Claire Seiler

Midway through Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire (2003), the hero—and Aldred Leith is a hero in the oldest of the old-school sense—returns from Tokyo to his temporary home base outside Hiroshima.

His military driver remarks that he’s “Home again;” the narrator glosses, “A transient room in a military compound had become his destination. For the time being, he didn’t mind.” Dashing Aldred Leith doesn’t mind because he is in love. He doesn’t mind because his beloved, a bewitching seventeen year-old “changeling” named, naturally, Helen, lives at the compound. (Leith’s closest friend remarks, “The name can’t be bettered. And the rest will alter.” For once, a woman aging is a good thing.)

Hazzard’s wonderful novel is, among other things, a love story. Love stories aren’t exactly in fashion. The romantic story line of another wildly popular contemporary novel, David Mitchell’s recent The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010), has gotten a lot of press. (Did anyone else enjoy the book without getting caught up in its putative love story?) Hazzard’s man-meets-girl isn’t just a love story. It’s an incredibly chaste, earnest love story. Unfashionable squared, and deeply lower-case “r” romantic. One of my closest academic pals confessed that she stayed up one night skimming through other fascinating subplots looking for a sex scene. Sadly for that you might as well read Twilight, ode to teenage chastity.

In any case, sometimes rereading something takes you back to where and when you last read that something; comfortingly or unnervingly or anywhere in between, rereading takes you back to who you were on previous reads. Maybe this experience is more common with lyric poetry, since a poem can be reread more quickly—not to say more easily—than a 300+-page novel. Strange, but I can hardly remember where I was when I read The Great Fire shortly after its publication. I know I read my grandmother’s hardcover after she finished it, and I remember her being pleased that Hazzard won the National Book Award in 2003. My grandmother was, among other things, a veteran of the Navy and a great reader. She decreed, “Shirley H. got it so right.”

On the one hand, “got it right” probably sounds familiar to anyone who’s worked the literature (or the you-name-it) of lived memory. It’s a persistent gripe: arguments about the imaginative culture in which writers wrote novels or poems—novels or poems that also shaped that culture—get dismissed out-of-hand because “that’s NOT how it was!” Though academic criticism more often than not dismisses personal memory, here it suddenly becomes a trump card: “Well, that’s all well and good, but that’s not how I remember it.” So it goes. But my grandmother was onto something here, because so it went in the literary atmosphere to which The Great Fire returns.

I don’t remember where I was when I read The Great Fire. And I don’t think anyone wants to read an enumeration of the major upheavals or the slow, subtle changes that have occurred in this one reader’s life in the intervening years. Instead, I can tell you that I spent a solid amount of that time writing a dissertation on literary culture of the period in which The Great Fire takes place, on imaginative writing of the hazy, uncertain years just after the Second World War. "Uncertain" in literary critical-historical terms as much as in historical ones…

So what really jumped out at me on this reading is, wow, how very right indeed Hazzard got the Anglo-American literary climate of that late 1940s moment, how clear her view of that atmospheric haze. The lines that I quoted at the start of this post are entirely of-the-moment. One can use “for the time being” at any time; but if you will permit an anachronistic comparison, then in Hazzard’s book the phrase hyperlinks to mid-century literary discourse in the U.S. and Great Britain. The enigmatic narrator of Elizabeth Bowen’s Second World War spy novel, The Heat of the Day (1949), for example, describes civilian experience of the war as a series of stop-gap measures taken just to carry on living through “that ‘time being’ which war had made the very being of time.” The Great Fire aligns with the very novels and poems that Aldred Leith reads. Henry Green’s Back (1946) gets a mention; Aldred’s father is a renowned senior novelist who has just written a book based on a “grim postwar winter in Greece.”

I’m using weather images—“climate,” “atmosphere,“ “haze”—to evoke a general literary mood. Yet Hazzard’s apt historical story-telling registers equally in units of dialogue and diction. The Great Fire imagines conversations about what ranks as the best novel since the war—a de rigueur friendly argument among writers and intellectuals of the period, an argument already satirized in Gore Vidal’s first novel, The City and the Pillar (1948). There are equally apropos speculations as to the defining features of the current (literary) generation, especially as it compares—or, more commonly, fails to compare—to its recent predecessors. There are various characters’ assessments of the twentieth century as an epoch only halfway through and already wholly disastrous; characters frame their own lives and selves in relation to an otherwise arbitrary chronological unit. As an aside: I wonder if any Renaissance scholars out there could comment on whether Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2009) seems to ring true. That’s another juicy contemporary historical fiction, for lack of a less clunky way of putting it, but one that can’t be put to anyone’s “how I remember it” test.

We all write, without necessarily writing down, our own narratives of personal or professional discovery. Looking back, I could make reading The Great Fire into an originary scholarly moment, one unrecognized at the time as a determinant of the work that followed. Wouldn’t that be neat? Neat as in tidy and neat as in nerdy-cool?

But while I’ll happily indulge in the romance of Helen Driscoll and Aldred Leith, I won’t indulge in that self-narrating temptation. Instead, whenever I next read The Great Fire, I’ll remember where I was when reading it this time. Partly because I don’t quite know where I am, having just moved across the country. “A transient room in a military compound had become his destination. For the time being, he didn’t mind.” Unremarkable sentences, maybe, on the face of it. Except that they mark so much about the immediate postwar period in Leith’s fictional life and in global history; except that they are about how the transient becomes the permanent, even the looked-for, about how a vague destination might possibly become a home. And they are about making new homes and returning to old ones, whether those are places or books in which one has loved living. Or both.