Collected Stories | Shirley Hazzard #AWWshortstories

Even with months of planning and anticipation, Bill @The Australian Legend’s Gen 4 Reading Week has still caught me by surprise!

Bill describes Gen 4 as Australian “women who began writing in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.” Postmodernism and Magic Realism were some of their tools of trade, but for Bill,

this generation is defined by the wonderful optimism of youth born into post-War prosperity which exploded into the 60s with new fashions, new music, new drugs, the Pill, Women’s Lib, the post-Communist politics of the anti-Vietnam War movement, widely available university educations, the Space race, hippies, and in Australia waves of immigration from Southern Europe which obliterated for ever our ‘white picket fence’ Anglo-centricity.

Shirley Hazzard (30 January 1931, Sydney – 12 December 2016, NYC) wrote her first story, Harold in 1959 (which was included in her first short story collection, Cliffs of Fall and Other Stories (1963) and was first published story in The New Yorker, 13 October, 1962. However, her first published short story was Woollahra Road written in 1960 in Siena and published in The New Yorker, 31 March 1961.

Like many Australian writers of this era, Hazzard left the country at a young age to live overseas. Her father’s work took them to Hong Kong when she was 16, with several other postings, including Hiroshima and New Zealand, before finally landing in America. In 1951 Hazzard’s family was living in New York City where she took up a clerical position at the UN Secretariat.

Home life was not happy or easy for Hazzard and her sister. In later years, Hazzard described her mother as suffering from a bipolar-like disorder and her father as alcoholic. He was a Welsh chemist who had enlisted in The Great War at age 17 and she was a Scottish typist. They met in Sydney whilst working for the company who was building the Sydney Harbour Bridge. It was an unhappy marriage.

Like many another Australian family of the time, we were living a double life: decorum and tea parties on the outside, and screams and scenes within the walls.

Paris Review | The Art Of Fiction | Issue 172 Spring 2005

In 1956 she was posted to Naples. In 1963 she moved to Paris after marrying the writer Francis Steegmuller. They kept an apartment in NYC and visited Italy regularly before he died in 1994.

This collection contains the ten short stories originally published in Cliffs of Fall and Other Stories  and the eight stories from People in Glass Houses (1967). A further ten short stories are included at the end, stories that were published in The New Yorker and Mademoiselle or found unpublished in her papers after she died.

A Foreword by Zoe Heller claims that Hazzard ‘emerged with her distinctive talents fully formed.’ When I realised that I would have no chance of finishing all these stories before Bill’s Gen 4 week, this comment focused my reading onto the first two stories she wrote. Just how ‘fully formed’ was she?

Heller states that Hazzard’s stories were not the ‘typical literary artefacts of their time‘. Her characters were recognisable from that period but by ‘their rigorously elegant style…less so‘. Her work has ‘a closer affinity with the classic prose of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries than with the frank, unbuttoned work of her contemporaries.’ Yet Hazzard’s female characters were modern women. They worked or studied and lived independently in flats. They had sexual experiences, sex before marriage, and affairs with married men. But it was not the free love experience that authors like Helen Garner wrote about. For Hazzard’s characters,

Sex remains for them a solemn rite, a significant act of surrender, and their inability to divorce the act from higher feelings leaves them horribly vulnerable to the emotional sadism and moral carelessness of men.

Hazzard wrote about the fraught nature of living during times that were a-changing quickly, where moral values were evolving and expectations fluctuated. An era where the ‘fun’ could quickly devolve into something darker and more dangerous.

Appreciation of beauty was another value that Hazzard did not necessarily share with many of her peers. Many of her characters were responsive to beauty, art and poetry. Those who were not, the philistines, were clearly the ones to watch out for. While modern writers became known for their gritty, plainspoken, casual language, Hazzard maintained an elegant, formal prose throughout her career.

This is clearly seen in her first two stories.

Woollahra Road (1961)

Ida was supposed to be having her nap, but when she heard a horse and cart coming down the street she got off the bed and climbed on the window seat to look out.

Hazzard’s first story feels very autobiographical. It is 1935 and Ida is four years old, just like Hazzard would have been. The long hot summer, views of the garden, playing with her doll, Rosie and the street scenes from her bedroom window, all have a nostalgic tinge. Except this is Depression-era Sydney, and the peace of the afternoon is disturbed by the arrival of tramp.

The tramp is a woman in black who arrives carrying a hessian bag, ‘by her face and her figure she was not old, but her walk was old.’ Ida’s mother and the cook, Marge, provide her with a meal and cool drink. Ida is very unhappy with the change in routine and how the woman’s arrival has made ‘everyone silent and queer.’

After the woman leaves, they realise that she has stolen a pair of her father’s shoes and Rosie the doll. As Ida vents her her ‘rage and horror‘, we are left with the image of the doll, Rosie ‘shuddering along Woollahra Road in a hessian bag, jostled by a pair of shoes.

Harold (1962)

Every evening of the summer, lanterns were hung from the oleanders and they had dinner in the garden.

Hazzard’s second story is also a summer story, but this time in a guest house on the outskirts of Siena. In the cool of the evening, Signora Ricciardi chats with her guests around the outdoor dinner table ‘there were always insects because of the lights, but on balance it was worth it.

Two new guests disturb the tranquil, comfortableness of the gathering. A mother/son combo. The mother, vigorous and commanding; the son, Harold, accommodating and awkward. It is only after the mother retires for the night, that Harold reveals that he is a writer…of poems. One of the guests asks him to read to them.

The other guests expect to feel indulgent and noncommittal even as their ‘evening seemed to have lost its balance.’

Naturally, Harold surprises them with his calm assurance and talent…until his mother calls out from her bedroom window that it is late and he really should go to bed.

I can see why William Maxwell, the fiction editor at The New Yorker, was impressed and asked Hazzard for anything else she had written.

The sky glowed from the lights of Siena, but the house at night rode its hilltop in rolling, dark countryside with the purposeful isolation of a ship at sea, and people around the table, too, assumed something of the serene animation of voyagers.

Both stories relied on a crisis created by a change in routine. The usual balance or flow experienced by the characters was shifted and upset. Preconceived expectations were not met, surprises happened, kindness and art triumphed for a time, but were relinquished in the end to stronger, more powerful forces.

These first two stories written by Hazzard are lovely examples of a writer writing what they know, however I’m not quite sure that they make for good examples of Gen 4 Australian Women Writers as defined by Bill. Maybe, instead, Hazzard is the proof that generational definitions only pick up prevailing trends and do not, and can not, define the whole all of the time.

Many have said before that Hazzard was old-fashioned and melodramatic.

It’s neither fair nor convincing but simply true that her fiction, which broke no new ground stylistically or thematically, does not fit into the chronology of twentieth-century literature.

The New Yorker | Shirley Hazzard and the Art of Outsized Intimacy | Alice Gregory | 16 Nov 2020

Yet she was also a left-leaning humanist, an internationalist and a cosmopolitan woman of the world.

With these two early stories we can already see how she combined the political or worldly view with her characters interiority. Whether it’s a child’s eye view of the Depression or a dinner guest referring to the violence of WWII on the Italian landscape. These talents were in place from the start.

Her novels and stories have their action firmly grounded in the world of public and political life, as well as in the interior worlds, sensibilities and sympathies of their protagonists.

UNSW | Remembering Shirley Hazzard | 19 Dec 2016
  Brigitta Olubas

Bibliofile:

Title: Collected Stories
Author: Shirley Hazzard
Editor: Brigitta Olubas
ISBN: 9780349012964 
Imprint: Virago
Published: 27 April 2021 (originally published 24 Nov 2020)
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 356
  • This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin.

16 thoughts on “Collected Stories | Shirley Hazzard #AWWshortstories

  1. What an amazing review Brona! I love how you always provide a background of the authors and their writings that helps us put everything in context so much better. I love the prose and there something very evocative in her writings; the imagery is just excellent. I hope I can find a copy of her work here one of these days! Thank You so much for sharing!

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    1. Thank you, I enjoy reading old interviews with authors when I have the time to hunt them down and do them justice.
      These short stories may be my first Hazzard’s, but they certainly will not be my last. As you say, her writing is evocative. I love her use of metaphors and how she constructs a sentence. Thankfully I have most of her novels tucked away somewhere on my TBR.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I can see that I’m going to have to buy this one. I have Cliffs of Fall and People in Glass Houses, but the extra 10 stories makes it a must-have. I love everything that Hazzard wrote… maybe that makes me old-fashioned too because apart from practical feminism, Whitlamesque politics and of course university education, I was not much interested in most of the things Bill lists as indicative of the age.
    I do admit to wearing very, very short mini skirts but I thought that platform shoes were stupid and I never wore them!

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    1. I’m also keen to read some of her non-fiction. I’m planning to read the Edith trilogy this year and thought her UN book would be a good companion read.
      I also spent my uni years in very short shorts and mini-skirts. It makes me smile when B21’s GF comes over and she’s also wearing short dresses and skirts.

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  3. “Maybe, instead, Hazzard is the proof that generational definitions only pick up prevailing trends and do not, and can not, define the whole all of the time.” Exactly. Could it be anything else really!!

    I am a Hazzard fan, but I don’t think I’ve read any of her short stories. The two you’ve shared here appeal immensely.

    BTW Lisa … I never wore very, very short miniskirts, though I did have a hot pants outfit! I think that almost counts? Mostly I liked the hippy kaftan and maxi dress. I still love maxis. I too thought platform shoes were stupid. I liked that, unlike high heels, they meant your foot tended to be pretty flat, but what a risk to ankles if you roll them or trip?

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    1. I’ve also read a further 3-4 stories in the collection, they are more about young women negotiating relationships, and still tremendous stories.

      When I had to wear a dress to my Yr 6 school dance, I went the whole hog and got a pair of cork platforms as well. Completely impractical for dancing, but I thought I looked like the real thing 🙂
      They also made me way taller than most of the boys I was trying to Barn Dance with!

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I never wore a mini skirt, though lots of very short shorts. Milly lived in sarongs.
    I’m hoping that by thinking about ‘generational definitions’ as we read, and as we all read from the same period, we can begin to see what is characteristic and what has changed from the previous generation.
    Bron, you write about Hazzard’s “classic prose”, but then discuss her modern women. Did you find her prose formal? I’ve written far less about writing styles for Gen 4 than I did for Gen 3, but I believe one can discern a trend withing this generation from modernism to postmodernism.

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    1. I really enjoy thinking about the generational trends and evolutions with each reading week you do Bill. Hazzard was very much someone, though who went her own way. Which happens with every group, of course. People who are influenced by their times but chose a writing style that they prefer.

      Yes, I did find her prose formal, and elegant. But Brigitta Oulbas says it best in an interview with Harvard Review Online | 19 March 2021: “her writing is not really datable, or that it seems to come to us from quite a different time from whenever “now” is. And this has been observed by readers throughout her career. Hazzard has never read very much like her contemporaries. And while the worlds she writes about are more or less contemporary and familiar, her concern with formality and morality and the power of art and of love, and her rather stately prose, have always seemed to refer back to earlier times. This is quite deliberate, of course. She felt herself in many respects out of step with the modern world and was deeply versed in the literature and art of the past, and she sought to pay tribute to the writing she loved in her own work.”

      The other short stories I have read have been about young women negotiating relationships – where one young woman decides that ‘taste is more important than sentiment’ in the face of overwhelming indifference from her bland selfish lover. Another one is a young woman having an affair with a married man – a man married to her cousin. Hazzard’s famous line occurs in this story – ‘we are human beings, not rational ones’.

      I am quickly becoming a fan of her writing, so hopefully there will be more reviews on the horizon!

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  5. I enjoyed that answer! Every day makes clear how unfamiliar I am with Gen 4 writing. Lucky I’m happy to learn. I will make it a priority to get to Transit of Venus which I’m sure I have somewhere

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  6. I loved People in Glass Houses and agree it makes an excellent companion to the Edith Trilogy. For a long time, Shirley Hazzard was one of the few Australian writers I’d read but now that I’ve had an Oz Feb month, I am beginning to think she is very different to her fellow Australians. She has a less open style, is more opaque, less candid… and yes, old-fashioned in her restraint. She reminds me more of English authors such as Penelope Fitzgerald or Anita Brookner or Brigid Brophy.

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    1. Yes, I thought of Anita Brookner in particular as I was reading these short stories. Another Australian writer, Elizabeth Harrower also came to mind as a possible comparison, so much so, that I have been confusing them in my mind at times!

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