The Pleasures of Shirley Hazzard’s Intricate Fictions

The Pleasures of Shirley Hazzard’s Intricate Fictions

Opulent Doom

The intricate fictions of Shirley Hazzard. 


What wholeness might contemporary literary fiction aspire to? Heavy plotting is outmoded, if not willfully retrograde. Many novelists avoid omniscience, like inept or unwilling gods. Trusty, plausible narrative structures—the picaresque, say, or the bildungsroman—are approached cautiously, as if they might collapse while one is yet inside. Coherence, difficult enough to find in life, seems even scarcer in the fictive imagination. “The vastness of sensation and experience, of history and knowledge, limits us, sends us back to the small as a relief from the incomprehensible,” Elizabeth Hardwick wrote in 1969. Half a century later, the dimensions she identified seem to have further contracted. The popular trappings of classical works—pride, guilt, Eros, the quest—have given way to something else. Truer to experience is the accumulation of apprehensive detail: fragment, digression, traumatic memory, aphorism, and the like.

To read the rigorous formalism of Shirley Hazzard, then, is to discover the apostate’s pleasure upon returning to the faith. Her works—whole, cruelly exacting, consoling in their grace and precision if not their ultimate outcomes—are monuments to fiction’s disappearing pieties. The recently released Collected Stories, edited by Brigitta Olubas and comprising Hazzard’s collections Cliffs of Fall (1963) and People in Glass Houses (1967) alongside previously uncollected material, offer the opulent doom of ancient tragedy wrapped in mid-century garb. Her heroes are melancholy cosmopolitans and resigned warriors of culture. (Her villains are invariably philistines.) Each pursues some intimate understanding or larger purpose at odds with their station. The fineness of love is wasted, lost, misapprehended, or pointlessly recovered; professional aspirations are muted by numbing routine or ground beneath the wheels of bureaucratic machination. The typical Hazzard story occurs in the unfixed space between the ideal and its compromise. The moral vision of her fiction is predicated upon this inevitability, that great suffering is the cost of great desire.

She is best known for her 1980 masterpiece, The Transit of Venus, which follows two Australian sisters over five decades and three continents. Many readers, myself included, begin here and quickly exhaust what remains: a pair of early novels (The Evening of the Holiday and The Bay of Noon), two scathing nonfiction books about her time with the United Nations (Defeat of an Ideal and Countenance of Truth), a memoir of her friendship with Graham Greene (Greene on Capri), and a final novel, The Great Fire, which won the National Book Award in 2003. That the Collected Stories, with their interlocking themes, could easily make up two additional novels—just as her extant novels can resemble a series of consummately sutured stories—speaks to the continuity of her mythos. She resurrects a world of Jamesian social richness, disclosing the exquisite privacies of difficult men and abiding women, each attempting to hold a sinister, disruptive force at bay. In Hazzard’s intricate fictions, it is the violence of romance that endures.

Hazzard seemed to arrive fully formed, already a mature literary artist in her 20s. (She sent her first story, “Harold,” to William Maxwell at The New Yorker; astonished, he published it and immediately asked for more.) Cliffs of Fall contains her earliest work. As in much of her fiction, these stories often hinge on deracination, exploring how her characters’ sense of unrootedness signifies a larger emotional confusion. In “A Place in the Country,” a young girl falls in love with her cousin’s husband, her powerlessness closely related to her sense of incursion. “Vittorio” finds a married couple staying with an aging scholar so used to losing he neither anticipates nor fully understands the younger woman’s interest in him: “He felt that he must be alone to think about it, that there must be some rational, disappointing explanation…. He had never been so astonished in his life.” In the title story, a young widow confronts her husband’s recent death while suffering from altitude sickness in a friend’s Genevan home. In each of these stories, the novelty of some transient setting allows pain to separate itself from habit or inattention. Hazzard whets even the smallest units of time. A day, an hour can permanently scar.

She is the master of the offhand, psychologically acute detail that reveals a character’s diminished circumstances, be they moral, sexual, or material. Consider her summation of a café’s intellectual clientele: “The possibility of worldly success had never, by them, been entertained; they conjectured only as to the form their failure would take.” Or a young girl broken by an affair’s callous ending: “Total indebtedness could only be acknowledged where no attempt at repayment was contemplated.” Or the false composure of a mother-in-law: “She maintained a handsome serenity—like a country that, suffering no extremes of climate, remains always green.” Such revelations open little abysses beneath the manicured gentility on display. They expose the hidden, shadow life of feeling. For Hazzard, civility beset by passion is the primal scene of fiction.

The stories in Cliffs of Fall are impossibly refined. Characters quote poems from memory and give their dogs names like Aurélien. They are forever considering their lives in dappled courtyards between villas, or waking to the smell of cretonne roses, or eating quiche halfway up a mountain. (Quasi-Victorian cultivation is part of Hazzard’s charm.) Still, the ornateness of her fiction, its unerring calibration, can come to feel almost alien. In reading (and rereading) Hazzard, I sometimes long to find a bit of dirt beneath her nails. (One suspects even her vulgarians know their Latin declensions by heart.) Still, to read her is to ascend a kind of literary summit. She is an immaculate stylist. Her sentences are lavish but expertly controlled. They unfurl in stately, measured rhythms, lightly ironic, assured, glinting with unexpected detail: forked branches of lightning or wasps in strawberry jam.

The political dimensions of Hazzard’s fiction are largely inert, as hermetic as her finely wrought parlor dramas. Her instinct is for the intimate configuration: the dyad, the triangle, the family knit or unraveled. The postwar period supplies ambience for her characters’ elegant sexual warfare—history as a kind of drawing room. People in Glass Houses, her second collection, ostensibly complicates this assertion. It offers a contemptuous portrait of “the Organization,” a stand-in for the UN, where the author worked as a typist as a young woman. But programmatic structure cannot sustain Hazzard’s interest. Her sympathetic attention remains with individuals, lives dampened by the Organization’s pragmatism and insularity. Talent is crushed or made subordinate to procedure. Hazzard’s chosen people—faithful, poetic, original, unyielding—are unwelcome exceptions to this environment. They are made to suffer a different sort of heartbreak for the temerity of their idealism. Hazzard’s lasting insight is to cast the career bureaucrat as a kind of failed romantic.

The stories are interconnected, with background characters becoming protagonists and vice versa, the whole of it claustrophobic and vaguely incestuous. Haphazard crossings place friends beside enemies and yes-men among those of rebellious passion. “Nothing in Excess” describes the working life of Algie, a translator whose natural indolence and good humor mark him as an outsider in the Organization. When he discovers he is being let go, he has lunch with Jaspersen, a senior official, who advises a course of moderation. He reminds Algie of the aphoristic inscription the Greeks used in their temple: “Nothing in excess.” Algie’s response indicts not only Jaspersen but the tepid ethos of the Organization as a whole: “Wasn’t it intended, don’t you think, to refer to all excesses—excess of pettiness, of timorousness, of officiousness, of sententiousness, of censoriousness? Excess of stinginess or rancor? Excess of bores?” He commits the ultimate sin of self-knowledge: “We should understand ourselves in order to be free.” After taking a reduced pension, he retires and dies soon thereafter on the Spanish coast.

First introduced in the same story and later taking center stage in “Swoboda’s Tragedy,” Stanislas Swoboda is a clerk, hardworking and strangely reticent, as if Melville’s Bartleby had been displaced by war and given middle-class aspirations. (His “I see, sir” stands in for the scrivener’s “I would prefer not to.”) Ever hopeful of a long-awaited promotion, he is disappointed annually by superiors who claim the rejection “doesn’t mean anything more than postponement.” The untenability of his situation leads not to rage or despair but rather something like pity. Having come to expect “the ubiquitous human lapse,” he sees the Organization’s ineffectual leadership as bound up with its demoralized workforce in “the kinship of human error.” It is a bleak view of power and of social relations more generally. Swoboda is perhaps the most inscrutable character in all of Hazzard’s works—persistent, hopeless, honorable, a nervous administrative saint.

People in Glass Houses is one of the greatest office fictions ever written. Its stories are more astringent, sad, and satirical than those in Cliffs of Fall, though they reflect a similarly tragic view of human aspiration. When a poet visits the Organization, its members bristle at the unexpected candidness of his address. “We should remember that sorrow does produce flowers of its own,” he says. “It is a misunderstanding always to look for joy. One’s aim, rather, should be to conduct oneself so that one need never compromise one’s secret integrity.” Hazzard’s characters rely on this private resource to overcome the routine denial of their satisfactions. Such reliance provides the thrilling, stoic core of these remarkable stories. “Even our sufferings may enrich us,” the visiting poet concludes, “enrich us, perhaps, most of all.”

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