Shirley Hazzard, Poet of Aftermath


Perhaps the pivotal figure of Shirley Hazzard’s Collected Stories, a recently published posthumous volume, is one Clelia Kingslake. A Canadian, she lands in Rhodes, Greece, sometime in the 1950s. (Hazzard’s stories, written in the ’60s and ’70s, are almost always set in the ’50s.) Clelia arrives “to sunlight and sea, to trees in leaf, flowers in bloom, to the luxury of finding herself beside the Mediterranean.” But she is not a tourist—neither a modern camera toter nor the older Jamesian sort, the innocent seeker after European experience. She is a clerical worker for “the Organization,” the Orwellian monolith that Hazzard refuses to call the United Nations. As the story’s title announces, it is “A Sense of Mission” that brings Clelia to Rhodes and sanctions “her almost sensual pleasure in her surroundings.”

“A Sense of Mission” appears in People in Glass Houses, Hazzard’s 1967 satire of UN bureaucracy and hypocrisy, which is reproduced intact in this new omnibus volume. Clelia, however, clearly belongs in the other, more typical kind of Hazzard story, the kind where mannered, sensitive travelers observe and ruminate in private, searching for belonging and for words. Gazing upon the Mediterranean on UN business, Clelia briefly unites the two seemingly disparate registers of Hazzard’s short fiction. But she also makes a reader wonder what she was doing before Rhodes, in the big, sad glass house on Manhattan’s East River, the claustrophobic cage that is the setting of all the other UN stories. And what was Shirley Hazzard doing there?

Hazzard spent a few early years in the UN Secretariat, quickly concluding, it seems, that the world’s high temple to humanism was in fact where humanism had gone to die. She was a celebrator of human fellowship and language, a believer in the ethical and aesthetic potential of our better nature. But—as this collection, with its sometimes jarring juxtapositions, reveals anew—she championed one humanism over another: the human over the humanitarian, the intimate over the intermediated.

Hazzard was born in 1931, just in time for her entire childhood to be shaped by global catastrophe. Over and over in her fiction, planes crash, boats sink, cars veer precariously around mountain curves. These events do not correlate to her biography. Instead, they seem to infuse the atmosphere of peril that dominated in her transient early years, the atmosphere inscribed in her very name, into the spurious safety of private postwar life. History is a nightmare from which her characters have, after all, woken up, but that nightmare has marked their 1950s mornings with an inexorable strangeness, if not a darker certainty that disaster will recur.

In this sense, Hazzard’s long fixation on the postwar moment was not conservative so much as precautionary. She was a poet of aftermath, given to lingering in the fraught silences that follow great tumult, taking the time to find something worth saying. The Holocaust and World War II were the defining crises of her lifetime. But her attention to the basic, enduring elements of human connection—chiefly, language, expressing even the outlines of the inexpressible—allows her work to speak to the global crises of our day, whether of climate, public health, authoritarianism, or, indeed, the loss of articulacy and compassion in public speech.

Crucial is the fact that her focus on the intimate was not exclusive. She used the personal to calibrate the scale of the geopolitical: to illustrate overreaches and gaps, and to critique the institutions whose impersonal humanism only concealed the ongoing predations of empire. Looking not inward but outward—assiduously, generously, from tight domestic and institutional enclosures, from dangerously rapid vehicles—is what she did best.

Hazzard preached a quiet doctrine of love, love as an ongoing force, a democratizing “derangement,” interruptive of social and narrative systems alike.

By her 20s, Hazzard was already a kind of conscientious cosmopolite, flung from her native Australia to Hong Kong, New Zealand, the United States, and Italy, first on her father’s diplomatic postings and then on her own. (She went on to spend much of her adult life between New York and Naples, and died in New York in 2016, 40 years after becoming a US citizen.) Superficially, she fit a familiar midcentury mold, easy to picture at New Yorker cocktail parties or shuttling a memo to Dag Hammarskjöld on the floor of the General Assembly. But her affinities tended elsewhere, emphatically away from what a character in her novel The Transit of Venus (1980) calls “the organized international windbag industry.” Her affinities tended toward perfect exactitude of expression—and failing that, silence, the silence of a contemplation no less joyful for being serious.

It would be easy to argue that these affinities were nostalgic, regressive, reaching backward into an idealized 19th century. Certainly there is something of George Eliot, something of Flaubert’s mot juste and Wordsworth’s “intellectual love,” in Hazzard’s valorization of careful expression and personal intimacy. But, at least in the early years in which she wrote short stories, her insistence on immediacy also bound her to her own time. It led her to preach a quiet doctrine of love, love as an ongoing force, a democratizing “derangement,” interruptive of social and narrative systems alike; rare, yes, but powerful because rare.

Good, loving relationships are scarce in Hazzard’s fiction. Children are conspicuously absent, and it wasn’t until her final novel, The Great Fire (2003), that she allowed a romance plot to come to happy fruition. Two of her few stories that depict a healthy partnership, “Le Nozze” and “The Sack of Silence,” were found in her papers, unpublished in her lifetime. Almost every story in Cliffs of Fall (1963) features a bad male partner: selfish, condescending, deceitful, already married, sometimes all of the above. The title story departs from the pattern by tracing the arc of a young widow’s disturbed grief, the Swiss Alps mirroring her mental “cliffs,” after her apparently good husband has died in a plane crash. (Hazzard alludes to Gerard Manley Hopkins: “O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.”)

The result of all this pain and recrimination, however, is that when love does show its face, it gleams. In “Out of Itea” (1965), one of 10 previously uncollected stories, passengers on a Greek ferry witness the casual, utter intimacy of a pair of young Norwegian backpackers:

 

A look such as that, though it passes between two people in a fraction of a second, is seen by everyone and is unforgettable. …

“But what will they eat?”

“Tomatoes.”

“Where will they sleep?”

“Together.”

 

If there is an integrity to the rarity of such moments in Hazzard’s work, there also comes a sense that this exceptionalism of love might make for a fairly weak political philosophy. In a 2005 Paris Review interview, she said that she intended the love story of The Great Fire, which involves a British war hero and an Australian expatriate who meet near Hiroshima in 1947, “to serve as counterweight to the huge disillusion of a ravaged world.” That novel also features a main character recoiling from “the accretion filming the Orient,” and ends with the lines “Many had died. But not she, not he; not yet.” From a 2020 vantage, her “counterweight” can seem not only much too light but also badly misplaced, a golden trifle sent 50 years too late to people who needed, if anything, wood and steel, but hadn’t asked for anything at all.

It is notable, nonetheless, that Hazzard sent her lovelorn, genteel characters, Clelia Kingslake first among them, to Hiroshima and POW camps, on UN missions and diplomatic assignments to Peru. Hers was not the Jamesian “international theme,” and she did attempt a larger, deeper political project than asserting the exceptionalism of love. In her critique of institutionalized humanism, she traced a history of the midcentury present, exposing its close, melancholic relation to the imperial past it claimed to disavow—exposing, too, that the imperial past was not even past, that it lived on in faux-utopian monuments like the UN, and in the “personal” lives of globe-trotting Western lovers, no less than in extant colonies. If the ethos of unabashed conquest and mastery had been rightfully lost, she pointed out that it was a lost object the West couldn’t yet bear to relinquish.

The clearest consequence of this melancholia, by her reckoning, was hypocrisy. Her Organization is full of absurd subdivisions à la Dr. Strangelove (“Peaceful Uses of Atomic Weapons,” e.g.), and the mordant satire of People in Glass Houses paved the way for her two ferocious nonfiction polemics against the UN, Defeat of an Ideal (1973) and Countenance of Truth (1990). (Hazzard was among the first to publicly condemn Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim’s complicity in Nazi war crimes.) In the excellent story “Sir Cecil’s Ride” (1974), which serves as a keystone for this volume, capping the bridge to her later, more complex novels, a British officer asks a young woman stationed with him in Hong Kong, “You think hypocrisy is new?” She answers, “Only with regard to empires.”

The imperial wolf, Hazzard cautioned, had bought two sheep costumes, bourgeois for the home and bureaucratic for the office. In this way, she turned George Orwell’s anti-totalitarian warnings back against the liberal-democratic middle. The strongest strain of conservatism, here, was in fact that shared by the socialist Orwell: a profound plaint against the degradation of language. (In People in Glass Houses, a visiting conservationist realizes “The Meeting” is being conducted “in its own language—that language of ends and trends, of agenda and addenda.”) Mainly, Hazzard urged readers to heed history. If she learned anything from Australia, it was that there was no prelapsarian paradise. To the contrary, the past, in all its cruelty, was proving only too preoccupying, only too persistent.

The Holocaust and World War II, in this light, were not a great fall; they were simply the greatest in the West’s long, unapologetic history of great fires, their ramifications especially hard to reckon with. Twice in her stories, Hazzard invokes the word “colossal” in reference to the war, both times signaling an unwillingness, or else an inability, to say more. “(The Organization had been founded at the end of a colossal world war … ),” a parenthetical paragraph explains, practically whispering, in “Official Life.” Of the British officer in “Sir Cecil’s Ride,” she writes, “The immense indecency of war he kept, a colossal secret, to himself.”

Scarred and displaced by this unspeakable blank, Hazzard’s young people have to look to the future for an entrance into the garden of youth. The title character of “Vittorio,” an Italian academic whose wife has died young, can “scarcely recall ever having felt sensations that might pass for youth.” This description anticipates those in The Bay of Noon (1970) (“a pale expectancy, as if their youth were yet to come to them”), Transit of Venus (“Caroline Bell was greedy for a bodily lightness never felt before, which she knew to be her youth”), and The Great Fire (“as if, as a treat, they visited the natural condition of youth”).

A pale expectancy: averse to the clamor of counterculture, Hazzard kept her characters in a ’50s holding pattern, but she did let them look forward. However faint and paradoxical it was, she let them have hope.

Hazzard’s gift for looking outward owed as much to her perspective as a woman as to her unique trajectory of transnational dislocation.

Fixation in time also served, for Hazzard, as a counterweight to dislocation in culture and space. She was quite literally “from” Australia: it launched her into a dynamic, parallax way of seeing. She saw Britain and the US from this “antipodean” view, a mobile perspective of uncanny familiarity, alert to refinement hiding historical brutality, in the one case, and arriviste bombast hiding resentful parochialism, in the other. But when it came to Australia itself, she wouldn’t look back until Transit of Venus, and even then she looked back mostly in anger: “The burden of a slatternly continent,” she wrote, “was too heavy for any child to shift.” (The child mainly in question, Caroline Bell, does later hope to return, “to see what I was incapable of seeing then.”)

After “Woollahra Road,” her very first published story, in which a small girl watches her mother try to help a poor woman who comes to their door in 1935, Hazzard never again set a story in Australia (or, for that matter, from a child’s point of view, or before the postwar era). The only other Australian to appear in the Collected Stories is an Organization bureaucrat who had eagerly prepared “for some wider, more accomplished world which he felt sure awaited him.” It’s hardly a surprise that Hazzard has never been fully embraced in a country she called “provincialissimo,” or that she barely appears in the 2009 Cambridge History of Australian Literature.

Still, one must wonder if her gender has been held against her. In a literary environment once dominated by Patrick White, now fascinated by Gerald Murnane, and warm to the expatriate Peter Carey and the transplant J. M. Coetzee, arguments against nationalist chauvinism are ever more common, but a woman making them in “lucidly trenchant” tones can still rankle, as Michelle de Kretser notes in a recent study of Hazzard. “Hazzard was the first Australian writer I read who looked outwards,” writes de Kretser, an Australian novelist born in Sri Lanka; “what she had to say … fell like rain, greening my vision of Australian literature.”

Hazzard’s gift for looking outward owed as much to her perspective as a woman—distinctive and discerning despite societal constraints—as to her unique trajectory of transnational dislocation. It is no coincidence that she endowed her female characters, most of all, with the same gift. The images that endure from this collection are those glimpsed by perceptive, resolutely independent women as they ruminate, with all of Hazzard’s patient, exacting eloquence, on what better things might await them after an age no less paternalistic than its predecessors.

Clelia Kingslake, in Rhodes, looks on and talks back as her superiors belittle the locals they are meant to help. In “Leave It to Me,” a single woman at an Italian country house watches a fire rage on a hillside, knowing she would be “dismissed as hysterical, deranged” if she asked to go with the men to fight it. In “Sir Cecil’s Ride,” from a perch where Sir Cecil, a colonial governor, once stood, the young protagonist stares out at the islands off Hong Kong: “Like flung stones—or as countries might look, set on the curve of the earth, if only you could see the globe entire.” She repeats: “If you could see the globe entire.”

Hazzard’s ultimate message was that you can’t see the whole globe, let alone rule it, a lesson the Western patriarchy had yet to learn. But humble, farsighted, other eyes could dare to look around.

 

This article was commissioned by Nicholas Damesicon

Featured image: Mediterranean Sea (detail) (2018). Photograph by Till Kottmann / Unsplash



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