Shirley Hazzard – The Bay of Noon

I read Shirley Hazzard’s The Bay of Noon too quickly, admiring it on a superficial level only, and so what she was doing and how the narrative worked eluded me until I sat down to write about it and began re-reading the first few pages. These lines, which come just at the end of the third paragraph forced me to slow down, begin again and read the entire novel a second time:

…chronological prestige is tenacious (NB: Hazzard means here the right to look back upon an event from a far point in the future): once attained, it can’t be shed; it increases moment by moment, day by day, pressing its honours on you until you are lavishly, overly endowed with them. Until you literally sink under them.

What is more curious about this passage is that the narrator – a woman named Jenny – does something unexpected with it. These sentences sound like a kind of regret, a sad meditation upon memory and old age, how remembered experience will whittle away under its increasingly detailed accumulation. But she immediately tells us that she is looking forward to this, that certain memories she would like to get out from under.

This then sets the frame for her story, which begins with two encounters while she is working as a translator at a NATO base in Naples sometime in the 1960s. Her first encounter is presented as a non-encounter; she is sent to do a translation off-base for a visiting marine biologist, a Scotsman. She does the job and leaves. But because of this unexpected change in her usual schedule, she ends up with free time to go into Naples for the first time, and here occurs the second encounter, this one described immediately in terms that illustrate its importance. It’s an extended scene in which Jenny meets Gioconda, a scene that covers nearly four pages. Something I loved about this scene is that it involves Jenny describing Gioconda (a woman who will immediately become a very close friend) but it reveals so much more about Jenny.

The novel then goes about its duty of taking the reader through Gioconda and Jenny’s friendship, Jenny’s relationship with the Scotsman, which is wonderfully peculiar and sad, as well as Jenny’s relationship as a third-wheel with Gioconda and her lover, Gianni, which is somehow more ordinary at first but then becomes a central element of the bigger questions the novel raises.

Jenny’s time in Naples is situated beneath an unusual emotional umbrella. She has gone there to escape an unrequited love story – that doesn’t sound unusual, I know. But the person she was in love with (whom I won’t tell you) is what makes it so unique, and so touching.

And the book is about nothing more than this. Jenny and Gioconda, Gioconda and Gianni, Jenny and the Scotsman, and so on and so forth. But it manages—in very few pages—to reveal these four people in great depth, to look at them through personally historical but also culturally historical lenses, to make subtle (but uncommon) pronouncements on human feeling and behavior. For nearly a third of the book their meetings and conversations and comings and goings proceed without much narrative intervention, until almost the point that we forget that Jenny is telling the story from some point in the future, and that her perspective is more melancholy than anything else.

But then we reach the end and the timeline gets jumbled. This jumbling is purposeful (and was hinted at in those first paragraphs on the distance between memories and how it influences understanding). The last twenty or so pages of the novel require a very slow, a very careful reading. Done this way, the experience of what Hazzard is offering stretches long and lovely. Layers of meaning unfold, references back to earlier statements and questions, new insights into several of the characters, careful reflections on memory and friendship.

This is one of those books that sneaks up on you if you let it. I’ve read Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus, and enjoyed it (and it lingers in my memory with a similar tone to The Bay of Noon – a little bit haunting with sharp, incisive passages peppered throughout), but it has been some years now and I feel like I should go back and re-read to see what else it may offer.