Sunday, February 15, 2009

What the hell's going on here, Shirl?

Ex-pat Australian author Shirley Hazzard won the Miles Franklin literary award in 2004 for The Great Fire, which I've tried valiantly to read twice over the last few years but it has defeated me! I couldn't get beyond the first 50 pages.

But I'm determined to have another go and wrestle this beast to the ground!

What's the problem? Here is a writer heralded by the world's literary greats as one of the best of the best:

'Purely and simply, she is one of the greatest writers working in the English language' (Michael Cunningham).

'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).

'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 centre of it all, a love story'. (Joan Didion).

'A brilliant, brave and sublimely written novel...among the most transcendent works I've ever had the pleasure of reading'. (Anita Shreve).

My problem, put simply, is that I think all the above comments are absolute baloney!

I just don't think Hazzard can write. In fact I'd say she is barely literate. She writes English as if it were her second language and she's translating from some impossible dialect spoken only by Mongolian mountain men.

Here are some examples from just the first dozen or so pages. My comments are in italics:

'Now they were starting. Finality ran through the train (how can 'finality' run through a bloody train? It's a wrong use of the word. She means 'a sense of finality')

'Before the train had moved at all, the platform faces receded into the expression of those who remain' (things recede into the distance, not into a bloody expression! She means 'transformed').

'Aldred Leith sat by a window, his body submissively chugging as they got under way' ('submissively' is simply ungrammatical. 'Submitting to chugging' she means).

(By the way we're still on the first page!)

On page three there is this absolute gem: 'Leith's father had himself flourished the trick of mobility, fretting himself into receptivity and fresh impression'. (What on God's earth does this bilge mean? It means nothing. It's purely affectation, a pretentious author simply choosing to ignore accepted word usage and meaning.)

'The little room had an unconvinced Westernism' (she means 'unconvincing')

On page 73 I came across this gem: '...learning dead inimical languages like Italian and Japanese'. ('inimical' is so wrong. She means 'enemy' languages. Things are always inimical TO something else)

Despite all this, I'm going to grit my teeth and finish this book. So many people have said to give it time - the style grows on you! But it's not the style I have a problem with - very clipped, choppy, frequently potent - it's the annoying way it constantly misses the mark.

I'll let you know how I go!

1 comment:

RachaelMc said...

Hi Peter, can I simply say LOL? This cracked me up and I'm looking forward to reading more about your attempts in due course. Cheers!