Cold Comforts

Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life by brigitta olubas. new york: farrar, straus and giroux. 576 pages. $35.

The cover of Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life

SHIRLEY HAZZARD WAS BORN in Sydney, Australia, in 1931. She was the second daughter of Reg and Kit, who met while working in the office of the engineering company that built the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Theirs was a marriage marked, as Brigitta Olubas puts it in Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life, by an “almost lifelong incompatibility” made more difficult by Reg’s alcoholism and Kit’s bipolarity. Shirley was Kit’s favorite. When she was six or seven years old, Kit asked her to come to the kitchen so they could together put their heads into the gas oven. Shirley later said that the character Dora in The Transit of Venus (1980) was “a very mild dose of my mother—a destroyer who sees herself as a perpetual victim.” 

Reg and Kit wanted to give their girls a better childhood than either of them had enjoyed, and in this they may have succeeded. (Both, Olubas notes, “began their lives in circumstances of illegitimacy and considerable material deprivation.”) Shirley loved the light on the sea as well as Wordsworth, Browning, Auden, Byron, and Baudelaire. She had, if not a photographic memory, then an unusual facility for remembering poems, even though there were times that she “could hardly read the lines for excitement, ecstasy.” During World War II Shirley and her sister Valerie wrote romances about wounded soldiers on the typewriter. When the war ended, Reg, who had been working in the Department of Munitions, was appointed Australian trade commissioner for Hong Kong. The family moved in 1947, and through her parents’ colonial connections Shirley found a job in a British interservices intelligence unit whose duties included monitoring the civil war in mainland China. (Valerie worked at an English-language newspaper.) Olubas brushes away any fancies about Shirley having been a spy, though “there was nonetheless some aspect of rudimentary intelligence gathering involved.” At the office she met and had a chaste affair with Alec Vedeniapine, a White Russian fifteen years her senior. When Valerie became very ill with tuberculosis, the family returned to Australia. “This was the end of life for me,” Shirley later recalled. She wanted to attend university, but it was still uncommon for women to do so, and moreover she hadn’t finished high school. She attended secretarial college instead. “Misery, foreboding, a life sentence,” she wrote, fifty years later. “In this cruel time I wanted to die.”

Valerie recovered, and for Reg’s next post the family moved to Wellington, New Zealand (“just was as dull as it could possibly be”). Shirley and Vedeniapine corresponded in secret and became engaged. But after she repeatedly delayed plans to see him, Vedeniapine broke it off, writing that he was worried that the life he had chosen, as a farmer in England, would not make her happy. Retrospectively, Hazzard became attached to the theory that her mother had ruined the engagement, a story Olubas politely glosses as “not really supported by evidence.” Decades later Hazzard was still describing Vedeniapine as having an “incapacity . . . for imaginative love,” and she never could believe that he had really wanted to be a farmer. Once, when he was nearing retirement and preparing to sell some beloved cows, Shirley came for a visit. At night she wrote diary entries castigating “those who bind themselves to limitations.” “The farm was not Shirley’s natural habitat,” Vedeniapine’s wife said.

In late 1951 the Hazzards moved to the United States for Reg’s new job as Australian trade commissioner in New York. From then on, Shirley would return to the country of her birth only a handful of times. (When she became famous, being an “Australian writer” would be a source of uneasiness.) She applied for and got a job at the United Nations in the office of the Technical Assistance Administration, where her responsibilities included recording minutes, typing, and filing. It was boring work (later it became material for the linked stories in People in Glass Houses) and she was again caught up in office romances. Some objects of her affection were unrequited, and the relationships she did have were often secret. As Olubas writes, “The men with whom she was involved through these years were significantly older, and most were married.” Reg went off with another woman in 1953, leaving Kit in precarious circumstances. After Valerie got married and moved back to Australia, Shirley was responsible for supporting her mother, a fact that may explain her lifelong antipathy for Valerie. Over time the rift between the sisters grew, until Shirley could claim, implausibly, that the years of silence on both their parts did not constitute an “estrangement” but was rather “merely boredom.”

In 1956 Shirley requested and was granted a transfer to Naples, to work in the United Nations Emergency Force office. Her duties were, again, mostly typing, and she did not enjoy the company of her colleagues. At the end of her term she did some traveling in Italy, including a stay at the Villa Solaia, a farmhouse an hour’s walk from Siena where the Vivante family took in paying guests. In the Vivantes Shirley found a surrogate family of intellectuals well connected in Italian literary and anti-fascist circles, as well as new friendships with visitors like Dwight Macdonald, who also stayed at the Villa. She would return to Solaia for two months every summer for the next five years. She was in the kitchen there when she received her first acceptance from the New Yorker, for the short story “Harold.” (Olubas notes that, contrary to the impression Hazzard sometimes gave, “Harold” was neither the first story that she ever wrote nor was it the first she submitted to the New Yorker; it did, according to the magazine’s fiction editor William Maxwell, impress the staff by being—in a remark that says more about the New Yorker fiction department than Hazzard—“the work of a finished literary artist about whom they knew nothing whatever.”)

In 1963, the year her story collection Cliffs of Fall was published, Hazzard met Francis Steegmuller at a small party hosted by Muriel Spark. (Kit had come to the party, too, but left early to attend an Australia Day party at the consulate—“Thank God,” Shirley wrote in her diary.) Steegmuller was twenty-five years Hazzard’s senior, the author of an acclaimed biography of Flaubert, a widower, and dating someone else, but within six months his situation had resolved in Shirley’s favor, and the two were married that December. The road of love was not always smooth—when Hazzard cried because Steegmuller was underwhelmed by their visit to the Villa Solaia, he offered, “Why don’t we split up?”—but in time they became known as a happy couple. Some of Steegmuller’s biographical subjects were “gay-coded figures,” and in some circles he was assumed or “known” to have male lovers, but Olubas is not convinced and she also quotes sources who doubted it. What is important for her purposes is that Hazzard “found happiness in marriage to a man with inclinations toward literary and artistic figures and subjects marked by complexity rather than transparency, with a preference for the undisclosed rather than the vaunted truth.” She quotes Hazzard’s final novel, The Great Fire: “The experiment of love is itself aberrant, more often than not, and doesn’t lend itself to classification.”

Hazzard’s first novel, The Evening of the Holiday, was published in 1966, and The Bay of Noon in 1970. Though she followed political events closely and expressed fierce opinions (especially about the United Nations and its conduct), Hazzard generally held herself apart from the left-wing controversies of the day. She and Steegmuller embodied a “gentler sensibility” of art and culture. She was not interested in debates about communism and not sympathetic to the student protesters at Columbia University, though this may have had more to do with her dislike of Diana Trilling, whose writing in favor of the students was riddled with what Hazzard termed “preposterous jargon,” than with any deeply held position. (Hazzard had a little more respect for Lionel, but found him a “wilted” presence; she considered the Trillings aesthetically narrow-minded, and was offended that they didn’t appreciate the “heavenly countryside” around Solaia.) One could say that she emerged from a turbulent period of history with her hair well-coiffed.

Hazzard had hoped to have a child, but never did; she had one miscarriage, and in the 1970s had a hysterectomy. (Neither event was recorded in her diary.) She and Steegmuller split their time between Manhattan and Italy. When they needed money, he sold a painting from the collection he had inherited from his first wife. They moved in a rarefied world of artists, scholars, and intellectuals, and spent a great deal of time with their friends. Hazzard was socially generous, and eager to bring bright young people into her circle. It was a writers’ life of the sort to make other writers jealous. “To me you do lead an unusually charmed life writing away in the NY apartment and Capri villa while collecting your celebrities and charmers and pairing them off round the world,” Nobel laureate Patrick White wrote to her after reading The Transit of Venus. Shirley did not answer the letter.

THE HAZZARD THAT EMERGES in Olubas’s exhaustive biography is rather like one of Hazzard’s characters: brilliant and cosmopolitan; living through historical events but strangely untouched by generational mores; at once supremely composed and eager to demonstrate her worth. The voice of her diary, like that of her published fiction, was lofty. She disliked much of the Australian writing of the 1970s and ’80s, and in turn, Murray Bail complained of her “prissy aversion to vomit” and “overbearing provincialism.” Hazzard’s prose is precise and gorgeous but dense and sometimes overdone; it can open up immense pools of feeling and flatten feeling out by making every moment richly supercharged. One never hears a car coming in Hazzard. The senses are more finely tuned than that, able to distinguish between “the bronchial change of gear with which a van might mount the hill” and “a swift, decided sound, a sound in showroom condition,” etc. Her sound was always in showroom condition. 

Olubas quotes friends who recall conversation with Hazzard as a spell, a magic web of erudition and quotation. The poet Edward Hirsch says she was “the most cultivated person” he had met. Another poet, Michael Collier, recalls a lunch with Hazzard: “You just felt that you had moved into another landscape.” There were, of course, some who could not be charmed. (According to one of Olubas’s sources, Elizabeth Hardwick and Hazzard “did not get along,” though she doesn’t say why; possibly it had something to do with to the static between Steegmuller and Hardwick’s friend Mary McCarthy over a piece McCarthy wrote about Madame Bovary.) And it was pointed out occasionally, even by her friends, that Hazzard, who so loved to talk, was not an especially good listener. Annabel Davis-Goff said that conversation with Hazzard was a matter of “finding a moment when you could interrupt.” Whether that tendency to monologue was due to temperament or was a consequence of having been intellectually stifled in her youth is not clear; probably it was both. 

In any case it recalls Hazzard’s short story “Harold,” which concerns a quiet boy staying with his mother at an Italian villa much like Solaia. In the story it comes out that the boy writes poems, and someone says what people say in such situations: “I hope you will read them to us.” To everyone’s surprise, the boy immediately goes upstairs to get his papers, and greater surprise still, the room is suddenly transported by his genius. Sharing his work makes the boy “self-possessed”: he gives no mind to the effect he has on the others, and does not look for their approval or commendation. The story is a kind of fantasy about a productive writer (“There are more all the time,” he says of the poems) being entirely sufficient unto himself. Harold needs an audience, but only so he can turn away from it. Something similar seems to have been true for Shirley. 

While Shirley was writing and lunching, Kit was bouncing from New York to London. In the mid-1960s she settled in Sydney, where Valerie took up the thankless job of looking after her. After Kit, who was known about the neighborhood, introduced herself to a bookstore owner as Shirley Hazzard’s mother, the owner called up the writer Elizabeth Harrower and suggested that, as both authors were published by Macmillan, perhaps Harrower could meet Kit. Harrower and Hazzard began to correspond, with the result that Harrower became an unofficial caregiver, picking up some duties that might normally fall to family, such as taking Kit to the doctor and hosting her for Easter weekend. Shirley welcomed Harrower’s involvement while continually complaining that Valerie was not doing her part (in fact Valerie was doing far more than Shirley was). When Kit died, Shirley did not attend the funeral, though this may be due less to how she felt about Kit than to her having not especially formal feelings about death. For example, when Steegmuller died, she did not accompany his body to the crematorium.

Reading The Transit of Venus provides the satisfaction of pressing hard on a painful bruise. The injuries of love radiate. More than twenty years passed between the publication of that novel and The Great Fire. In those years Hazzard gave lectures, attended the International Congress of Papyrology, and wrote articles about the United Nations. (“The writing of UN articles has just about killed me, and has a lethal effect on real work,” she wrote to Harrower, while nonetheless continuing to write them.) She hosted friends and visitors at three apartments—there was one in Naples, in addition to Manhattan and Capri—in other words, constant distraction. It took her eight years to write the memoir Greene on Capri (2000), a fascinating portrait of Graham Greene and also of Hazzard, whose observations are tartly focused. The book is a kind of joust between the two of them. When Greene notes that a certain place “looks idyllic, but might be hell,” Hazzard does him one better: “Graham was inclined to suspect—in some moods, perhaps to hope—that most idylls might be hell.”

Hazzard’s time was also taken up in caring for Steegmuller, whose increasingly difficult behavior—she complained in her diary of “the crushing, the neurotic coldness and moodiness, the narcissism”—may have been a symptom of cognitive decline, which worsened in the months before his death in 1994. But perhaps the real reason it took Hazzard so long to write The Great Fire was the difficulty of excavating the material. The novel is based on her relationship with Vedeniapine—“that love I’ll never know again”—“the great great love I began in September 1947, a destiny.” As Olubas puts it, “Her ‘work,’ now, was more than writing the novel; it was ‘reverie’ and a revisiting of days.” It seems Hazzard was able to inhabit what Olubas calls “the anguish of first love” only after her husband’s death; it may have been that she could give herself to the Vedeniapine material not in spite of her grief over Steegmuller, but because of it. One friend said that Hazzard’s mourning, and the story she constructed about her marriage, was like a “shrine” she lived in. It was “so enveloping that there was no sense that she was ever outside it.”

Hazzard always drew freely from life for her fiction. She wrote diaries and drafts in the same notebook, and Olubas observes that it is “not always possible to distinguish between the two.” And yet drawing on life doesn’t mean that Hazzard confronted it fully. Olubas’s book makes plain that the work of Hazzard’s adulthood was to put the greatest distance possible between herself and her childhood. “The dark comedy with which she invested her mother functioned as a form of protection, walling off the chaos,” Olubas notes. Hazzard herself wrote, of her mother, that “it is so sad that if one were to dwell on the whole of it one could not bear it.” Sublimation is a time-honored practice for us all. But one wonders if Hazzard’s dazzling, even sublime sentences, might have been a bit less marmoreal if she had been less protected, more willing to dwell on the past and her own role in it, less “bored” by it. Was her style—the thick and concrete language, the maze of foreshadowing and indirection, the narrative weave of inevitability and destiny, the all-knowing and faraway point of view—designed to escape some pressing and intolerable knowledge? Or an effort to fix it, to make a beautiful picture to look down on? Of her slow progress on The Great Fire, Hazzard explained to her friend Donald Keene: “In fiction one can correct an ultimate tragedy into a suggestion, at least, of a ‘happy ending.’ That is, set life right, as one can’t manage to do it in reality.” 

Christine Smallwood is the author of the novel The Life of the Mind (Hogarth, 2021).