Love affairs with a significant age gap have featured in several recent novels. There was The Only Story by Julian Barnes, then Asymmetry, an extraordinary debut by Lisa Halliday- about which I need to think more. But what's on my mind right now is Shirley Hazzard's exquisite novel The Great Fire, which I just reread for my Winner Is... book group.
The fire in the title might refer to Hiroshima, for the novel begins in 1947 Japan where Aldred Leith, a war hero, is writing about the atrocities. Only, what he writes, as well as most of his wartime experience, is left out of the narrative. The fire at the center of this novel must therefore be the love story between Leith and Helen Driscoll. He is thirty two and she seventeen when they meet. "Having expected repeatedly to die from the great fires into which his times had pitched him," Hazzard writes, "he had discovered a desire to live completely; by which he meant, with her."
Helen is "a changeling" who seems out of reach because of her age and circumstances. She's the close companion to a dying brother Benedict, and daughter of angry tyrannical parents. Leith seeks out their company in the rooms where Helen reads to Benedict, and the friendship that blossoms between these three is full of books and deep conversation.
But loss and longing are threaded through the novel and sometimes indistinguishable. Benedict is dying of a rare disease. Many others have already died in the war. Significant separations are also imposed in a world connected by telegrams, weeks' long ship passages and long distance phone calls that take place only when booked ahead.
The interconnection of life and death, fertility and deterioration is palpable in the Japanese setting, and in the green smell which they mistake for freshness and soon recognize as decay - "everywhere, the breath of mould." In London the bombed ruins have all been cleared away, leaving enormous gaps in the cityscape. While in Hiroshima a layer of the earth has been stripped off to reveal something worse, festering beneath.
The Great Fire is spare and poetic, still and distilled, with incidental sentences that stop you in your tracks. As Aldred Leith climbs down an overgrown path towards a Japanese temple, "his foot slid on toadstools - digital, clothy, yellowed as fingers stained with nicotine." I am in awe of such writing. And what to make of this description of his father - "not a great man, but interesting and singular. Not loving, but seized, even grandly, with the phenomenon of love."
In a post war world of love and loss there are also "so many Penelopes" - that is, women left behind. There's Aurora in London, Mrs and Miss Fry in Wellington and, of course, Helen herself. I love the description of Miss Fry who lost her lover to the war in France, she for whom "beauty long since drained of erotic appeal had remained a habit." Her home is impeccably cared for, with its carpets and china, its upholstered chairs. When Helen visits, the tea tray is carried in...
Reading this, I recalled my mother's aunts in London - elderly sisters living together, inviting us over for afternoon tea. Their husbands were long since dead. But they had survived the Blitz lost a beloved nephew (my mother's brother Bob) to the war and though they were beautiful, strong survivors, loss hung over their generation. The war. There was always, always reference to the war.
So, the awakening love between Aldred Leith and Helen Driscoll is infused with restraint and a sense of impending death. There's the imminent death of her brother. Also, the possible death of love itself. Helen writes in the early stages "We fear to weary you with our high feelings, but they don't change." Later she refers to "the cold process of what men call coming to their senses."
The aftermath of war and Benedict's illness remind us that things must somehow go on, even after death. The mundane survives even (and particularly) after the momentous has passed. "We're told that possessions are ephemeral," Leith says, "yet my God how they outlast us, the clock on the beside table, the cough drops, the diary with appointments for that very day. And the meaning ebbing out of them visibly." I'm reminded here of W H Auden's Musee Des Beaux Arts and Jorge Luis Borges' Cosas.
Leith recalls boxing up his things before the war, and how unpacking them he realized, "the owner of those oddments was dead, I was my own survivor."
There's a passage where Helen reads aloud to her brother. The excerpt is too affecting for her, and being moved, she stops. "I'll take it up again when I've hardened my heart," she says.
How does Shirley Hazzard write like this? How does she focus so tenderly on incidental moments and incidental objects while still suggesting the vastness of a world in recovery? The world must move beyond war, beyond the immediate moment. Hazzard's frequent use of the passive voice lends a sense of quiet, stillness and distillation to her writing. It balances her aphorisms, lending them dignity. "Good fortune is a prodigy whose occasion one must rise to," she writes. "Fate has no sense of timing, or good taste." And, powerfully, heartbreakingly... "In their thoughts, most men are conquerors." Yes, even those who are gone.
The character of Helen Driscoll is said to be closely autobiographical. In photographs, Shirley Hazzard is small, spare and delicately proportioned, just like Helen. In her later years she lived in Naples. A more chaotic or passionate city you couldn't hope to find. She was living there when Ben and I were living in Rome. At a reception for a New York Times Best Travel Writing from Italy one of the editors told me he'd just returned from visiting her in Naples. "How is Shirley?" I asked rather cheekily - I, who had just read The Great Fire for the first time. "She's fine," he said with surprise. "Do you know her?" "No," I said.
Through her book, though.
Shirley Hazzard died two years ago. I wonder how her own marriage to a man much older than herself panned out? We don't know at the end of The Great Fire how Aldred Leith and Helen Driscoll pan out. We leave them before they consummate their relationship. It's the most passionate and intense moment of the book, and that's a good thing. After all, the poor girl will soon have to move to Norfolk and live in an old stone house with an aging husband. Leith's mother points out that when he is 42 she will be 28, and might perhaps look elsewhere. But we are left at the end of this novel, with the feeling that love has saved them - for now. "Many had died. But not she, not he; not yet."
It's the yet that moves me to tears.