§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard

7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard

This is a reread for me. It was well worth rereading because I hadn’t discovered the first time around that Hazzard is best read slowly, paying attention to the texture of the prose. Somewhat like one would read Elizabeth Bowen.

The title reverberates through the novel. It refers obviously to WWII which is just past—all the characters are somehow involved at the beginning in the occupation of Japan. It refers to the love affair which is the heart of the book. It also seems to refer to the bombing of Hiroshima—the setting as the novel begins is near the former Japanese naval base at Kure, in the vicinity of Hiroshima. There’s also a scene where the main character, Aldred Leith, goes home to England and, passing the Monument, recalls climbing to its top as a schoolboy. He mentions that it commemorates the “great fire of 1666” and then remarks something to the effect that “we have gone through our own great fire” referring surely to WWII—he fought in several theatres as an enlisted man, got a field promotion to officer, was seriously wounded, captured and escaped. Referring also to the repeated bombing of the City of London—the Monument must have been the scene of many fires in the fall and spring of 1940-1941 as well as when the rockets fell later.

In the present of the novel, circa 1947, Leith feels old before his time and uncertain of his future (he’s stayed in the Army partly because he doesn’t know what else to do), recognizing also that Britain’s place in the world is drastically changing. He’d spent a year in China and wrote a report on the Revolution Mao would shortly bring to a close. Now he has a similar assignment in Japan. He knows he must go back to Britain soon to get his China book published.

At Kure he meets Helen and Benedict. They sound like a Shakespearean duo, but that Helen is from Love’s Labor’s Lost and that Benedict, from Much Ado about Nothing. In any case, they are brother and sister, not lovers. Their father is an unlikable, unworthy martinet of an Aussie brigadier, and their mother a scheming socialite with questionable taste, but the children are totally unlike them. They’ve been neglected, possibly providentially, and as a result have traveled the world alone, catching up with their parents and reading Gibbon on shipboard. Benedict is ill and it’s increasing clear he will not live long. Helen is devoted to him; the parents show their concern by finding an American doctor who wants to experiment on him.

Leith arrives, somewhat prepared, because of an encounter with Ginger, a British officer, dying as a result of illness contracted in a Japanese prison camp. Indeed he dies within 24 hours, but everything he told Leith turns out to be quite accurate, among other things that the parents were ghastly but the children wonderfully bright and fresh and loving. Helen is 17, inexperienced in everything except books, devoted to her brother. Leith, divorced after the war and hardly looking for love, finds it almost instantly, somewhat to his chagrin, in this very young girl. He is 32.

It’s not immediately obvious that the plot is essentially a love story. Evidently Hazzard based it on her own experience at that age, a love affair broken up by her parents. Wisely, however, she made Leith the main character though not the only point of view in the novel. We do see some from the point of view of Helen and other characters as well as from that of Peter Exley, an Australian Leith had met and made friends with in Cairo, encountered again in the prison camp and who is now stationed in Hong Kong attached to some war crimes tribunals. Like Leith, the war has changed him and left him uncertain what comes next. The subplot focusing on Exley is somewhat unsatisfying because the reader never hears the end of his story, but the interaction between the two illuminates Leith’s character as well as makes the reader care what happens to Exley.


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