In 1994, shortly after her husband’s death, the Australian-born novelist Shirley Hazzard was quoted in The New York Times as saying that their three-decade marriage had really been a ménage à trois. For anyone who’d been paying attention, this can hardly have come as a surprise. The three principals are all represented in the jacket photo for Hazzard’s first book, the short story collection Cliffs of Fall, which came out in 1963. There is the young author, smiling coyly at the camera as she cradles her chin on her interlaced fingers. There, splayed on the marble coffee table in front of her, is a book by the man she’d married earlier that year, the biographer and translator Francis Steegmuller. And there, on the cover of Steegmuller’s book, is the name of the writer who became the third node of their marital triangle. Flaubert and Madame Bovary: A Double Portrait first appeared in 1939, and while Steegmuller would publish books on a range of literary figures throughout his long life, Flaubert remained the fixed star of his scholarly passions.
But Hazzard was also on intimate terms with the bear of Croisset. Of course, it is hard to find a significant twentieth-century writer who wasn’t influenced by Flaubert, the so-called father of realism. His painstaking narrative method, which prized dispassionate observation and clarity of phrase, long ago became, in Steegmuller’s words, “a part of the baggage of most of the world’s novelists”; yet Hazzard was more aware than most of what the baggage contained. Like Flaubert, she was a tireless perfectionist whose exquisitely sculpted sentences bespeak a fanatical devotion to the surface of her prose. (She revised each page of her 1980 masterpiece, The Transit of Venus, more than twenty times.) Like Flaubert, she wrote about adultery and its discontents, about provincial women who long for the metropolis, about the death-in-life of middle-class conformity. And like Flaubert—who said that two things sustained him, “love of Literature and hatred of the Bourgeois”—Hazzard believed in the power of art to make existence bearable in a world of crude materialism and spiritual nullity.
This is not to say that she was simply a high-end Flaubert imitator. Since her death in 2016, at the age of eighty-five, a new critical consensus has begun to take hold. Hazzard wasn’t just an impeccable stylist or a perceptive observer of Australian innocents abroad; no, she was one of the great postwar writers, period. Last November Farrar, Straus and Giroux published her Collected Stories (which uses the 1963 author photo as its cover); in March Penguin Classics brought out a new edition of The Transit of Venus. The response has been ecstatic. “I first read the book two years ago and have reread it five times since, finishing it always with the impression that something very real and a little beyond language has happened to me,” Alice Gregory wrote of Transit in an excellent essay for The New Yorker. In her introduction to the Penguin edition, the novelist Lauren Groff says that she returns to the book every year (along with Middlemarch and To the Lighthouse), and that it continues to fill her “with equal parts disquiet and awe.”
It can be hard to comprehend this fever-pitch reception without having read Hazzard oneself, an experience Gregory tellingly likens to “sex or physical pain.” For Hazzard’s books are both intoxicating and ineffable, and one of the reasons for this is surely that she wrote about romantic love without the cynicism or reductive irony favored by so many of her peers—that is to say, romantically. Late in life, she criticized contemporary fiction for being, or for trying to seem, “hard, cool, indifferent.” No one would ever think to apply those adjectives to Hazzard, whose work possessed a nineteenth-century amplitude of feeling and, indeed, was sometimes described, not always disparagingly, as “old-fashioned” and “crypto-Victorian.” That is only half right. Steeped in the canon, she was nonetheless a subversive traditionalist, a writer who perfected a form of realism before pushing against its limits in an effort to take the novel somewhere new.
Hazzard was born in Sydney, in 1931, and began plotting her escape almost as soon as she was conscious. Her alcoholic father, who worked in the steel business, and bipolar mother, who ran their home, were both “very good-looking,” as she said, but otherwise largely incompatible. In the cultural wilderness of Depression-era Australia, where young women could dream of little beyond marriage, domesticity, and children, literature held out to Hazzard the promise of a richer, fuller life elsewhere. Few things are described more rapturously in her work than the sight of cruise liners leaving Sydney Harbor. “Going to Europe,” she wrote in The Transit of Venus, “was about as final as going to heaven. A mystical passage to another life, from which no one returned the same.”
Once she left Australia, at the age of fifteen, Hazzard returned only as a visitor. Her father had been appointed to a diplomatic post in Hong Kong, where, instead of enrolling at the university, she found a secretarial job at the Office of British Intelligence. There she received a different kind of education. “We were all full of poetry and had a whole world of references that we didn’t have to explain,” Hazzard said later of the charming young Englishmen who staffed the place. Establishing a precedent, she fell in love with a colleague many years her senior, but the relationship was thwarted by her parents when they relocated the family to Wellington, New Zealand. The pain of this early separation was a well from which she never ceased to draw for fictional material; the lovers in her books are almost always ill-starred. Meanwhile, she survived her adolescent heartbreak by immersing herself ever more deeply in her reading. “Poetry,” she once said, with characteristic exactitude, “literally and figuratively saved my life.”
In 1951 Hazzard’s family settled in New York, where she took another secretarial job, this time at the United Nations. She hated it. The work was dull and professional advancement a nonstarter for a woman without a university degree. It wasn’t until after the Suez Crisis of 1956, when Hazzard was posted to Naples, that the clenched fist of the future began to open up. Once again, she had literature to thank. On her initial application form, she’d exaggerated her knowledge of Italian, a language she’d been inspired to study after reading Giacomo Leopardi in translation during her lonesome stint in Wellington, but had now mostly forgotten. Who says poetry makes nothing happen?
As it had done for previous visitors, Italy catalyzed Hazzard’s imagination. While recovering from a serious bout of hepatitis, she began to keep a notebook for the first time, filling it from back to front. (“I didn’t think my thoughts were important enough to write from the front,” she told an interviewer.) Hazzard soon returned to New York, but for the next several years she would spend a part of each summer at the Tuscan villa of a family she’d befriended on her first visit. It was there, one evening in 1959, that she completed her first short story. Figuring she had nothing to lose by aiming high, she sent it to The New Yorker. A few weeks later she received a letter from William Maxwell, the magazine’s fiction editor, saying they wanted to publish it and asking her for more.
Appropriately enough, given that it launched her career, “Harold” concerns the recognition of new talent. Late one summer evening, an Englishwoman and her son, Harold, arrive at an Italian pension. The other guests, eating dinner in the garden, complacently appraise the newcomers, especially Harold, who is quiet and awkward and, at twenty years old, still seems “grotesquely adolescent.” When it’s revealed that he writes poetry, one of the guests, without meaning it, says she hopes he will read them his work. He agrees immediately, and there is a collective rolling of eyes: “They were already inventing to themselves noncommittal expressions of interest and wondering how soon they might stop him.”
In the hands of a more acidulous midcentury New Yorker writer, like Shirley Jackson or Roald Dahl, this plot might have culminated in a crowning humiliation, with, say, Harold’s inept poems provoking derisive laughter. Rather wonderfully, Hazzard’s young man turns out to be a prodigy. We don’t hear his poems, but we gauge their power from the response of his chastened, helplessly admiring audience. “They were slowly troubled by an idea that formed among them,” Hazzard writes, making wryly efficient use of the adverb. “Without looking about, each knew, too, that it had occurred to the others: an idea almost to be repudiated, requiring, as it did, so much accommodation.” Hazzard’s identification with her protagonist is palpable. At the UN, she once said, “a young woman was given a typewriter and told to shut up.” She had refused to do so, and now, against all the odds, the world was taking notice.
“Harold” is something of an odd one out among the stories Hazzard published in The New Yorker over the following years. Cliffs of Fall, in which those stories are collected, is really an anthology of love problems, a study of the different ways relationships go wrong. There are discrepancies of age or temperament (“Vittorio,” “The Party”), the slackening effects of time on romance and desire (“Weekend,” “A Place in the Country”), tragic accidents (“Cliffs of Fall”). In spite of all this, there is also the sense that Hazzard is affirming love as an ultimate value, something that, as one heartbroken character thinks, “engaged all one’s capacities.” That character is Nettie, from “A Place in the Country,” a young woman who is having an affair with her cousin’s husband, Clem, a man in early middle age. She loves him more than he loves her—or at least she is less adept at concealing her emotions—and this asymmetry leaves Nettie painfully at the mercy of his whims. “I see no object in hurting people unnecessarily,” he says evasively when she asks him how he feels about deceiving his wife. “It would be all right if it were necessary?” she retorts.
Like Emma Bovary, Nettie is a great reader whose ideas about love derive mainly from literature. “Love is so much talked and written about, you might expect it to feel quite different; but no, it does correspond to the descriptions,” she realizes, almost matter-of-factly, as she is helping Clem unload a box of books at his country house one afternoon. Unlike Emma, however, Nettie isn’t blinded by her ideas or by the experience of love itself. When, in the story’s final scene, Clem comes to say he can no longer see her, she is the one who ends up consoling him, a poignant-ironic reversal typical of Hazzard. “How good you are,” he says, and his words strike her
as the sort of compliment one pays to a child, to encourage its behavior in the desired direction. It comforted her not at all that her judgment of him should remain thus pitilessly detached—that she saw him, perhaps, more clearly and with less admiration than ever before. The insight was useless to her, trapped as she was in the circumstance of love.
Nettie’s even-keeled lucidity in the face of grief and the eloquence and poise with which Hazzard describes it are both lessons in composure. That Nettie can see and think so plainly at such a moment is not a sign of emotional refrigeration; it is an instance of love engaging all of her capacities, the mind as much as the heart.
In January 1963 Hazzard went to a party hosted by Muriel Spark at Manhattan’s Beaux Arts Hotel. It was there that she met Steegmuller, a childless widower who’d inherited a large fortune from his wife. He was fifty-seven, Hazzard thirty-two. They married later that year and for the rest of their lives would divide their time between New York, Naples, and Capri. The money she was making from selling her stories to The New Yorker had already allowed Hazzard to quit the UN, but the marriage seems to have freed her up to pursue longer, more ambitious projects. In the coming years, she published two novels, The Evening of the Holiday (1966) and The Bay of Noon (1970), both of which take place in Italy and center on unhappy love affairs, as well as a collection of linked short stories set in a UN-like organization, People in Glass Houses (1967).
The latter ruthlessly exposes what Hazzard saw as the wasteful incompetence and bureaucratic doublespeak of her former employer. The Organization, as it’s called in the stories, is a place divided between self-important managers who parrot institutional rhetoric about the sanctity of their mission and aggrieved subordinates who see the reality this rhetoric is intended to conceal but are denied a voice of their own. Like Flaubert, Hazzard relished cliché with a derisory glee and loved to embroider her sumptuous prose with stock phrases and received ideas. Algie Wyatt, a wittily disgruntled Organization translator (and a person after Hazzard’s heart), is always on the lookout for contradictions in terms: “military intelligence,” “competent authorities,” “enlightened self-interest,” “Christian Scientist.” When, in “Nothing in Excess,” he is told that he’s been summoned to the office of Mr. Bekkus, the head of the Appointments and Terminations Board, Algie remarks, “Well, I’ve been appointed…so perhaps it’s the other thing.”
In “The Meeting,” a conservationist named Flinders has returned to the US after two years in North Africa, where the Organization had sent him to work on its “Project for the Reforestation of the Temperate Zone.” Now he is due to give a report on his mission at Organization HQ, but, as a person with no previous experience of office life or its particular “language of ends and trends, of agenda and addenda, of concrete measures in fluid situations,” he struggles to see how his time in Africa can be “contained within reportable dimensions.”
Edrich, the man who speaks before him at the meeting, shows him how it’s done, describing his own recently completed development project in jargon that is readily comprehensible to the Organization higher-ups. “As you know,” he says, confidently addressing the room, “the object of the Civic Coordination Program is to tap the dynamics of social change in terms of local aspirations for progress.” And so on. When his turn comes, the plainspoken Flinders has trouble making himself understood. “One must give them a chance,” he says of the trees he planted when the officials ask him if his project can be deemed a success. “The growth of a hybrid poplar or even a eucalyptus may be very little in the first seasons.” Edrich helpfully translates this for the others: “A long-term project, in other words.”
This sort of institutional satire, which is not so far from what Joseph Heller was up to in Catch-22 (1961) or Ken Kesey in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), may seem like a significant departure from the cerebral love stories in Cliffs of Fall, but there are revealing continuities. It’s worth comparing “The Meeting” with “A Place in the Country,” both of which are, in different ways, about the masks that power wears, the voices it assumes. “I think I told you I no longer loved my wife,” Clem says to Nettie, as he inches his way toward leaving her.
“Yes,” she said.
“I only said that once, didn’t I?”
“Several times,” she answered, unaccommodatingly.
“Several times, then,” he agreed, with a touch of impatience. “In any case—I see now that I shouldn’t have said that. I mean, that it wasn’t true.”
Nettie’s frustration with this self-serving revisionism is strongly reminiscent of that felt by Flinders and others at the self-serving bureaucratese of the Organization:
She thought that the digressions in the minds of men were endless. How many disguises were assumed before they 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.
Hazzard’s commitment to what she called “the testimony of the accurate word” made her acutely sensitive to the inaccurate. We see this in her stories and novels as well as in the two nonfiction books she wrote about the UN, Defeat of an Ideal (1973) and Countenance of Truth (1990), which respectively exposed the institution’s complicity in McCarthyism and its willingness to overlook former general secretary Kurt Waldheim’s secret Nazi past. For Hazzard, writing well, or finding the “accurate word,” was a moral and political as well as an aesthetic imperative.
Of course, there is more than one way to write well, as Hazzard’s career shows. Following Steegmuller, the critic James Wood has argued that Flaubert’s influence on what we think of as “good prose” is by now “too familiar to be visible.” We simply take it for granted
that it favors the telling and brilliant detail; that it privileges a high degree of visual noticing; that it maintains an unsentimental composure and knows how to withdraw, like a good valet, from superfluous commentary; that it judges good and bad neutrally; that it seeks out the truth, even at the cost of repelling us; and that the author’s fingerprints on all this are, paradoxically, traceable but not visible.
As a young writer, Hazzard excelled at precisely this kind of prose. In the stories and early novels, her sentences are scrupulous and exact, full of diamond-hard images and casually magnificent figures of speech. A couple are the first evening guests to arrive at a Naples restaurant: “The owner scraped out our chairs for us, crying ‘Buona sera, buona sé,’ as if he had hardly expected the pleasure of having customers.” Another couple say good-bye to each other for the last time: “He took my face between his hands and kissed me on either cheek—as if I were a member of his family or a hero.” Best of all perhaps are Hazzard’s swift pen portraits of boorish minor characters. This is how the narrator of The Bay of Noon describes her unlovely sister-in-law, who, in Hazzard’s pitiless summation, becomes a sort of anti-novelist, unobservant and addicted to cliché:
Norah talked a lot about human relationships, as she called them (for she had picked up some kind of jargon and was always saying “identify” and “communicate,” could scarcely look at Edmund and me without the word “siblings” popping out), but spoke as if these were a special subject, like lepidoptery or tropical plants, of which one could hardly hope to encounter interesting examples in daily life.
Ten years passed between The Bay of Noon and Hazzard’s next novel, The Transit of Venus, and during that time her prose, and indeed her whole sense of what a novel might be, seem to have undergone a radical transformation. Although the book maintains an absolutely rigorous attention to the minutiae of daily life, it is not really a work of realism, or not simply that. By interrupting the narrative to reveal what will happen to a character decades in the future or garrulously weighing in on the action as it unfolds, Hazzard never lets us forget that the story is being told to us, like a fable or a myth. That story is far from complicated, and yet to say that The Transit of Venus is about two orphaned Australian sisters, Grace and Caroline Bell, who immigrate to England in the early 1950s and fall in love with men who aren’t what they appear to be is a bit like saying that Moby-Dick is about the adventures of a sea captain as he pursues the great white whale that took his leg: not untrue, but so inadequate as to tell you almost nothing about what the book is actually like to read. And as far as I’m aware, there is nothing quite like reading The Transit of Venus.
Part of this exceptional quality arises from the way the action seems to be at once deeply rooted in history (the book’s characters are close followers of current events) and determined by transhistorical forces, like destiny or fate. Hazzard establishes this duality early on, when Ted Tice, an idealistic young scientist, arrives at the home of the eminent astronomer Sefton Thrale, whom he has come to assist in writing a report on the location of a new telescope. There he meets the Bell sisters, one of whom, the fair-haired Grace, is engaged to marry the Thrales’ son, Christian, a conceited civil servant. The dark-haired Caroline, or Caro, who is more ambitious and intellectual than Grace, is unattached, and Ted begins to dream of the life they might have together almost from the moment he first sees her, standing in shadow at the top of the stairs.
Over dinner on the night of his arrival, the fate of this dream is poignantly foreshadowed when Sefton Thrale lectures Caro on how she owes her existence to Captain James Cook, whose mission to observe the planet Venus as it crossed the face of the sun above Tahiti on June 3, 1769, resulted in the inadvertent “discovery” of Australia. This little flourish of erudition is really a not-so-subtle put-down of Caro’s remote origins and the situation in which she now finds herself, living rent-free in the Thrales’ opulent household ever since her sister’s engagement to their son. Just as Australia was once dependent on British colonialism, so is this young Australian now dependent on British noblesse oblige. Ted, who has working-class roots, can’t bear to let this patrician complacency pass unchecked. Cook’s calculations “were hopelessly out,” he reminds his host. “Calculations about Venus often are.” Though he has no way of knowing it, Ted’s own calculations about Caro, “established as a child of Venus,” will also prove to be “hopelessly out.” Before long she falls in love and starts an affair with the Thrales’ neighbor Paul Ivory, a dazzling young playwright who is himself engaged to a local aristocrat.
Throughout the novel, which spans decades and continents, the characters look at one another with the wonder of astronomers observing the stars, and like the astronomers mentioned at that early dinner, they fail to see what they are looking at clearly. The hallmark of love, Hazzard seems to imply, is a sort of visionary misprision, and her prose here expands accordingly, quickened by a metaphysical hunger, a desire to see through the surface and into the essence of things. It’s not that she no longer attends to appearances, to social comedy and the natural world. In one chapter, Caro is taking a train to London from the Thrales’ country house: “Hills and dales wobbled past the window. A factory momentarily obliterated the view, and was swiftly withdrawn like the wrong slide on a projector.” Or there is Tertia Drage, Paul Ivory’s glacial fiancée, “so sleekly pretty, so fair and tall that she seemed an advertisement for something very costly.”
But now this worldly solidity has been augmented by a sense of the numinous, by suggestive abstractions and gnomic turns of phrase. Hazzard’s characters live among ideas and intuitions just as much as they live among people and landscapes. On his first evening at the Thrale house, Ted is “rapt with newness and impending newness.” During the following dinner, “Experience was banked up around the room, a huge wave about to break.” Ted’s dawning awareness that “he might never, in a lifetime, arouse” Caro to reciprocate his love is “a discovery touching all existence.” Even worse is his reunion with Caro at a London department store several months after their first meeting. “She was calm from some great resource of joy, achieved and anticipated, that could only be love,” he realizes. The devastation he feels is “bound up with some immense, contingent humiliation—perhaps the helplessness of all humanity to foretell or shield themselves from chaos.”
Emotionally involved rather than coolly detached, abstract rather than visual, and occasionally erring on the side of the overwrought, such prose breaks all the rules of “good writing,” goes against all the principles established by Flaubert—yet how little it matters. As Caro is falling in love with Paul, she observes his “appearance as if it were an event that might develop before one’s eyes,” which tells us little about what Paul actually looks like but everything about the hypnotic suspense he elicits in her. Tertia’s family castle, seen through their eyes, is described as a “solid, sunlit figment of history’s imagination,” which again does little to paint a picture of the scene even as it captures the seeming unreality of ancient monuments.
On another outing, Caro and Ted sit in silence on the lawn of an old country estate newly open to the public. It is early summer, and the groundskeepers are hard at work:
A silence can easily fall between those who do not consider themselves a topic. And in any case the air was filled with the blunt sounds and green smells of the pruning and cropping. England was being cut back to the roots for its own good; that is the way you build character. The gardeners in grey shirts moved to put a stop to growth, or to hold it in check. Green fell in every form, and was carried off in baskets.
We are in Caro’s consciousness here, which partly explains the preference for abstract over concrete nouns. For her, it is not the hedges and the grass but “England” itself that is being “cut back to the roots,” since England is a place that until recently she knew of only from books and where she is still slightly amazed to find herself. In the same way, the mere fact of greenery is so remarkable to someone who grew up in arid Australia that it seems as though the very color is being cut down (“Green fell in every form”). Less explicable are phrases like “The gardeners in grey shirts moved to put a stop to growth.” It would seem a stretch to lay this at the door of Caro’s foreignness. (There are gardeners in Australia, after all.) At such moments, Hazzard sounds more like a metaphysical poet than an exponent of narrative realism. What T.S. Eliot said of Donne and Marvell, that they “feel their thought as immediately as the odor of a rose,” serves equally well as a description of Hazzard.
In Flaubert there is an ironic gulf between the tawdriness of the subject matter (“I find them deeply repulsive,” he once said of the characters in Madame Bovary) and the extravagant resources of verbal expression brought to bear on it. This gulf only widens in the work of high modernists like Joyce, an avid Flaubert disciple, whose Homeric parallels, whatever else they do, underscore the sardonic disparity between the great deeds of Odysseus and the humdrum errands of Leopold Bloom. Hazzard, who was as much a modernist as a Victorian, lacked the impulse to pour cold water on her characters’ ideals and aspirations; she wrote beautifully, in a prose as lavish as it was meticulous, about people she considered beautiful, however modest their circumstances, however flawed their points of view.
In her final novel, The Great Fire (2003), the story of the romance between a thirty-two-year-old British soldier and a seventeen-year-old Australian girl in postwar Japan, this authorial fellow-feeling veers into sentimentality and grandiloquence. To be sure, the book does some things very well, though the main one is probably the way it throws into relief the near perfection Hazzard achieved in Transit, the fine balance the earlier book strikes between sympathy with her characters and a necessary willingness to make them suffer. “She would impose her crude belief—that there could be heroism, excellence—on herself and others until they, or she, gave in,” Hazzard writes of Caro early on. This belief will cost her, and those she cares about, dearly, but it is never made to seem ridiculous. In Hazzard’s world, heroism and excellence belong as much to the present as the past.