Robert Pogue Harrison on Shirley Hazzard, and the “preposterous puzzles” of our lives

She’s not just distinguished, but major.
(Photo: Christopher Peterson)

Stanford’s Robert Pogue Harrison has an excellent retrospective of Australian novelist Shirley Hazzard over at the current issue of the Sydney Review of Books. We featured his recent conversation on the author here. Don’t know her work? This is a matchless introduction. No surprise it’s generating enthusiasm on the social media.

It begins:

The only time I heard Shirley Hazzard use the word ‘hate’ during the thirteen years I knew her was one night in Rome when I walked her back to the Hassler Hotel after a dinner at Otello on Via della Croce. (For half a century, both with and without her husband Francis Steegmuller, she stayed in the same room at the Hassler Hotel whenever she was in Rome, and only occasionally did she and I ever dine at a restaurant other than Otello when we got together in Rome). I mentioned something about a place that had changed. She stopped in her tracks, put her hand on my arm, and declared: ‘I hate change.’

Given how many tumultuous and destructive transformations the world underwent during her lifetime, one can understand Hazzard’s aversion to change. That aversion also accounts for her attachment to the city of Naples, about which she wrote so eloquently and where she owned a home. What she prized above all about Naples was its unaltered landscape. As she once remarked to me, were Virgil to sail into its bay today, he would recognize all the lineaments of his adoptive city.

During her lifetime Shirley Hazzard published four novels, two collections of short stories, and six non-fiction books. One of the novels – The Transit of Venus (1980) – is a masterpiece that has earned her the status of a major writer rather than merely a distinguished one. The enduring devotion Hazzard has inspired in her readers – a devotion that comes through in the many high-profile reviews that the recently published Collected Stories elicited in the United States and England – is due mostly to the lasting impression this novel made on us. As the centre of Hazzard’s corpus, The Transit of Venus now shapes our perception of the books that preceded and followed it.

A quotation to remember:

Hazzard’s evaluation of Patrick White’s The Eye of the Storm applies to her own fiction as well: “The matter in hand here is no less than existence: our brief incarnation in a human experience, our efforts to make a coherence of, or retreat from, the improbable combinations of flesh, feeling, vanity, virtue, and reason laid upon us like preposterous puzzles.”

Read the whole thing here.

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