If you’ve never read anything by Shirley Hazzard then I urge you to hunt out any of her novels – because you are in for a treat!
In The Bay of Noon, this is the kind of writing that you can expect to enjoy:
I did not live with Norah and Edmund. But digs were found for me near their first flat in Sloane Avenue, and now I partook of their own Sunday lamb, served up on wedding presents, while Norah described to me her plans for carpets and curtains, or showed me a sample of the bedspread material she had hung over a chair to see if she could live with it. When I began to know her, I wondered if their courtship had been, for her, something of the same – my brother draped over a chair for the statutory length of time, to see if she could live with him. In that case she might have noticed that he did not really go with the surroundings; perhaps she did see this, but knew that he would fade to a better match. (p21)
Delicious, isn’t it? I’d been ‘saving’ The Bay of Noon, for Shirley Hazzard is not a prolific writer and it is less than a year since I read The Evening of the Holiday (see my review here). I hoard books by my favourite writers, saving them up for when I don’t feel like experimenting with someone new or have had a run of disappointing books and want to feel confident of enjoying myself. Hazzard has been a favourite author since I read The Great Fire in 2003 when it won the US National Book Award – and the Miles Franklin the following year. I read that one again in 2005 when it was on the ANZ LitLovers schedule; and we went on to read The Transit of Venus in 2007 and rated that very highly too. I know I will like anything that Shirley Hazzard writes!
So The Bay of Noon has been biding its time on the TBR shelf, but the announcement of the Lost Man Booker Prize has catapulted it onto the bedside table. (Patrick White’s The Vivisector is on the list of eligible books too, but I’ve already read that.) Strange to think that this prize will have many a reader searching for the treasures that were overlooked for the Booker in 1970 because of the change in eligibility; I bet the online second-hand bookshops are busy too.
Well, whether Shirley Hazzard wins this curious prize or not, The Bay of Noon deserves the publicity. It’s the story of Jenny, who abandons the redoubtable sister-in-law Norah and her hapless husband in post-war London, and sets off by herself, for work as a translator for NATO in post-war Naples. Hazzard captures so well the slight hesitancy of a confident young woman on her escape into the wider world – after some initial doubts Jenny follows up a contact casually referred by a London acquaintance, and so becomes firm friends with Gioconda.
(Who lives in an aging palazzo called San Biagio dei Librai – Saint Biagio of the Booksellers! Like all the places so luminously described, the street does exist, though these days the goods on sale in the photo look more like bric-a-brac than books.)
Gioconda has a rather tiresome braggart of a lover called Gianni, and it is part of Jenny’s coming-of-age to learn to understand why a confident clever woman like Gioconda puts up with him. Like Jenny herself, she has suffered losses in the war and has, like all that surviving generation, had to manage grief no less painful for being pervasive. In Italy this grief is made more complex by the country having been at war with both sides in the conflict and by the exigencies of the partisans in the resistance. It seems bizarre, when one travels through the peaceful countryside of Tuscany or strolls through Pompeii or gazes in awe at the magnificence of Roman art and architecture, to imagine this beautiful country riven by Mussolini’s Blackshirts on the one hand and partisans holed up in the hills on the other, yet it was so. (One of my neighbours was a partisan. He runs our local trattoria).
The suffering at the hand of the fascists was appalling and when Giaconda explains to Jenny (who spent her war evacuated to school in the safety of Cape Town), about the loss of her lover, it is the first time she has done so. Her memories have not been suppressed, but rather so deeply ingrained that they are not spoken of:
‘When people say of their tragedies,”I don’t often think of it now”, what they mean is it has entered permanently into their thoughts, and colours everything. Because the idea of Gaetano is always with me, I’m less shocked now, when I suddenly come upon some reminder of him, than I was long ago when he still seemed a grief I must get over’. (p68)
Gaetano was an artist, and a pacifist. Gioconda’s father could not countenance this:
My father came to hate him. For him it was passivity that had allowed Mussolini to have power, and this – premeditated – inaction was inexcusable to him. Perhaps he was right. One cannot live one’s own posterity. (p64)
In Italy’s war, as Gioconda says, (p108) everyone had to choose, leaving no ‘hypothetical situations’ for contemplation afterwards. Yet Italy’s history is so littered with war that Gianni affects to take these moral issues lightly :
I am not yet an old man and in my time I have lived through … the war of Italy with Turkey, the First World War, the war of Italy with Ethiopia, Italian intervention in the Spanish Civil War, and the Second World War. I have seen allies alternate with enemies, sometimes within the same war. Are you asking … that I should continue to take these events seriously? (p 77)
It is this sophisticated mastery of complex historical and political issues that makes The Bay of Noon much more than a coming-of-age story. Jenny’s new-found friends teach her about the mystery of adult relationships in ways she is too young to anticipate. Justin Tulloch, a Scots marine biologist also in occasional need of a translator, is at first an intellectual companion with whom Jenny engages in flippant sparring about the nature of love. Their friendship, according to him, is based on a mutual sense of loss ‘having been deprived of something and …in a state of abeyance. (p86) But it is Justin, not Gioconda, who understands the real reason why Jenny fled from her sole remaining family member, because ‘the scope and drama of [her] tragedies makes Jenny’s seem insignificant. (p88) It is Justin – whose middle name is Pericles who seems most right for Jenny whose real name is Penelope. You must read the book to see why Hazzard named them thus…
I’ve just ordered Cliffs of Fall, Greene on Capri and Italy: The Best Travel Writing from the New York Times because, well, I thought I already had all Hazzard’s fiction, but noticed Cliffs of Fall inside the cover of The Bay of Noon and then discovered the other two. A memoir of one of my favourite writers, Graham Greene, and travel writing about Italy, written in Hazzard’s inimitable style? Irresistible!
This is Hazzard writing about Naples in The Bay of Noon:
The city itself was marked by a volcanic extravagance. Its characteristics had not insinuated themselves but had arrived in inundations – in eruptions of taste and period, of churches and palaces, in a positive explosion of the baroque; in an outbreak of grotesque capitals, or double geometrical staircases; in a torrent of hanging gardens poured down over terraces and rooftops, spilt along ledges and doorsteps. (p72)
Makes me want to leap on a plane today!
Check out the review at English O’ Worst too.
Author: Shirley Hazzard
Title: The Bay of Noon
Publisher: Virago 2005, firsst published 1970
Source: Personal Library, purchased from Readings $22.95.