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The Great Fire

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The Great Fire Cover

ISBN13: 9780312423582
ISBN10: 0312423586
Condition: Standard
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Excerpt

Excerpt from The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard. Copyright © 2003 by Shirley Hazzard. To be published in October, 2003 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

Now they were starting. Finality ran through the train, an exhalation. There were thuds, hoots, whistles, and the shrieks of late arrivals. From a megaphone, announcements were incomprehensible in American and Japanese. Before the train had moved at all, the platform faces receded into the expression of those who remain.

Leith sat by a window, his body submissively chugging as they got under way. He would presently see that rain continued to fall on the charred suburbs of Tokyo, raising, even within the train, a spectral odour of cinders. Meanwhile, he was examining a photograph of his father. Aldred Leith was holding a book in his right hand--not reading, but looking at a likeness of his father on the back cover.

It was one of those pictures, the author at his desk. In an enactment of momentary interruption, the man was half-turned to the camera, left elbow on blotter, right hand splayed over knee. Features fine and lined, light eyes, one eyelid drooping. A taut mouth. Forehead full, full crop of longish white hair. The torso broad but spare; the clothes unaffected, old and good. As a boy, Leith had wondered how his father could always have good clothes so seldom renewed--a seeming impossibility, like having a perpetual two days' growth of beard.

The expression, not calm but contained, was unrevealing. Siding with the man, the furniture supplied few clues: a secretary of dark wood was fitted in its top section with pigeonholes and small closed drawers. This desk had been so much part of the climate of family life, indivisible from his father's moods--and even appearing, to the child, to generate them--that the son had never until now inspected it with adult eyes. For that measure of detachment, a global conflict had been required, a wartime absence, a voyage across the world, a long walk through Asia; a wet morning and strange train.

There was no telephone on the desk, no clock or calendar. A bowl of blown roses, implausibly prominent, had perhaps been borrowed, by the photographer, from another room. On the blotter, two handwritten pages were shielded by the tweedy sleeve. Pens and pencils fanned from a holder alongside new books whose titles, just legible, were those of Oliver Leith's novels in postwar translations. There were bills on a spike, a glass dish of chips, a paperweight in onyx. No imaginable colours, other than those of the foisted flowers; no object that invited, by its form or material, the pressure of a hand. No photograph. Nothing to suggest familiarity or attachment.

The adult son thought the picture loveless. The father who had famously written about love--love of self, of places, of women and men--was renowned for a private detachment. His life, and that of his wife, his child, was a tale of dislocation: there were novels of love from Manchuria to Madagascar. The book newly to hand, outcome of a grim postwar winter in Greece, could be no exception. And was called Parthenon Freeze.

If the man had stood up and walked from the picture, the strong torso would have been seen to dwindle into the stockiness of shortish legs. The son's greater height, not immoderate, came through his mother; his dark eyes also.

All this time, Leith's body had been gathering speed. Putting the book aside, he interested himself in the world at the window: wet town giving way to fields, fields soggily surrendering to landscape. The whole truncated from time to time by an abrupt tunnel or the lash of an incoming train. Body went on ahead; thought hung back. The body could give a good account of itself--so many cities, villages, countries; so many encounters, such privation and exertion should, in anyone's eyes, constitute achievement. Leith's father had himself flourished the trick of mobility, fretting himself into receptivity and fresh impression. The son was inclined to recall the platform farewells.

He had the shabby little compartment to himself. It was locked, and he had been given a key. It was clean, and the window had been washed. Other sections of the train were crammed with famished, thread bare Japanese. But the victors travelled at their ease, inviolable in their alien uniforms. Ahead and behind, the vanquished overflowed hard benches and soiled corridors: men, women, infants, in the miasma of endurance. In the steam of humanity and the stench from an appalling latrine. Deploring, Aldred Leith was nevertheless grateful for solitude, and spread his belongings on the opposite seat. Having looked awhile at Asia from his window, he brought out a different, heavier book from his canvas bag.

In that spring of 1947, Leith was thirty-two years old. He did not consider himself young. Like others of his generation, had perhaps never quite done so, being born into knowledge of the Great War. In the thoughtful child, as in the imaginative and travelled schoolboy, the desire had been for growth: to be up and away. From the university where he did well and made friends, he had strolled forth distinctive. Then came the forced march of resumed war. After that, there was no doubling back to recover one's youth or take up the slack. In the wake of so much death, the necessity to assemble life became both urgent and oppressive.

Where traceable, his paternal ancestors had been, while solidly professional, enlivened by oddity. His grandfather, derided by relatives as an impecunious dilettante, had spiked all guns by inventing, at an advanced age, a simple mechanical process that made his fortune. Aldred's father, starting out as a geologist whose youthful surveys in high places--Bhutan, the Caucasus--produced, first, lucid articles, had soon followed these with lucid harsh short stories. The subsequent novels, astringently romantic, brought him autonomy and fame. Renouncing geology, he had kept a finger, even so, on the pulse of that first profession, introducing it with authority here and there in his varied narratives: the Jurassic rocks of East Greenland, the lavatic strata of far islands; these played their parts in the plot. In Oliver Leith's house in Norfolk there hung a painting of the youthful geologist prowling the moraines on his shortish legs. A picture consequential yet inept, like a portrait by Benjamin Robert Haydon.

Leith's mother, by birth a Londoner, was of Scots descent. There were red-cheeked relatives, well connected. A fine tall stone house, freezing away near Inverness, had been a place of cousinly convergence in summers before the Second World War. Aldred had not been an only child: a younger sister had died in childhood from diphtheria. It was then that his mother had begun to accompany, or follow, her husband on his journeys, taking their son with her.

And on the move ever since, the son thought, looking from his window at the stricken coasts of Japan. Two years ago, as war was ending, he had intended to create for himself a fixed point, some centre from which departures might be made--the decision seeming, at the time, entirely his to make. Instead, at an immense distance from anything resembling home, he wondered with unconcern what circumstance would next transform the story.

From a habit of self-reliance, he was used to his own moods and did not mind an occasional touch of fatalism. He had, himself, some fame, quite unlike his father's and quite unsought.

It was near evening when he arrived. The train was very late, but an Australian soldier sent to meet him was waiting on the improvised platform: "Major Leith?"

"You had a long wait."

"That's all right." They went down ill-lit wooden stairs. A jeep was parked on gravel. "I had a book."

They swung the kit aboard, and climbed in. On an unrepaired road, where pedestrians wheeled bicycles in the dusk, they skirted large craters and dipped prudently into small ones. They were breathing dust and, through it, smells of the sea.

Leith asked, "What were you reading?"

The soldier groped with free hand to the floor. "My girl sent it."

The same photograph: Oliver Leith at his desk. On the front cover, the white tide, cobalt sky, and snowbound Acropolis.

Leith brought out his own copy from a trenchcoat pocket.

"I'll be damned."

They laughed, coming alive out of khaki drab. The driver was possibly twenty: staunch body, plain pleasant face. Grey eyes, wide apart, wide awake. "You related?"

"My father."

"I'm damned."

They were near the waterfront now, following the bed of some derelict subsidiary railway. The joltings might have smashed a rib cage. You could just see an arc of coastal shapes, far out from ruined docks: hills with rare lights and a black calligraphy of trees fringing the silhouettes of steep islands. The foreground reality, a wartime shambles of a harbour with its capsized shipping, was visible enough, and could, in that year, have been almost anywhere on earth.

The driver was peering along the track. "Write yourself?"

"Not in that way."

"Never too late."

The boy plainly considered his passenger past the stage of revelations. A dozen years apart in age, they were conclusively divided by war. The young soldier, called to arms as guns fell silent, was at peace with this superior--civil and comradely, scarcely saluting or saying Sir, formalities no longer justified. Intuitively, too, they shared the unease of conquerors: the unseemliness of finding themselves few miles from Hiroshima.

"How do you manage here?" The man had a deep, low voice. If one had to put a colour to it, it would have been dark blue; or what people in costly shops call burgundy.

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glockenspiel, September 10, 2008 (view all comments by glockenspiel)
I was quite surprised by my reaction to this book. I was largely unable to become interested because the characters felt somehow stilted. In several cases, the dialog particularly struck me as almost pedantic. Now, I am generally the last person to demand high levels of realism from an author and try to follow the author's path to see what they have to say. Here, I felt rather like I was being shown that the author could do high minded literary work, and as a result, the spoken words of the characters often had a kind of self consciously high drama to them that felt unnatural. Because the 'unnatural' didn't feel deliberate, the dialog often felt flat. Many aspects of the writing are indeed compelling but the overall effect was lost on me.
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780312423582
Author:
Hazzard, Shirley
Publisher:
Picador USA
Subject:
Romance - General
Subject:
General Fiction
Subject:
Literary
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Trade Paper
Publication Date:
20040731
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
336
Dimensions:
8.27 x 5.45 x 0.875 in

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The Great Fire Used Trade Paper
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Product details 336 pages Picador USA - English 9780312423582 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

The Great Fire is one of the most sophisticated novels I’ve read in years. Beautiful writing and acute psychological insights.

"Staff Pick" by ,

You may already be familiar with some of the fanfare associated with Shirley Hazzard's novel The Great Fire, as it was her first novel in twenty years. Aldred Leith is one of those living in what's left of the Pacific Theatre in the years immediately following WWII, a region beginning to teem once again after surviving the unspeakable (though, try as they may, unforgettable) events of the war culminating in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Despite all of that, there is still love to be had that, while fragile, serves to foster new life, hope, and even joy.

"Review" by , "Shirley Hazzard has written an hypnotic novel that unfolds like a dream: Japan, Southeast Asia, the end of one war and the beginning of another, the colonial order gone, and at the center of it all, a love story."
"Review" by , "I wish there were a set of words like 'brilliant' and 'dazzling' that we saved for only the rarest occasions, so that when I tell you The Great Fire is brilliant and dazzling you would know it is the absolute truth. This is a book that is worth a twenty-year wait."
"Review" by , "[T]his almost indescribably rich story...moves from strength to strength, and no reader will be unmoved by its sorrowing, soaring eloquence. One of the finest novels ever written about war and its aftermath, and well worth the 23-year wait."
"Review" by , "[Her fans'] thrill over [Hazzard's] new novel will be completed; the long days and nights of waiting will be forgotten....Time and place have always been exactly evoked in Hazzard's fiction, and such is the case here....[B]eautifully atmospheric prose..."
"Review" by , "The Great Fire is a brilliant, brave and sublimely-written novel that allows the literate reader 'the consolation of having touched infinity.' This wonderful book, which must be read at least twice simply to savor Hazzard's sentences and set-pieces, is among the most transcendent works I've ever had the pleasure of reading."
"Synopsis" by , More than twenty years after the classic The Transit of Venus, Shirley Hazzard returns to fiction with a novel that in the words of Ann Patchett is brilliant and dazzling...

The Great Fire is an extraordinary love story set in the immediate aftermath of the great conflagration of the Second World War. In war-torn Asia and stricken Europe, men and women, still young but veterans of harsh experience, must reinvent their lives and expectations, and learn, from their past, to dream again. Some will fulfill their destinies, others will falter. At the center of the story, a brave and brilliant soldier finds that survival and worldly achievement are not enough. His counterpart, a young girl living in occupied Japan and tending her dying brother, falls in love, and in the process discovers herself.

In the looming shadow of world enmities resumed, and of Asia's coming centrality in world affairs, a man and a woman seek to recover self-reliance, balance, and tenderness, struggling to reclaim their humanity. The Great Fire is a story of love in the aftermath of war by purely and simply, one of the greatest writers working in English today. (Michael Cunningham)

Shirley Hazzard was born in Australia, and in early years traveled the world with her parents due to their diplomatic postings. At sixteen, living in Hong Kong, she was engaged by British Intelligence, where, in 1947-48, she was involved in monitoring the civil war in China. Thereafter, she lived in New Zealand and in Europe; in the United States, where she worked for the United Nations Secretariat in New York; and in Italy. In 1963, she married the writer Francis Steegmuller, who died in 1994.

Ms. Hazzard's previous novels are The Evening of the Holiday (1966), The Bay of Noon (1970), and The Transit of Venus (1981). She is also the author of two collections of short fiction, Cliffs of Fall and Other Stories (1963) and People in Glass Houses (1967). Her nonfiction works include Defeat of an Ideal (1973), Countenance of Truth (1990), and the memoir Greene on Capri (2000). She lives in New York, with sojourns in Italy.

Winner of the National Book Award

A New York Times Notable Book

A Los Angeles Times Best Book

A Chicago Tribune Best Book

A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book

A Library Journal Best Book

Winner of the Miles Franklin Prize

Booklist Editors' Choice

A Kiriyama Prize Finalist

The year is 1947. The great fire of the Second World War has convulsed Europe and Asia. In its wake, Aldred Leith, an acclaimed hero of the conflict, has spent two years in China at work on an account of world-transforming change there. Son of a famed and sexually ruthless novelist, Leith begins to resist his own self-sufficiency, nurtured by war. Peter Exley, another veteran and an art historian by training, is prosecuting war crimes committed by the Japanese. Both men have narrowly escaped death in battle, and Leith saved Exley's life. The men have maintained long-distance friendship in a postwar loneliness that haunts them both, and which has swallowed Exley whole. Now in their thirties, with their youth behind them and their world in ruins, both must invent the future and retrieve a private humanity.

Arriving in Occupied Japan to record the effects of the bomb at Hiroshima, Leith meets Benedict and Helen Driscoll, the Australian son and daughter of a tyrannical medical administrator. Benedict, at twenty, is doomed by a rare degenerative disease. Helen, still younger, is inseparable from her brother. Precocious, brilliant, sensitive, at home in the books they read together, these two have been, in Leith's words, delivered by literature. The young people capture Leith's sympathy; indeed, he finds himself struggling with his attraction to this girl whose feelings are as intense as his own and from whom he will soon be fatefully parted.

A deeply observed story of love and separation, of disillusion and recovered humanity, The Great Fire marks the much-awaited return to fiction of an author whose novel The Transit of Venus won the National Book Critics Circle Award and, twenty years after its publication, is considered a modern classic.

What better gift . . . than a novel that confirms the value of the individual--the individual heart, mind, spirit--even amidst the obfuscating demands of history and politics and culture . . . The Great Fire] is a novel of incredible emotional wisdom, full of authentic characters, vivid places, and language that is both precise and beautiful.--Alice McDermott, Commonweal

Beauty is felt in almost every line of this austerely gorgeous work.--Chicago Tribune

Stunning . . . Shirley Hazzard has gifted us, in The Great Fire, a novel of indispensable happiness and sorrow. I loved this novel beyond dreams.--Howard Norman, The Washington Post Book World

A classic romance . . . the greatest pleasure is Hazzard] subtle and unexpected prose.--Regina Marler, Los Angeles Book Review

What better gift . . . than a novel that confirms the value of the individual--the individual heart, mind, spirit--even amidst the obfuscating demands of history and politics and culture . . . The Great Fire] is a novel of incredible emotional wisdom, full of authentic characters, vivid places, and language that is both precise and beautiful.--Alice McDermott, Commonweal

The Great Fire is a perfect book, without a superfluous word . . . radiant.--Eve Claxton, Time Out (New York)

I wish there were a set of words like 'brilliant' and 'dazzling' that we saved for only the rarest occasions, so that when I tell you The Great Fire is brilliant and dazzling you would know it is the absolute truth. This is a book that is worth a twenty-year wait.--Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto

Shirley Hazzard has written an hypnotic novel that unfolds like a dream: Japan, Southeast Asia, the end of one war and the b

"Synopsis" by , A finalist for the National Book Award, this is an extraordinary love story set in the immediate aftermath of World War II. A man and woman seek to recover self-reliance, balance, and tenderness, and struggle to reclaim their humanity.
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