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."

Hazzard's characters get "tangled" in history, their personal lives snarled or braided in its net. She buries the sprawling abstract formalism of the book, so reminiscent of the ancient tragedians and the old stories of Hardy and George Eliot, her literary forebearers, beneath a shimmering surface of immediacy. The novel makes its transit through lines and stars through the inner spaces of loneliness and passion.

THIS IS THE ARTISTIC BEAUTY of Hazzard's style; an elegant and controlled prose that, carefully dispassionate and particular, nevertheless evokes an atmosphere of intense emotion. The writing is clean, sharp, and brilliantly metaphorical, with a tendency toward hesitation and qualification, a beautiful refinement of diction that results in poetic prose.

There is always this balance between the wholly familiar in style, action, and observation, and the weight and concentration of huge, abstract, and emotional circles of magical and tragic resonance. Even ordinary details bring waves of meaning and inferences, while remaining easily acessible:

When Paul Ivory walked in espadrilles on the paths and passages of Peverel, the sound inaugurated, softly, the modern era. As did his cotton jerseys--some blue, some black--and trousers of pale poplin. The modern era, like the weather, was making these things possible.

The book glows, holographic, with an unearthly halo, so that the precise details of lemon groves and white walls, dirty linoleum stairs, and blue velvet all hold the threat of profound poetry.

Like a poet, she understands the grave magic of our unconscious life. The compelling, almost occult narration of Ted Tice's inspection of the Wasteland of Hiroshima exemplifies this style. The scientist's fate "became equivocal and ceased to make quite clear if he would win or fail" as he toured the atomic ruins, she writes, while his "imagination stalked ahead, aghast, among sight soon to be outdone." Shedding light on the bizarre truth of our inner, irrational metaphors, she presents this vision of a city unnaturally demolished to expose the contours of the earth, leaving only "a single monument, defabricated girders of an abolished dome, presiding like a vacant cranium or a hollowing out of the great globe itself: Saint Peter's in some eternal city of nightmare."

A story of such world-ranging pathos as Transit of Venus might be expected to lapse into the trite romantic-melodrama that fills airport book racks. But Hazzard errs infrequently. She makes sentimental slips in directing the plot; but they remain only minor errors, like those of other great writers, short detours from her delicate discipline.

Still, a graver defect alienates us from the story at times. Hazzard suffers a cultural manneredness that sometimes overwhelms the pleasure we take in the novel's intelligent style. Occasionally we detect pretentiousness, a conscious literacy, an assumed intellectual and artistic sophistication. Allusions to literature, paintings, sculptures, mythology, and the great, exotic places of the world abound, and while we enjoy this armchair journey, Hazzard cannot always assimilate it into the flow; it becomes unfortunate, irksome baggage. She establishes Caro Bell, the Australian heroine, as a charming and sensitive woman, but Caro's literary cultivation seems incongruously elevated from what Hazzard has told us of her education. Her expansive knowledge seems artificially constructed by her cosmopolitan creator.

Yet, in an intriguing way, even these flaws contribute to making this an "important" book. The Transit of Venus upholds the continuum of "great literature." While it is brilliantly modern and engrossing for our age, it appeals to the problems of life, to our steadier thoughts, and to the timeless mysticism of a story well told. Far more than a museum piece, it retains a seriousness and dignity beyond most contemporary fiction.