Afterwards, nothing is the same: Shirley Hazzard

By Michelle de Kretser

On the splendour of the acclaimed author’s distinctly antipodean seeing

Shirley Hazzard was the first Australian writer I read who looked outwards, away from Australia. Her work spoke of places from which I had come and places to which I longed to go. It conjured cities and rooms: sociable spaces. Yet what she had to say was expansive, not enclosed – I felt enlarged by it, my view widened. It was reading as an affair of revelations and gifts. It fell like rain, greening my vision of Australian literature as a stony country where I would never feel at home. Splendour had entered the scene.

She describes a fresco: “The impression it made was unaccountable; there was nothing in any of its details to suggest the splendour of the whole.”

Faced with writing about her work, I ask myself: how to account for the impression of splendour?

It’s striking how frequently Hazzard evokes the value of phenomena that resist description. She notes the “incommunicable grandeur” of a landscape, and the “silent, inestimable losses” that modernity brings. It’s hardly unusual for a writer to appreciate the expert articulation of experience, but it’s rarer to find one who prizes what expertise can’t say. “Unaccountable” is a word that recurs when Hazzard writes about literature or painting. It acknowledges the mystery that resides in art, as well as the contingent nature of our response. A book comes to find you at a particular season of your life. Afterwards, nothing is the same.

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.

As soon as I begin, I’m beset by doubt. I have the impression that I’ve been entrusted with something large and shimmering and whole, and that in attempting to hand it on, I’m reducing it to shards. Instead of conveying the moonlight, all I’m showing is the glitter of broken glass.

Julian Barnes cites Degas: “Do you think you can explain the merits of a picture to those who do not see them? … Among people who understand, words are not necessary, you say, humph, he, ha, and everything has been said.”

Humph, he, ha.

One reason for the affinity I feel with Hazzard is the question mark that hovers over our right to be considered Australian: in her case, because she left the country at the age of sixteen; in mine, because I didn’t arrive until I was fourteen.

Born in 1931, Hazzard described the Australia in which she grew up as “a country where sameness was a central virtue”. It was “a remote, philistine country in those years, and very much a male country, dominated by a defiant masculinity that repudiated the arts”.

Others of Hazzard’s generation have said the same thing. And with Hazzard, there was the additional factor of her youth; her experience of Australia was necessarily limited, confined to the circles of home and school. Children mistake their families for the world – how can they do anything else?

Yet, from a passage in The Transit of Venus describing the Bell sisters’ childhood in Sydney: “Once in a while, or all the time, there was the sense of something supreme and obvious waiting to be announced.”

In middle age, Caroline Bell expresses a wish to return to Australia to see what she was “incapable of seeing as a child”.

In The Transit of Venus – that great narrative of observation – an “antipodean” way of seeing is described as “a clear perception unmingled with suspiciousness”. Antipodean seeing is radical, interrupting “the smooth flow of acceptance”. It draws attention to what has been normalised and rendered invisible. Caro sees a heavy wardrobe in a room and thinks of the men who had to carry it up the stairs. Her insight is connected to the antipodean origins that make her an outsider in England; excluded from power, she can see how it works.

“Antipodean”, a term often used patronisingly in the northern hemisphere, is recouped here by Hazzard. Through spending time with Caro, Ted begins to see as she does. Antipodean seeing is accurate: a compliment smuggled into the most Australian of Hazzard’s books.

Down the years, whenever I’ve mentioned my admiration of Hazzard, there has always been someone – no, let me be accurate: there has always been an older man who wields intellectual and cultural power – to inform me that I’m quite wrong. Her Boyer Lectures of 1984, published as Coming of Age in Australia, are raised. Am I familiar with them? I admit that I’m not. Thereupon I’m assured that if only I knew Hazzard’s views on Australia, I would go over at once to Camp Contempt.

Coming of Age in Australia is held in any well-stocked library, but it remained the one work of Hazzard’s that I hadn’t read. I was afraid of what it would reveal: condescension, ignorance, snobbery, at best a glib dismissiveness – all these things had been implied or said. My editor, learning that I didn’t have a copy, kindly sent me his own. My reluctance to read the thing can be gauged from the promptness with which I lost it. The book had to be somewhere in my study, but although I searched and searched, I couldn’t find it. At last, after many tactical delays – it was too hot or too rainy or I was far too busy to go to the library – I borrowed a copy. When I couldn’t postpone the ordeal any longer, I opened the book and began to read gingerly, mentally peeping through fingers over eyes.

Hazzard depicts the Australia of her childhood, and the “great transformations” that had come by 1984. She opens modestly, referring to her “brief formal education”, describing herself as “an ignorant person”. She offers impressions of contemporary Australia that are generous and optimistic. I imagine her anticipating hostility to her criticisms and taking pains to make it clear that she sees the best in us, too. It’s a courteous approach. At the same time, it chafes. Would a man feel obliged to lead in that way? Even today, a woman writing in forthright, personal ways can feel it necessary to signal harmlessness at the outset. Maggie Nelson is about as different a writer from Hazzard as can be imagined, yet The Argonauts opens with a staging of physical and emotional vulnerability. The subtext in both cases is the same: “I am not a threat.”

Hazzard goes on to caution against nationalism and propose a vision of what the nation might yet be: cosmopolitan, kind, “living without an enemy”. She hopes for an Australian future that is open to the past, including “the prehistoric existence of Aboriginal peoples on this continent”, as well as to the world: to “the vast, diverse civilisation carried here by two centuries of new settlers”.

But Hazzard doesn’t flatter, and that stung. “Australia is not an innocent country. This nation’s short recorded history is shadowed, into the present day, by the fate of its native peoples, by forms of unyielding prejudice, by a strain of derision and unexamined violence, and by a persistent current of misogyny.” These criticisms, commonplace today, were considerably less so then. In 1984, in the wake of winning the America’s Cup and the lead-up to the Bicentenary, Australia was in the grip of an ebullient – shading into bullish – nationalism, the flipside of our chronic insecurity about our standing in the world. Into that climate, Hazzard delivered lectures that called the nation to account: among other things, for a whiny tendency to look on ourselves as beleaguered victims when we are one of the luckiest people on earth. Patrick White, too, had deplored the smallness of our big country, ramping up criticism with his trademark ferocity. But Hazzard had lived most of her life outside Australia, which from a nationalist perspective disqualified her from offering any opinion about the country that wasn’t wholly complimentary. Perhaps she thought that the merciless dissection of English cultural snobbery and American political arrogance in her work licensed her to call it as she saw it in regard to Australia. But that’s not how it plays.

Another thing – possibly the decisive factor: Hazzard’s tone throughout the lectures is lucidly trenchant. It’s enough for a woman to take that tone to get up the noses of certain men.

Shamefully, I had believed the men. The men were intelligent, credentialed and articulate. Those are explanations but there’s no excuse. I had failed to abide by the reader’s first principle: read it for yourself.

It’s my strong hope that everyone reading this will go on to read Hazzard for themselves.


This is an edited extract from On Shirley Hazzard by Michelle de Kretser (published by Black Inc. in association with the University of Melbourne and State Library Victoria, $17.99), available now.

Michelle de Kretser
Michelle de Kretser is the author of The Rose Grower, The Hamilton Case and The Lost Dog, which won the NSW Premier’s Book of the Year Award and the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction.

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