Review: Robert Pogue Harrisonon Shirley Hazzard

‘An Intimacy with Truth’

The only time I heard Shirley Hazzard use the word ‘hate’ during the thirteen years I knew her was one night in Rome when I walked her back to the Hassler Hotel after a dinner at Otello on Via della Croce. (For half a century, both with and without her husband Francis Steegmuller, she stayed in the same room at the Hassler Hotel whenever she was in Rome, and only occasionally did she and I ever dine at a restaurant other than Otello when we got together in Rome). I mentioned something about a place that had changed. She stopped in her tracks, put her hand on my arm, and declared: ‘I hate change.’

Given how many tumultuous and destructive transformations the world underwent during her lifetime, one can understand Hazzard’s aversion to change. That aversion also accounts for her attachment to the city of Naples, about which she wrote so eloquently and where she owned a home. What she prized above all about Naples was its unaltered landscape. As she once remarked to me, were Virgil to sail into its bay today, he would recognize all the lineaments of his adoptive city.

During her lifetime Shirley Hazzard published four novels, two collections of short stories, and six non-fiction books. One of the novels – The Transit of Venus (1980) – is a masterpiece that has earned her the status of a major writer rather than merely a distinguished one. The enduring devotion Hazzard has inspired in her readers – a devotion that comes through in the many high-profile reviews that the recently published Collected Stories elicited in the United States and England – is due mostly to the lasting impression this novel made on us. As the centre of Hazzard’s corpus, The Transit of Venus now shapes our perception of the books that preceded and followed it.

Collected Stories, edited by Brigitta Olubas, is a case in point. All but three of the stories first appeared in the New Yorker between 1961 and 1974, and in retrospect they show us that Hazzard was born from the forehead of Zeus fully formed. She was in full possession of her craft from the very start; The Transit of Venus amounts to a general mobilisation of literary resources that were already present, but not yet fully evident, in the earlier stories. We find here Hazzard’s unique stylistic signature – one that combines subtle narrative intrigue with probing psychological insight in terse yet complex prose. We find also the relentless labour of description that qualifies her fiction as art, in Joseph Conrad’s lofty understanding of the term. ‘A work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line,’ wrote Conrad, and should ‘attempt to find in the facts of life what of each is fundamental, what is enduring and essential – their one illuminating and convincing quality – the very truth of their existence.’ Shirley Hazzard concerned herself with very different ‘facts of life’ than Conrad, yet this effort to get to their truth, and to justify her art word for word and sentence by sentence, gives her a special literary kinship with the author of Victory (her favorite Conrad novel).

In a 1982 essay, ‘The Making of a Writer: We Need Silence To Find Out What we Think’, Hazzard wrote: ‘Through art, we can respond ideally to truth as we cannot in life’. She went on to declare that only through submission – ‘a submission akin to that of generosity or love’ – can art achieve ‘an intimacy with truth’ in the quiet depths of the soul. ‘The attempt to touch truth through a work of the imagination requires an inner centre of gravity and solitude.’ That inner centre is the very locus of truth, or at least the kind of truth she aspired to in her literary work, and to reach it we need to withdraw from the din and tumult of the world. In her words: ‘We all need silence – both external and interior – to find out what we truly think’.

This commitment to truth lies behind Hazzard’s professed faith in the revelatory power of le mot juste:

There is at least one immense truth which we can still adhere to and make central to our lives – responsibility to the accurate word. It is through literature that the word has been preserved and nourished, and it is in literature that we find the candor and refreshment of truth.

Le mot juste can take many forms: a decisive repartee by a character; the cadence of a sentence; a convergence of sound and sense; a striking image or comparison. Here is an example from the story ‘A Place in the Country’:

She had once been told that the earth, had it been slightly deflected on its axis, would have had no winter; and the possibility of a life shared with Clem appeared to her on the same scale of enormity and remote conjecture.

The disjunction between its two terms gives the comparison its startling, revelatory accuracy. By the time one has traced and retraced the unfolding of its logic, one has entered into the ‘immense and complex gulf’ that comes between these two characters.

Where similes and metaphors are sparse in the earlier stories, The Transit of Venus unleashes a great many of them. Here is a typical passage, where the accurate word comes at us line by line and culminates in a remarkable comparison:

Caroline Bell took out a dark dress bought abroad which alone of her clothes created the effect that might in some future time or very soon be entirely hers. She hung the dress up in her room where she could see it like bunting for a festival. She had scarcely worn it and liked to think how she had bought it with a pile of pastel colored banknotes on her last morning in France. Dora had subsequently gone to pieces over the price. When the time came she took the dress down from its hook, and it slipped into her arms like a victim.

The first sentence has a perfect cadence – perfect in the etymological sense of complete. The last sentence gives a future perfect closure to the ‘future time’ mentioned in the first. The simile ‘like a victim’ casts a shadow of dread or tragedy over the sequence of events in which this dress will play its part. The displacement of the word ‘victim’ from its proper context to one in which it doesn’t naturally belong renders the word’s semantic associations richly indeterminate. For all the specificity of the case in question, this passage conveys a truth about our human being-in-time as ensouled individuals for whom things such as pastel colored banknotes or a dark dress can become tokens or symbols of destiny.

Hazzard’s evaluation of Patrick White’s The Eye of the Storm applies to her own fiction as well:

The matter in hand here is no less than existence: our brief incarnation in a human experience, our efforts to make a coherence of, or retreat from, the improbable combinations of flesh, feeling, vanity, virtue, and reason laid upon us like preposterous puzzles.

The best novelists are those whose stories render such puzzles universal in their particularity. Every one of Shirley Hazzard’s Collected Stories has an incongruity at its core that reaches well beyond the characters in and through whom it unfolds its merciless logic. In the stories from Cliffs of Fall, the incongruities are mostly sentimental and existential; in those from People in Glass Houses, they are mostly institutional.

Since life’s ‘preposterous puzzles’ have no solutions, at least not in her fiction, the one demand Hazzard makes of her characters is that they reckon with them without subterfuge or self-deception. She shuns characters who lack the necessary maturity. Hazzard’s fiction has always been for adults, for it is upon adults, not children, that life lays ‘the improbable combinations of flesh, feeling, vanity, virtue, and reason.’

Collected Stories includes one of the earliest stories Hazzard ever sent out for publication. ‘Woollahra Road,’ submitted to and accepted by the New Yorker in 1961, puts a four-year-old Australian girl at its centre, yet the story is not about the child but the silent sorrows of her mother and of Australia during the Great Depression. From early on, Shirley Hazzard was most at home among what one of the stories in People in Glass Houses calls ‘the flowers of sorrow.’ Many readers, me among them, find that the weakest parts of Hazzard’s last novel, The Great Fire, are those that deal with Helen Driscoll, a young romantic protagonist who never attains the emotional and intellectual maturity of most of Hazzard’s female characters, and one of the few who receives from the author a happy ending of sorts.

Given her heightened awareness of how agitated and unnerving is our brief incarnation on earth under the best of circumstances, Hazzard never ceased deploring, in her fiction and essays, the many unnecessary or avoidable ways in which the twentieth century rendered life all the more convulsive and tumultuous. In addition to the human calamities of that century, she lamented the dystopian forces that were destroying the cohesion and continuity of the intergenerational world. She knew exactly what Hannah Arendt meant when she wrote: ‘The world becomes inhuman, inhospitable to human needs – which are the needs of mortals – when it is violently wrenched into a movement in which there is no longer any sort of permanence.’ With all its existential turmoil, ‘our brief incarnation in a human experience’ is tolerable only within a context of permanence and stability.

That context has traditionally been provided by the natural world on the one hand, and the historical world on the other. In our day and age, we can no longer assume the permanence of either our natural or historical settings, and this perhaps accounts for the increasing difficulty Hazzard experienced when it came to writing fiction after The Transit of Venus. She could not recognise or relate to, let alone insert her fiction into, the present setting. The only novel she published after Transit goes back in time to the immediate postwar period, before the decades in which Transit takes place.

If a writer can be judged by the people who edit them, it would be hard to do better than Shirley Hazzard has done since she passed away eight years ago. Brigitta Olubas has taken charge of Shirley Hazzard’s legacy, editing several splendid volumes, including the collection of essays We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think (2016) and Shirley Hazzard: New Critical Essays (2014). Olubas has also authored the outstanding monograph Shirley Hazzard: Literary Expatriate and Cosmopolitan Humanist (2012) and her biography of Hazzard will be published shortly.

And then there is Michelle de Kretser, who in 2019 published On Shirley Hazzard, a short, exquisite book in which she pays tribute to a predecessor she never met or corresponded with, but whom she loved dearly enough that, upon learning of her death in 2016, she wept for days on end.

I was a reader weeping because there would be no more books; I was a writer weeping because I could never write to Hazzard, telling her what her work meant to me and thanking her for it.

The word ‘never’ here is misleading, for On Shirley Hazzard is in many ways an epistle from Michelle de Kretser to Hazzard. Literature is nothing if not an ongoing conversation between the living and the dead. Hazzard declared as much when she wrote that literature is ‘an endless access to revelatory states of mind, a vast extension of living experience and a way of communing with the dead’.

On Shirley Hazzard is too free, too condensed, too personal, and too vitalised to have been written by a professional literary critic. ‘Hazzard was the first Australian writer I read who looked outward, away from Australia,’ writes de Kretser. Her work ‘fell like rain, greening my vision of Australian literature as a stony country where I would never feel at home. Splendour had entered the scene.’ Hazzard has not always been popular in Australian literary circles and I found de Kretser’s reflections on her critical standing fascinating:

Down the years, whenever I mentioned my admiration of Hazzard, there has always been someone – no, let me be accurate: there has always been an older man who wields intellectual and cultural power – to inform me that I’m quite wrong.

These older men would invariably bring up Shirley Hazzard’s Boyer Lectures of 1984, published under the title Coming of Age in Australia. De Kretser put off reading those lectures for a long time because she had been assured (by these men) that ‘if I only knew Hazzard’s views on Australia, I would go over at once to Camp Contempt’. When she finally sat down and read them for herself, her admiration for Hazzard, far from curdling, surged. She found in them a sober reflection that neither flattered nor denounced Australia but called on the country to think beyond its defensive nationalism and enlarge its self-understanding.

‘Australia is not an innocent country,’ Hazzard wrote in 1984, when such a statement could still offend.

This nation’s short recorded history is shadowed, into the present day, by the fate of its native peoples, by forms of unyielding prejudice, by a strain of derision and unexamined violence, and by a persistent current of misogyny.

The offense of these lectures, de Kretser claims, was that they ‘called the nation to account: among other things, for a whiney tendency to look on ourselves as beleaguered victims when we are among the luckiest people on earth’. ‘Shamefully I had believed the men,’ she writes in a section called ‘Straya.’

The men were intelligent, credentialed, and articulate. Those are explanations but not excuses. I had failed to abide by the reader’s first principle: read it for yourself.

On Shirley Hazzard goes on to touch on every major aspect of Hazzard’s fiction, her politics, and her faith in the power of the literary word to counter the mendacities and self-deception of our times. I could not agree with de Kretser more when she writes: ‘For all the glorious, worldly detail that ballasts Hazzard’s work, her concern is ultimately with the metaphysical’.

This was true of Hazzard’s conversation as well. Whether she was relating a personal anecdote or talking about a fellow author or commenting on the umbrella pines of Rome, Shirley Hazzard always tended toward the metaphysical, not portentously but poetically. In the end, as I suggested earlier, her commitment was to truth – the ‘unaccountable’ truth that shines in and through the visible world when reflection and perception find that ‘inner centre of privacy and solitude’. She believed this was necessary if one hoped ‘to touch truth’ with the senses, the mind, or the literary imagination.

At the beginning of On Shirley Hazzard, de Kretser frets that she has been ‘entrusted with something large and shimmering and whole, and that in attempting to hand it one, I’m reducing it to shards.’ These shards – be they Hazzard’s sentences, adjectives, images, or responses to reading – are presented to the reader in distilled sections, and each is precious in its own right. When de Kretser writes, ‘Instead of conveying the moonlight, all I’m showing is the glitter of broken glass,’ that is only partly true, for she shows the moonlight as well as the glitter. Or better, the moonlight comes forth in the glitter, the way truth comes forth in a perception that has been cleansed by the writer’s reflective imagination.