by Tom Nissley

The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard

(Farrar Straus & Giroux) $24

When Shirley Hazzard won the National Book Award last month for The Great Fire, she confessed, in her acceptance speech, a near-total ignorance of contemporary culture. This was hardly a surprise to anyone who's read The Great Fire: The book shows no imprint whatsoever of the last 50 years of the world's existence. She could have announced that she had in fact written the book in 1949 and left it untouched in a drawer for a half century, and no one would have batted an eye. But I would have been sad to hear it. Part of what gives The Great Fire its great intensity is the idea of this aged woman laboring through the last decades--ignoring the subscription cards to Us and then Us Weekly that dropped through her mail slot--to uphold the standards of an earlier age, the novels of Henry James and Joseph Conrad that are so clearly her models.

Her book is set in 1947, mostly in Hong Kong and in an encampment of occupying Allied forces near Hiroshima. The great fire of the title is both the atomic inferno, whose effects are still being studied by the occupiers, and, more broadly, the war's global conflagration, from which the book's characters raise their heads, blinking, stunned to have survived. (Many, it turns out, do not survive the peace.) Aldred Leith, a British soldier in his 30s who wears the scars and, uncomfortably, the medals of a widely acclaimed heroism on the European battlefields, arrives in Japan at the end of a two-year journey through China, during which he attempted to write a book to record the ancient cultures being swept aside by Mao's revolution.

Once in occupied Japan, he finds himself in immediate sympathy with two young Australians he meets there: Benedict Driscoll, a 20-year-old invalid, and his younger sister, Helen. The two are precocious (almost unbearably so): cultivated, sensitive, and isolated, they read Gibbon and Carlyle to each other at night and recognize Leith at once as a rare, kindred spirit. Helen is just 17, but (or maybe and) Leith falls instantly in love with her, and she him.

Their romance is ostensibly the story of Hazzard's novel, but it's the least compelling thing about the book. All external barriers to their union--rival admirers, her vulgar parents, the year that Leith dutifully waits before allowing their desire to be consummated--fall away with a strange and disappointing ease. To her credit, Hazzard is so out of touch with today's United States that she does not realize that anyone who approaches the topic of a grownup's love for a near-grownup must immediately become hysterical. But neither does she account for any complication to the purity of their desire. They have a near-telepathic understanding that never suffers a flaw. "So nothing need be said," Hazzard writes at one point, "except his name and hers." No need for words; then, one is tempted to say, no need for a novel.

But there is a need for this novel; I, at least, found myself inhaling it desperately at times. Not the romance, and not the portentous dialogue that, especially when filtered through Leith and Helen, continually risks falling into a parody of stiff-upper-lip British colonial stoicism. But, instead, the real drama of the book: its attentive, poetic distillation of the details of its now-distant setting. If Leith's book on China was an attempt to record a lost civilization, to witness "the last days of all their centuries," Hazzard's book does the same for her subject, with a breathtaking concision and imagination. Listen: "On a Sunday of inhuman heat, Exley found himself on the Kowloon docks, following the shadow of the godowns until forced out on an asphalt wasteland where coolies hauled cargo for hoisting. The Dutch ship, squat and shabby white, had a short white superstructure cramped amidships. With driblets of rust on her hull and at the outset of the anchor cable, she recalled the smirched bathtub of some old hotel." The rhythm of "coolies hauled cargo for hoisting," the evocative "smirched bathtub," the general picture of exhausted colonialism: These are the worthy results of two decades' labor. (Her previous novel, the nearly perfect Transit of Venus, came out in 1980.)

Like Henry James, Hazzard values more than anything what used to be called "sensibility": an openness to experience in which judgments of beauty and ugliness are, as she writes, "the essential matter of finite days." It is the quality to which her characters (the good ones, at least) most aspire, battling against the Philistine mockery of Australia (Hazzard's birthplace) and the "Judas racket" of the occupying, subversion-sniffing Americans. This capacity to openly encounter the accreted mystery of other civilizations--so easily lost, ignored, or evaded--is what, she argues, it means to be civilized.

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