Thursday, June 23, 2005

The Bay of Noon by Shirley Hazzard

In a case of reading the right book at the right time, I was fairly moved by this quiet, short novel. Hazzard's more recent novel The Great Fire got a lot of good press and I dutifully read it and was unmoved--The Bay of Noon makes me think I should take a second look. The writing is so subtle that a reader in the wrong frame of mind (e.g. mid-semester busy) might miss its skill all together.

I've been thinking lately about short novels (I'm teaching a novel workshop in the fall) and how they work, and this is a good case study. Hazzard focuses the novel on a brief time period during which the protagonist is working in Naples and falls in with an Italian couple. The novel shows perfectly what it is like to meet someone you immediately find interesting--someone who sparks thought and feeling in you each time you see them--and how that friendship can then progress very quickly. The dialogue is wonderful, working particularly well to show the appeal of the couple, Gioconda and Gianni; it offers evidence as to why the narrator would be drawn to them. Since Hazzard has created literate, intelligent, articulate characters they can say literate, intelligent, articulate things ("'What I like about the landscape of Italy'," Gianni informed me, 'is that there's none of this nonsense about the great outdoors. That sort of thing's all right elsewhere. Here you could practically say it's an indoor landscape. It's Nature with beautiful manners--no, that's too tame. Rather it's as if Nature were capable of thought, of joy.'"). Equally importantly Hazzard has created a narrator who is drawn to that sort of person. In other words, putting an articulate character into your novel is not automatically a good thing.

But back to the size of the novel: it runs "narrow and deep," which my students will recognize as a quote from Toni Morrison. This is the key to the short novel. It alludes enough to the past and the future, and a larger world, to give the novel a sense of realism, but maintains a focus either through a limited time span or a limited number of characters, or in this case both. Yet it never skimps on scene and never rushes through moments that should be lingered in. Short does not necessarily equal fast. Hazzard does a fair amount of telling (summarizing) of the past and of certain moments, but when she is in scene, she lazes there, letting the narrator comment and reflect as she depicts the actions and conversations. It runs deep, and that's what allowed me to be moved.

3 comments:

Tai said...

I am completely biased, of course, but in terms of short novels, might I recommend two recent Joyce Carol Oates novellas? Rape: a love story; and Beasts. Both are deliciously violent (I did say Oates) and offer an excelent commentary on contemporary culture and gender discussions.

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Adrian Weston said...

it's odd how much animosity Great Fire seems to have attracted: almost as if Shirley Hazzard has a nerve to be writing the way she does. In fact, re Greene in Capri Hazzard has a bit of a talent for getting up people's noses, which I think is a great shame. The Bay of Noon is one of my most loved and most re-read books. Her prose is so spare and precise. I'm always trying to persuade people to read her and usually they don't thank me for the recommendation! Shame again.

Anyway, do go back to The Great Fire - it IS worth it if you are in a contemplative moment.