Shirley Hazzard: The Bay of Noon

Hazzard, Shirley (2005), The Bay of Noon, Virago
ISBN 978-1-86049-454-3

I’m sure I already said this once, but this is the great thing about prizes, with longlists, shortlists etc.: you keep finding new books, or new writers, or even old books that you haven’t, for whatever reason, been aware of so far. Ample opportunity to discover classical books was afforded by the recently announced longlist for the “Lost Booker”. Upon a reader’s recommendation at this blog, I started my journey of discovery with Shirley Hazzard’s novel The Bay of Noon, originally published in 1970 (like all the novels on the “Lost Booker” longlist, naturally), her second novel of only four altogether, so far. As I sit down to write this review, I’m not altogether sure what to make of it. It’s certainly a very, very good book, very well, that is: elegantly written, evoking its setting and its characters so marvelously that we have to remind ourselves that this is, indeed, fiction. Fiction written by a master of her craft, but there is something odd about this book, which can seem spry sometimes, strangely reticent for a book with such a sumptuous background, and such a classical kind of story. On a sentence-by-sentence level it’s consistently enthralling and enchanting, its complex construction and the deft handling of its characters is never less than admirable, but there’s a gap, a loss, a distance at the heart of the book, and noticing the elaborate care of the construction makes the reader only more aware of it. And this despite the story which is rather emotional, sentimental even, a story of loss and love, of displacement and yearning.

There are quite a few books which are similar in several crucial points, and sometimes, Hazzard seems to fall short of such extraordinary achievements like Ford Madox Ford’s near-perfect The Good Soldier. The arc of the story, the characters, the emotional impact seems to be less well wrought, but this is a mistaken impression. The love story is the least important aspect of the novel, and while it’s great for summaries, it doesn’t actually represent the novel very well. Shirley Hazzard didn’t write a book that is, first and foremost, a moving story, I think. Instead, she wrote a very clever novel that makes good use of the discourses inherent in the tradition of the genre, that tells a story in a sweltering underworld, drawing from the cultural background of a whole region, and makes a strong statement about feminity and narrative. And it does all this in a surprisingly naked way: unashamedly, The Bay of Noon foregrounds its conceptual structure. Make no mistake, we are presented with a sad and tragic love story, but it’s highly ambiguous, and the true tragedy, we learn, is outside of the story proper, which is incapable of wrapping up all the book’s possibilities in one tasty emotional dish. The Bay of Noon slops over, frequently, and its main target is the act of writing itself, visible in the way the private history of the characters and the public history of a region intersect, in the manner in which these two kinds of stories are told, reproduced and archived, and how, in each case, meaning is created – or lost. The Bay of Noon is affecting, yes, and moving, but it’s far more than that. Hazzard does more than create metaphors as proxy for her ideas, instead, she opts for a kind of obviousness, using the tools at her disposal in a transparent way, baring the commitments and impulses driving it, giving it coherence. Most of all, The Bay of Noon insists that we understand the role of writing in shaping the understanding of certain everyday issues, as, in this case, human relationships and history. The actual story takes a back seat in this undertaking.

That said, it’s not a bad story, by any measure. The Bay of Noon is narrated by Jenny, a young British woman who comes to Naples to assist in the compilation of an official report. She does all kinds of office work, but most importantly, she works as a translator. In an idle moment in Naples, she seeks out a female writer who a mutual friend suggested she visit, and even arranged for a letter of recommendation. During the following months, she strikes up a friendship with this writer, and the writer’s lover, the (slightly) brutish (and married) Gianni. Additionally, she enters into a strange relationship with a Scottish biologist. Both of these relationships, which do not appear to intersect at first, are oddly like love, without completely becoming, in fact, love. Exploring the complex connections between the four characters allows Hazzard to call on different hierarchies of power as they play out in human relationships, without having to abandon ambiguity. More than anything else, it is this ambiguity that enlivens the odd geometrical shape of the Neapolitan foursome, that highlights the possibilities and limitations that time, place and gender enforced upon them. Sometimes, this leads to a peculiar stiffness, as if we were watching a renaissance spectacle, with objects, characters and places mere symbolical or metaphorical stand-ins for ideas. But we never feel The Bay of Noon lecturing us; in fact, Hazzard embraces ambiguity with such a zest that no single proposition ever emerges from the book, but rather a mixture of ideas and possibilities. The only things we do keep finding are Hazzard’s commitments and her inquisitive mind. Additionally, she’s a wizard at creating full, rich, believable characters. Silences, as in the books of masters like James Salter, are loaded with subtext; we don’t need to interpret them, we ‘get’ the meaning immediately. And the end, the inevitable, sad end of the story, does move us, because we do care for these characters, no matter how studded with ideas each of them is.

Although The Bay of Noon seems to be realistic, the realism (much as so much else in the book) appears to be trained on cultural documents, artifacts and productions, like the movies of Vittorio De Sica, one of which is mentioned early in the novel. Another point of reference, one of the two most central references, is Naples itself. Even more than Venice or Rome, two cities which, throughout literary history, are regularly used to exemplify inner states or ideas, Naples is more cultural reference than city. For every description of the actual city, literary history knows countless fantasies and romances about Naples and the region of Campania. In his study Les Navigations d’Ulysse, Victor Bérard found that part of Ulysses’ travels were set at the Neapolitan coast, especially his encounter with Polyphemus, the hungry (and easily tricked) cyclops. Ulysses’ encounter with the Sirens, while placed elsewhere by Bérard, is nevertheless as important, or more important, even, for the cultural image of Naples, which, in ancient times, used to be called “Parthenope” (after one of the Siren sisters), and, if we are to believe some cultural histories, is still colloquially called that way by some of the Neapolitans. Additionally, it has been identified with the gates to the underworld. There is a curious tension between how Naples is generally regarded (and has been for thousands of years) and how the region surrounding and containing the city is viewed. It’s fertile land and idyllic vistas led Romans to call it Campania Felix. Descriptions of Naples tend not to contain adjectives like felix (i.e. happy). On the contrary.

Jean-Paul Sartre, in the fragments published posthumously as La Reine Albemarle (one of Sartre’s most readable, though least well known books), described Naples as “une ville en putréfaction”, which seems to be more in line with traditional depictions. As he continues, he writes that “on va à Naples comme les adolescents vont à la morgue, comme on va à une dissection. Avec l’horreur d’être un témoin”. These phrases are apt descriptions of Naples as many people found it. It’s even more apt in the light of Hazzard’s depiction of it. In The Bay of Noon, we find sweltering heat, unbearable smells, grimy surfaces and a general sense of putréfaction, i.e. decay. Incredible poverty and the utter lack of a sense of tradition and elegance set it apart from cities like Rome, according to Jenny’s account. But behind these culturally saturated descriptions, the shadows from ancient Greece creep up. The Hades looms, and the one-eyed devourer of sheep as well as the enchanting singing sisters. Hazzard’s Naples glitters, her streets are at the same time paths into the underworld, populated by ghosts, and actual, paved, real streets. None of this is really explicit, but many details suggest this kind of reading. The témoignage mentioned by Sartre, the bearing of witness, is also important and salient here. If we talk about a book that makes use of Hell as a metaphor, a novel which is set in the aftermath of the Second World War, we can’t help but associate the tragedies and horrors of the war and its manifold murders. And, indeed, the female writer whom Jenny befriends is a survivor of the tragic events visited upon her city by its inhabitants during the beginnings of Mussolini’s reign, and the Germans and the Allied forces, in the 1940s.A victim, with a stealthy kind of strength, who connects all the different parts of the book and lends meaning and depth to its excursions and ideas, she is a strangely wan kind of character.

She is called Gioconda, and, like Naples, she’s a conglomeration of references and meanings. Her very name is a direct reference of Leonardo da Vinci’s world-famous “La Gioconda”, which is probably the most famous painting in the world. Gioconda is mysterious: her motives are never quite clear, or rather: The Bay of Noon doesn’t inquire much into these motives. Instead, we learn about her history and circumstances, and are allowed to construct Gioconda’s motivation from these bits and pieces. From all this, a complex, ambiguous character emerges. Her sadness belies her jocund name, which marks an absence more than it describes what’s there. She’s a smart and successful writer (well, with only one book to her name, but a book that was, after all, made into a movie) with strong opinions, with a circle of (male) friends who all admire her. Jenny’s narrative shows us how easily enchanted one can be by the beautiful Neapolitan artist. Her appraisal, very early in the book, of her new-won friend reinforces the connection between person and reference, between seeing, remembering and writing, between culture and subject:

Gioconda’s appearance has become merged now with knowledge of her, with moods and events and questions, so that in describing it I feel I am giving a false impression and introducing, even to myself, a woman I do not know. If one says that she was rather tall, dark-haired, dark-eyed, with in winter a pale colouring, paler than apricot, one has described nothing more than a woman who is in all probability good-looking. Even in giving these few facets I am getting off the track, for I myself would hardly recognize her from such a description: it is almost as if I were describing here skeleton, without the intercostal tissue that gave it life and singularity. Yet her physical beauty was as strong a part of her character as though she were personally accountable for the deep setting of the eyes or the long rise of the cheekbone.

In this and other descriptions, we hear a faint echo of Walter Pater’s beautiful remarks on the Mona Lisa in his wondrous Studies in the History of the Renaissance, where he maintains that in Mona Lisa’s face show “all the thoughts and experience of the world”. More on point, he claims that “she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave”. In a way, this is true for Gioconda as well. Her status as a survivor has made her a victim of sorts, her every breath seemingly enveloped by a diffuse fear. Talking to Jenny seems to liberate her or at least help her. The answer to the question why Jenny accomplishes what none of her male friends, and her lover Gianni least of all, managed, is crucial to the structure of the book. When Hazzard writes that Gioconda may be “personally accountable” for her beauty, she touches upon the main theme, which is creation through writing. All the cultural and literary references create a sense of irreality, of constructedness, and as we listen to Jenny’s story, we see how she stumbles to create it, how she doubts her own words, and we look closer at the reliability of narratives, and, especially, who writes which history. As it turns out, the book Gioconda wrote is a memoir of the pre-war years, written from the perspective of an outsider, about a family of outsiders. This history, written by a woman, is not completely successful, it takes a man’s adaptation of the story to the big screen to make it a full success. Similarly, while Jenny takes part in writing the report which, for all intents and purposes, can be read as a history of Naples in wartime, she has no part in shaping it. Power over narratives, even over those created by or with the help of women, rests in the hands of men. The friendship between the two women, in this light, and the ambiguities enveloping it, starts to seem almost oppositional and Jenny’s narrative of the friendship a declaration of, for lack of better words: independence.

As we watch Jenny looking for the right words, our gaze keeps reverting to Gioconda, and we keep thinking about how Jenny calls her “self-contained” and “unoppressive”, and, from the narrow lanes of the story, Gioconda as an almost iconic figure slops over. Increasingly, we become interested in that character, and less in the story around it. Time and again, Hazzard tells us how the landscape resembles the characters, and in a region connected with Parthenope, and her search for Persephone (who, as we know was abducted by Hades), that search, and the loss that it connotates, as well as the disastrous role that men play in it (we shouldn’t forget that Parthenope killed herself when Ulysses resisted her song), seems to become a cipher for the female relationship in the story. But the story isn’t celebrating an oppositional friendship, as suggesting the possibility of one. Really, it’s about yearning, about not finding. Even Jenny’s own story is less a reliable map of her memory of that time than a rough approximation, “not to fix our positions, but to show us how we came”. In a sense, The Bay of Noon is about a utopia, a not-place, that could be a eutopia, a good place, but this is developed with the utmost care and a marvelous subtlety. In his recently published book on religion (Returning to Religion), Jonathan Benthall maintains, and he wasn’t the first to say so, that faith, religious belief is often employed as a means to deal with ambiguities, with the obscurities of life and its harsh, rough edges. I think it’s remarkable that Hazzard doesn’t really lapse into faith here, which would be the easy solution. Instead she continues thinking, and keeps the whole construct in suspension, which is a testament to her brilliance. Although the book’s cleverness often translates into a kind of coldness, Hazzard’s writing is astonishing throughout and the novel as a whole is highly, highly recommended. It’s an excellent read, and brilliant to boot.

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