The Eros of Shirley Hazzard
—Shirley Hazzard, The Transit of Venus
Among the literary genres, biography appears to be thriving. Perhaps it satisfies some element of life writing we also get from fiction, adding a dose of gossip and the illusion that we can actually know the truth of other people’s lives. There is always more than one way to tell a story. Some good recent biographies have been thematic or experimental: Katherine Rundell on John Donne, Frances Wilson on D. H. Lawrence, Andrew S. Curran on Diderot, Clare Carlisle on Kierkegaard. We have authoritative doorstoppers from Langdon Hammer on James Merrill to Heather Clark’s numbingly detailed book on Sylvia Plath. And we find a happy medium-sized biography in Mark Eisner’s on Neruda or Ann-Marie Priest’s on the great Australian poet Gwen Harwood. Among the best of these, Brigitta Olubas’ Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life is not overstuffed or particularly arcane in structure, not weighted down with newly discovered scandal, but lucidly and even gracefully organized, guided by a compelling thesis. Olubas believes, and I agree, that Hazzard pursued one erotic object more than all others, poetry, which is inseparable from Eros in its other meanings. “This . . . large belief in romantic and sexual love stands behind all Shirley Hazzard’s writing,” Olubas tells us. “It is aligned with her sense of human connectedness and above all with poetry, which is at heart for her a way of being human.”
Too flinty and realistic to be an aesthete, Hazzard nevertheless pursued a life steeped in aesthetic pleasure, and this shows in her fiction, both in its acute observations and its verbal scrupulousness. Her novels are very nearly poems. One reads the best of them, The Transit of Venus, having to pause on virtually every page to absorb the shock of her sentences. Eros for Hazzard is a power beyond paraphrase, essentially poetic in nature. She believed her life had literally been changed by poetry, just as it was changed by love. Yet she was no dreamer. She had a strong introduction to reality, even political reality, and the aftermath of war. Love and beauty were important precisely because so much of life was lived without them. She was equipped by her life to offer a global vision, international in scope, suspicious of national loyalties, even as it focused at times on the smallest domestic details. She was a wonderful writer, utterly sui generis.
Hazzard was born in Australia in 1931. At the time a country of roughly 6.5 million people, still living under the notorious “White Australia Policy” that imposed strict quotas on immigration by race, it felt to many people an insular and backward society. Hazzard was not alone among Australian artists in wanting to get the hell out. As an Australian herself, Olubas writes with understanding of Hazzard’s antipathy for her native land, which was complicated in her later dealings with it. Hazzard was an internationalist from the get-go, more interested in the wider world than many of her fellow Australians seemed at the time to be. The Transit of Venus contains several of her most acerbic passages on her childhood home: “There was nothing mythic at Sydney: momentous objects, beings, and events all occurred abroad or in the elsewhere of books. Sydney could never take for granted, as did the very meanest town in Europe, that a poet might be born there or a great painter walk beneath its windows.” I felt the same shudder of provincialism growing up in the Western United States. It is a misunderstanding, but in literature a fruitful one. Hazzard and Australia were always wary of each other. As Australia changed, Hazzard was rarely there long enough to witness it. For their part, Australians have sometimes read her with suspicion or held her at arm’s length, as if she were too polite to be one of them.
Her characters are hardly less judgmental of Americans. In her final novel, The Great Fire, several characters remark on the ascendancy of American political interests following World War II and the inevitability of more war. Or, as the narrator, perhaps speaking for her characters, puts it in Transit: “It was a pity one could not have a better class of saviour: Americans could not provide history, of which they were almost as destitute as Australians.” This is less authorial snobbery than a comedy of manners. Her short stories about office life at an organization closely resembling the United Nations make the same comedy out of any nationality you can name. It is a universal human misapprehension.
She grew up in an intelligent family, her mother an unhappy Scot, her father a Welsh Australian with a prominent diplomatic career. She and her sister were verbally adept, Shirley startlingly so. None of them really got along. When her father, Reg, was posted to Hong Kong as Australia’s Trade Commissioner, only Shirley really thrived. Her mother pined for Sydney. Her sister came down with tuberculosis. Her father pursued his career as a philanderer. But Shirley, at age sixteen, got herself a job and fell so profoundly in love that she never recovered from it.
A stopover in Japan on the way to Hong Kong gave her proximity to one of the most devastating events in all of human history, the bombing of Hiroshima. This catastrophe, brought about by idealists confronted with gruesome reality, underlies the worldview in much of her fiction, particularly The Great Fire and Transit of Venus. From the latter:
In the past, the demolition of a city exposed contours of the earth. Modern cities do not allow this. The land has been levelled earlier, to make the city; then the city goes, leaving a blank. In this case, a river amazed with irrelevant naturalness. A single monument, defabricated girders of an abolished dome, presided like a vacant cranium or a hollowing out of the great globe itself: Saint Peter’s, in some eternal city of nightmare.
The allusion to Shakespeare’s Tempest is no accident. Hazzard uses words with a poet’s tragic accuracy, from a river’s “irrelevant naturalness” to that building’s “vacant cranium.”
In Hong Kong she worked in the offices of the British Combined Intelligence Services, where she was surrounded by people, many of them men, who had not only come through the war, but were also devoted internationalists and classically educated linguists. Hazzard was an autodidact, already proficient in French and soon to learn Italian (having fallen in love with Leopardi). Despite her lack of formal education, she must have seemed brainy beyond her sixteen years, but she was a vulnerable girl from an unhappy family. When she met Alexis Vedeniapine, a White Russian immigrant who was also a British war hero, she fell in love with him—and he, over time, with her. She would alter and idealize this relationship in The Great Fire—with deliberate artistic purpose, I will argue, though not all readers agree with me. A more realistic depiction of their “affair,” put in quotes because it was never consummated, can be found in her late short story, “Sir Cecil’s Ride.”
Alec had been seriously wounded and taken prisoner during Operation Market Garden in Holland, then after the war had been posted to China, where he had grown up, his family having escaped the Russian Revolution. He was typical of Hazzard’s loves in many ways: highly intelligent, a lover of poetry and languages, and significantly older than she. Their attraction reverberated through her life partly because she was so young when it started, but also because her family removed her from it, returning first to Australia, then to New Zealand. Alec shared her assumption that they were engaged and knew her family would object because he was nearly twice Shirley’s age. When he returned to England, ultimately to a farmer’s life in Hertfordshire, it became clear not only that they would never marry—Shirley, too, had outgrown the attachment—but that Alec was not the literary man she had dreamed him. He had lived through revolution and war, had studied the effects of revolution in China and produced disillusioned reports about where things were headed there, but what he wanted for his own life was entirely quieter and less aesthetically involved. He was not an artist.
When Reg was posted to New York, Shirley made her final and full escape from the Antipodes. The family stayed in London on the way, so she was able to indulge her literary appetite for the Mother Country. And in New York, which would be one of her primary homes for the rest of her life, she nurtured her love of the arts while working in an entirely political realm, the United Nations. Though the work consisted mainly of typing and filing, she was always surrounded by internationalists, people of intelligence and engagement. While it was clear that, as a woman, she could never advance in her employment as easily as her male friends did, she absorbed the culture of the place, and really the culture of any office life—the compromised ideals, the pettiness and gossip, the small but pervasive power struggles, the turf wars. Some of her funniest short stories and most astringent critical prose would come out of this work experience.
Her affairs with men, frequently in the office, developed a pattern. Usually they were older and married. Occasionally they were gay, and a sort of Platonic affair resulted. She seems always to have been open-minded about sexuality and maintained loyal friendships with gay men throughout her life. As it happens, I know many women who have a hard time finding a man remotely worthy of them, and Shirley might have been stuck in this pattern for a long time if she had not, through her friend Muriel Spark, met the great translator and biographer, Francis Steegmuller. He was older too, possibly bisexual, and widowed from a first long marriage. Shirley was thirty-two when she married him, Francis fifty-seven. They would have more than thirty years together before his death in 1994—by most accounts a happy marriage, and certainly in literary terms a productive one.
Shirley would not have met Francis if she were not already an established writer, who began publishing short stories in The New Yorker when she was thirty. The first story to be accepted, though not the first to be published, was “Harold,” a funny, unexpected evocation of poetry’s power.
In her twenties, fleeing a dead-end love affair, Shirley had got herself posted to the United Nations Emergency Force in Naples—an office tasked with supplying peacekeepers in Suez. She had fallen in love with Italian poetry before she fell in love with Italy, but Naples, and nearby Capri, sealed the deal. She also began staying as a guest at the Villa Solaia in Tuscany, home of the famous Vivante family, and it became something of a second home to her. “Harold” is set there on a summer night at the dinner table outside the villa. Hazzard briefly describes those at table, some of them judgmental and grumpy foreigners on holiday. They anticipate the arrival of another foreigner, an Englishwoman, and her son. When these do arrive, the son proves an awkward, clumsy boy who thinks of himself as a poet. How embarrassing! The dinner guests, deciding to be charitable to the boy, ask him to read his poems. What they do not expect is that this misfit boy might be a genuine artist, like Baudelaire’s ungainly albatross:
When he had read aloud for a few minutes, the boy looked up, not for commendation but simply to rest his eyes. Charles said quickly: “Go on.” The inclined young face had grown, in the most literal sense, self-possessed. Their approval, so greatly required in another context, had now no importance for him. He spoke as though for himself, distinctly but without emotion, hesitating in order to decipher corrections, scattering his crumpled papers on the table as he discarded them. It seemed that no one moved . . . ; they had separated into solitary, reflective attitudes that conceded this unlikely triumph.
The boy’s mother calls him inside, and his last stumbling words from within the villa are “I’m sorry,” but Hazzard has, without quoting a word of the poems, given us their effect, the stillness of unexpected beauty and eloquence.
Hazzard’s short stories are, like all her prose, startlingly precise, often comic, with dark shadings as they reveal human struggles between reality and idealism. Brigitta Olubas has edited a Collected Stories that should be read by anyone who loves the form. She has also edited We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think, a selection of Hazzard’s essays that I have not yet read, though I am eager to do so. A literature professor in Sydney, Olubas was ideally situated to write Hazzard’s biography. She has done so with remarkable poise, using Hazzard’s prose to elucidate her life, and vice versa, noting where Hazzard has changed details for artistic purposes. Whether Francis was gay or not hardly concerns her, because the important part of the marriage is the way they supported each other, helped each other with their work and enjoyed the cultural pleasures offered by New York, as well as their extended stays in France and Italy, among other countries.
Hazzard’s writing for The New Yorker had already freed her to quit her UN job, and Frances was rich, which didn’t hurt. His first wife had been the painter and heiress Beatrice Stein. Her death from cancer left him grief-stricken, slow to commit to another marriage, but Shirley stuck with him, and they forged what appears to have been a very good life of travel and writing—they even kept a Rolls-Royce in a Swiss garage for their European sojourns. Francis’ biographies of Flaubert, Apollinaire and Cocteau, among others, all sold well. If Shirley put his career ahead of hers, as many women of her generation might have done, her writing does not seem to have suffered from it. Her last two (and greatest) novels came at long intervals, but there was plenty of other writing in between. They had many friends, and I will confess that a few pages of Olubas’ biography became such a blur of social engagements that I skimmed them. It is the biography’s only flaw, but an unavoidable one, given the lives involved. They seem to have known everyone in Parisian, Italian and New York literary circles. And I mean everyone. The book is a name-dropper’s paradise.
Shirley had wanted children, but a miscarriage and later hysterectomy ended that dream. Perhaps as a result, she maintained many friendships with younger writers, especially poets, all of whom remembered her fondly. Among her elders, Alfred Kazin, who was close to Francis and then also to her, was astonished by her:
. . . the magic of Shirley the Hazzard. When will we learn from a woman like this—with her incredible gentleness, the light that fills where she is, that love is a form of intelligence—a way of listening to the world, of taking it in, of rising above one’s angry heart . . .
Italian friends noted a special vitality in her eyes that endeared her to them. She seems to have been generous but firm in her opinions, “endorsing love,” as one of her characters says, and opposed to cruelty. Graham Greene disliked her—she was vulnerable to dismissive views of her particular enthusiasms—and her memoir of him on Capri concerns mostly her life there with Francis. Having watched her in a few YouTube videos, I think I would have liked her very much. Olubas tries valiantly in several passages to give impressions of Hazzard’s voice, her “tirelessly humane” conversation, but we are best served in that regard by what she has left us in her fiction.
The Transit of Venus was published in 1980 and quickly became a bestseller. It is the high-water mark of her writing, and perhaps one of the high points in the history of the modern novel. You have only to read the opening paragraphs to know you are in the hands of a master:
By nightfall the headlines would be reporting devastation.
It was simply that the sky, on a shadeless day, suddenly lowered itself like an awning. Purple silence petrified the limbs of trees and stood crops upright in the fields like hair on end. Whatever there was of fresh white paint sprang out from downs or dunes, or lacerated a roadside with a streak of fencing. This occurred shortly after midday on a summer Monday in the south of England.
As late as the following morning, small paragraphs would even appear in newspapers having space to fill due to a hiatus in elections, fiendish crimes, and the Korean War—unroofed houses and stripped orchards being given in numbers and acreage; with only lastly, briefly, the mention of a body where a bridge was swept away.
That noon a man was walking slowly into a landscape under a branch of lightning.
When I read that final sentence I felt, well, electrified. And the charge of her language hardly lets up for more than three hundred pages. This devastated landscape is the world, a location of such violence and indifference that it can crush individual lives with hardly a whisper. And it is the world in which love and even goodness must matter, if anything is to matter. Shirley was friends with the American poet Anthony Hecht, who had also pitted a kind of beauty against the horrors of war and the Shoah, and who came in his own life to a calm acceptance of love. They are similar writers in some ways—similar poets of real magnitude.
That man walking under a branch of lightning is Ted Tice, an astronomer. He is about to meet and fall in love with a young Australian woman, Caro Bell, whose sister and half-sister bear some resemblance to Hazzard’s sister and mother. But if these characters have roots in autobiography, they are thoroughly transmuted. Hazzard’s titles are resonant metaphors, her characters alive in the galaxy of their author’s fierce intelligence. The novel is darkly funny, ultimately tragic. I’m in the midst of rereading it now, dazzled by its force.
I’ve also just reread The Great Fire, which appeared in 2003. That long delay between novels is partly explained by Francis’ decline and death in 1994. Several people I know and respect have misgivings (or graver doubts) about The Great Fire, so I should try to say why, for me, it works. From her short stories onward, Hazzard was able to write convincingly about men as well as women, and her male characters in The Great Fire, from the hero, Aldred Leith, clearly a version of Alec Vedeniapine, to his idealistic friend Peter Exley, all seem believable characters who could appear in novels by anyone from Joseph Conrad to Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. The harder characters for many to believe are Helen, the teenaged Australian girl with whom Leith falls in love, and her fatally ill brother, Benedict. Their literary names signal an authorial desire to give them poetic properties, and this I acknowledge. But that is also why I don’t read The Great Fire as straight realism, but as a sort of Shakespearean Romance in which love might actually succeed in redeeming some lives. But not all lives. Hazzard understands the context in which she is placing this artful, and in many ways unlikely, entanglement. She is pitting the imagination against the pressure of reality, and while the resulting experience may be utterly literary, I still find it coherent and beautiful.
In some ways the characters are schematic. Leith is the aging, wounded veteran, disillusioned but hoping to find some kind of peace and beauty in his life. Helen’s father is the rude Australian, the colonial who acts more like a brutal colonizer than anyone else. The novel is set largely in Japan, close to Hiroshima, so the title metaphor remains near at hand. What could possibly come out of such catastrophe? How are human beings to act in a world where such things happen? Hazzard does not see real efficacy in political solutions, only in personal choices.
Helen, first referred to as “a changeling,” seems waiflike, one of those literary creations who have not yet grown up. She is all literary intelligence and love, perhaps an idealized version of Hazzard herself when she fell in love with Alec. That is why I think the novel is a Romance, one half step removed from reality toward the realm of magic and dream.
I’ll just offer one brief quotation to illustrate Hazzard’s writing here. The scene is in London. Leith has returned to put his affairs in order while Helen is stranded (just as Hazzard herself was) in New Zealand. He is talking with his late father’s lover, who happens to have been his own lover before that.
Leith had also brought her a circlet of carved jade, in the colour called kingfisher. Aurora gave him a small wrapped book. He said, “I walked to St. Paul’s this afternoon.” He got up and, going to the fire, looked into the lovely picture. “What happened to John Bull?”
“We forgot to pack him, and he got blitzed.” Aurora said, “So you’ve seen the town. The clearing away has made it starker. Has put it in the past. When you were here, in ’45, rubble still provided a sort of immediacy.”
“Or I was too sunk in my own rubble to take things in. The churches, every one of them a ruin.”
“Yes. Poor God.”
That last touch, like the ironic short line ending a stanza in a Thomas Hardy poem, resonates in more ways than I can say, historical, religious, aesthetic.
At an earlier point, Leith writes in a notebook, “It is incompleteness that haunts us.” I don’t have the sense of a sentimental ending in which he is somehow “completed” by love. Instead, I have the sense of two people who have not yet died in the great fires, who have the power to choose love over indifference.
 SHIRLEY HAZZARD: A Writing Life, by Brigitta Olubas. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $35.00.