The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard

Like Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, I bought this on the basis of a Bryan Appleyard article where he mentioned Hazzard as one of his contenders for greatest living novelist; in fact, he entertained the possibility that The Transit of Venus was ‘the most perfect novel written in the past 100 years’.

I was less taken by this one than the Robinson. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good novel: lots of strong characters, a sense of time and place, a rich and engaging plot. And occasionally it’s very funny; there’s a vein of acid social satire running through it which just helps give it a bit of an edge. There’s an account of the changing reputation of a poet over his career which is absolutely superb, for example.

And yet… it never quite wowed me as much as Housekeeping. That novel, for me, had a touch of magic and uniqueness to it that made it really stand out. ToV by comparison seems ordinary. A very good example of a conventional novel, but conventional nonetheless. It didn’t help that I never quite settled with the prose style. It has a kind of staccato portentousness that, even after a couple of hundred pages, still kept niggling slightly.

If I sound rather negative, it’s only relative to the claim that the book is the most perfect of the past 100 years; it’s a good book, I’m glad I read it, and I’d generally recommend it. But for whatever reason of personal taste or mood, it didn’t blow me away. Shrug.

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

This is one of the great novelistic portraits of London: a London full of smoke and fog, seedy backstreet pubs, horse-drawn cabs, and gaslights. That’s what I like best about it, really, the London it creates and the grotesque characters that inhabit it: Verloc himself, the secret agent and seller of pornography, his coterie of seedy, ageing and probably ineffectual foreign anarchists and revolutionaries, the police chief on his trail, the idiot brother. All of that is done brilliantly. One vaguely assumes that as a European immigrant to London himself, Conrad was drawing on personal experience in his portrayal of the anarchists, but it’s just as possible that he made it all up. In fact, reading my own description of it, it makes it sound like he set out to write a parody of a Sherlock Holmes novel.

On the whole, I think that when it gets into the psychodrama at the end — his wife’s reaction to what has happened — it becomes a bit less interesting. But it’s still a great book.

Shakespeare: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd

The definite article in the title seems a little hubristic. I don’t know if this is the definitive biography of Shakespeare — haven’t read any of the hundreds of others — but I certainly enjoyed it.

I don’t know if I completely trust Ackroyd as a historian; it’s probably unfair, but I just get a nagging sense sometimes that he’s a bit too fond of a good story. He has clearly done a ton of research, though, and as you’d expect he’s very good at providing historical context. And he writes well.

bar in Neuchatel, found on flickr, used under a CC licence

There’s a perception, perhaps, that we have very little historical record of Shakespeare other than the plays themselves, so if anything I was surprised by how much material there was: legal stuff, references to him in other people’s writing and so on. Certainly there’s enough to build up a broad-brush picture of his life. What there isn’t is much that is truly personal: no letters back and forth between London and Stratford, no learned essays on theatrical technique, no gossipy personal journal.

So instead of the common pattern of literary biographies, where the biographer tries to use the details of the life to shed light on the work, here it’s more often the other way round: trying to mine the plays and poems for details that might tell us something about his life. It’s all hints and scraps, and any conclusions are tentative and contingent, but it’s all quite interesting even so.

In the end, I think Shakespeare remains elusive: but then, if we knew every moment of his life, I suspect it would only serve to emphasise the fundamental mysteriousness of genius. What biographical detail could possibly be adequate as an explanation?

» Pub sign in Neuchatel, Switzerland, posted to Flickr by iwouldstay (Stefan) and used under a by-nc-sa licence.