Shirley Hazzard: A Writer’s Life
by Brigitta Olubas

Shirley Hazzard begins her memoir, Greene on Capri (2000) with an anecdote that has become well-known, if not notorious, among people who know anything about her. “On a December morning of the late Sixties,” she writes, she was sitting  by the windows in a café on the piazetta in Capri, doing a crossword puzzle. The weather was terrible. Hazzard watched two men approach the café. One of them was Graham Greene. She had never met him, but she recognized him, “as one would.” Greene and his friend came into the café, which was almost deserted, and continued their conversation. Something reminded Greene of a poem (by Browning), which he recited until he got to the last line, which he could not quite recall. No matter how hard he tried, he could not summon it.

When I had finished my coffee and my puzzle, and had paid, and had taken my raincoat and umbrella from the dank stand, I said, “The line is

“Or so very little longer.”

I went away at  once, back under the rain to the hotel San Felice….

That evening, Hazzard and her husband, Francis Steegmuller, encountered Greene and his friend at their regular dinner restaurant. They all introduced themselves and agreed to dine together. “And so began our years of seeing Greene on Capri.”

Intriguing and amusing as this little story is, it also provides a very big key to Shirley Hazzard’s sense of herself. Her behavior in the story as well as her manner of presenting it, reveal a woman who thought of herself as elegant and superior. The telling line is, “I went away at once…” She did not wait to be thanked by the famous writer, nor did she hang on him like a fan. She did not identify herself — a wise move, given that, as the author of a few stories published in The New Yorker and  a novel, her name might have meant nothing to him. She could be fairly sure that their paths would cross again; she had already noticed him here and there on the tiny island. He would discover in due course of time who her husband, a well-known literary American, was. She was able to make the most of seeming to be a djinn or a fairy, appearing out of nowhere with just the bit of esoteric knowledge that he needed. To  judge by the full picture of Hazzard that Brigitta Olubas provides in Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life, the writer, then in her late thirties, was already gifted at making herself known to important people.

Hazzard was born in Sydney, Australia, in 1931. It ought to as be unnecessary to specify which Sydney as it is to specify which London, but this wasn’t the case a century ago, when the arts in Australia might be said to have been rear-guard. Talented people simply left, and Shirley was no exception. She took every advantage of her father’s trade-representative postings to Hong Kong and New York. In New York, she was old enough to get a job, which she did, at the United Nations, almost immediately, thus establishing a foothold independent of her family. This was just as well, as the family broke up almost immediately, too. Her older sister, with whom she never got on, married a lawyer twenty years older than herself (Francis Steegmuller was twenty-five years older than Shirley), and the parents’ marriage collapsed in scandal: Hazzard’s father was having an affair with a woman in his office. He withdrew to Australia with the other woman, while Hazzard’s mother took up the life of a peripatetic albatross, incapable of sustaining friendships and other connections and content to exasperate her daughters.

I was bored to distraction by the lack of event in Olubas’s opening chapter, as I daresay Hazzard was by her own early life. The family enjoyed the tolerable prosperity sometimes achieved by those with difficult, dubious, but altogether colorless backgrounds. Marital happiness seems to have been sacrificed to conventional ambition. The origins of Hazzard’s finer sensibilities and wider outlook are hard to pin down. No inspiring teacher appears to have been involved. Although Shirley experienced the beauty of Sydney Harbour, she would not acknowledge it until much later. What did make an impression was a grand mansion in the Blue Mountains to which her school was relocated during the first shock of World War II. The Italian language, an immense feature of her maturity, entered her life indirectly, via a love of Leopardi’s poetry, which she seems to have discovered while temporarily exiled in Wellington; during the subsequent interval in Sydney before leaving for New York in 1951, she took Italian lessons and attained the beginnings of a proficiency that would flourish when she was posted by the UN to Naples in 1956. The time in Naples changed the direction of her life.

I spent most of an afternoon searching the 467-page text of Shirley Hazzard for a line that I did not find and might have made up. It had to do with Hazzard’s setting out, at some point, to become a significant person, or a person of significance. I concluded that the search was superfluous. Olubas doesn’t make a fuss about it, but her book is studded with glimpses of Hazzard’s self-conscious social advancement. This career became more overt once Hazzard got to New York, in 1951, and she no longer had to manufacture her own ideas of significance. With her marriage to Steegmuller in 1963, she gained “open sesame” to the world of letters, not just in New York but in Paris and Italy as well. There were people everywhere, it seemed, who were happy to talk about books with her. She was a voracious reader, and, gifted with something like an eidetic memory, which absorbed any verse that moved her — or any commendable phrase at all — making memorization unnecessary, she was quite literally a fountain of erudition, with no need to look things up. She formed a taste, both in literature and in life, that was “modern” but conservative: yes to Eliot and Auden, no to Abstract Expressionism. She seems to have been unfailingly genteel. As a lady who had read everything, she was certainly distinguished.

What’s missing from Shirley Hazzard is what its subtitle promises. There is very little about actual writing — almost nothing, really. There is frequent mention of Hazzard’s difficulty in finding the time to write. It would be misleading to say that she enjoyed a busy social life, because her time with other people was spent in earnest conversation; whether she ever danced in her life is never disclosed, and we have her own testimony in Greene in Capri that food was never of primary interest to her or to her husband.  (One gets the sense that they’d have known if it was bad, that’s all).) But what with traveling between three homes — apartments in New York and Naples, and rooms in Capri — and accompanying her husband not on all but on many of his trips here and there for research (Steegmuller produced important biographies of Flaubert, Apollinaire, and Cocteau, among other books), Hazzard was in transit far more often than most writers, and she never had a remote refuge in which to work. Writing The Transit of Venus, her masterpiece, took ten years to complete. More than twenty years would pass before her next and last fiction, The Great Fire. If anything, Olubas relies on the novels for biographical information.

For example, Olubas draws on The Bay of Noon, a novel that Hazzard published in 1970, for her account of Hazzard’s year in Naples, 1956. There don’t appear to be journals or even working papers to draw from, so, aside from the somewhat oblique view that we get of Hazzard-in-Naples, we have no idea how Hazzard-the-writer considered her experience while drafting the novel. It is clear, although Olubas could make it clearer, that Shirley Hazzard was not only private but secretive; she had nothing to gain, one concludes, from unedited self-disclosures. It would have shattered, or at least crazed, the mirror of an all-knowing sybil of unimpeachable sophistication that Hazzard presented to her international acquaintance to have revealed the girl from an assertively uncultivated family in Sydney. The sad thing about her almost extinguished insecurity (combined with a lack of worldliness as a youth) is that it seems to have opened the way to her having become something of a monologuist in adulthood, a trait that enchanted some people while boring others to tears. Worse, when forestalled by responses of varying politeness, she would whine: why would no one listen to her? This was insatiable: people listened to her plenty. She was also given, with advancing age, to somewhat overripe sentences; for example, these two gems from Greene on Capri:

One remembers long and well, and, without prompting, what is truly interesting — the moments that, pondered, shared, revived, become part of the inward legend. (70)

We had been told that he was steadily weakening; and we came up to the house in November light and with the pang of finality — that consciousness, after familiar pleasures, of a leave-taking (141)

For my part, I’d have considered the first sentence ponderous enough without actually using the word, and I can’t really hear Greene saying “remembered pleasures” instead of “better times,” if not just “fun.”

It remains for me to re-read The Transit of Venus. When it came out in 1980, I was still a young barbarian, and while I could follow the story easily enough I had no idea what it was about. Twenty-odd years later, I definitely had an idea, but it didn’t seem impressive. We shall see what I make of it a third time. Stay tuned.