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Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life

Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life
Brigitta Olubas
Hachette, $24.99

In 1980 when Australian author Michelle de Kretser read Shirley Hazzard’s new novel The Transit of Venus she wondered what all the fuss was about. Twenty years later she reread it, and “the sensation came, like a blow to the breastbone,” from the first page, “the shock of the great”.

This anecdote from Brigitta Olubas’s biography of Shirley Hazzard reminded me of my own encounter with Transit in the early 1980s – how it floored me with its depth and elegance. The novel still stands a little apart from others in my mind and this could well be the reason I have not pursued the rest of Hazzard’s fictional oeuvre.

Having devoured Olubas’s impeccably researched and captivating evocation of Hazzard’s life I am now more inclined to seek out The Great Fire, which appeared in 2003 and earned its author The Miles Franklin Award. As Olubas points out, this was a long-awaited acknowledgement for Hazzard from her country of birth and where she spent the lion’s share of her youth.

Some Australian readers thought the award was misjudged because the characters seemed to them to be crudely drawn and the picture it gave of their nation was outmoded. By then Hazzard had lived her adult life shuttling between Manhattan and Europe a fact which may have – as David Malouf observed – obscured the changes that had taken place in Australia in the half century since she’d left its shores.

As The Great Fire was esteemed around the world, and since Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life has loosened the soil of my synapses, I am now ready to discover whether this novel has a similar power to Transit to thrill and disarm me.

With Olubas’s vivid picture of Hazzard’s life and literary connections fresh in my mind, I will no doubt try to recognise the real events and people sown into The Great Fire’s narrative, despite Hazzard’s own warning not to put too much stock in such comparisons: “The world likes to trace the author’s life in the novel but the obvious isn’t always true. Something that was very close to you and resembles your experience isn’t necessarily the deepest version of the story. … One feels for another person. One observes. One imagines.”

Olubas writes that “the genius of Hazzard’s fiction is that she is able to convey great love, monumental feelings, with supreme control”. The grist to this mill is revealed in the details of Hazzard’s unhappy family home life in Australia, her arrival in Hong Kong at 16 and falling in love with (though ultimately not pursuing marriage with) Alexis Vedeniapine a 32-year-old officer in the British Army, and in her mid 20s her “destined” meeting with Francis Steegmuller in 1963, at a party in New York hosted by her friend Muriel Spark.

“We sat down in a corner together and stayed there,” Hazzard writes. “When we came out of that corner, you might say, we went and got married.”

Hazzard’s marriage to Steegmuller changed her life. “It was the final dramatic transformation confirming that she had left behind her obscure background,” Olubus writes. “It gave her grounds and wherewithal to fashion her life and herself around the coordinates of literature, integrity, and love.”

It also gave her rich intellectual companionship, a world of connections and friendships, and a life of travel to, and making a home in, beloved places. Tuscany, Naples and Capri were close to her heart and provided inspiration for her work and a sense of belonging.

As a young, single woman, Hazzard took a UN job in Naples for a year and stayed at a villa outside Siena owned by an intellectual, anti-Fascist family that rented out rooms to writers and artists from all over the world.

She returned to villa Solaia each summer for the better part of a decade and said it moved her “to begin to write, and in this way delivered me into a happy life”.

She received her first acceptance letter from The New Yorker there in 1960 – and the magazine went on to publish 29 of her stories and one novel in its pages between 1961 and 1990.

Of Capri and Naples, she also waxed lyrical.

“I am obsessed by Capri. I came here, miserable to the point of derangement … Capri saved me – dear lovely, loved place.

“There were many times, of which this winter day was the first, that I walked in Naples in a kind of delight of observation and strangeness, the desire to observe and the happiness of having all this to lavish it on.”

Every spring and autumn, Hazzard and Steegmuller went to Capri to live, returning to New York through the summer. What she most appreciated about Capri, she said, was the very local nature of relations, “gently paced encounters during one’s necessary or unnecessary outings … the regular encounter with the whole community”.

Olubas writes eloquently about how place fuelled Hazzard’s creativity: “If the evocations of Middle Harbour at Sydney conjured a nascent sense of literature, the possibility of being a poet, and if the vistas of Hong Kong opened out the topography of the global world, then Naples was a site of self-discovery, ‘through the looking-glass,’ offering inward as well as outward prospect.”

At her last public appearance in September 2012, at an event held in the New York Society Library to honour her, Hazzard was frail and debilitated by dementia. However, her eloquence that night touched the audience.

“I have felt increasingly in recent years,” she began, “that the world has a kind of Vesuvius element now, that we’re waiting for something terrible to happen, and we do have an idea that it might be life, but maybe we’re pleasing ourselves with that because it might be much more terrifying.”

Hazzard died in 2016, but her words remain prescient and powerful.

Olubas has done us a great service in writing this meticulous and moving memoir, which means we can continue to ponder Hazzard’s ingenuity across four novels, two story collections and several works of nonfiction, as well as in her speeches and personal letters.

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