THE GREAT FIRE, by Shirley Hazzard. Virago Press, 2003, 320 pp., £15.99 (cloth).

As much as we may enjoy the pot-boilers and penny-dreadfuls we pick up to keep us company on the beach or on the bus, the pleasures they afford always pale when placed next to the real thing: literature. Literature, we are reminded upon encountering a novel such as Shirley Hazzard’s “The Great Fire,” affects us in ways that the beach-reads — as much fun as they are — never can. Take, for example, the first paragraph of Hazzard’s book: “Now they were starting. Finality ran though 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.”

Hazzard arranges the words and images in a manner striking enough to compel us to notice this mundane moment — a train about to leave the platform — and we do so with eyes entirely fresh. In a lesser novel this station scene would be, if not excluded altogether, rushed through on the way to more important things.

Hazzard’s plot offering is also far from impoverished. Her story — a 32-year-old Englishman, a decorated veteran, goes to Japan in 1947, falls in love with a 16-year-old girl and surmounts various difficulties to be with her — works as a frame over which she, with her glorious prose, weaves a tapestry of ideas, places and people. And this skillfully woven tapestry is compelling enough to keep us turning pages as feverishly as we would with a plot-driven novel. We do so, however, not so much because we are eager to know what will happen next, but rather because we are eager to view the next vista that Hazzard’s art will reveal.

Hazzard’s protagonist, Aldred Leith, is one of several characters in this novel for whom the war had been a kind of solution. As the war has ended, Leith writes to a friend, “Peace forces us to invent new selves.” It is not only selves that must be invented but also the societies in which these selves will live.

Hazzard’s view of the social changes born from the second world war is not sanguine. Neither, however, is it entirely bleak. Aldred is thrust into a microcosm of the new postwar world in the hills above Kure, a port near Hiroshima. He is billeted with the ranking officer in the area, Brigadier Barry Driscoll and his wife, Melba.

Barry announces to those assembled for lunch on Aldred’s first day there that he “preferred dogs to cats any day, read real books rather than novels, and thought opera was a joke.” “The Driscolls,” Aldred reflects after enduring Barry’s pronouncements, “were disquieting as a symptom of new power: that Melba and Barry should be in the ascendant was not what one hoped from peace.”

Barry and Melba are not, however, the whole picture. Their children, Benedict and Helen, have managed — thanks to parental neglect and a sensitive and educated tutor — to emerge as remarkable young people, the sort one would like to see as ascendant and as “a symptom of new power.” It is Helen, of course, with whom Aldred falls in love. Bookishness, in Hazzard, always goes hand in hand with moral fiber, and this is certainly true of Benedict and Helen. At ages 20 and 16, respectively, they read to each other favorite passages from Edward Gibbon and Thomas Carlyle. Their emotional maturity is no less advanced than their literary sophistication. Thus they provide hope that their rising generation will, in time, supplant that of their boorish parents. This hope is complicated, though, by the fact that Benedict is wasting away, victim of a rare disease. The remaining optimism for the future, therefore, resides in Helen and in Aldred, hope reborn in him through his love for her.

To summarize Hazzard’s novel this way is, of course, to do it an injustice. There is more to the plot: The life of Peter Exley, a friend of Aldred’s based in Hong Kong, seems almost a mirror image of Aldred’s — as Aldred is being returned to life Peter is stricken with polio and attempts suicide.

Plot, however, in a novel as rich as this one is the least of the pleasures on offer. There are memorable turns of phrase, as when Peter contemplates making a joyless marriage: “He and Rita were dealing not in passion or dispassion but with a proposal of shared resignation.” There is wisdom: “Hardship is never quite alien.” There is humor: “This man has pat — and interesting preserves. Such small pleasures must diffuse themselves by stealth at Wellington. The Scots’ heritage is strong: mortification of flesh and spirit.”

All of this is woven into a seamless whole, “the lavish hospitality of art.” More than 20 years have elapsed since Hazzard’s last novel appeared. One hopes she won’t make us wait another two decades before welcoming us once again into that lavish hospitality.

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