Passengers in Transit

The Transit of Venus By Shirley Hazzard Viking Press; $11.95

TO READ The Transit of Venus is to leave the crazed nihilistic rush of the modern street and to venture into the lucid stillness of an old place, maybe an art museum, of finer craftsmanship and the echos of time. This novel hauntingly portrays contemporary life, always going past it, past the preoccupations and manias of the moment, to a longer, stiller perspective.

Here is a masterly novel asking placement in the continuum of broader history. It invites and aspires to comparisons with the great novels of literary history. The lines and intersections of characters' lives are set within the dislocating phases of world events. All is understood in the perspective of the slowwheeling geometry of time's sweep. Hazzard handles her saga about the lonely remnants of several families with a stylish cinematic control that gives us a highly structured plot moving in the shadow of Greek tragedy. She roams the world with a chastened recognition of larger patterns beyond individual fate, yet never burdens her writing with heavy-handed determinism.

Transit charts six major characters as they journey through the space of thirty years. They intersect, gravitate around each other, spin away into lonely emptiness while a dozen minor characters drift around these central constellations. They construct galaxies and float apart with the humble wonder we feel when we muse on the infinity of the sky, in oceanic silence, and trace the impersonal yet poignant movement of the stars. Hazzard sees things in two planes, as both personal emotion and tragedy, life through the wrong end of a telescope, transparently removed--almost mythologized.

In the opening "purple silence" of a shadeless summer's day we anticipate the novel's first steps. A stranger walks slowly into the landscape, this "frame of almost human expectancy," and advances, with Hardy-like fatality, toward the summer house of a famous old astronomer who seems to have "already reached the end of the world." A violently freakish tempest roars.

Transit has much in common with the archetypal "old stories" of love and tragedy that form our literary past. It's almost schematic in outline, obeying some huge Sophoclean unity of thirty years' tragedy. Hazzard carefully constructs the work to fit this ancient paradigm and moves with silent and relentless force along a cosmic plan of the way things are in the world, and should be in a novel.

Characters here are, as an airport sign reads, "Passengers in Transit," moving through emotions alone, along intersecting orbits in mechanical mystery. When staid government official Christian Thrale meets orphan Grace Bell at the symphony, two strangers' historical curves come together and fall into relation:

She was no sooner down the aisle than Christian spoke. He had never done such a thing in his life, but knew there was no time to lose. They got swiftly through some piffle about Sibelius, and by the time the duenna returned Christian had written a phone number and suggested Saturday. All this, which should have seemed extraordinary to him, appeared inevitable and entirely right.

Their intimacy, like others in the book, is "set in motion" by this collision. Christian soon knows that "there could be no outcome to such activities but marriage." Later, another couple: "the ferry rocked in the wash of a small steamer. Ted and Caro were flung against each other and did not depart." This is Hazzard's world, "the long accident of life."

Topical time haunts the novel; it is the center of these impersonal forces, their measure. Characters swing with "the pendulum of an era," obeying some physics of oscillatory motion. But below the philosophic dimension we recognize a close attention to contemporary detail of world and cultural history. We see "brutish, bottomless" Australia during the war and after, when Caro and Grace Bell are there, existing in the unimpassioned hopelessness and nowhereness of a place where "history's shrivelled chronicle" has already "terminated in unsuccess." When their mother drowns in a bizarre boating accident, we read, "Greece fell, Crete fell, there was a toppling, even of history." Then the sixties, like a documentary montage, a freely associated tumble of images to define an era:

In America, a white man had been shot dead in a car, and a black man on a veranda. In Russia, a novelist had emerged from hell to announce that beauty would save the world. Russian tanks rolled through Prague while America made war in Asia. In Greece the plays of Aristophanes were forbidden, in China the writings of Confucius.

On the moon, the crepe sole of modern man impresses itself on the Mare Tranquillitatus.

On the Old World, History lay like a paralysis. In France, the generals died. In Italy a population abandoned the fields forever to make cars or cardigans in factories; economists called this a miracle.

Protesters with aerosol cans had sprayed Stonehenge dark red.

In London there was foul weather, and the balance of payments on the blink or brink.

And later Ted Tice feels the shopping center squalor of our own time, a motel room, space on a floor plan instead of a room. Hazzard reminds us of the typical misery of the city-world we live in: the "sleazy inevitability" of industrialized loneliness, among "the freakishness, fads, and obscure forms of endurance," the "ceaseless milling in anonymity and extreme loneliness, with little reverie and no peace," and the boredom of living in a world that is all a "costly shambles ruled by tax laws," where "existence has to be turned over to the experts."