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Why Michelle de Kretser Wants You to Read Shirley Hazzard

Michael speaks with Michelle and Shirley Hazzard's biographer Brigitta Olubas about one of Australia's most underrated and underread authors.
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Michelle de Kretser began reading Shirley Hazzard well before she herself would become a writer, but she felt an early kinship, and two decades later it exploded into a full obsession. This week, Michael speaks with Michelle and Hazzard's biographer Brigitta Olubas about one of Australia's most underrated and underread authors.

 

Reading list:

The Evening of the Holiday, Shirley Hazzard, 1966

The Bay of Noon, Shirley Hazzard, 1970

The Transit of Venus, Shirley Hazzard, 1980

Greene on Capri, Shirley Hazzard, 2000

The Great Fire, Shirley Hazzard, 2003

On Shirley Hazzard: Writers on Writers, Michelle de Kretser, 2019

Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life, Brigitta Olubas, 2023

 

Prophet Song, Paul Lynch, 2023

So Close to Home, Mick Cummins, 2023

In Praise of Veg, Alice Zaslavsky, 2020

 

You can find these books and all the others we mentioned at your favourite independent book store. Or if you want to listen to them as audiobooks, you can head to the Read This reading room on Apple Books.

 

Socials: Stay in touch with Read This on Instagram and Twitter

Guest: Michelle de Kretser & Brigitta Olubas

Read Transcript

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten better at abandoning books that just aren’t working for me. Once upon a time I thought that once you started a book you had to follow it to the bitter end. But at this point, I’m too impatient. The to-read list is too long to wait for me to slog through reads that are all duty and no pleasure.

 

But occasionally, I’ve been grateful for that youthful perseverance. There are a handful of books that I wanted to abandon, that, having found a way in, having stuck with them through early doubts, are now favourites. 

 

And pretty high on that list for me is Shirley Hazzard. I love her now, but for many years I couldn’t get into any of her books.

 

And for the longest time, I kept my Hazzard scepticism secret, out of a sense of embarrassment – honestly, I’m feeling very exposed right now – but as is so often the case, I’ve since found out that even some of Shirley Hazzard’s most notable fans are readers who found her hard to first get into.

So this week we’re offering an entry point to the work of an Australian literary legend. And I’ve enlisted some help.


One writer whose work I love (and have never struggled with), is two-time Miles Franklin award winner Michelle de Kretser. And her enthusiasm for Shirley Hazzard is emphatic and long-standing.

 

MICHELLE: When I look back on half a lifetime of reading Shirley Hazzard Here's what I remember. The room in which I first read her; a cold Melbourne room high above a courtyard in which a green curtain had been drawn back from the window to admit afternoon light. And a different room, dimmer, filled with books. Also in Melbourne, in which I began to read The Transit of Venus for the second time. The scene of a tremendous revelation. 

 

Just in time to inform your summer reading, we’re making the case for why Shirley Hazzard is worth your time. 

 

From Schwartz Media, I’m Michael Williams with Read This, a show about the books we love and the stories behind them.

 

Shirley Hazzard’s most notable novels were her masterpiece The Transit of Venus, but also 1970’s The Bay of Noon and 2003’s National Book Award and Miles Franklin Award winner The Great Fire, but she was also celebrated for short stories and for works of nonfiction. 

 

And, it has to be said, she has remained woefully underread in Australia, her fans out here, and I count myself as one of them, are vocal advocates for her novels.

 

Michelle de Kretser isn’t just a fan of Shirley Hazzard’s: back in 2019 she wrote an essay about her as part of the Writers on Writers series. It’s a beautiful essay, it offers not only insights into Hazzard’s life, but also a masterclass on how to engage with her writing, illuminating the precision of her prose and the fierce humanity of her fiction.

 

But we’ll come to Michelle in just a bit. When we approached her to see if she would talk about Hazzard for Read This she was characteristically self-effacing; she said something like “I’ve just written a pamphlet. You need to get Brigitta. She’s written the big book.”

 

Brigitta is Brigitta Olubas, whose biography Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life has been critically acclaimed and award winning since its publication late last year. She is, by any measure, the world’s expert on Shirley Hazzard and why you should read her.

 

BRIGITTA: I first read The Transit of Venus a little after when it came out, so I read it in 1981. It's a story I've told quite often. My younger sister had left Tasmania. We'd grown up reading together. We were studying English and French at university. She'd gone to the big smoke, moved to Sydney. The Transit of Venus had been released in 1980, it was a big splash internationally and in Australia and she sent me a copy of the paperback and wrote inside, “I think this was written for you.” So I first read her, then I then came to Sydney and wrote my first graduate thesis on her work and then forgot about her like everyone else did for 20 years. And then The Great Fire came out in 2003 and she was blasted onto the literary pages again. And I read it and loved it. So I started writing scholarly work on her and then researching her archive and realised I was the only person kind of doing that. 

 

MICHAEL: I'm fascinated by your sister correctly identifying that this was a book for you – before you had come to the mainland, before you began a career as an academic. And it not only connected with you, but so well that it prompted you to want to write about it, write about her. What were the elements in it that spoke to you on that first reading? 

 

BRIGITTA: Certainly there was the sense that Australia was something worth writing about and an Australia that was somehow tangible and familiar. I'd not had that sense reading Patrick White. I mean, I loved reading Patrick White's novels as a young woman, but there was something that was not kind of accessible about present day Australia. So I loved that and I loved the prose above all. I think for anyone to love or to even enjoy reading Shirley Hazzard you need to be there for the sentences, you need to spend the time that they take to read, to reread, to slow down and rejoice in the poetry of them. I don't know of another stylist who gives as much at the level of a sentence as she does. And I've read them all many times now, and you'd think it would become familiar and it never does. I'm delighted, I gasp, you know, at the sound of a sentence all over again. 

  

MICHAEL: So walk me through those biographical beats. You know, tell me about her upbringing in Sydney and her parents. I mean, you write so beautifully in the biography about how deeply unhappy her parents’ marriage was. 

 

BRIGITTA: Yeah. There is a version she told of her childhood and upbringing, which is almost true. And that is, you know, I grew up, we had a nice house, I went to a good school – all of that is true – and my father was, you know, well, he became a diplomat. He was never a diplomat, he was trade commissioner, came out of industry, was very opportunistic and smart and made new opportunities for himself. Her mother was, I think, diagnosed later in life as bipolar and was very unwell, mentally unwell for all of Shirley’s life. So those two loathed each other. Her father was having affairs as they moved around the world, his mistress was travelling with them and then he finally ran off with her in the early 50s. And Shirley was left with her mother. But even before that, she recalled, she used to tell a story that when she was six or seven, her mother said, “We're going to kill ourselves together. Come with me and we'll put our heads in the oven together.” You know. So she's telling that story and then she's telling – well, I read in one of her mother's letters, “Oh, I remember you used to come and sit on the steps. And when I was doing my work in the kitchen and read poems to me when you were, you know, three or four and say, don't you think that's beautiful?” And you know, so her mother adored her, but her mother had this terrible kind of spiralling craziness that was never managed or was not managed until much later, and even then not well. And so after the father ran off, Shirley was left in a tiny flat in Manhattan with a stenographer's job with her mother, who was, you know, screaming and crying and, you know, day after day. And then she sent her back to Australia and then kind of her life began. 

 

MICHAEL: She went back to Australia she did a stint in Hong Kong then New Zealand then back to New York just in time for her parents to finally separate. Was she a lonely person with that kind of moving, or did she, not withstanding the unhappy love affairs or ultimately unhappy love affairs…

 

BRIGITTA: She was very lonely. Loneliness, isolation, being misunderstood are constants in all her diary, writing, all her notebooks. Even, you know, 20 years into a 30 year happy marriage, it's still this sense of isolation. And then after her husband dies, she's back in the…you know. So, yes, she felt very alone.

 

MICHAEL: So let's let's jump, if we can, to Shirley, the writer, that career really started with a piece that she got published in The New Yorker, yeah?

 

BRIGITTA: Yes. So this is another one of the stories that Shirley Hazzard liked to tell. She said, “You know, the first story I ever wrote only kept one copy. I only made one copy. And I sent it off to The New Yorker. And Mr. William Maxwell pulled it out of the slush pile and said, ‘We want to publish it and please write me some more.” And I was in a house with some of my friends in Italy and I opened the letter and read, you know, yes, was very happy. So on. And I went up, walked across the hills to Siena and bought a notebook and opened at the back and started writing at the back because I didn't think my thoughts were important enough to write from the front. I found that notebook, and she did indeed start from the back. But in fact, what happened was, while she'd been staying at that house of friends outside Siena, the son of the owners of the house, Arturo Vivaldi had wanted to become a writer himself. And the house took paying guests who were mainly literary and artistic people from the US and the UK and one of the New Yorker kind of figures, Dwight MacDonald, had been staying in the house and he'd taken some of Arturo’s stories to the editors at The New Yorker and Arturo was published. So the next year, when Shirley came back in the summer to stay, Arturo said, “Send one to Dwight MacDonald. He might take it to the editors.” And that's exactly what happened. So she wasn't pulled out of the slush pile. She had a direct line to the most important editor at The New Yorker. And William Maxwell said, “We've never seen anything like this, like it's this perfectly formed writer. Where did she do her apprenticeship? No one knows. Obviously, just under her own eyes”. And I mean, she never kept drafts there amongst two papers. There's a lot of stuff there, but there's the final typescript of some of her books and some stories, and there's no draft. So she liked that idea that she kind of was perfectly formed and didn't need to practise. 

 

MICHAEL: I also have to say there's something very endearing about her gilding the lily on the story, being enamoured with the romance of it as well, which I think… very relatable. // So in 1963, she met the man who would be her husband. Tell us about that. 

 

BRIGITTA: So she became very good friends with Muriel Spark. And Muriel said to Shirley one January, January 1963, “You need to come to a party at my place this evening. The man you're going to marry is going to be there.” And Shirley said Muriel had this thing that she had second sight and you like it. Anyway, she nearly didn't go. It was cold, she had a cold. A man came in. He was very tall. He was wearing an excellent overcoat. So she always had an eye for the classy outfit. And they sat on the arms of an armchair together and talked. And then she said and when we walked out, you know, when we left, well you might as well say we went off and got married.

 

The relationship with Francis Steegmuller was complex. I mean, he's a very complex figure. But what's important about it is the devotion of the two of them to each other. // And there is safety and security. And also she's found someone for whom the life of the mind, the life, you know, the words on the page are hugely important. And they spent, you know, famously, this was a story she told, starting in about the early 1980s. So for the last decade of his life, they read together Shakespeare, Herodotus, Thucydides you know, they they read the classics of Western literature. And I think the reading aloud was a way to reconnect with him, to keep him in in the zone with her.

 

MICHAEL: It must have been. I mean he died in 94 at the age of 88, and she lived well beyond that. 

 

BRIGITTA: And heartbroken, a very successful and happy life. In one sense. She had, you know, two really successful books out, the Greene on Capri and The Great Fire won the National Book Award, won the Miles Franklin bestseller Good Friends, A Wonderful Life. Plenty of money. Well, until she didn't have plenty of money. And every day in the diaries she is she cannot bear it, she misses him, she's alone. You know, here I am doing the things that we did together, but I'm doing them alone. And I decided with the biography to not hurry that last chapter to give the weight of attention to not just her grief, which was very real and tangible. Although, as some friend said, there was a sense of performance about it as well, but also to that loneliness, to the end of a life, to a woman alone. You know, the kind of story that we might hurry over because it's no longer glittering and full of promise and so on. 

 

MICHAEL:  Is she sufficiently recognised and valued in our culture? 

 

BRIGITTA: There has been a revival of interest, certainly since her death. There were several other revivals of interest. The Great Fire brought her back and Transit of Venus. It was ten years between The Bay of Noon and The Great Fire. So we're used to kind of losing her and having her come back. But I think there's this lovely sense over the last few years of lots of young writers discovering her for the first time and being just galvanised by the quality of the writing. I've never read anything like this before. So the idea for going out of, you know, eye shot and then coming back and again blasting back in again with these big successful novels or reissues, there's a kind of lovely logic to that, too, because it does charge the writing with a sense of novelty all over again. 

 

When we return, it’s Michelle de Kretser’s turn to make the case for Shirley Hazzard and she explains why, no matter how long a writer lives in Australia, whether they love it or hate it, they will be marked by it. We’ll be right back.

 

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Michelle de Kretser began reading Shirley Hazzard well before she herself would become a writer, but she felt an early kinship that continued to blossom and two decades later exploded into a full obsession, one that has had rippling effects throughout Michelle’s own writing career.

 

MICHAEL: Michelle de Kretser. Tell me about that first time you read Shirley Hazzard's work? 

 

MICHELLE: Oh, so the first book of hers that I read was The Bay of Noon. And I must've been about 23 at the time. And I suppose it was the first Australian novel that I read that was looking outwards away from Australia. The books I had read by Australian writers were largely set, largely with rural settings, and I had no ambition whatsoever of being a writer at this point. But I had been a lifelong reader and I felt that reading Australian literature offered me very little. I felt my foreignness very much reading those kinds of Australian books. And I suppose as a reader, I was looking for toeholds, a way to understand the country and the society around me. And these books didn't offer it to me. And I thought, “Oh, you can be in Australia reading a book by an Australian writer and see yourself mirrored in it.” And that was a big thing for me. 

 

MICHAEL: I don't remember Bay of Noon well. What stays with you about that book and the descriptions of Naples?  

 

MICHELLE: You think it's a novel about a love story. In fact, it's a novel about friendship. It's a friendship between two women. So there is Jenny, who's the English protagonist, and there is Gioconda who's the Italian woman, somewhat older. And they become friends and the friendship is described in some detail and wonderfully evoked again. And then they betray each other. And the novel ends after they have not seen each other for many years, many, many years. And Jenny, older now, is on her way to see Gioconda for the first time. And that's where it ends. 

 

MICHAEL: I love that idea of putting that friendship at the centre of the story. And also, betrayal is a great engine for fiction. 

 

MICHELLE:  Betrayal is a great engine for fiction. 

 

MICHAEL:  Possibly one of the best…

 

MICHELLE:  Yeah. 

 

MICHAEL: Just disappointed, resentful, all of that. 

 

MICHELLE: Yeah. Yeah. But they do it, so it's not even really acknowledging to themselves that they're doing it, which is, of course, fascinating. I mean, she's a great writer of character. After I'd read The Bay of Noon, I read her first novel, which is The Evening of the Holiday, which is very beautiful, also set in Italy. But that is really a love story. It doesn't have that extra force. 

 

MICHAEL: Is that the kind of reader you've always been? If you discover an author and you love this stuff, you have to go back? Are you a completist? 

 

MICHELLE: Yeah, I’m a completist, totally. 

 

MICHAEL:  So you had to be in the Hazzard game at that point? 

 

MICHELLE: Yeah, I had to. Although then the terrible thing was and I'm ashamed to admit it, I then read The Transit of Venus, which had recently been published and had won, you know, large prizes overseas, not in Australia, of course. And I was terribly disappointed. 

 

MICHAEL: I'm so thrilled that you're confessing this because I tried Transit of Venus three times and couldn't get into it. And it was only after reading The Great Fire….

 

MICHELLE: Oh, you went back. 

 

MICHAEL: I went back and then it unlocked something about Transit of Venus for me. And I had a wonderful time with it. But I really I'm pretty sure it's three times that I because people I trusted said, read this book. She's a really important writer. You need to read it. And I just. I couldn't get it 

 

MICHELLE: No, me neither! You know, Francis Steegermuller, Hazzard’s  husband, said no one should have to read The Transit of Venus for the first time. And, you know. Anyway, I then just sort of put it on my shelves and forgot about it, really, for, I would say, 20 years. And then I read, um, Greene on Capri, which was her memoir about Graham Greene. And I really enjoyed it and putting it back on my shelves. I just, you know, drew out The Transit of Venus and stood there, started to read it. And it was really, you know, the lightning bolt, the road to Damascus moment – I was utterly converted.

 

MICHAEL: That’s so good when that happens. Tell me about coming to it and reading it for the first time all over again. 

 

MICHELLE: Reading it for the first time, I suppose. I mean, you know. Well, you know, the beauty of the prose, but that's always there in Hazzard. The intelligence of the design and the audacity of it. So, you know, I think on page three or five or something, the main male protagonist's death is announced that he will die in a hotel. And you have to get to the end of the novel to find out why. And in fact, his death happens off the page. But you know that it's going to happen because you remember what happened, what you read on page three. So it's really one of the most brilliant and audacious foreshadowings I know of. It is like a piece of clockwork, that book. And every time you read it, you notice another bit that slots into place and that refers back to something or refers forward to something. 

 

Throughout her life, Shirley Hazzard was an outspoken critic of Australia, and many of her books explore the fraught relationship she had with this country. In an interview in the Paris Review from 2005 she said that ‘the Australia of my childhood was a place that one might want to escape from. The narrowness of just about every outlook, the overt rawness, and the hypocritical puritanism, weighed heavily even on one’s uncomprehending spirit. I realised early that “nothing would come of nothing,” and that I wanted to be away. I was not alone in this, thousands of Australians felt it”. It’s not surprising then that her success in Australia was limited and her fame reached its highest peaks during the time she lived in America. 

 

MICHAEL: Do you think The Transit of Venus is the most reckoning with Australia and Australian identity she does on the page, arguably? 

 

MICHELLE: Yeah, I guess so there is stuff in The Great Fire, too though. You know, one of the things that gets overlooked is that Hazzard – I mean, she wrote very openly about the White Australia policy in that book because the Australian man in that book, Peter Exley, falls in love with a woman of mixed race. And he's, well he may be reluctant to get married because he's a kind of man who's reluctant to commit himself, but he’s also really aware that to bring a woman who's not white into Australia at the time will mean difficulties for her. So, you know, I think that was some that was quite something really. And I know that that novel was often disparaged, this is The Great Fire now, for presenting a negative view of Australia. And I think, well, you know, I don't think it was a good place in the 1950s, you know, I think there was a lot that was really horrible about Australia in the 1950s.  

 

MICHAEL: Do you think she got that criticism because she was an expatriate? Did you think if she lived here, she could get away with it? 

 

MICHELLE: Of course, of course. I mean, Australians, we just do not forgive people for moving away. And she's really not forgiven for that. I wrote in one of my novels, in one of my novels, there is a character who is writing a Ph.D. or some kind of thesis on Hazzard. And at one point, she makes a little list called something like “What is Wrong with Shirley Hazzard?” One, she is a woman. Two, she's a great artist. Three, she told the truth. And four, she stayed away instead of coming home to be punished for one to three. And I think that is really true. 

 

MICHAEL: You know, I think it is. // Is it useful or meaningful to think of Hazzard as an Australian writer? 

 

MICHELLE: Oh, I think it is because it says to me that a lot of different kinds of people can be Australian writers. You know, you don't have to have been someone who has spent all your life here, but you have to have been marked by Australia in some way. And I think that's absolutely true of her. I mean, I left Sri Lanka when I was 14, Hazzard left Australia when she was 16, I think for the first time. You cannot spend that amount of time in a place and not be marked by it. You will carry its cadences with you for the rest of your life. You may love it. You may hate it. You may repudiate it. But you will be marked by it. 

 

MICHAEL: I mean, part of it, too, is – and it comes back a bit to the expatriate thing – but is writing about Australia as an outsider, even if you live your whole life here, that idea about where the establishment voice comes from and how you can push against that. And I think that's something that's incredibly useful. 

 

MICHELLE: Absolutely. Absolutely. And has said she's always, you know, it's the voice of the outsider, whether she's writing about Australia or. Wherever the United States, England, you know, she's on the side of  the Australian colonials when she is in Britain being condescended to by the British. But she's absolutely on the side of the Japanese who are being condescended to by Australian officials when she's writing about Hiroshima. 

 

MICHAEL: Yeah. 

 

MICHELLE: So she's always with whoever is, you know, the underdog. And perhaps that's also a very Australian thing, you know. 

 

MICHAEL: Not unlike your work, I would say. Do you feel a sense of influence there, or is it more kind of just a simpatico? 

 

MICHELLE: I think that any writer is part of an ecology. You know, you're part of the forest. And Hazzard was a very big tree in my part of the forest. One of the things you find again and again in Hazzard is an absolute affirmation of the value of art of any kind. So, you know, she's one who makes you feel it's worth going on.

 

MICHAEL: That's pretty great. I love that.

 

MICHAEL: Michelle de Kretser, thank you so much for your time. 

 

MICHELLE: Thank you so much, Michael. 

 

You can get Michelle de Kretser’s essay on Shirley Hazzard as part of the Writers on Writers series and Brigitta Olubas' biography of Hazzard at all good bookstores now.

 

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Before we go…

 

You may have seen the announcement of this year’s Booker Prize: Prophet Song by Paul Lynch. It’s a dystopian novel set in a grim vision of fascist Ireland and it’s… fine. Regular listeners to Read This might recall that I was far more enthusiastic about another Irish Paul on the shortlist: Paul Murray’s The Bee Sting was my pick, but clearly I was wrong!

 

And, as promised, two more picks for my own Christmas wishlist: I’m hoping some kind person will buy me Mick Cummins' novel of homelessness and addiction So Close to Home. He’s a local writer and it’s a debut that’s already attracting great reviews. And I’d also like a copy of Alice Zaslavsky’s In Praise of Veg. It’s a cookbook, but Alice is as charming a writer as she is a broadcaster, and every one of her recipes I’ve tried so far has been a sensation. So, yes please.

 

You can find these books and all the others we mentioned at your favourite independent book store. Or if you want to listen to them as audiobooks, you can head to the Read This reading room on Apple Books at apple.co/readthis. There’s a link in our show notes.

 

That’s it for this week’s show. If you enjoyed it, please tell your friends about it – and rate and review us.  

 

 

Read This is produced and edited by Clara Ames.

 

Mixing & original compositions by Zoltan Fecso

 

Thanks for listening. See you next week.

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