Decadence literally refers to something that is falling away. But the word is rarely used literally. Decadence usually means excess: the giddy hedonism of Weimar Berlin, a fizzy cocktail of flappers, jazz, and sexual perversion—not only alive, but dancing on the edge of hysteria. The excesses of the 1920s followed the slaughter of a generation in World War I. It was as if the world, from Berlin to New York, had to engage in frenzied living to forget the stench of death.
There was hedonism after World War II as well, in Japan as much as in Europe and the United States. What Japanese remember of the second postwar time, through the movies as well as through real memories, is not just the desperate poverty of a devastated country, the need to sell the family heirlooms in exchange for a little food, but Glenn Miller, silk stockings, striptease, “decadent” writers, and brightly dressed whores. It was the same in many countries liberated from the Third Reich; the arrival of Allied troops produced a dizzying baby boom. This too contained much life, even some hope, but of a bittersweet kind.
However, just as many young people in the 1960s felt left out of the drug-fueled orgy that was supposed to be taking place around them yet had somehow failed to reach their neighborhood, most people were left untouched by postwar hedonism. They were too hungry, embittered, disillusioned, anxious, or just too damned tired to be in a party mood. However horrible the war had been, the end for many came as a deadly anticlimax, when old lives were too broken to be resumed. And for some the thrills of war could never be matched by the boredom of peace. This is the postwar world described so beautifully in Shirley Hazzard’s latest novel, The Great Fire.
The story begins with a lurching train ride through the rain-soaked ruins of Tokyo. The charred remains of a great city give off the “spectral odour of cinders.” Aldred Leith, a British officer in his early thirties, is in Japan to write about the wartime devastation, specifically in Hiroshima. He is a professional chronicler of destruction. Before arriving in Japan, Leith has spent two years traveling in China to survey the wreckage—anything from the ruined cities to the remains of British pilots who crashed on their way from Burma. Leith is a literary man with one theme, “loss and disruption.” Literature runs in his family. His father, Oliver, is a cold and distant man who writes successful novels about passionate love.
The only party Leith encounters on his arrival in Japan is a dismal affair in an army hospital, where drunken Australian doctors, nurses, and patients (“surprised by peace”) clap and dance around a gramophone to songs like this:
A friend of mine in a B-29
Dropped another load for luck.
As he flew away he was heard to say,
A hubba-hubba-hubba, Yuk! yuk!
And while they dance, they are served tinned food by the silent Japanese who are at the beck and call of the loud martinets whom military victory has transformed from provincial nobodies to lords over a conquered people. The lords of this particular outfit are a ghastly Australian brigadier named Barry Driscoll and his equally unattractive wife, Melba. The Driscolls conform a little too much to a philistine Australian type to be of much interest as characters. They are given to such statements as: “We don’t go in for conversation here: we like plain talk. We Australians are easygoing.” And of course Brigadier Driscoll bawls out the Japanese.
In this postwar purgatory, old civilities are dying or already dead. At the drunken party scene in the hospital, Leith meets Professor Gardiner. He is the son of Anglo-German Orientalists, learned, well-mannered, humorous, the epitome of civilization, but a physical wreck after three years in a Japanese camp, and mentally broken after losing his Japanese wife, who was driven to suicide after being rejected by her own people. They are kindred souls, Leith and Gardiner; one is near death, the other not yet quite living. They discuss the “difficulty of being.” Leith says: “One reason men go on fighting is that it seems to simplify.” Gardiner replies:
You’ve done that, and know better. And are young yet. Experience will reclaim you through the personal, much more will happen for you. After much death, living may come as a surprise.
The world surveyed by Leith is one not only of destroyed places but of destroyed people. The officer who has commissioned his trip to China is an elegant man, surrounded by books and fine pictures, whose illness will bring him to an early death. Benedict, the son of Brigadier Driscoll, as cultivated as his father is not and thus a disappointment to his parents, is wasting away with a fatal disease. And then there is Leith’s closest friend, an Australian soldier named Peter Exley, languishing in Hong Kong, another veteran of the war with nowhere to go.
Shirley Hazzard has a remarkable gift for evoking atmosphere and places, as in her descriptions of postwar Hong Kong, rank with decay, grimy and sticky, the July air “a blanket, summer weight.” Exley lives in his small room, shared with another Australian soldier:
Gloom without coolness. The mirror, unreflecting, was like the draped pelt of some desiccated leopard. There was a century here of obscure imperial dejection: a room of listless fevers. Of cafard, ennui, and other French diseases. The encrusted underside of glory.
Equally acute are the descriptions of the people Exley encounters: the Eurasians, desperate to oblige the “unmixed races,” European or Asian, who treat them with disdain; the laughing, bouncing, big-boned English girls forever somewhere in Middlesex. None of these women tempts Exley out of his torpor. During his sleepless nights, in Hazzard’s phrase, he has to fight alone the war that he cannot survive.
Leith does survive in the end, redeemed by love. That is the heart of Hazzard’s story, but there is a subplot, which can be summarized as the great escape from the Antipodes. The war is part of an escape attempt for Peter Exley. He has grown up in suburban Australia, the son of a bluff lawyer, who expects him to follow in his profession. Exley, like many other gifted Australians of his generation, feels trapped on the wrong side of the world, in a place where “a panic-stricken ribaldry” is “passed off as virility, authenticity.” Exley is interested in art, and pines for “Europe, remote as Paradise but more convincing.”
Hazzard, driven perhaps by her own childhood memories, expresses a disgust that is perhaps less common now that the Antipodes seem less far away. Peter, she writes, had been
raised on the Australian myths of desecration—on tales of fabulous vomiting into glove compartments or punch bowls, of silence ruptured by obscene sound: the legends of forlorn men avenging themselves on an empty continent, which, in its vast removal, did not hear or judge them.
Something like this, one can only assume, is what drove Robert Hughes, Clive James, Germaine Greer, and many others to London and New York. The great escape is to bask in “the lavish hospitality of art.” For, as Peter Exley’s father says:
We don’t go in for that in Australia, you’d have to leave the country. Break your mother’s heart. I’m counting on you to do Law and join the firm. You can keep the art up, on the side.
So Peter goes to Europe, to Italy, where he learns to have a better time thanks to his friendship with a fat expatriate Englishman, “veteran of war and wives.” When war looms, Peter, instead of going back to Australia, where the law firm waits, decides to join up. It “simplified” things, or so he hopes. But of course it does not, and after the war, in Hong Kong, he still feels trapped, unable to abide the idea of going back to the stultifying “sameness” of Australia, yet too debilitated to take up a new life. And so he languishes, and is struck by the disease that temporarily paralyzes his legs. What redeems him in the end is his impulse to save the life of a stranger. The problems of his own life yet unresolved, he has at last acted to defy living death.
Even minor characters like Leith’s chauffeur in Japan, an Australian named Talbot, have trouble picking up the pieces after the war. A friendly Aussie, a typical good bloke (again, perhaps a little too typical), Talbot knows enough to realize that going back home is a life sentence to dull mediocrity, yet he lacks the will, or the talent, or the imagination, to choose an alternative. But he admires, even hero-worships, Leith, whose gifts fill him with a kind of vicarious pride: “Somebody had to transcend sameness.”
Leith is English, so at least he has been born within easy reach of France and Italy, where, in Hazzard’s tale at least, the hospitality of art is lavish. But pre-war England is depicted as a cold place where emotions are stifled by pinched gentility, and writers, like Leith’s father, cannot easily express their feelings in real life. So Leith, too, like Peter Exley, has had to make his pre-war pilgrimage to Italy to find love (for two beautiful Italian sisters) and art. When Leith returns to England after the war, he finds a country that is not only cold, but in ruins.
In the novel’s English scenes, one can almost smell the grime and soot in London’s devastated streets, or the suffocating air in the dining room of a hotel in Piccadilly, where desiccated chops are served, “elaborately frilled,” followed by a “solitary water ice” on a silver plate, “so delicately insubstantial, so smoothly chastely pink, so exactly flush with its silver rim, that [Leith] recalled it for years as an emblem of re-entry.” This is a world of hushed voices and tinkling teaspoons and sensible clothes, where a mere glance at one’s fellow diners was “taken, here and there, as molestation.”
The woman whose love redeems Leith waits for him at the other side of the world, in New Zealand. She is Helen, Benedict’s seventeen-year-old sister, daughter of the ghastly Brigadier Barry Driscoll and his wife. When Leith first meets Helen and Benedict in their Japanese quarters near Hiroshima, they are like a two-person oasis of culture and civility in the desert of philistinism. They read books, can quote from Gibbon, and discuss Erasmus, and they are intensely curious about the world, the whole world. They have escaped from the Antipodes through books. Yet their oasis is a somewhat suffocating place: ill brother and pallid sister, two budding flowers in a temporary hothouse.
Leith falls in love with Helen, but Helen has not yet lived as an adult. She has never been kissed by a man, and Leith is too restrained, too English perhaps, to be the first. Her first kiss comes from a more straightforward American officer, named Tad, who “held her by the shoulders, as if to shake her, wake her.” It is her first step outside the world of books, her first taste of reality,
a brute fact, to which loving-kindness was simply, or not even, a preliminary. There had been a screen between her and this. Reality was a wet thick thing alive in her mouth. It seemed to her something that dogs might do.
Later, Tad gives her his green coat, the color of new life, of spring. All this is finely described, with immense tact. My only dissatisfaction is that, again, the characters, Tad as much as the dreadful Driscolls, conform too closely to types. In Helen’s account of her attempt to escape loveless mediocrity, it is perhaps all too typical that an American should administer the first kiss; he has the get-up-and-go that we expect of the American New World (though not the Australian).
But Helen remains the maiden waiting to be kissed by her prince. That is presumably why Leith, the reticent Englishman, is interested in this ethereal young girl for whom experience is yet to begin. It is her promise of a new life that pulls him from the embers of his old one. Helen’s parents naturally resist such a match. Not only is Leith not an Aussie, but he has a liking for art and books and conversation.
And so, while Leith is in England, sorting out his family affairs in dank London and damp Norfolk, Helen is stuck in New Zealand, pining to be released.
On the Sunday, Helen set out in small rain, wearing a mackintosh and stout shoes that could draw no glance. Devoid of glances, suburban streets rose and fell over Jurassic slopes. No car or person passed. There was the indoor bark of a bored dog and a shake of drops from low cold branches.
Beautifully observed, and deeply depressing. But how could it be otherwise? Places play their assigned roles in this love story, just as the people do. New Zealand, like Australia, is no more than a place to get out of, torpor its only key. And Helen does finally get out. When Benedict dies at a clinic in California, Helen stays behind while her parents go off to bury him. This is the moment of her rescue from the Antipodean sameness. Leith flies to New Zealand to claim her. They talk of going to Aix-en-Provence, and at last they “lie down” together. Love has triumphed.
For this he had travelled to the airy, empty harbour where, like a legend, she lay in a mildewed swing-seat, waiting…. Ten thousand miles had been retraced, down to the final fleshly inch where he could wake and touch her, and say her name.
And yet Helen remains so elusive, so symbolic of deep longings, so much a vision of hope rather than a woman of flesh and blood, that one wonders if the love that promised redemption is not an illusion. This may not have been the author’s intention, but one of the powers of fiction is that its creatures do not always conform entirely to their maker’s will.
January 15, 2004