Benign Lives

Late last year, I read Shirley Hazzard’s 1980 novel The Transit of Venus for the first time. It moved me to a degree no book ever has. It was more a life event than a reading experience. And so I read it again. And then I read it once more. And then, as a prophylactic against reading it for a fourth time, I read all her other books.

In The Bay of Noon, Hazzard’s novel from a decade earlier, Jenny, a young NATO employee stationed in Naples just after World War II, wanders the city alone. Though cowed by its strange and archaic beauty, she betrays none of her aesthetic excitement. Jenny passes the corner where Degas once lived and catches a “glimpse of the exorbitant, gem-cut façade of a church.” She notes the “flash of red stucco” and the “ornate obelisk,” both intact amid the not-yet-rebuilt ruins. “Had I been accompanied, I might have laughed out loud at the profligacy of imagination expended there,” she thinks to herself, “but solitude, which is held to be a cause of eccentricity, in fact imposes excessive normality, at least in public, and I crossed the piazza with no outward sign of interest and placed myself against the faceted stones of the church.”

The sensation Jenny describes will be familiar to anyone who finds herself often in foreign places for work, alone on trips where pleasure isn’t necessarily the point but is felt in snatches anyway, without anyone to share it with or tell it to. It’s a disconcerting feeling that advances quickly from rapture to loneliness before settling into something like a benign secret with oneself.

Not all secrets are sinister or guilt-inducing or morally corrosive. Many are buoyant and radiant-feeling. Most are neutral. Consciousness itself is made up of these clandestine thoughts, or of feelings that haven’t yet taken the form of thoughts and so remain classified even to us within our own unmonitored minds. It is an article of every faith—and the operating principle of common decency—to move through the world gently, always semi-cognizant and preemptively aware of the fact that anyone you encounter could be grieving or enduring illegible pain. But it’s nice to remember sometimes too that those around us are also of course—maybe just as often—yielding to moments of private and indecipherable joy. I certainly was during those months this past winter, reading and rereading Shirley Hazzard’s books—not that anyone who saw me in cafés or at libraries or on airplanes could have known.

Alice Gregory lives in New York. She is at work on a book about the artist Robert Indiana.