In December 2016 an email came to tell me that Shirley Hazzard had died.
When I was planning my 20 Books of
Summer Winter reading list, I decided to add my Shirley Hazzard short story collection to the list. Somehow, I have got to my early fifties without ever having read any of her books. I truly do not know how this has happened. I keep meaning to. I want to. But I haven’t.
Around the same time as I made my 20 Books of Winter list, Michelle de Kretser’s lovely little tribute book, On Shirley Hazzard, came into my possession. I decided I would read this first, to inspire me and enlighten me in preparation for starting the short stories.
There are now nine books in this series of Writers on Writers (a tenth book about Helen Garner is due later this year). Earlier on this year, I read Josephine Rowe’s On Beverley Farmer. It was a very literary affair. De Kretser’s book is more conversational and more casual in tone. Early on she states,
I decide to quote Hazzard extensively in this essay. I repeat my mantra: literature lives in sentences. Quotation seems the best way of indicating what I admire in Hazzard as well as giving readers unmediated access to her prose.
Of course, the book is much more than just quotes, although all the quotes selected by de Kretser, only made me wonder anew why I had yet to read any Hazzard! She really seems like a writer I would appreciate a lot. A writer, whose books I would underline and savour.
De Kretser shares her own personal journey in reading Hazzard and offers up observations, literary analysis and a little biography. She discusses Hazzard’s attitude towards her Australian childhood and the complicated feelings that carried over into her adult life about being Antipodean.
Hazzard and her work, encourages ‘responsive reading’ where ‘one participates, so to speak, in the rainbow of creation…where receptiveness is present, it “evokes an individual response rather than the authorised one”‘. As such, she was a huge advocate of the power of poetry to not only provide solace, but also pleasure, in its use of accurate words or ‘right language‘. Traditionally, responsive reading was associated with the reading of religious texts. It is a literary concept now often applied to the reading of texts with diversity and culturally appropriateness in mind. It seems to me to encompass the idea of slow reading, that I try to do as often as possible, where you consciously and creatively engage with the text to find personal meaning, as well as exploring the author’s purpose or intent.
She was a writer who honoured the sentence. Unusually for a novelist, she wrote memorable ones. She saw the connection between good writing and truth.
A number of themes appear and reappear across Hazzard’s oeuvre – ones I will keep in mind as I engage with her short stories – humanity, mercy, revelation, the sea, women travelling, maps (and their inadequacies), vulnerability, office work, history, echo-patterning, bodies in extremis, ‘how should a person live?‘, characters who make judgements and condemnations, and excess, to name a few.
“We are human beings, not rational ones.”
Hazzard was also a master in the use of precise adjectives, which went hand in hand with her ability to notice or pay attention. Like Iris Murdoch, she considered this to be a moral or ethical act. Irony and satire were her ‘preferred weapons‘. De Kretser considers them ‘antipodean weapons, the weapons of the outsider; a way of seeing that punctures and deflates.’ The same weapons used by Christina Stead and Patrick White.
De Kretser takes time with each of the novels to discuss their themes and her personal reactions, along with various snippets about the writing process and Hazzard’s writing techniques (i.e. her habit of observing rather than identifying, ‘seeing through rather than seeing with’, and interiority).
Francis Steegmuller (Hazzard’s husband) said, “No one should have to read The Transit of Venus for the first time”….it reminds me not to mistake the limits of my understanding for the limits of art.”
For de Kretser, though, the power of Hazzard’s writing is in it’s ability to allow the reader to feel seen. All those ‘transient and insignificant‘ moments in our daily lives that are lifted into literature, all those moments when we ‘recognise our inner selves in novels‘. That is what Hazzard offers her readers – the exhilaration of meeting and recognising not only friends, but ourselves.
Highly recommended for fans of Hazzard or for anyone, like me, wishing to become better acquainted with her before reading her books.
Note to self: hunt down her two non-fiction pieces about the UN – Defeat of an Ideal and Countenance of Truth and her collection of stories about her time at the UN, People in Glass Houses, for my Edith Trilogy readalong later this year.
I also love how all book seems to be leading me closer and closer to Virginia Woolf.
Virginia Woolf believed that fiction should resemble ‘a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners’.
Works of art can be more important than anything critics can say about them.Shirley Hazzard | We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think
I've carried in my head For twenty years or more Some lines you wrote Stanley Kunitz | A Spark of Laurel
- The Evening of the Holiday (1966)
- The Bay of Noon (1970), shortlisted for the Lost Man Booker Prize
- The Transit of Venus (1980), winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction
- The Great Fire (2003), winner of the National Book Award for fiction and the Miles Franklin Award
Short story collections
- Cliffs of Fall and Other Stories (1963)
- People in Glass Houses (1967)
- The Collected Stories of Shirley Hazzard (2020)
- Defeat of an Ideal: A Study of the Self-destruction of the United Nations (1973)
- Coming of Age in Australia (1985)
- Countenance of Truth: The United Nations and the Waldheim Case (1990)
- Greene on Capri: A Memoir (2000)
- The Ancient Shore: Dispatches from Naples (2008) (with Francis Steegmuller)
- We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think: Selected Essays (2016)
Book: Writers on Writers: On Shirley Hazzard Author: Michelle de Kretser ISBN: 9781760640194 Publisher: Black Inc Books Date: 1 Oct 2019 Format: Hardback
Book 5 of 20 Books of