The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard (and a comment on prose vs story)



I had mixed feelings about reviewing this book, and in fact I probably wouldn't have reviewed it at all if it hadn't been for the fact that I read it for a book club and the book club discussion inspired me to review it. The Transit of Venus is by Australian author Shirley Hazzard, and having heard a lot about her book that was nominated for the Lost Booker prize I was looking forward to reading it, even if it didn't live up to my expectations in some respects.

This is a difficult book to review because of my mixed feelings - there was something about it that I loved, and something about it that I hated. I'm torn in half as they say.

I loved the writing. This is true literary fiction. I might even go so far as to say that I have never read such talented writing before in my life. In this sense, I would argue that this isn't a book for book lovers, it is a book for people who truly appreciate the value and power of language. Without meaning to sound like a book snob (which I admit that I can inadvertently be one at times), if you are someone who just reads the paranormal/chick lit/romance thing, then I doubt this will be for you. This book is for people who love literary fiction at its best, and for people that value language over story.I think I am somewhere in between.

I was amazed by the language, constantly. I was thoroughly challenged by it too, which was a great change. I kept having to re-read paragraphs to make sure that I understood what Hazzard was saying. It is the kind of writing where sentences are left half complete, and the reader is left to conclude what we like. Hazzard uses the language to construct the story with such detail, that it is sometimes hard to understand the actual story. I totally missed the ending, and didn't discover what had happened until I went to the book club. In fact, most people at the book club hadn't realised what had happened at the end. The language is so beautifully complex that you really have to read and think to understand the story. It was truly beautiful.

The downfall was that the story was boring. Or at least I thought so. I was just so uninterested in these people's lives. I think the language in a way contributed to this, or at least aggravated it. Don't get me wrong. I loved and appreciated the language for what it was. But it just meant that there was this additional barrier to getting to the story that I wasn't particularly interested in anyway. I was so focused on the words, that the story became lost to me.

I am absolutely not saying that I disliked the language. Objectively I appreciated it for what it is, some of the most beautiful prose I am ever likely to read. But the challenge that the language posed limited my enjoyment of the story and made it harder to engage with the book. I am probably starting to repeat myself, but I want to make it clear what I mean when I say that I loved and hated this book.

The book club discussion was simultaneously interesting and frustrating. What was interesting was that a discussion of the book ultimately became a discussion about literature, language and the appreciation of good prose. We discussed how unusual it is in contemporary literature to read anything like the quality of writing that Hazzard has produced in this book, and how there is limited good literary fiction available in modern times (although I have to say that Atwood is an exception to this in my mind). I agreed with everyone that books these days are more likely to spoon feed you the story, and the reader doesn't need to do any of the work, which is half the point of reading (in my mind anyway).

Warning: Here comes the rant.

What I found frustrating was that the discussion became a rather ageist discussion about the failings of the education system and the failing of younger people to understand and appreciate good literature like Hazzard's. I should day that my book club is mainly made up of white women in their late 50's to 60's. Then there me and my friend, both in our mid-20's. A lot of this discussion arose from my comment that although I loved the language, I found it a barrier to the story. Most of the women seemed to think that this was simply because young people didn't get the the 'proper' education that they did, and therefore can't understand or appreciate quality prose. By 'proper' education, they seemed to mean that we weren't taught Latin or grammar.

This is true, I can't deny it (I wasn't taught Latin or grammar at school), but I very strongly disagree with their assertions. I did understand and appreciate the language, as would many other people of my age. What they didn't take into account was that everyone has different taste, and priorities in their reading. I love language, but I also love story, and I need a good story to keep me interested, and The Transit of Venus didn't give that to me.

That isn't to say that someone who reads as frequently as I do, but is in their 60's and has therefore been reading a lot longer than I have, might find the language easier to understand; they have had more reading practice than me. But I absolutely will not accept that younger generations are poorer readers because of their education. I did not like to see younger readers underestimated. You must allow for different reading tastes and abilities within all generations, as well as between them.

In summary, as much as I loved the language and am convinced that I may have read the best prose that I will ever read in my life, this book didn't rate too highly with me simply because I couldn't engage with the story. I did love though, that a discussion of this book became a discussion of the love of literature. There aren't many books out there that could do that.

Summary

What kind of read is this?
Extremely challenging. One of the most challenging reads I have ever had. Although it is thin, expect it to take a long time to get through. Beautiful language though.

Do I recommend this book?
Yes, if you truly love language and literary fiction.

Do I recommend that you buy this book?
No. Borrowing it at the library is absolutely fine. It is not a book I would like to re-read. Having said that, there were some people at the book club who said that as soon as they finished it, they started it again.

Star Rating 

5 / 8

Good and worth reading if you have the opportunity, but there is no need to prioritise it (unless you absolutely love language and a challenge!).



37 comments

  1. I've been anxious to read this for a while, so of course, I appreciated this honest review. It sounds worth a read!

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  2. Warning: Anthropological rant supporting Becky's argument follows

    Point 1: Cultures change. Languages change.

    Why then, should the language, style, ideas, themes and grammatical constructions within books not change as the cultures that create them also change?

    The answer: of course books and these things should -and will- change.

    People who argue that a book should be judged on the inaccessibility and complexity of its prose are not demonstrating their love and appreciation of literature and books per se.

    Instead, they are displaying their membership to a particular age/cultural cohort: middle class white urban females living in the early 21th century.

    Point 2: Us-and-them perspectives or the age cohort effect.

    Young people are not educated properly? Really? This is a massive generalization.

    Let's find a few thousand 60 and 70 year olds Australians and ask them what a split infinitive is. Or what an adverb is.

    Remember, lots of these people left school before they were 15. Few of them went to university.

    Then, let's ask then entire population of Year 9 English students the same question, and also, let's ask a few thousand 20 and 30-somethings (40% of this age cohort attend university in Australia) the question as well.

    I know where I'll be putting my money - and it won't be on the oldies.

    Also: Why do young people need to know Latin unless they're going to be taxonomists nowadays? Doctors don't even learn Latin anymore!

    Furthermore: Why do we need to know what a split infinitive is, when the rule has largely been thrown out?

    People who believe that language is a fixed object need to read linguist David Crystal's work on the English language.

    Point 3(last point): The Australian book scene is full of literary snobs.

    I suspect this arises from the deep cultural anxiety we have as a nation about not being 'cultured' due to our short European history and colonial roots.

    Thus, there are far more literary book supplements, blogs, clubs, groups and gatherings out there, in comparison with those devoted to popular or genre fiction.

    I say that if we want people to read more books, then why not promote popular fiction? Or books that contain accessible prose that people can relate to and engage with?

    Finally, for insomnia, I prescribe Moby Dick in place of Temazapam.

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  3. Hi there! Just popping in from the Blog Hop! I'm a new follower. :D

    Becky - Escapismthroughbooks.blogspot.com

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  4. Thanks for that great rant Amanda. I second everything you say. I know I can be a little bit of a book snob at times, although I try not to be. I am with you on where that comes from and I think the quicker we move away from it the better.

    Diane - Im glad that you are not put off by me, you shouldn't be. Try it.

    Thanks for stopping by Becky and thanks for becoming a new follower :-)

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  5. I've been in book clubs where most people celebrate books that make them reread pages over and over to understand what is being said. I read because I like the story. I appreciate good writing but I don't want it to get in the way of good storytelling. It has taken me a while to accept that since these groups do make you feel inferior for it.

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  6. Sounds like a bit of a tense book club meeting! Things like this are why I dropped out of the one book club I was in. I felt that it was a judgement on your intellectual capacities if you didn't "love" a book that might be a bit of a challenge ... but perhaps it just didn't do it for you. Argh.

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  7. I agree with Amanda. In fact, not only do I not think that overly complicated, inaccessable books are "better" and I don't get them because I'm uneducated (and young!), I think an overly complicated, inaccessable book is a sign of BAD WRITING. I read The Great Fire back at the beginning of the year and I also found it really boring, like you found Venus. Yeah, the language seems pretty, but if it isn't actually saying anything, what's the point?

    I think it is good to have diverse opinions in a book club (I'm the only single, childless person in mine) but if this comes up time and again, you might want to start looking for a new book club. Or start your own!

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  8. When I first moved to Canada I joined a book club and this was the first book I did. It's also one of the first books I reviewed! (Review here)

    It was quite hard to read, and yet I loved the way it tasted. Don't know how else to describe it. There were scenes though that left me completely baffled!

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  9. I love this review. And although I have not read this book, I feel strongly about the points you raise and support your opinion totally. There are some great books with difficult language, there are some reasonably good books with difficult language and then are some deadly dull numbers with complex language. As an example of the middle ground I would use Henry James. He is a challange but I appreciate what he was trying to do in The Turn of the Screw.

    No wonder you became frustrated when some of the other book clubbers wheeled out the old you didn't learn latin and grammar at school arguement so you couldn't possibly understand blah blah blah... I say how dare they. Each reading experience belongs to each reader. No one reader is better qualified than another to voice an opinion. We all bring different experiences (including our education) to the table.

    For beautiful language have you read any of Sebastian Barry? I couldn't put "The Secret Scripture" down earlier this year. But have to say I am struggling with one of his earlier works "A Long Long Way." The language in the latter is just as gorgeous but the plot is not as gripping for me.

    Lastly I think readers of our generation (I am slightly older but in the same ball park) bring something exciting to the table of literary appreciation. Each new generation does and it has to be about honouring that and not belittling anyone.

    In terms of The Transit of Venus your articulate review tells me all I need to know. I will be giving it a miss for now. It is a balancing act between literay merit and entertainment and this one seems to have tipped over into boredom.

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  10. When I first moved to Canada I joined a local book club (which I dropped out of after about 2 years) and this was the first book I read for it. I'm like you - I appreciated and liked the writing, but the story was hard to follow at times, a bit clunky, and the writing got in the way - it was often too obscure, abstract even, and there were whole passages where I only had a vague gist of what was going on!

    I think those women's arguments don't hold water - I don't think knowing Latin or grammar would be at all relevant! I have an English degree but there are some books that just don't work for me, and I don't think it's got anything to do with having a "proper" education at all. Their education doesn't seem to have been all that great after all, because it sounds like a fallacy to me! ;)

    Here's my review if you're interested (it's really old now!)

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  11. Thanks Shannon, I think that you are right. I think that they really just wanted to make themselves feel good by putting down a younger generation. I don't think that my personal taste reflect anything much about my generation and our education - but apparently they do to these women! Its just silly

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  12. You can be extremely well educated -- in Latin, grammar, literature, etc., and have read and read and read and read -- but unless you have experienced, which requires years, you may still not be able to fully appreciate a book like The Transit of Venus. Until you are ....

    ... well, more experienced.

    Which takes years.

    Which puts you well into your 40's, 50's, 60's, and beyond before you can fully appreciate a book like this.

    I was lucky that I did not try and read it before now. I would have had the same experience as most of the 20 and 30-year olds posting.

    It was worth the wait, and there is nothing like reading a book of this astonishing quality -- both as literature, for the language, AND as a great story about unforgettable characters, for the first time.

    At this age.

    Having lived, and seen, and experienced so much.

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  15. Like you, I loved "The Transit of Venus" first for its language, but I also found it to be incredibly deep, and I was compelled to re-read it immediately. You said you were disappointed in the book because you "couldn't engage with the story." For me it is a novel of character much more than story. I have had to read it several more times to understand as much as I do of its complexity and wisdom. You might want to consider reading it again.

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