2003 National Book Award Winner: Fiction
The Great Fire
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
About the Book
Ravaged by the closing events of World War II, Japan in this novel is an ancient society struggling to cope with the brutal implications of defeat in modern warfare. Aldred Leith, military hero and son of a famous novelist, has come to Eastern Asia to observe firsthand the subject matter of a book he intends to write. There he meets Helen, the teenaged daughter of a local Australian commander, and becomes captivated by her ability to live vicariously through literature. Despite their differences in age, the two gradually are drawn to one another. Both must heal from the recent global horrors before regaining the capacity to love.
About the Author
The Great Fire is Shirley Hazzard'sfirst published work of fiction in more than 20 years. Born in Australia, Ms. Hazzard traveled the world during her early years, a result of her parents' diplomatic postings. In 1947, at the age of 16, she was engaged by British intelligence to monitor the civil war in China. In 1963, she married the writer Francis Steegmuller, who died in 1994. She has written three other novels, two of which were National Book Award Finalists: The Bay of Noon (1971) and The Transit of Venus (1981). She is also the author of two collections of short stories, and several works of nonfiction including the memoir Greene on Capri. She now lives in New York, making frequent travels to Italy.
The Bay of Noon
Countenance of Truth: The United Nations and the Waldheim Case
Defeat of an Ideal: A Study of the Self Destruction of the United Nations
Greene on Capri: A Memoir
The Transit of Venus
The following is an excerpt from the book The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard
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
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?"
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.
Copyright © 2003 Shirley Hazzard