A Journey of Transformation
Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life, Brigitta Olubas, Virago, 2022, pp. 561, (hardback)
Fans of Shirley Hazzard have long been baffled by her relative lack of fame, but they have also surreptitiously hoped that she remains their own little secret. She is the kind of author who inspires an intense sense of ownership; if her novels are like perfectly formed golden eggs, then her readers are the proprietorial birds. For such readers, the release of the first biography of Hazzard by Brigitta Olubas this month will be bittersweet.
The biography, which follows the publication of Hazzard’s Selected Essays and Collected Stories, marks the zenith of Olubas’s herculean efforts to position Hazzard as a post-war writer of great power and consequence. There are many potential explanations as to why she has not enjoyed the same attention as contemporaries like Muriel Spark and Graham Greene. At the most rudimentary level, Hazzard’s output was quite sparse, with only four novels to Spark’s twenty-two. Unlike Greene, Hazzard is not easily identified as a writer of her time; she seems to transcend both time and place. An Australian-born US Citizen, but also resident of Hong Kong, New Zealand, Naples and Capri, she defies categorisation. As Hazzard well understood, in our increasingly bureaucratic culture it is more likely that a square peg be discarded than anything be done to make the hole more accommodating. She simply did not fit.
The fact that Hazzard is returned to us now as a writer of irreducible talent is a fitting tribute to the humanism that she championed throughout her life. Like the poet W.H. Auden, who Hazzard knew and admired, she fervently believed that the singular human life must be defended against forces that seek to flatten and dehumanise. Her resistance to abstractions and her defence of independent thought were present from an early age, likely formed by the experience of growing up in an increasingly nationalistic Australia, and within a family whose dysfunction made little room for individual freedoms. Unsurprisingly, it was in novels and poetry that she found solace from the afflictions of an alcoholic father and bi-polar mother, and where she discerned the first glimmer of a wider world and a nobler version of humanity. Like her fictional characters, Hazzard was destined for a profound journey of transformation, so determined was she to escape the circumstances that trapped her ‘best self in prison’.
Olubas adeptly traces these key moments of transformation, beginning with Shirley’s arrival in Hong Kong in 1947 at the age of sixteen. Despite his alcoholism, her father had maintained his job at the Australian Ministry of Munitions during the war and was later posted to Hong Kong to scope out trade possibilities. En route, after weeks at sea in a small steamship, Shirley and her family stop over at the port of Hiroshima. It was a scene, Olubas writes, to which Hazzard ‘would return repeatedly in her writing life, refining her thinking and her response to its enormity, moral and material’. As Ted Tice observes in Hazzard’s novel The Transit of Venus, Hiroshima was ‘a catastrophe of which no one would ever say, the Will of God’. Taking inexpugnable memories of this colossal devastation with them, the Hazzards sailed onto Hong Kong, where Shirley would eventually work for the British Combined Services Intelligence. It was here that she met and fell in love with the Russian-Born British Army Captain, Alexis Vedeniapin (who was twice her age), and began the ‘slow extrication of herself from family life’.
Hazzard’s relationship with Alexis was abruptly broken off when her sister Valerie developed tuberculosis and the family moved to New Zealand for her convalescence. In diary entries published for the first time, Hazzard records her anguish at being separated from her lover and her desolation at being trapped in a country that felt so far removed from the intellectual life she had begun to establish in Hong Kong. Notably, her letters to friends at Oxford University strike a very different tone, showing Hazzard determined to appear much more ‘sanguine about her prospects’ and keen to downplay the significance of Valerie’s illness. Decades later, she would return to these entries and add the pencilled insights of an older woman. Olubas has a light touch; she presents the discrepancies between her diaries and letters without the need for invasive interpretation. Instead, we are left to infer that the image Hazzard had begun to craft of herself was, quite knowingly, far removed from the reality of her situation. It is here, Olubas observes, that we ‘can begin to trace the lineation of a writer in the process of making herself’.
Iris Murdoch once wrote that ‘man is a creature who makes pictures of himself, and then comes to resemble the picture’. For Hazzard, it wasn’t long before her life came to resemble, and later exceed, the picture she had carefully crafted in her letters. When the family moved to New York, Hazzard secured an administrative job at the UN; here she began to move in the kind of intellectual circles that would sustain her for the rest of her life. One particularly important friendship with Anne Freemantle, once described by Evelyn Waugh as ‘the smartest woman in America’, brought her right into the heart of New York’s 1950s intellectual scene. Anne’s infamous parties were frequented by the likes of Isaiah Berlin, Leonora Carrington, and Norman Mailer. Alongside this glittering social life, she also entered into a series of love affairs – two with married men. But at the end of every evening, Hazzard would go back to her small flat to find her recently-divorced mother in despair and threatening suicide. It was a pattern that would recur throughout her life and a pain that she would go on to immortalise in the figure of Dora in The Transit of Venus. Dora, Hazzard explained, was a ‘very mild dose of my mother – a destroyer who sees herself as a perpetual victim’.
Understandably, Olubas is sometimes distracted by the cast of Hazzard’s star-studded life and there are pages that read too much like a guest list. She is at her best, however, when deploying her literary intimacy with Hazzard’s work to tease out the parallels with her life. When Hazzard’s affair with a married man is discovered by his wife, for example, Olubas reveals that diary entries from this time can be found ‘almost verbatim’ in Hazzard’s short story ‘A Place in the Country’. Later, she invites us to see how Hazzard’s experience of working for the UN forms the basis of her short story collection, People in Glass Houses, in which she takes aim at the ‘deadening impact’ of bureaucracy on ‘individual life and on the life of language’. Populated by characters drawn from her time at the UN, her stories, in the words of Auden, seek to ‘remind the Management of something managers need to be reminded of, namely that the managed are people with faces, not anonymous numbers’. Hazzard’s criticisms of the UN would continue throughout her life and, as Olubas is at pains to point out, lead her to be incorrectly cast as a conservative critic of the institution.
When an overseas posting to Naples was advertised, Hazzard leapt at the opportunity to escape the interminable beige corridors of office life. In December 1956, at the age of twenty-five, she flew out to Italy. Years later she would describe this trip as the most definitive moment of her life: ‘From the first day, everything changed. I was restored to life and power and thought.’ She would also cite this experience as a rebuttal to Auden’s famous line ‘poetry makes nothing happen’. For it was poetry, and specifically reading the Italian poet Leopardi, that led her to learn the language and to subsequently be eligible for the posting. Olubas captures the expansiveness of this time in Hazzard’s life by splicing sections of her diary with excerpts from her Naples novel, The Bay of Noon. We get a real sense of acceleration, both in terms of her writing abilities, but also in her receptiveness to beauty and to history. Reflecting on the ancient quality of the city in her diary, Hazzard writes: ‘There are accretions, layerings like seabeds. One enters strangeness… If you come to live there, come to know it, you will live in other times.’
It was whilst staying at the Villa Solaia, the Tuscan family home of the anti-fascist Vivante family, that Hazzard wrote her first story for The New Yorker, ‘Harold’. Olubas is right to call it a ‘luminous story’, one in which the ‘principle of poetry’s authority is reasserted’, but she doesn’t quite make enough of the personal significance of this story for Hazzard. Like Harold, who is hampered by an overbearing mother, Hazzard too was transformed and saved by poetry and by Italy, where she found ‘the sentiments of humanism the New World could not provide’. The story represented the locus of all Hazzard’s life experiences to date and was an impassioned statement of her literary ideals. It is no surprise that the story captured the heart of William Maxwell, the then fiction editor of The New Yorker, sparking a friendship based on a ‘literary affinity and shared sensibility’ that would endure until Maxwell’s death.
In 1962, Hazzard returned to New York as a published writer and embarked on a ‘new and glittering friendship’ with Muriel Spark. They saw each other intensely and spoke on the phone for two hours every morning. ‘She has’, wrote Hazzard, ‘a horrifying habit of telling everyone the truth’. It was at one of Spark’s parties that Shirley met her future husband, Francis Steegmuller, who would later come to be revered as the preeminent biographer of Gustave Flaubert. Spark is said to have called their introduction her ‘best novel ever’. Olubas devotes an entire chapter to Francis, which initially feels like a reasonable response to what Virginia Woolf cites as a key question for any biographer: ‘whom did [s]he love, and how’. But as the chapter delves into Francis’s previous marriage, and the writing finds itself again mired in ‘a party of names’, it feels as though the biographer has drifted too far from her subject. Given that this is the first biography of Hazzard, it was a shame to lose sight of her for such a large section of the book. Most importantly, however, it exposes a glaring hole in the literary records where Steegmuller’s own biography should reside.
Literary types will be familiar with, and incandescently envious of, the latter half of Hazzard’s life. Her and Francis shared their time between New York, Naples and Capri, drove around in a Rolls Royce, and were visited by such figures as Saul Bellow, Bruce Chatwin and Graham Greene – about whom Hazzard would later write the memoir Greene on Capri. Their marriage, which Hazzard describes as ‘the happiest [time] she ever knew’, proved fruitful for both writers, who consistently published great work until the end of their lives. Like true Flaubertians, they heeded his advice to be ‘regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work’. Hazzard’s Transit of Venus, the novel that many cite as her masterpiece, was the product of this extraordinarily fertile period. It is a novel that is both violent and original, sweeping as it does across historical and geological time in the wake of World War I, and weaving in and out of the lives of its star-crossed lovers.
Lionel Trilling, the literary critic and Francis’s friend from Columbia University, wrote in praise of his Flaubert biography: ‘You haven’t tried to keep out love of your subject. You never make the mistake of trying to “interpret” Flaubert and you know that the only understanding comes from presentation.’ The same might be said of Olubas’s book. She attends to Hazzard as only someone who loves her could, with generosity, fairness and a deeply human understanding. She paints a portrait of a woman who, like Mount Vesuvius, the volcano that Hazzard lived under for most of her life, was constantly stemming back a tide of magma, an overflow of passion and intelligence. For those who saw only her formality, her starched white shirts, pearls, and Rolls Royce, and dismissed her work as a hangover from the Victorian era, they will discover that they have been misled by what was merely the outer crust.
Charlotte Stroud is an English Literature PhD student at Kingston University where she is writing a thesis on A.S. Byatt, Iris Murdoch and George Eliot. She is currently working on a collection of short stories.
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