The Great Fire, by Shirley Hazzard. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 278 pages, $24.
In her memoir of friendship with Graham Greene, Shirley Hazzard wrote that her first “encounter” with the writer “seemed to me, and seems still, like an incident from a novel: from a real novel, a good novel, an old novel.” Once you’ve read those words, it’s hard not to apply them to Ms. Hazzard’s own fiction. Over the last 40-odd years, she has produced novels and stories steeped in the influence of writers like E.M. Forster, W. Somerset Maugham and, most importantly, Elizabeth Bowen. A careful and earnest writer, Ms. Hazzard chooses to tell stories of love under impossible conditions, true passion doomed by grim circumstance. The Transit of Venus (1981) is the most widely read example-and also her most recent work of fiction. In The Great Fire , she picks up the theme again-though she plays it, at the age of 72, in a different key.
The new novel opens in Japan in the spring of 1947. Aldred Leith, a 32-year-old decorated British soldier, is on a postwar land survey (he’s essentially documenting ruin) that takes him to a remote military outpost of Kure near Hiroshima. While suffering the hospitality of the crude and bombastic administrator, Brigadier Driscoll, Leith slowly and completely falls in love with the brigadier’s 17-year-old daughter, Helen, who in turn is sweetly enraptured by his worldliness, his stories, his sensibility; when it’s time for Leith to go, the separation is anguish.
So far the story, for Ms. Hazzard, is not a new one. What makes this novel an extraordinary departure is the backdrop against which the love story plays out, the environment in which it’s conceived and fed.
The novel’s real and unforgettably evoked setting is the aftermath of war-“the inextinguishable conflagration.” When Leith’s train chugs through the “charred suburbs of Tokyo,” we see a decimated world. Ms. Hazzard conjures the ghastly specter of Hiroshima when Leith passes within a few miles of the ruined city. Subtle and precise, she describes not the manifest horror of the place but the “unease of conquerors,” and the “unseemliness” that Leith feels at being so nearby. The war, in 1947, has been over for two years, but Ms. Hazzard writes its very absence into a moody presence.
This negative presence makes itself felt on a number of levels. Most explicitly, death, loss and suffering are subjects that haunt the dialogue and meditations of most of the more sympathetic characters. At the level of the prose, too, we are made to feel the recentness of great violence: Sentences drift out of and into nowhere, unstarted or unfinished; pronouns are excised to create a kind of stunted syntax, as though the war had brutalized language. And, too, the characters themselves enter the novel not so much introduced as floated into their broken-down atmosphere, as though it were not relevance to the story but rather the shock of collective experience that had assembled them.
When Leith leaves Helen (their relationship not yet consummated, but their love a shared secret), he travels through a barren and blasted world. It is, literally, his job to quantify and record devastation-wreckage, physical and emotional, is everywhere. Leith stops in Hong Kong to visit an old school friend whose life he saved when they were in the army together. Here’s how he describes him to Helen: “Of all my friends from the war, Peter has least impetus to remake his life. We all hang back, one way or another, but he more than most.” Later he adds, “We both, Peter and I, feel pursued by evocations of wartime violence, unexorcised.”
Leith’s father’s death forces him to return to England, and he finds that his past is just more wreckage he’s too tired to assess. There’s no respite-even Helen, though relatively untouched by the war, is burdened with an older brother dying of a rare and crippling disease. The prevalence of death and destruction in this novel is almost oppressive.
Intentionally so. The gloom gives all the more power to the steady assertion, in the central love story, of the promise of survival, even regeneration. As he carries the memory of Helen with him through the wasteland of postwar Asia, and eventually to England, his love intensifies, crystallizes. He writes to her: “Yes, I do tell my friends about you. Sometimes I also tell those who are not my friends-flourishing you like a safeguard, a talisman.” Helen is his antidote to the world’s misery.
Whether the two lovers are ever united is something we don’t know until the very end. This isn’t merely a trick to generate suspense: It’s the ideal of love that matters, not the specifics of who and where and when. The ideal remains, shockingly, whole and redeeming, even in the face of overwhelming devastation.
The “great fire” of the title refers both to the rampant destruction of war and to the equally “inextinguishable” instinct for life and renewal. Nearly a quarter of a century after The Transit of Venus -and almost a decade after the death of her husband, the writer Francis Steegmuller-Ms. Hazzard is still writing about embattled love. In the earlier novel, the enemies of love were ordinary and human: social propriety, class difference, jealousy, weakness, fear. Now the stakes are higher, the world is bleaker-and love, ultimately, stronger.
Claudia Herr works in publishing.