LOST MEN BOOKER PRIZE
Looking back at the Lost Booker: The Bay on Noon by Shirley HazzardIt's hard to know why The Bay of Noon found its way on to the shortlist. She may have written some great books, but this isn't one of them
Friday 23 April 2010
It's always hard to prove that judges of a literary competition have picked a book because of the reputation of its author rather than its intrinsic worth – but easy to suspect. If I mention Ian McEwan and Amsterdam, I'm sure you'll know what I mean.
It's hard to avoid such speculation with regard to the inclusion of The Bay Of Noon on the Lost Booker shortlist too. Following on from The Transit of Venus and The Great Fire (both winners of several awards, if not the Booker itself), Shirley Hazzard is a writer many take very seriously indeed ("one of the greatest working in English today," according to a quote from Michael Cunningham on the cover of my copy of The Bay Of Noon). And that's the only reason I can imagine a book as inconsequential as this one could have ended up on the shortlist when far better novels haven't.
Set in Naples not long after the end of the second world war, the novel describes the friendship and tangled loves of an Englishwoman called Jenny and two native Neapolitans Gioconda and Gianni. Jenny has been brought to Naples to work in a "big NATO establishment" where she is to do translation and clerical work along with a number of other English girls: "Angelas and Hilarys and Rosemarys who had wanted to get away from Reading or Ruislip or Holland Park… tender, uncherished strokes of pastel."
The trouble is – as Claire Tomalin pointed out in a sharp Observer review back in 1970 – that Jenny is little more than a stroke of pastel herself. Except when she manages to catch jaundice and turn yellow late on in the book, she is singularly colourless. She informs us that she moved to Italy in order to escape an incestuous passion for her brother – but relates it with all the excitement of someone describing a head cold. In Naples meanwhile, she lives vicariously through her friend Giaconda – but we get very little sense of what that means, since Giaconda is herself so thinly sketched out. She has long hair. She lives in an interesting house in a messy bit of Naples. She once wrote a book. Her dad was a lefty. She stays with Gianni even though he's a bully, a womaniser and a bit of a bore. I couldn't tell you much more as there are so few real insights into her personality. Like every other person in the book, you get the impression that if you poked through her papier maché exterior, you'd get nothing but air. Which might be forgivable if she did anything of interest, but aside from a few good bits of back-story about the war there's little more in here than navel gazing and singularly sexless bed-hopping.
There is one character, at least, that does have real life – the city of Naples. The passion that is so lacking in the love stories shines through when Hazzard describes the heat, the warrens of streets, the poverty, the beauty and the strikes among the refuse collectors (that appear to have been as much a problem 60 years ago as they are today). So too does the author's talent. She can trot out nice lines about the long line of time running through this ancient city: "The question 'What is it?' took on, here, an aspect of impertinence; one might only learn what it had successively been." And even better ones about its peculiar charms: "The tourist who comes and sees this shambles, has his camera swiped, is swindled by the taxi drivers and persecuted by old codgers flogging cameos, how can he know all that is just, so to speak, a show of civilities? – the surface pleasantries of a reality which is infinitely worse, unanswerably better?"
But clever as such descriptions are, and although the Naples nostalgia may be heady, they hardly make for a substantial novel. This remains a book that is only really of interest to those keen to track Hazzard's development as a writer. It doesn't deserve to win.