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.‘
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
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. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.