The Pleasures of Shirley Hazzard’s Intricate Fictions

Portraits of Australian author, Shirley Hazzard pictured at the Sebel Town House.Shirley Hazzard's hotel room overlooks a watery slice of Sydney, the city in which she spent her girlhood, but which she has not seen for eight years.Her last visit was in 19

Shirley Hazzard, 1984. (Photo by Robert Pearce / Fairfax Media via Getty Images)

What wholeness might contemporary literary fiction aspire to? Heavy plotting is outmoded, if not willfully retrograde. Many novelists avoid omniscience, like inept or unwilling gods. Trusty, plausible narrative structures—the picaresque, say, or the bildungsroman—are approached cautiously, as if they might collapse while one is yet inside. Coherence, difficult enough to find in life, seems even scarcer in the fictive imagination. “The vastness of sensation and experience, of history and knowledge, limits us, sends us back to the small as a relief from the incomprehensible,” Elizabeth Hardwick wrote in 1969. Half a century later, the dimensions she identified seem to have further contracted. The popular trappings of classical works—pride, guilt, Eros, the quest—have given way to something else. Truer to experience is the accumulation of apprehensive detail: fragment, digression, traumatic memory, aphorism, and the like.

To read the rigorous formalism of Shirley Hazzard, then, is to discover the apostate’s pleasure upon returning to the faith. Her works—whole, cruelly exacting, consoling in their grace and precision if not their ultimate outcomes—are monuments to fiction’s disappearing pieties. The recently released Collected Stories, edited by Brigitta Olubas and comprising Hazzard’s collections Cliffs of Fall (1963) and People in Glass Houses (1967) alongside previously uncollected material, offer the opulent doom of ancient tragedy wrapped in mid-century garb. Her heroes are melancholy cosmopolitans and resigned warriors of culture. (Her villains are invariably philistines.) Each pursues some intimate understanding or larger purpose at odds with their station. The fineness of love is wasted, lost, misapprehended, or pointlessly recovered; professional aspirations are muted by numbing routine or ground beneath the wheels of bureaucratic machination. The typical Hazzard story occurs in the unfixed space between the ideal and its compromise. The moral vision of her fiction is predicated upon this inevitability, that great suffering is the cost of great desire.

She is best known for her 1980 masterpiece, The Transit of Venus, which follows two Australian sisters over five decades and three continents. Many readers, myself included, begin here and quickly exhaust what remains: a pair of early novels (The Evening of the Holiday and The Bay of Noon), two scathing nonfiction books about her time with the United Nations (Defeat of an Ideal and Countenance of Truth), a memoir of her friendship with Graham Greene (Greene on Capri), and a final novel, The Great Fire, which won the National Book Award in 2003. That the Collected Stories, with their interlocking themes, could easily make up two additional novels—just as her extant novels can resemble a series of consummately sutured stories—speaks to the continuity of her mythos. She resurrects a world of Jamesian social richness, disclosing the exquisite privacies of difficult men and abiding women, each attempting to hold a sinister, disruptive force at bay. In Hazzard’s intricate fictions, it is the violence of romance that endures.

Hazzard seemed to arrive fully formed, already a mature literary artist in her 20s. (She sent her first story, “Harold,” to William Maxwell at The New Yorker; astonished, he published it and immediately asked for more.) Cliffs of Fall contains her earliest work. As in much of her fiction, these stories often hinge on deracination, exploring how her characters’ sense of unrootedness signifies a larger emotional confusion. In “A Place in the Country,” a young girl falls in love with her cousin’s husband, her powerlessness closely related to her sense of incursion. “Vittorio” finds a married couple staying with an aging scholar so used to losing he neither anticipates nor fully understands the younger woman’s interest in him: “He felt that he must be alone to think about it, that there must be some rational, disappointing explanation…. He had never been so astonished in his life.” In the title story, a young widow confronts her husband’s recent death while suffering from altitude sickness in a friend’s Genevan home. In each of these stories, the novelty of some transient setting allows pain to separate itself from habit or inattention. Hazzard whets even the smallest units of time. A day, an hour can permanently scar.

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