Author Shirley Hazzard

A forgotten writer brought to life

Shirley Hazzard stuck doggedly to exploring love — a theme unfashionable even then

Books Magazine

This article is taken from the December/January 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life, Brigitta Olubas (Virago, £25)

It is less than 20 years since Shirley Hazzard won the National Book Award for Fiction. Yet, if she retains a reputation at all, it is more for how little she wrote than what she wrote: four novels, two short story collections. Now comes her chance for revival, in a new biography that reveals the life to be just as remarkable as the work, and both essential to the story of 20th century literature.

Hazzard’s own story began in Sydney, Australia, in 1931. Her early years were unhappy, marked by her mother’s moods, father’s money worries and the wider desolation of the Great Depression. Reading was an escape; Hardy, Auden, Dickens put a lens on her home country’s cultural deficit. Europe was where she wanted to be.

Freedom of a sort arrived in 1947 when her father, who rose from railway engineer to Australia’s highest-paid public servant, took a diplomatic position in Hong Kong. Finding work in British intelligence there, the 16-year-old Shirley met and fell in love with a soldier twice her age, Alec Vedeniapine. It was a relationship that would shape the rest of her life and inspire the central romance of her final novel, The Great Fire.

As happens to the lovers in that book, Shirley and Alec were separated by her father’s return to Australia. Olubas prints large chunks of the letters that connected them over the following years, documenting the growth of a writer and the death of a betrothal as the gulfs in age and geography nagged. By the time Shirley sailed for New York for her father’s next posting, the wedding was off.

Olubas’s account can read like a Who’s Who of 20th century letters

New York was the site of another significant relationship for Hazzard. The UN was just six years old when she joined it in 1951, and a symbol of hope after all she had seen war do in Asia. (She had visited Hiroshima on the way to Hong Kong.) It was also the workplace of writers and intellectuals, among whom Hazzard began to move socially. Yet when colleagues started falling to McCarthyism, she became sceptical about the institution’s impartiality, and she would go on to write a number of anti-UN tracts. But not before she took a year-long position in Naples, a place she would return to again and again in person and fiction. “From the first day [there],” she reflected in an interview, “everything changed. I was restored to life and power and thought.” Her first serious efforts at writing followed, with a number of elegant, Italy-set short stories that quickly found publication in the New Yorker, whilst Hazzard found a lifelong friend in fiction editor William Maxwell.

At about this time she met Francis Steegmuller. Twenty-five years her senior, Steegmuller had already enjoyed a distinguished career in writing, most famously as a translator and biographer of Flaubert. He had also recently been widowed and was uncertain about another involvement, especially with someone so young. He needn’t have worried: he and Shirley would marry in 1963 and remain so, largely happily, until his death in 1994.

Olubas’s account of these years can read like a Who’s Who of 20th century letters at times. Alfred Kazin, Graham Greene, Alberto Moravia, Muriel Spark, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Harold Acton, Elizabeth Bowen, Robert Penn Warren: the Steegmullers knew them all, and the reader feels they do, too, after the umpteenth dinner party recounted. Equally overwhelming is the pair’s travel history: I’m not sure we needed to hear about every one of their triannual trips to Naples or Capri.

Though broadly progressive, Hazzard is not a writer of her times

I’d have liked more on the writing: The Transit of Venus, “one of the great novels of the [20th] century”, gets just three pages. At the same time, I’d have liked less of the illustrative quotation, by which I mean less “explaining” of incidents in Hazzard’s life by quoting similar incidents in the work. We cannot assume the two are facsimiles.

At the risk of further perversity, I think this book could have been longer than its 470 pages. As it is, it rather abruptly ends with Hazzard’s death in 2016, leaving that small matter of posthumous reputation unresolved. Why isn’t this great writer read more? Olubas does have her theories, but they arrive piecemeal; a coda could have clarified them.

To attempt some clarification now, Hazzard is not a writer of her times. Though broadly progressive, she was never affiliated with any party or movement, and her work of the 1960s and 70s (which is most of it) reflects little of those decades’ upheavals. Instead, she stuck quite doggedly to exploring love — a theme unfashionable even then — and doing so in a dense, difficult style that does not immediately reward. The humour, the sadness, the beauty, the brilliance: these can take persistence to recognise.

I would encourage the same persistence in Olubas’s readers. Her biography has its longueurs, but they are never too long, and they reassure by their depth of research. She is also graced with a fascinating subject in Hazzard — perhaps not a prolific writer, but certainly someone who lived prolifically.

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