Please note: This piece was originally published by the defunct website Chicklit and I am republishing it here in honor of Shirley Hazzard who died yesterday, December 13, 2016. I remain a fan.
“We have mysterious inclinations. We have our own intuitions, our individuality toward what we want to read, and we developed that from childhood. We don’t know why. Nobody can explain it to us.”
From Shirley Hazzard’s acceptance speech at the National Book Awards, November, 2003
Shirley Hazzard was born in Sydney, Australia, in 1931, the daughter of expatriates (a Scotswoman and a Welshman). Although her family suffered no exceptional financial hardship enduring first the Great Depression and then war, she was constantly aware of the deprivation around her, particularly that of veterans of the first world war. Her own deprivation was cultural; she heard little music and saw almost no visual art. Australia was still considered a colonial backwater. Books, she has said in interviews, were her lifeline. After World War II, when Hazzard was 16, her family moved to Hong Kong, where her father worked as a trade commissioner and Hazzard worked in the office of a branch of Special Operations. There were later moves, to New Zealand and then, for Hazzard alone, to Italy, where she worked as a translator for the United Nations. She also worked for the United Nations in New York before she quit, in the mid-60s, to devote herself to writing.
And from these experiences came are her themes: the devastation of war. The political infighting that all but cripples the social institutions set up for the public good. The loss of the concept of nation. The loss of the concept of home. The belief that home can be found in another person, or, failing that (and it always fails), in books and in poetry. Her characters are strangers in a strange land — exiles, orphans, refugees. They fall in love at first sight, forever, often with only fragments of one another (“Impressions came and went in them, like quick tides.”) Romantic love is a chronic fever from which they never recover. (“He had been so long creating this moment that it could not be new to either of them.”) Yet they belong together. They need each other. Most of all, they need to belong, and never will.
In one of the stories in the collection called “People in Glass Houses”, a satire of the United Nations, Hazzard writes:
“The nature . . . of the Organization such as to attract people of character; having attracted them, it found it could not afford them, for survival lay, like that of all organizations, in the subordination of individual gifts to general procedures. No new country, no new language or way of life, no marriage or involvement of war could have so effectively altered and unified the way in which these people presented themselves to the world.”
Hazzard’s characters are exceptions to this “subordination of individual gifts to general procedures. She writes about the war hero who sets himself the task of recording “the consequences of war within an ancient and vanishing society”, the idealistic overeducated secretary who means to rebuild the world and ends up serving tea, the working-class private scorned for his “over”-sensitivity — who sustain themselves with pocket editions of Dickens and Shakespeare. Their exceptionality invites scorn. (“‘You have enough books for now,’” a character tells another, knowing, “none better, the enemy when she saw it.”) Yet they all struggle for nourishment. Their struggle is their greatest strength, and their greatest hardship.
In The Bay of Noon, English-born Jenny (exiled to South Africa for the duration of the war) arrives in post-war Italy to work with one of the U.N.-type agencies that usually employ (and inevitably disillusion) Hazzard’s heroines. Jenny is no Henry James-type innocent inviting seduction from jaded continentals; although she does lack sophistication, she is not inexperienced. She has been fractured by her experience, displaced during the war, continuously separated from her family and home.
“Whenever the matter came up, people expressed anguish over that uprooting of mine. Yet — although the sufferings of children are the worst, being inextinguishable — children themselves seldom have a proper sense of their own tragedy, discounting and keeping hidden the true horrors of their short lives, humbling imagining real calamity to be some prestigious drama of the grown-up world. . . . I saw myself . . . insignificant in the convulsions of war, and believed I had no cause for complaint in a world where soldiers died and cities were devastated. It is only in retrospect I know myself to have been among the victims of war . . .”
What Jenny finds in Naples is the sense of community she has always lacked. She befriends Gioconda, who has written a popular, tragic, autobiographical novel, and Gianni, her lover, who directed the film made of it. Gioconda and Gianni pay her an attention she has never known, praising her, patronizing her, but most gratifyingly, drawing her into their bruising, but not fatal, drama.
The Transit of Venus rests lightly on a Jane Austen frame — close, orphaned, penniless sisters, the sweet blonde Grace and the aloof, clever Caro, and an older, sighing, put-upon half-sister who has cared for them throughout the war. The beauty is immediately snatched up as a bride, though not without attracting the resentment of her future in-laws and their circle. The sisters are thought to lack appreciation for the favor that is being done for them. Even Grace’s future husband, courting her at the sisters’ London apartment, finds “these women uncommonly self-possessed for their situation. They seemed scarcely conscious of being Australians in a furnished flat. He would have liked them to be more impressed by his having come, and instead caught himself living up to what he thought might be their standards and hoping they would not guess the effort incurred.”
Caro is studying for a civil service examination, which Grace’s fiancé believes “she would never pass . . . It had only recently been opened to women and he had never heard of a woman passing it.”
But Caro surpasses all the other entrants, although it still means nothing, the whole process is “a way of having people with languages” in the organization “without giving them career service.” In a real Jane Austen novel, a character observes, “man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal,” but The Transit of Venus demonstrates that choice does no one any favors. Caro rejects ardent, scholarly Ted Tice – the nice guy – who pleads, “`I’ve no charm at the best of times, and nothing is less charming than unwanted love. But as we’re parting soon I must say that I hope you’ll think of me and let me write to you. And eventually let me love you.’”
And write he does, letters which he revises and struggles over, letters which he lives for (this will be echoed in Hazzard’s next novel, The Great Fire.) But Caro falls in love with a smug son of privilege — the cad — who does not annoy her by idolizing her but instead regards seducing her as an opportunity to “violate . . . her pride or her integrity.”
Eventually, Caro marries a decent man, and Ted Tice marries a good woman, but The Transit of Venus follows the characters through thirty years of their choices, misgivings, and rewards, separations and reunions, and even does Grace the favor of revisiting her late in the marriage, and dispelling the fiction that the placid beauty lives happily ever after in a conventional marriage, without reflection or regrets of her own.
The Great Fire takes place in 1947, in occupied Japan and involves characters who take part in the reconstruction of the country after the “great fire” that was Hiroshima, although the “great fire” describes many other consuming forces, including the passion of love. Peter Exley, whose fate will be sealed by an impulsive act of humanity, is there to administer the trials of war criminals. Major Aldred Leith arrives at a small settlement near Hiroshima, run by an awful pair of Australians for whom post-war reconstruction is a career stepping-stone, while Leith, the son of a famous novelist, is there to write the story of the conquered, having spent the two years since the end of the war walking across China. “He’d grown up in China and Indochina, and knew that these places were evaporating, transforming. The last days of their centuries should be witnessed and recounted by someone who was not a spy, not a sociologist, beholden to no one.”
Leith is indeed beholden to no one, distanced from his father, divorced from his wartime bride, losing hold even of the correspondence which seems to be his lifeblood. But the awful Australians have two children — a dying son, Benedict and a radiant daughter, Helen and the three bond instantly through their love of languages and books.
Helen and Leith fall in love, of course, but do not seem to be able to articulate it until Leith travels to Hong Kong to visit his friend Exley. For the first time in years, he receives letters from “home” in the form of Ben and Helen and suffers the suspense of posting his reply: “he thought that by tomorrow Helen might have his letter.” Upon his return, they come together, Leith aged thirty-three, Helen seventeen (and, some critics have complained, impossibly precocious), the gossip about them more daring than their actual behavior.
[Leith] went to his own room and to his table – to those papers where the ruined continents and cultures and existences that had consumed his mind and body for years had given place to her story and his. He could not consider this a reduction – the one theme having embroiled the century and the world, and the other recasting his single fleeting miraculous life. Having expected, repeatedly, to die from the great fires into which his times had pitched him, he had recovered a great desire to live completely; by which he meant, with her.
Shirley Hazzard writes like a dream, by which I do not mean merely that her writing is beautiful or precise, but also that it evokes the same intense, fleeting, mysterious emotions as a dream. She does not write page turners. You don’t want to turn her pages so much as dwell on them. A character describes her mother’s death: “They wrote to me ‘Her heart gave out’ — her heart that had, I suppose, always been giving out, to everybody, with no revitalizing intake of grievance or self-pity. . . . ” Hazzard writes with a poet’s economy and clarity and casually inserts this kind of piercing observation that will cause you to look up from the book, close it on your thumb to keep your place, and fall into a reverie.
In this essay, I have focused on the books of Hazzard’s that are most likely to be found in a bookstore. Many are out of print.
Cliffs of Fall and Other Stories (1963)
The Evening of the Holiday (1966)
People in Glass Houses (1967)
The Bay of Noon (1970)
The Transit of Venus (1981), winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award
The Great Fire (2003), winner of the National Book Award for Fiction
Defeat of an Ideal: A Study of the Self-Destruction of the United Nations (1973)
Countenance of Truth: The United Nations and the Waldheim Case (1990)
Greene on Capri (2000)