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Authors: Shirley Hazzard

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The Transit of Venus




Shirley Hazzard




Shirley Hazzard has written six other books: four works of fiction,
Cliffs of Fall, The Evening of the Holiday, People
in Glass Houses
, and
The Bay at Noon
; and two works of nonaction,
Defeat of an Ideal
Countenance of Truth: The
United Nations and the Waldheim Case
Many of her short stories have been published in
The New Yorker,
; her work has received, among other recognition, a First Prize in the O. Henry Short Story awards.

Shirley Hazzard was born in Australia. She lives in New York.

Critical acclaim for The
Transit of Venus:

"An almost perfect novel . . . Miss Hazzard writes as well as Stendhal."

—John Leonard,
The New York Times

"The Transit of Venus
is complex and luminous, like tapestries of mythologi-cal scenes, the craftsmanship admirable with no strand lost or insignificant, the details deliciously precise and the scope panoramic."

—Lynne Sharon Schwartz,
Chicago Tribune Book World

"Shirley Hazzard is a worldly writer with a sense of humor; at one twist of her skewer, the trendy and the shoddy are impaled.
The Transit of Venus
is an old-fashioned novel of plainest elegance."

—Frances Taliaferro,
Harper's Magazine

"A luminous novel... I know as surely as tears are wet that through fiction like
The Transit of Venus
we see into character and motive, through the precision of art, as we cannot see them in fragmentary actual experience. . . .

Shirley Hazzard s novel seems to me almost without flaw. Aphoristic and iridescent, her language turns paragraphs into events."

— Webster Schott,
The Washington Post Book World

"The Transit of Venus
is an impressive, mature novel, full and satisfying.

. . . The richest fictional repast I have had in a long time"

— Doris Grumbach,
Los Angeles Times

Once more, for Francis

The author wishes to thank Professor E. M. Burbidge, who so generously responded to questions, from a neo-phyte, about astronomy.

Part I

By nightfall the headlines would be reporting devastation.

It was simply that the sky, on a shadeless day, suddenly lowered itself like an awning. Purple silence petrified the limbs of trees and stood crops upright in the fields like hair on end.

Whatever there was of fresh white paint sprang out from downs or dunes, or lacerated a roadside with a streak of fencing. This occurred shortly after midday on a summer Monday in the south of England.

As late as the following morning, small paragraphs would even appear in newspapers having space to fill due to a hiatus in elections, fiendish crimes, and the Korean War—unroofed houses and stripped orchards being given in numbers and acreage; with only lastly, briefly, the mention of a body where a bridge was swept away.

That noon a man was walking slowly into a landscape under a branch of lightning. A frame of almost human expectancy defined this scene, which he entered from the left-hand corner.

Every nerve—for even barns and wheelbarrows and things without tissue developed nerve in those moments—waited, fatalistic. Only he, kinetic, advanced against circumstances to a single destination.

Farmers moved methodically, leading animals or propelling machines to shelter. Beyond the horizon, provincial streets went fran-tic at the first drops. Wipers wagged on windshields, and people also charged and dodged to and fro, to and fro. Packages were bunged inside coat-fronts, newspapers upturned on new perms. A dog raced through a cathedral. Children ran in thrilling from playgrounds, windows thudded, doors slammed. Housewives were rushing, and crying out, "My washing." And a sudden stripe of light split earth from sky.

It was then that the walking man arrived at the path, and stood. Above him, four old houses were set wide apart on a high curve of hill: holding down, like placed weights, the billowing land. He had been given their names in the village—the names, not of masters but of dwellings. Brick walls were threadbare, tawny; one showed a side of ivy, green as an upturned lawn. The farthest and largest house stood forward from a wood, claiming supremacy.

The man observed from a decisive turn of his own stillness, as if on some great clock he saw the hand fall to the next stroke before his eyes. He turned off the road on the first wave of rain and gale, put his suitcase down, took off his soaked cap, beat it on his side, and stuffed it in a pocket. His hair sprang up like the crops between the gusts and, like them, was quickly, wetly flat. He climbed the hill in the rain, steadily and with no air of wretchedness. Once he paused to look back at the valley—or vale, it might be sweetly, tamely called. Peal on peal of thunder swept it, up and down, until the pliant crops themselves reverberated. On an opposing hill there was a castle—grey, tumid, turreted, and not unsuited to the storm.

Approaching the farthest house, he paused again, looking with as much plain interest as if the weather had been fine. Water ran in his collar from his tilted head. The house darkened, but stood firm. Through two or three centuries of minor additions, Peverel had held to scale and congruity like a principle; consistent except for one enlarged high window—an intentional, frivolous defect like the piercing of an ear for an ornament.

Mud was streaming over gravel and beaten clay. Ledges of clipped privet were shaking all over. The man waded up into the entrance of the house as if from the sea, and pulled a bell. Quick footsteps were perhaps his own heartbeats. The woman who opened the door was old, he thought. Had he himself been a few years older, he might have promoted her to middle age. Age was coiled in smooth grey hair, was explicit in skin too delicate for youth and in a tall if unmartial stance. She drew him in over the paving of what had been a fine hall. Her eyes were enlarged and faded with discovering what, by common human agreement, is better undivulged.

How calmly they exchanged names, ignoring the surf at his back and his saturated clothes. The cheap suitcase oozed orange on the black and white floor while Ted Tice took off" his raincoat and hung it on a stand, as directed. A smell of wet wool, of socks and sweat was pungently released in the coldly soaped and well-waxed void.

All these slow matters had taken seconds, and in that time it could be seen, too, that the hall was circular, that a bowl of roses stood on a table beside a usual newspaper, beneath a dark picture framed in gold. Under the curve of a stair, a door was open on a corridor of Persian runner. And above, on the arc of stairs, there was a young woman, standing still.

Tice looked up to her. It would have been unnatural not to.

He looked up from his wet shoes and his wet smell and his orange blotch of cheap luggage. And she looked down, high and dry. He had an impression of her body in its full dimensions—

as if he had passed at her back and seen her strong spine, the black hair parting on the prominent cord of the nape, the fragile crease behind the knee. Her face was in shadow. In any case it would have been too pat, too perfect, if she had been seen to be beautiful.

"I was looking for Tom/' she said, and went away.

Ted Tice took up his dissolving suitcase: a new arrival who must keep his counsel among initiates. Who would soon himself look for Tom, or know why others sought him.

"My husband," said Charmian Thrale, "is so much better, and will be down to lunch." Ted Tice was to work with Professor Sefton Thrale, who was so much better, for the months of July and August.

In the meantime he was being led by Mrs. Thrale down the Persian carpet, past old photographs and a framed letter with a gold crest, and a series of engravings of the ports of Britain. Now Mrs. Thrale would say, "This is your room," and he would be alone.

She remained in the doorway as he crossed his new floor to put the suitcase where it would do least harm.

"Those double doors at the end of the passage, that is the room where we sit. If you wait in there when you're ready, one of the girls will look in." As if he minded being left when, at all times, he welcomed it.

She also mentioned the bathroom. She then said she would go and set the table. Eventually he would learn this too—to speak confidently and leave a room.

In the single low window there were blurred, divergent shrubs and a glimpse of wet palings—all aslant, truncated in the window frame, like an inept photograph. Scabs of blackout paint remained on the glass. The bedroom was plain, and might have done once for an upper servant. Tice thought these words, upper servant, without knowing what they had signified in their time. He had been sent here to help an eminent, elderly, ailing scientist write an opinion on the site of a new telescope, and for all he knew might be himself an upper servant. He was young and poor and had the highest references—like a governess in an old story, who marries into the noble family.

He spread crumpled clothes about the room and rummaged for a comb. Even his wet hair gave off an auburn smell. On the table where he put his books there was an inkstand made of brass and porcelain, and two wooden pens. He hummed as he sat changing his shoes, occasionally substituting for the hum the words of an old song:

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