Shirley Hazzard was born in 1931 in Australia, the daughter of immigrants from Scotland and Wales. Both her parents, it’s said, were involved in the construction of Sydney Harbour Bridge. She went on to live on three other continents: Asia, Europe and North America. As is sometimes the way with writers whose biographies are yet to be written (Brigitta Olubas is on the case), information about Hazzard’s life is often tinged with exoticism. She was a teenage spy in Hong Kong after the Second World War; in the 1950s she worked (in a largely secretarial capacity) for the UN; she was married to the biographer and Flaubert scholar Francis Steegmuller (they were introduced by Muriel Spark, which doesn’t seem like the most propitious start) and lived with him in New York, Naples and Capri. She suffered from dementia and died in 2016.
Hazzard published four novels – The Transit of Venus (1980) and The Great Fire (2003) are exquisite – and six books of non-fiction on topics from global politics and international relations to her friendship with Graham Greene and her love affair with Naples. In 1961, William Maxwell accepted the first story she submitted to the New Yorker, the fragrant, Elizabeth Bishop-like ‘Woollahra Road’. She published two collections: Cliffs of Fall (1963) and People in Glass Houses (1967). The latter – a series of linked stories about the UN (‘the Organisation’) – is written with a mordant, Waughish verve. These two volumes, and ten uncollected or unpublished pieces, make up the Collected Stories.
Hazzard set her work all over (Italy, the US, Greece, Australia), but the atmosphere is always English – socially, emotionally, stylistically – even when the setting explicitly isn’t. The stories are small-scale, intense, couple-plus-one or couple-plus-two set-ups, a third-person omniscient narrator, the often slightly wonky frame of the before and after of a party, a long walk in hot weather, the Sunday of a weekend, part of a summer visit for work or holiday. The talk is English: the preoccupations, the evasions, the uneasy intimacy. The characters and action are informed by a discreet wrangling, a subliminal one-upmanship, a parsing of regard and disregard, a quickfire alternation of bicker and quip. There are no staircases in Hazzard for Treppenwitz. Winners and losers alike – the bullying men and the women it would be a catastrophe for them to lose – are on top of their game. En garde is forever meeting off-guard. Importunity knocks. ‘Well, it’s frightening,’ one character concludes. ‘Just when one thinks oneself most secret, one is most transparent.’
Hazzard’s stories offer introspection and revelation – but rarely together. In an essay (on Jean Rhys), she quotes La Fontaine: ‘Misfortune is a kind of innocence.’ And the obverse, too, one could say: innocence is a kind of misfortune. In an unusually abstract passage, she writes: ‘Knowledge ought to arise from, and in atonement of, a degree of suffering otherwise monstrously or comically useless: the raw material having been provided, it was the supposed duty of experience to make order of itself in such a way.’ Her characters traffic in knowledge and suffering: to love is to be weak. There is no end of cruelty and pain. It’s all a kind of human tartare. And of course, as she says, it’s comedy – clever, serious comedy, the way Chekhov is comic.
There is a vulnerability here that is perhaps un-English and which indicates exile or alienation; an understanding, especially in the stories from Glass Houses, that people have all kinds of nationalities and this is the way life works: ‘There were candidates who spoke no English, candidates who were chronically ill. One or two were overqualified and would have made trouble by taking up positions. A committee deliberated. The field was narrowed. At last the word went round. “They’re trying to dig up a Greek.”’ One has no real sense of reading an Australian or American writer. When the physical setting is Italy, it feels like Chiantishire. The speculative Hong Kong, I take it, of ‘Sir Cecil’s Ride’ is imperially ripe: ‘On the hotel terrace someone would be bringing a telephone out of doors. Important messages would be carried on salvers by Cantonese in white jackets, in the wake of the trays of all-important drinks. A young woman walked, stately, with a flowered parasol, while colonels told about typhoons and a golden spaniel gasped beneath a chair.’
Many of the characters’ names are words, so that one occasionally has the feeling of having stumbled into an allegorical jigsaw: Constance, Vittorio, Matt, Clement, May. Some of the Englishness can be attributed to Hazzard’s interest in verse. ‘The Sack of Silence’ borrows its title from Auden, whose combination of rationality and originality with occasional compression makes him a sort of grand panjandrum to Hazzard. Cliffs of Fall takes its name from a sonnet by Hopkins; the influence of Victorian literature can be felt in the balance and decorum Hazzard practised throughout her writing. She seems terminally incapable of producing an ugly sentence.
To read Hazzard is to be extravagantly well treated, to be made to feel clever, percipient, well-informed and subtle. It’s all a step up from life. We come upon a crossword clue:
‘I am between water and stone fruit in India,’ declared Ben, looking up at Lilian over the Times. ‘In eleven letters.’
‘Pondicherry,’ Lilian said, after a moment’s silence.
What a pleasant thing to happen on, solution and all. Hallucinating or bereft characters find themselves confronted by demanding, disorderly libraries (‘Hazlitt, Mallarmé, and twenty volumes of Balzac; Dryden and Robert Graves; Cicero and Darwin, and, between them, a brand-new copy of By Love Possessed’); they travel heavy, toting copies of ‘Die Griechischen Altertümer, Le Trésor de Sifnos, Alexander’s Path’. Their sad goings are marked by sly nods in the direction of Opus 135 (‘Muss es sein? Es muss sein! Es muss sein!’). ‘Faint sounds of the street came up to them and, on the floor below, a gramophone was being played quite loudly: Beethoven was worrying about what he could not change.’ The reader, scratched between the ears, can’t help but purr.
Hazzard is a master of the unexpected combination, the inspired adjective. A wife listens to her husband ‘with rapt inattention’; a lover speaks ‘with overstated nonchalance’ on a watched telephone; a trio of public schoolboys smile down at their plates in expectation of a solecism, ‘comfortably appalled’. Single words sing like blue notes. A little travelling clock ‘rose and fell on her breastbone for a few moments, and then tumbled forward with a glassy slap’. ‘A secretary was distributing pads of white paper and stunted yellow pencils.’ ‘A train was coming in at another platform,’ we read, ‘slowly obliterating the further wasteland of tracks, shunted locomotives, and spiritless grasses.’ Those words! That ‘glassy’! That ‘spiritless’! A girl falling for her cousin’s older husband is described like this: ‘An imprecise black pigtail dangled between her hunched shoulders.’ What isn’t inherent in that description? The uncertainty, the unreadiness, the defensiveness and fluster, the feeling of being trapped, of awaiting the permission to be attractive, the inevitability of a bad ending.
The careful placement of speech and action, or speech and thought, is always a delight in Hazzard. ‘You’re a hard, frivolous woman, Russell thought. “You’re very kind,” he said.’ Nettie, the girl on the verge of falling in love, ‘made a space between two books and fitted Byron into it’. The object of her feelings, meanwhile, on the following page, ‘fitted the empty boxes, ingeniously, one inside the other’. The German saying Ordnung ist das halbe Leben means ‘order is half of life’ – and it sometimes seems like the greater part of literature as well. The two forms of tidiness, the one anxious and patent, the other complacent and devious, are incompatible. In the end, Byron will not permit himself to be inserted; box into box won’t go. In ‘The Worst Moment of the Day’, a susceptible hotel guest is sent by the beautiful manageress to fetch some sticks from a shed.
‘Oh, Marina.’ He fell on his knees beside her, his hands still full of the sticks from the shed. ‘Marina.’
She looked up abruptly. Kneeling, they stared at each other.
His eyes dazzled. He lifted his closed hands. ‘I could only find the small sticks.’
She was very pale. For an instant, he could imagine how she might look if she were ever to lose her composure.
She sat back on her heels. ‘They must be there,’ she said. ‘I’ll go and look.’ She got up and left him on his knees on the grass, his hands extended and full of short, blunt sticks.
It’s an Edenic moment of sorts, an anti-Eden.
A paragraph of interior description from ‘A Place in the Country’, the story about Nettie, seems to me priceless. Her cousin, May, has taken the car to collect her little boy, who is staying with friends some distance away, but has come down with a fever. May is inevitably detained and anxious. Two neighbours, Vernon and Sarah, come to dinner – it can’t be put off – and Nettie is thrust into the role of hostess and consort. None of this seems to figure in the description, which, one would have to say, is just that – description:
After dinner, they went back to the fire. The living room was furnished, as rooms in summer houses often are, with the mistakes and discards of a town apartment. Unabashed, these had assumed a certain style of their own. The rug was a deep cocoa colour, worn pale and thin near the door and by the sofa. The chairs, with one or two defections, tended towards dark green. There was a mosaic coffee table, made by a relative, and two ashtrays that had seemed a good idea one hot afternoon in Cuernavaca. The same rash expedition to Mexico was responsible for a black and brown painting in which a man and woman stared at each other with unmistakeable resentment.
Hazzard is cool and droll, but not unkind. The furnishings, she concedes, ‘had assumed a certain style of their own’. A dominant palette emerges with the recurrence of green and brown – country colours, even. No matter how mongrel the appearance and disject the provenance of everything, the writing remains scrupulously balanced: near the door and by the sofa; the coffee table and the ashtrays; the unspecified relative and the historic expedition to Mexico. It rises to generalisation (‘as rooms in summer houses often are’), and stoops to notice the places where carpets receive the most wear. Still, the besetting ugliness of things seems to deepen as the paragraph goes on, from the ‘deep cocoa’ rug to the final ‘black and brown painting’ where the man and woman stare at each other with blank hostility.
The account presented here, one comes to realise, is distressingly ugly. And it’s the future. This ugliness, this existence among cast-offs and also-rans, might be Nettie’s: she could spend the rest of her life playing host to Vernon and Sarah. Perhaps at this point, one notices the number of stinging, abstract, ethical words in the passage, words to do with choice and, in particular, bad choices: ‘mistakes’, ‘discards’, ‘defections’, ‘tended’, ‘rash’, ‘responsible’, ‘unmistakeable resentment’. By the end, the whole room is crying: mistake, mistake. It parodies or perhaps even influences the human situation. As Chekhov said, according to Gorky: ‘You live badly, my friends. It is shameful to live like that.’ Hazzard brings grand order to the bad business of living.