Monday, January 19, 2004

My Review of The Great Fire by Shirley Hazard

Unlike other reviewers on, who also did not have such a pleasant time with this novel, I did manage to struggle through to the end. And though I wish I could report that there was a reward awaiting me at the book's finish, I am afraid that I don't have such great news. As I approached the endless horizon of page 278, I started to experience a sinking feeling. The feeling of having been had. All of the prose and extensive vocabulary, (get a good dictionary if you sit down to read the book,) amounted to nothing more than the aesthetic of an intricate and ornate frame being shoehorned around one of those pictures of sports stadiums they sell at kiosks in shopping malls. A book that doesn’t have a great ending can get itself off the hook as long as it provides us some pleasure getting to the end. This novel moves like a glacier, leaving vast canyons of lost time in its wake. Shirley Hazzard took a leisurely twenty years for this novel and now can say that I feel as if I spent it with her.

Ms. Hazzard’s post WWII novel is a perfect example of what Harold Bloom criticized Stephen King for when it was announced that King would be receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award at the same ceremony where Hazzard would be receiving the National Book Award for The Great Fire. While showing considerable talent, Shirley Hazard has used that talent to produce… a second-rate romance novel. Harold Bloom, referring to the King award, asked, "Whom are we going to give the award to next? Danielle Steele?" Someone send a reply to Mr. Bloom that he should not worry himself over this question, for they basically already have.

The more interesting characters of the novel are politely pushed to the sides while we are subjected to the gossamer musings of the protagonist, Aldred Leith, an interesting, well-traveled and brave British soldier, whom we are to believe is deeply in love with a 17 year old girl. After reading Ms. Hazzard's biography on the book jacket, I can see where she would want to portray a young girl as having the competency of Helen, the book's heroine/ingenue. Hazzard, according to the bio, was engaged by British Intelligence at the age of sixteen. However, I cannot believe that the emotional maturity levels of this relationship could support the true love that we are asked to take quite seriously in this story. I mean, didn't Nabokov render the last word on these types of relationships? Didn't he show us the hilarity and the pathetic self-centerdness at the heart of these May-December male fantasies?

Helen, who is the apple and the orange of Aldred Leith's life, is the literary set answer to the Britney Spears phenomenon, only as an artistic invention she is decidedly more insidious. While the young pop-divas of today's teen hip-hop scene seduce men with their adult sexuality, they also present a one-night-and-I'm-gone type of aura. The young Aussie girl, named for the "face that launched a thousand ships," is presented not only as an intellectual equal to the extensively educated and well-read protagonist, she is also loyal and easily able to maintain a mature and dedicated relationship over great distances. What? Please, somebody tell me that I am missing some sort of sharp satire. Please tell me that I didn't struggle through the book for what I ended up getting.

Oh, and if you need any more evidence of the unnecessary glacier pace of the novel look no further than the creation of some of the supporting characters. Peter Exley, one of Aldred's war buddies, who is prosecuting war crimes in Hong Kong, and his relationship with Rita Xavier, a native of Hong Kong, are far more interesting and the book jumps to grand life whenever they are mentioned. It is a sharp contrast to the nap-inducing travails of Aldred Leith and his little baby doll. (If you think I am exagerrating, read the end of the book.) After taking decades to complete this novel, you would think that Ms. Hazzard would have been able to see the appeal of these supporting players and would have dealt with Exley and Xavier more, or at least have effectively shown them as a mature contrast to Leith and his liason with his luscious, literary girl-woman.

There are better books out there. There really are.

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