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Shirley Hazzard’s Republic of Letters

How the novelist came by her exquisite style

Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life by Brigitta Olubas. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 576 pages.

In writing about the novelist Shirley Hazzard, one should probably begin with a poem. After all, this is someone who said that poetry not only “opened [her] mind and [her] heart” but “changed the facts of [her] life,” too; someone whose early encounter with the poetry of Thomas Hardy was a literary coup de foudre (late in life, she would recite “After a Journey” and, as a friend recalls, “The distance between the poem and its meaning to her . . . seemed to collapse altogether”); someone who, in order to express her disgust with Richard Nixon, wrote his initials in the margins of Byron’s Don Juan next to many lines, including, “An orator of such set trash of phrase, / Ineffably, legitimately vile”; someone who struck up a friendship with Graham Greene when, sitting by him at a cafe in Capri, she provided him with the last line of Robert Browning’s “The Lost Mistress.” From memory, he got all the way to “I will hold your hand but as long as all may,” leaving her to add, “Or so very little longer.”

The poet Rosanna Warren was close with Hazzard, first through her parents, Robert Penn Warren and Eleanor Clark, then on her own. In her poem “Le Silence,” Warren describes two sculptured forms, a man and a woman. They appear “Crystal figures in a / mineral world,” somehow both vulnerable to the world’s grossness and above it. “The man / supplicates,” the speaker says, while “the woman demurs / floodlit in pelvic tilt.” Then, the speaker revises things: “Or / say: she supplicates, he demurs.” Who is doing the supplicating, who the demurring, is unclear; what we know is that this is a moment of passion, of desire presented and withheld, and that somehow the artist has chiseled it into lasting form. The poem concludes:

                         . . . The past

has been incinerated, the
       future stalled; they now
               inhabit the

unspeakable, oh, but with
       such style: sorrow
               petrified gives off its own

glow in masque, tableau, sacrifice,
       sanctum, infinity contracted
                to a high, inhuman, fashionable gloss.

In such festivals
       do we pass our
               hours upon earth.

These stanzas, enraptured by the style and glow of sculpture, drawn to its inhabiting of erotic desire and the sorrow that comes with it, could just as easily describe the prose of Shirley Hazzard. For sorrow petrified, try “A Place in the Country,” her 1963 story of a young woman’s short-lived love affair. “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.” For high, inhuman gloss, sample any sentence on Tertia, a chilly beauty from her 1980 novel The Transit of Venus: “So sleekly pretty, so fair and tall that she seemed an advertisement for something very costly.”

For Hazzard, to see life aesthetically was to see life as it really was.

To be sure, Hazzard knew the world in all its mineral coarseness. She grounded her exquisite style in earthly plots: petty jealousies; romantic betrayals; boring office jobs. Her fiction has an awareness of place and exhibits impressive geographical range, appropriate for a woman who was born in Australia but lived all over. She frequently took on history—multiple characters visit Hiroshima after its decimation—and she worked at the United Nations for almost a decade, an experience she satirized in the collection People in Glass Houses: a UN-like organization senses that “its hope for survival lay, like that of all organizations, in the subordination of individual gifts to general procedures.” Yet her writing is at its most characteristic when at its highest pitch, when her prose and the details it includes approach the condition of music, or poetry, or sculpture. In her 1970 novel The Bay of Noon, Hazzard describes Naples, a city that she loved and where she spent a great deal of time: “Ordinariness, the affliction and backbone of other cities, was here non-existent. Phrases I had always thought universal—the common people, the average family, the typical reaction, ordinary life—had no meaning where people were all uncommon and life extraordinary.”

This was one of Hazzard’s greatest gifts as a writer: to show how life, when seen through the prism of style, partakes of the monumentality of art. For Hazzard, to see life aesthetically was to see life as it really was. Her four novels and two collections of stories are filled with details distilled to perfection: an older woman seen as “a straight stem, flowering into a nimbus of white hair”; another woman whose face has “the gloss of a ripe olive” and who moves with “the curving, sinuous walk of Hazlitt’s Sally Walker.” That last detail refers to a woman William Hazlitt became besotted with and then wrote about in Liber Amoris. Hazzard’s allusiveness emerges naturally, the precipitate of a life lived in and through reading.

For Hazzard, perceptual attention is a form of love, and love is the noblest thing there is. In a scene from The Transit of Venus, a wealthy widower named Adam Vail is in a hotel room with a woman, Caro Bell. He looks at a painting on the wall, then he looks at Caro, “her sleeve, of some dark-reddish colour, burn[ing] in lamplight.” Looking leads to thinking: “Watching her, he was thinking how, in some great pictures, every particle of the light is usual, daily, and at the same time a miracle: which is no more than the precise truth.” At another moment in the same novel, a decidedly unpoetic character, briefly in love, sees the world anew: “The curves of earth and water had become landmarks not to be taken for granted. Above all, he had perceived in the human form the sweet glory of the elms and oaks of Battersea: he saw men as trees walking.” In the Gospel of Mark, it’s the blind man, miraculously given sight by Jesus, who sees men as trees walking. Beauty, love, desire, art: for Hazzard, these things are revelatory in the deepest sense of the word.

As such, if ever there were a writer who required a biographer of style and sensibility, it’s Shirley Hazzard. Everyone who knew her commented on her elegance and charm, her sense that beauty—beautiful books, beautiful conversations, beautiful landscapes—mattered more than anything. A character in The Transit of Venus complains that “beauty is the forbidden word of our age.” Hazzard’s work, and her life (she died in 2016), attempted to reclaim beauty, to say the word (it appears, in one form or another, more than forty times in The Transit of Venus) and note its manifestations without embarrassment. To write well on Hazzard, one must believe that, as one of her characters observes, beauty can be “a vindication,” its own justification.

Lucky for Hazzard, she has found an ideal chronicler in Brigitta Olubas, whose Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life is an exemplary work of biographical criticism. Olubas is an excellent portraitist. She can capture small things, like Hazzard’s tone of voice: her accent some combination of an Englishness cut loose from England, with a trace of Scots and the from-nowhere tones of mid-century middle-class Australia, an accent heard nowadays only in old newsreels.” But she’s just as sharp on big things, like Hazzard’s early tendency to fall, dramatically and disastrously, for married men: “There was a sense across these experiences of an inclination for complication—of access, of security, of desire itself—that almost always precluded any chance of a happy conclusion.” This isn’t just a good account of Hazzard. With its cadenced triplet of prepositional phrases (“of access, of security, of desire itself”), it reads like Hazzard—a kind of free indirect criticism.

Olubas has a good ear: she hears resonances and echoes; she senses when irony (and Hazzard is a great ironist) gives way to melodrama. (In her fiction, Hazzard constantly walks the line of the too-much, the over-the-top. Coincidences pile up, planes crash, and affairs that another writer might mine for squalor become in her hands almost mythic.) Such an ear is a necessity when reading Hazzard; it’s no accident that among her strongest admirers were poets like Anthony Hecht and James Merrill. She once wrote of Merrill, who pressed copies of The Transit of Venus on anyone who would have them, that “he had the generous talent of bringing out the best in his friends; one rose to his articulate occasion.” I’m pleased to say that Olubas rises to Hazzard’s articulate occasion as well. 

Before Olubas took up her task, Hazzard reshaped her own biography in essays and interviews, returning to old loves and creatively misremembering facts. Born in Sydney in 1931, she loved Australia’s light and shoreline but hated its hostility to culture and intelligence. At eight, she was reading Browning. At nine or ten, she enjoyed Conrad and Dickens. As a teenager, she had a “rapturous enthusiasm” for Auden and a similar affection for Hardy. Her father worked in various diplomatic posts and, by the age of twenty, Hazzard had lived in Hong Kong, New Zealand, and New York. In Hong Kong, at the age of sixteen, she worked for British intelligence during the Chinese Civil War. Of her time in New Zealand, she would remember, “I was so far from everything I wanted to be close to . . . I was just immured there.” What she wanted to be close to was poetry and romance; she felt immured in a life of governmental ceremony and vapid conversation.

Hazzard reshaped her own biography in essays and interviews, returning to old loves and creatively misremembering facts.

When her father was posted to New York City in 1951, she began working at the UN. She was quickly disappointed by the organization’s bureaucratic temerity and her work—type up this memo; file that report—was generally uninspiring. But it wasn’t all a loss. She had a few office love affairs: each dramatic and ultimately unfulfilling; each testing romance’s limits and, as she said of love in a later story, “br[inging] about a concentration of all one’s energies.” The UN did something else: it sent her to Naples for an assignment in 1956. Olubas presents the reader with a letter Hazzard wrote upon first arriving. She’d wanted to go to Italy for years. Finally, she was there, and immediately she knew that this beautiful country devoted to beautiful things was where she was meant to be. Olubas notes the letter’s rhythms: ”plain monosyllables give way to a sequence of dependent clauses and adjectival phrases separated by a string of commas, [all] drawing us into the story.” Then, she points out that Hazzard’s letter uses a phrase, “It is simply that,” that she would repurpose for the opening of The Transit of Venus, almost twenty-five years later.

Hazzard began visiting Italy every summer, staying for long stretches with the Vivante family at their sun-drenched home, the Villa Solaia, near Siena. As Olubas writes, “Here was the weight of momentous event and of individual self-realisation that had not, Shirley felt, been possible in the country or the family of her birth.” In exploring events and refining her self, she began writing—first poems, then stories. In 1961, her first story was published in the New Yorker. In that same year, she signed a first reading contract with the magazine. In January 1962, she resigned from the UN. She was a writer.

A year later, Hazzard married Francis Steegmuller, a biographer who shared her aesthetic sensibility and stately elegance: Julian Barnes said of Steegmuller that “even his socks . . . were judicial: very long, very black and very silky.” Olubas points to “their shared tastes—with Taste itself, honed through assiduous application, so essential to both.” The two were set up by the novelist Muriel Spark, with whom Hazzard remained close for decades before they fell out in the 1980s. (They called one another Shirlers and Mu.) Hazzard admired, or at least found thrilling, Spark’s “horrifying habit of telling everyone the truth.” Indeed, at one point before Hazzard and Steegmuller were married, Spark warned that he might be gay—something that others who knew him also speculated upon and an issue that Olubas treats with admirable tact.

Hazzard and Steegmuller read Gibbon and Auden and Seneca aloud; they went to the opera; they wrote. They knew, and had to dinner, the literary guests worth knowing and dining with: Ralph Ellison, Richard Howard, John Updike, Dwight Macdonald, Elizabeth Bowen. Another friend, Alfred Kazin, said that “the Steegmullers had this gift of turning their dinner guests into replicas of their social graces”; to spend time with Hazzard in particular was to see “that love is a form of intelligence—a way of listening to the world, of taking it in, of rising above one’s angry heart.” As Olubas writes, the marriage was, “in a sense, what [Hazzard] had always dreamed of.”

If her early years were peripatetic by accident, her later years were cosmopolitan by choice. Throughout much of her adult life, Hazzard moved back and forth between New York City and Capri, where she loved “the rural nature of the island’s life” and became a fully integrated member of the community. In the mid-1970s, she, along with other locals, became annoyed by a new priest who, in her words, installed “nightmarish electronic chimes at the Duomo which brayed forth pop songs.” Hazzard asked Greene, another frequenter of the island, if he knew anyone who could stop this atrocity. She wrote a letter in Italian that Greene mailed to the Pope. The music stopped. In 2000, Hazzard became an honorary citizen of Capri. While Hazzard would return to Australia a few times late in life, she had become what she had wanted to be: a citizen of the Republic of Letters.

Hazzard’s four novels—The Evening of the Holiday, The Bay of Noon, The Transit of Venus, and The Great Fire—all emerged, in deeply transfigured form, from her life: from conversations over dinner and summers in Italy, from the books she’d read and the loves she’d had. (She wrote two deeply critical books of nonfiction about the UN as well—another example, less lovely to be sure, of writing emerging from living.) For Hazzard, life and literature were warp and weft, a single, beautiful thing woven together. It was all a matter of style.

The Transit of Venus is Hazzard’s best book—one of the best of the second half of the twentieth century. Her last novel, The Great Fire, falls off at the end, its scenes and impressions refusing to cohere with the consummate shapeliness of her earlier masterpiece. The Bay of Noon, less ambitious than The Transit of Venus, might be more perfect. But what makes The Transit of Venus so singularly brilliant is precisely its ambition: its bold prolepsis (in the first chapter, we find out that a major character will commit suicide decades into the future); its movement in space (we start in England but spend substantial time in Australia, the United States, and elsewhere); its temporal scope (there are brilliant set-pieces during World War II and the 1960s); the unashamed seriousness of it all. The novel considers love as debasing and ennobling, as that which makes beasts and angels of us all, and it says this full-throatedly.

She believed that how you read shaped how you encountered the world, and how you wrote emerged from how you had lived.

At one point, two characters, the aforementioned Caro and a young man named Paul Ivory, visit the megaliths at Avebury Circle in Wiltshire, England. They are about to sleep together for the first time. Hazzard’s language, befitting the scene, plumps up: “There could be no winning or even mattering here. You would have to pit some larger reason than mere living against these rocks: it was your mortality, your very capacity to receive the wound, against their indifference.” Paul seeks to deflate the scene’s atmosphere, meeting real, physical grandeur with winking, linguistic grandeur: “Male and female created He them. Even these rocks.” But the narrative voice will have none of it. The splendor of this scene is real: “The presence of Paul offered something like salvation, implying that the human propensity to love, which could never contradict Avebury Circle, might yet make it appear incomplete.” Love as a tempered salvation, as that which pushes back against the indifference of time and matter: this is Caro’s perspective, but it’s also the novel’s.

The Transit of Venus is filled with precise observations about everyday existence, the kind of details that give fiction life. Caro’s naked body is “not white but nutritiously pale, like pastry or a loaf”; Paul “giv[es] the slight, ironic smile with which people excuse themselves for remembering poetry or prose.” These small moments are wonderful and help us to see the world with greater accuracy. But, to quote from her beloved Auden, one goes to Hazzard primarily for “the magnificent tropes of tragic defiance and despair”; for the beginning of a love affair or the end of a life; for passages where existence opens up and soars. In The Transit of Venus, a character’s penmanship gets shaky as he approaches death: “His handwriting, which had always been minuscule, enlarged with this ultimate flourish of reality.” For Hazzard, the ultimate flourish, the act of extravagance and daring, is how we approach the real.

Olubas notes that Hazzard saw poetry as “a way of being human.” She believed that how you read shaped how you encountered the world, and how you wrote emerged from how you had lived. As one character says in The Bay of Noon, “They had a notice, Please do not touch the paintings; they should forbid the paintings to touch you.” In Hazzard’s life and work, the real and the aesthetic reach out to touch one another, always.