December 2020 – January 2021

Arts & Letters

Shirley Hazzard’s wider world

By Geordie Williamson

© Lorrie Graham Photographer 1980

The celebrated Australian author’s ‘Collected Stories’ sets private desperation in the cosmopolitan Europe she revered

At the baroque zenith of their national splendour during the 17th century, it was said of the French that, much like the Ancient Romans, they regarded themselves as citizens of the world. So cosmopolitan was their outlook, went the story, that in all the tragedies of Racine – the neoclassical Gallic Shakespeare – not a single Frenchman appears.

You have to squint hard to spot an Australian in Shirley Hazzard’s collected short stories, too. Though probably not because our mid 20th-century soft power was world-bestriding. The denizens of upscale, upstate 1960s New York are well represented in Hazzard’s fiction. So too are elegantly faded postwar Italian aristocrats in Sienna and mid-Atlantic bureaucrats at international organisations in Geneva. Even smart young Englishmen living in country houses that date back to Racine’s time rate mention.

But the compatriots of Hazzard’s formative years are missing: an omission eloquent in itself. The author left Australia in her teens, after years spent exiled in Sydney’s rural western fringe, where her school had been moved due to fears of wartime invasion. Hazzard later wrote of the loneliness of this period, the ways in which books became her companions and her windows on a wider world.

After time in Hong Kong and New Zealand following World War Two, Hazzard moved to New York, where for some years she occupied a modest position at the United Nations and, intermittently, made her way to Europe – Italy in particular – ground zero for the literature and culture she revered. 

The ’50s and ’60s were, of course, a high-water mark for international organisations, despite the subzero geopolitics of the Cold War. Resolve for peace and comity between nations is never stronger than the years after they are weakest. And the Hazzard who wrote these stories was very much a product of her time: an internationalist and humanist who belonged to an emerging mobile, liberal, cosmopolitan middle class. 

These were decades out of the dreams of a Mad Men set designer. A world of substandard continental plumbing and hand signals for turning automobiles, of telephone party lines and chenille dressing gowns. 

It was a milieu in which bourgeois companionate marriage was the default, class rather than identity the prism though which judgements were made, and men were permitted broad latitude for emotional sadism. An era, then, of endless summer afternoons and suburban adultery.

But it was also a time when poetry was still memorised and quoted, witty conversation was prized, and a general high-mindedness still obtained, even when events exposed its hypocrisy. And it is from that point of disjunction – between the impeccable surfaces of this mid-century world and the private desperation of the characters who inhabit it – that Hazzard’s fiction sets out. 

Take the early “A Place in the Country”, which appeared in The New Yorker of June 1963. Clem and May, a middle-aged couple, are hosting a much younger cousin named Nettie at their holiday house for the summer. The story opens as the two women unpack books – Byron, Galsworthy, George Meredith – intended to occupy May while her husband goes back to work in the city during the week. 

This bubble of handsome domestic complacency is punctured almost immediately, when the reader learns that Clem has told Nettie he is in love with her. Unwitting May leaves the house for the day to collect one of their children who has been staying with his grandmother, and the would-be lovers are left with one remaining son and each other:

While they played dominoes, the day deteriorated. They sat down to lunch with a Sunday halfheartedness, Clem short-tempered from not having had his way and Kenny petulant from having had his. Marion, the maid, came and went between the kitchen and the dining room, as though they were, all three, fractious children who needed supervision. The cold meat that had seemed a good idea in the morning now simply contributed to the day’s feeling of being left over.

This atmosphere, of general unease, masculine frustration and feminine confusion, continues during a blustery afternoon walk on the beach:

Nettie struggled to fold the flapping triangle of her scarf over her hair. After she had accomplished this, Kenny put his hand in hers, but when Clem took her hand on the other side the child pulled away and ran ahead of them down the beach.

“Children know everything,” Nettie said.

“Well, they have a kind of insight into fundamentals. I don’t think one can call that knowledge.” He would not let her withdraw her hand from his. “You look such an orphan in that raincoat.”

When May is detained at her mother’s because of illness, the longed-for, dreaded affair is initiated. Clem is aroused; Nettie smitten. And in the weeks to come she is driven to ponder the meaning of those customs that keep her from Clem:

Why do men ever marry, she wondered. I can understand that women must have something of the sort—it is our nature, she thought vaguely—but why men? … Because nothing better has been worked out? But they don’t even expect anything better; the limitations are flagrantly justified, like restrictions in a war, in the interests of national security. She told herself reprovingly, it is an institution—but this produced a mental picture of a large brick building not unlike a nineteenth-century prison.

It takes 14 pages to get from story’s opening to lover’s first embrace, then a mere paragraph break for May to suspect the lovers. The narrative’s second half unfolds under the grey light of those awaiting sentencing.

Things go pretty much as expected. Clem is brought to heel. He tells Nettie he can no longer see her – that she should go abroad for a time and, when she returns, May will treat her with heroic forbearance for appearance’s sake. Though Nettie, for whom this is her first love, remains pinned by grief in her city apartment. 

Hazzard can be brutal to her characters, yet the blast of adult knowledge she delivers the girl is arctic:

Calamity has a generalizing effect, and as yet she could foresee her suffering only in a monumental way and not in its inexorable, annihilating detail. She considered her resources, ranging her ideas, her secrets carefully against the unapprehended future. But ideas don’t supplant feelings, she thought; rather, they prepare us for, sustain us in our feelings.

“We suffer because our demands are unreasonable or disorderly,” concludes Nettie. “But if reason is inescapable, so is humanity. We are human beings, not rational ones.”

The total effect of this story, from its blithe beginning to its sad, ambiguous end, is that of a writer in mature command of her art and the bitter wisdom it has to impart. It should not surprise us that William Maxwell at The New Yorker readily accepted this and many of the other stories by Hazzard that make up this new volume.

What does surprise is that Hazzard was barely 30 when she wrote it. The sophistication of her characters’ outlook and the variousness of their perspectives – male, female, young, old, predatory, guileless – are insightful and deft. Then there is the formal, mannered, even stately progress of an ostensibly chaotic tale of passion. And finally, there is the sheer epigrammatic verve of the piece: lines so polished and complete they beg quotation, and once lifted free of the text stand proudly by themselves.

Most important, however, is Hazzard’s acknowledgement and acceptance of the crooked timber from which her human cast is formed: material from which (in Immanuel Kant’s famous line) no straight thing can be made. This is where love of culture and a quick mind become registers of moral worth in the Australian’s work. If it is the case, as one of her character’s admits, that “one doesn’t really profit from experience; one merely learns to predict the next mistake”, then it comes down to the eloquence with which we enunciate our human predicaments – or the grace with which we bear them.

The second section of this collection comprises stories from People in Glass Houses, first published in 1967, all set at an international body referred to simply as “the Organization”. They make explicit the contrast between societal structures built according to rigid geometry and yet populated by creatures made from organic stuff.

In “Nothing to Excess” we meet a mid-level pen pusher of mediocre intellect, Mr Bekkus, dictating a memo to his secretary. We know the state of his soul because of the way he uses language:

Mr. Bekkus frequently misused the word “hopefully.” He also made a point of saying locate instead of find, utilize instead of use, and never lost an opportunity to indicate or communicate; and would slip in a “basically” when he felt unsure of his ground.

But he also has the power to hire and fire, and we learn he is set to force into retirement a man utterly unlike himself. 

Algie Wyatt is corpulent and breathless: a heavy drinker and extravagant eater. He works as a lowly translator for the Organization, alongside a sharp, attractive middle-aged widow named Lydia who thrills to the cast of Algie’s mind: its magpie attentiveness to the small absurdities of the world, the way he cherishes language for its own sake. 

Wyatt was a foreign correspondent during the Spanish Civil War. During wartime in the Middle East, he knocked up a helpful primer on Arabic for the troops. He is a man of culture and learning, an aristocrat in spirit. And so, it follows, the Organization has no room for him:

The nature—what Mr. Bekkus would have called the “aim”—of the Organization was such as to attract people of character; having attracted them, it found it could not afford them, that there was no room for personalities, and that its hope for survival lay, like that of all organizations, in the subordination of individual gifts to general procedures.

Hazzard, whose years at the United Nations began in youthful idealism but whose burnt ends may be found in these stories and two crisply furious works of non-fiction, allows Wyatt to borrow some of her graces here. He makes it to Spain with his severance money. Hazzard, following marriage to American biographer and translator Francis Steegmuller, was eventually able to make Europe her second home as well.

If the later Organization stories are funnier, they don’t glow quite as brightly. Possibly because the dreary or tragic facts of bureaucratic life she identifies don’t have the saving beauties of place for contrast. Hazzard is a brilliant scene-setter, and her European stories in particular manage to take the sting out of human misery by placing it within a frame of exquisite picturesqueness: the sun-drilled landscape of Tuscany, or a Home Counties meadow in spring.

This is why, when readers come to the final section of the Collected Stories, which includes some fine previously uncollected pieces by Hazzard, there is the shock of discovery – a solitary piece with an Australian setting. 

“Woollahra Road” is redolent of antipodean place during a drought year in Sydney during the 1930s. The light, the heat, the native birds – even the box of groceries delivered from Anthony Hordern & Sons – is representative of that same quality of noticing that makes Hazzard’s other stories so rich and complete.

Yet this story is the exception proving the rule. It refers, in the middle of a baking summer, to Christmas cards arriving from abroad, bearing images of snow and smoking chimneys – “brief representations of that other, authoritative world where seasons were reversed”. 

Meanwhile, back in Tuscany and in a superior story, simply entitled “Harold”, an English painter staying in a villa for the summer makes the point to a dinner party that, in Italy, “everything has been done, as it were – even this landscape has been done to the point where one becomes a detail in a canvas”.

On the evidence of Shirley Hazzard’s short stories, the author was always drawn to that authoritative world that was Europe: an idea as much as a region, and one subtle and perfected by time. 

European culture furnished a backdrop – splendid and festive, solemn and stylised – against which the characters of her own imagination might be ennobled or condemned, or at least granted volume and shape. No articulate, conscious life could proceed, in her view, without acknowledgement of the civilisations on which that life was built.

Geordie Williamson

Geordie Williamson is a writer, editor and critic.


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