedom, illusions of integrity, impact of war, and fascinating character studies, especially of the women in the book. By all means read this book - preferably twice! ( )
1 vote ffortsa | Oct 28, 2020 |
Read 2019, favourite. ( )
  sasameyuki | May 14, 2020 |
Back in my high school days, I wanted to read a novel by Australian author, Shirley Hazzard titled The Transit of Venus. I was in a period of reading a great deal about astronomy, and this seemed like a natural connection. When I found out Hazzard’s novel hat nothing to do with astronomy, I ditched her novel. But my curiosity lived on and on. In a recent trip to an independent bookstore, I found I found a copy; I was finally able to cure my longing for this work. I am glad I persisted.

According to the author’s note in the paperback, Shirley was born in Australia. She has written eight books, five works of fiction, and three works of non-fiction. Many of her stories have been published in The New Yorker, and she has received, among other recognitions, a First Prize in the O. Henry Short Story award competition. She died in 2016.

The Transit of Venus is the story of two sisters, Grace and Caro who decide to leave Australia and make their way to the UK. The sisters are immediately on the hunt for husbands. Grace marries and lives an exemplary life as a faithful and dedicated wife. Caro seems unable to make up her mind and has a few affairs. She meets Ted Tice, who immediately falls in love with Caro. Hazzard wrote, “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?’. He meant the floral English summer, but could not have been understood otherwise. In fact, he was not bold enough to touch her, but made his gesture to her head. ‘What are you thinking?’ // Caro had been watching out the window, and turned the same look of general, landscaped curiosity on him. This man was no more to her than a callow ginger presence in a cable-stitch cardigan. The country bus lurched over an unsprung road. The girl thought that one would read that he and she were flung against each other’ and how that was impossible. We can only be flung against each other of we want to be” (26). Caro seems bored with this young man, but he will do until something better comes along.

In another scene, Hazzard wrote, “Grace with a satchel and pale jiggling ringlets, Caro tilted to a loaded briefcase. At school both were clever, which was attributed to the maturing effects of their tragedy—just as they had lagged, obtuseness would have been ascribed to the arresting trauma. They sought each other in the playground and were known to be aberrant, a pair” (39).

The girls’ mother, Dora, was a difficult woman, and part of their desire to leave for the UK was an attempt to get away from her. Hazzard wrote, “Dora was twenty-two and had dark sloping eyes and, despite an addiction to boiled sweets, perfect little teeth. Caro wondered when Dora would be old enough for tranquility. Old people were serene. You simply had to be serene, for instance, at seventy. Even Dora must be, if they could only wait” (41).

This interesting story won Shirley Hazzard a National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. The Transit of Venus reminds me of some of George Eliot’s fiction especially The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch. 5 Stars

--Jim, 7/2/18
( )
  rmckeown | Jul 30, 2018 |
So I read this after having read Hazzard's The Great Fire, which was okay, because someone on some lit site said it was her favorite book ever. Not mine, but I am appreciative of the skill of the writer, in doing such excellent reveals of the inner thoughts of her characters, and of spinning plots that have a unique balance between personal lives and worldly events. It all takes place right after WWII, mostly in Australia and England, and focuses on two beautiful (of course) sisters who make sensible and unwise choices. If you've ever read any Rosamund Lehmann, a mostly forgotten Brit novelist of the WW I epoch, you'll get it. There's a ton of passion, fulfilled and -un. It does harken back to the first world war, though, in the settings and just the overall feeling of the places and the formality of the language and of the relationships. But, ultimately, annoyingly, there's an ending that is very difficult to interpret. SPOILER ALERT STARTS NOW. The future death of one of the characters (Ted) is announced very early on. There's the easy-to-misinterpret line "For the last time, Caroline Vail lay in a bed alone." And the very last line, "Only, as the plane rose from the ground, a long hiss of air - like the intake of humanity's breath when a work of ages shrivels in an instant; or the great gasp of hull and ocean as a ship goes down." Hazzard herself said that the ending was a happy one. Google it and there are scholarly works devoted to figuring out the ending. Too obtuse for me, but I might think better of it as it fades from memory. This is one damned singular work, for sure. ( )
1 vote froxgirl | May 28, 2018 |
Showing 1-5 of 19 (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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Epigraph
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"
Dedication
Once more, for Francis
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By nightfall the headlines would be reporting devastation.
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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. Set out on a classroom table, these silenced even Miss Holster. The girls leaned over, picking up this and that. No one could say these objects were ugly, for they were spread on the varnished table like flints from an age unborn, or evidence of life on Mars. 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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This book tells the story of two orphan sisters, Caroline and Grace Bell, as they leave Australia to start a new life in post-war 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. Gorgeously written and intricately constructed, Hazzard's novel is a story of place: Sydney, London, New York, Stockholm; of time: from the fifties to the eighties; and above all, of women and men in their passage through the displacements and absurdities of modern life.

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VIRAGO EDITION:
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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