Much is always made of the facility with which people quote verse in Shirley Hazzard’s worlds. In a 2004 interview for The Believer, Hazzard said, “It’s quite intentional. You see, books were a theme of life, a lifetime, for whole populations who grew up before the 1950s, when television broke on the world.” In her introduction to these collected stories, Zoë Heller identifies the habit of quotation as a sign of a character’s moral worth.
The attractive volume – another mark of worth, for in Hazzard’s worlds, appearances can be indexes of souls – brings together her two published collections, an impressive number of uncollected pieces and two never-published stories gleaned from archives, and appears four years after the author’s death, which is when books of this type tend to surface. But could late 2020 also be the perfect time for a Hazzard resurgence? I don’t know about you, but after spending a year marinating in my own relatability, I am ready to submit to an alien hand who – no kidding – became friends with Graham Greene when she overheard him in a cafe trying to remember a line of Browning, then walked past and casually finished the poem for him.
An amazing and memorable characterisation-in-miniature occurs on the second page of the very first story, which is drawn from the 1963 collection Cliffs of Fall: a man named Phil goes through his life wearing a “modest smile”, but once surprised his wife along with everyone they knew by printing “a small book of love poems that carried no assurance of being addressed to her”. It’s a tiny, twisted, eloquent treat – how sweet it is that we don’t really know the ones we love, and how easily they can crush us.
The hits don’t stop on page two. We learn plenty about love (“There seems to be a lot of waiting in it”) and about experience, which is just as inevitable, and just as dubious: “It taught you that most people were capable of anything, so that loyalty was never quite on firm ground”.
This experience is often won by women in fraught situations with the kinds of men who say “good girl” and mean it – pretty much what you’d expect from stories of the 1960s about worldly-but-unworldly people eating “large chalky bowls” of dip. But there’s an edge to Hazzard’s writing that doesn’t really feel as though it belongs to either our time or that time. It may be true that young people used to quote verse with much more readiness than we do today. But as Heller also points out in the introduction, the characters often sound like what you would get if Dorothea Brooke had lived through the 1960s. To my ear, this makes Hazzard’s very firm-feeling pronouncements about our fundamental natures sound specific to the author, rather than either prescient or dated. “How many disguises were assumed before [men] could face themselves. How many justifications made in order that they might simply please themselves. How dangerous they were in their self-righteousness – infinitely more dangerous than women, who could never persuade themselves to the same degree of the nobility of their actions.” It’s rarely more satisfying than it is in Hazzard’s work to read about people being disappointed in one another. Their relations often suggest an infinite separation, which they’d best not voice, but can’t avoid contemplating.
Not that we’re comparing, but Hazzard writes throwaway lines of perfect, starchy contemplation that would be career bests for most of the slobs you meet at the bookshop. Here is a sliver of a character’s interior monologue in “A Place in the Country”, which is about the end of an affair: “She considered her resources, ranging her ideas, her secrets carefully against the unapprehended future. But ideas don’t supplant feelings, she thought; rather, they prepare us for, sustain us in our feelings. If I understand why I am to be hurt, then does that really mean that it will hurt me less?”
Come on. Hazzard’s protagonists have sparkling, roiling, serious inner lives, whether they’re focused on romance, work or their essential selves, and it’s bracing to read a writer who routinely insists that each of these topics is worthy of the same care. And she’s funny, very often when you don’t expect it. In one story, about a woman grieving the death of her young husband, the widow writes “Your sympathy has meant so much to me” on endless thank-you cards. Just once, she flips the card and writes, “He is dead.”
Hazzard’s best novels, The Transit of Venus (1980) and The Great Fire (2003), are always going off the rails in exciting and revelatory ways. By contrast, the stories that make up Cliffs of Fall go deep within a narrow range. The worst you can say about them is how much fun they are, but the characters are types from a limited milieu, and they have expectations that can only be resolved or punctured in a fixed number of ways. You’re ready for the second collection by the time you get there.
People in Glass Houses (1967) centres on an organisation much like the United Nations, where Hazzard worked as a typist for 10 years. These linked stories are character studies that are polished to a high gloss, but Hazzard’s gifts aren’t really as a bureaucratic satirist, so there’s less room for the stories to reward you in the structure; the line-level effectiveness has to carry you through.
The uncollecteds and unpublisheds have more suppleness and punch, with modes of writing that span Hazzard’s career. Her first published story, “Woollahra Road”, set in 1935, feels almost like a verbalised Depression-era painting, a child’s-eye-view of a charged domestic scene. The two previously unpublished stories are compressed and accomplished, slight pieces that shift tone subtly but totally on the turn of a single spoken line.
The book is drenched with wit and intelligence and, because the styles it encompasses are so different from each other, it suggests that art really does reveal something of the artist – at least it would be very nice to think so. It may be the only survey of Hazzard’s writing published, but it’s hard to be sad, because what a survey it is.
Virago, 368pp, $39.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 28, 2020 as "Shirley Hazzard, Collected Stories".
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