Interviews

Shirley Hazzard, The Art of Fiction No. 185

Interviewed by J. D. McClatchy

Shirley Hazzard created quite a stir when she received the 2003 National Book Award for her novel The Great Fire. Stephen King had just been presented an award for lifetime achievement, and delivered an extended, pointed, even aggressive, defense of "popular" writers that seemed to condescend to mere "literary" writers. When Hazzard got to the microphone, she hit back--with brief, polite but firm eloquence--at King's claims, and noted that his having offered a reading list of best-selling authors wasn't "much of a satisfaction." Her spirited defense of high culture set the room buzzing, but those who know her realize that her books have been making the same argument for decades. She has written five novels (The Great Fire, 2003; The Transit of Venus, 1980; The Bay of Noon, 1970; People in Glass Houses, 1967; and The Evening of the Holiday, 1966), a collection of stories (Cliffs of Fall, 1963), a memoir (Greene on Capri, 2000), and two books of nonfiction (Countenance of Truth, 1990 and Defeat of an Ideal, 1973), all of them ablaze with technical perfection and moral poise.

Hazzard was born in Sydney, Australia, in 1931. Twenty years later, she came to the United States and took a job at the United Nations (the subject of her highly critical nonfiction). She had earlier held government-service posts in Hong Kong and New Zealand, so she came by her precocious interest in the heart's negotiations and the mind's deceptions in a way few contemporary novelists have. She would undoubtedly agree, however, that the most important event in her life was her marriage to Francis Steegmuller--the critic, biographer, translator, and novelist. They met in New York, at a party Muriel Spark gave in January 1963. As Hazzard walked in, W. H. Auden was just leaving, and she noticed a tall man entering. One thing led to another, and before year's end they were married. Steegmuller died in 1994, at the age of eighty-eight, but when Hazzard speaks of their rich life together, her face brightens with such pleasure that you expect him to come into the room.

When they married, Hazzard and Steegmuller had each passed a fair part of their lives in France, Italy, and England, and in the late sixties, when Steegmuller was writing his biography of Cocteau, they lived part of the year in Paris, making sporadic visits to Italy. Within a few years, though, they moved to Capri, and, in 1970, settled for the spring and autumn of each year into the single floor of a large, unrestored house, with high-ceilinged rooms and terraces. The rent was $70 a month. They wanted to buy it, but the owner always refused, and only after Steegmuller's death in 1994 did Hazzard finally buy a place of her own on Belvedere Cesina, not far from Capri's main square, the Piazzetta. She is sixty steps up. The apartment is a white cube, the floor all gleaming handmade blue-and-white tiles. One wall is bookshelves, filled with Penguin paperbacks and Italian novels, along with editions of Plato, Dante, Proust, Auden, and Montale. Her adjoining bedroom is spare, and in the corner is a white plastic table on wheels, just big enough for her old Smith-Corona portable. The effect--lightened by a narrow terrace that runs the length of the apartment and overlooks the town's rooftops and a great expanse of southern sea--is austere, bright, serious. On a sidetable I noticed a tile on which is written an old motto that could serve as Hazzard's sense of her life on Capri: pax et bonum. It is impossible to walk with her anywhere in town without being stopped by shopkeeper or neighbor, each smiling and exclaiming, "Ah, Signora Steeg-mool-ar." With each she stops to ask about a son's accident or the cousin in Rome. In 2000, she was made an honorary citizen of Capri.

Naples is a forty-minute ride by hydrofoil. More than twenty years ago, Hazzard and her husband came to know Maurizio and Mirella Barracco, who had set up the Fondazione Napoli Novantanove to help restore the city's monuments and churches, many of them still in disrepair from the shattering bombardments of the Second World War. They thought the Steegmullers might help publicize their efforts in the United States. A friendship flourished and, in 1983, they suggested that the Steegmullers might want to rent part of an old seaside dependance within the grounds of their property, Villa Emma, in the part of town called Posillipo. They did, and a year later moved in. Today, Hazzard shuttles back and forth across the Bay of Naples between Villa Emma, with its breathtaking views of Naples and the coastline, and her Capri retreat.

If Italy has her heart, New York is her home, and has been since she moved to the city with her parents in 1951. She lives in a large, white-brick apartment house on the Upper East Side, a quiet, accustomed center in what she calls, indulgently, "this crazy beehive" of a city. The living room is light filled and mellow, with paintings, flowers, and many books. Because she feels closer to him there, Hazzard now works in what used to be Francis's study--"the front trench," she calls it, because of its proximity to phone and front door. She usually writes in longhand on a yellow pad, then types it up at her electric typewriter, and scribbles over the results. She calls it "a clarifying affair."

To speak with her for this interview, I have visited her at each of her homes. She sat across from me at Da Gemma, the Capri restaurant she favors, where in the old days she and Steegmuller often dined with their friend Graham Greene. (There is a photograph of the trio on the menu.) She served, with the casual elegance that is her style, a delicious fish lunch in Naples. And she welcomed me to her Manhattan apartment, wearing a print skirt, white linen blouse, a turquoise necklace and earrings. Always, Hazzard spoke quietly, and with a remarkably precise memory.


INTERVIEWER

Your characters articulate their thoughts and feelings with enviable clarity. Does that seem to you at odds with what other novelists do these days?

SHIRLEY HAZZARD

I do like to write dialogue, intense forms of which I admire in Henry Green's novels, for instance, or in Ivy Compton-Burnett's: it's a matter of developing the ear. There is so much unconsidered speech, one's own included (not to speak of the audible nightmare of the cell phone), that expressive speech becomes a luxury. And, speech--in literature as in life--can crucially suggest what is not said.

As for novelists, the variety and number of contemporary novels makes generalization impossible. There also seems, still, to be a contrast between British writers of fiction and American in this regard, America being intent to seem casual, sassy, democratic, "young," whereas British novelists have not yet thrown out the power of formal language to the same degree--or they allow the reader to sense it, perhaps, under a modern street-smart disguise. There are exceptions to this on both sides, but I think there is some truth in my observation. Saul Bellow, for example, is a master of powerful language, and his thought is at times of a "European" cast. But that has rarely transmitted itself to the millennial generation of writers in America.

I would also say that new novelists, both in the United States and in Britain, are often seized with a concept of invulnerability. A desire to show themselves hard, cool, indifferent. In part, no doubt, because of our electronic and machine age. When I was fifteen, sixteen, I had already lived deeply in poetry and had a large memory for it. Imagination was hungry and adventurous. Exceptional, perhaps, but not all that exceptional at the time. Deep early reading may seem improbable now because of technological entertainments and of the greatly reduced literary expectations of our society. The diminishing vocabulary results in diminished expressiveness and sentiment, and diminished reading. Today few young people read the great writers from childhood on, and independently, as was the case in my early youth. That was before television.

INTERVIEWER

Would you say something about your parents and your childhood?

HAZZARD

My parents were both born in the British Isles, my father in Wales--at Newport, according to his certificate--and my mother in Scotland, at Dunfermline in Fife, where she grew up. My father was in the trenches in the Great War at the age of seventeen, and after that spent some time--perhaps a year or more--in New Guinea and the nearby islands. My mother worked as a secretary in Glasgow and then at Oban in the west of Scotland. The 1920s were a time of much migration from Britain to Australia; and Scotland had been sending its people abroad since the tragedies of the eighteenth century and the terrible Clearances. Both my parents fetched up at Sydney, quite independently of one another, by joining a prominent engineering firm that had won the tender, in the 1920s, to construct the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Thus they met on the bridge, and married in 1927. We had at home a fine album of professional photographs of the construction of the bridge, rather thrilling--historic. The Depression had hit Australia in a calamitous way, and the bridge provided work for thousands throughout the latter 1920s. Sydney siders called it the "Iron Lung."

My father was a pretty heavy drinker. I don't know what the distinction is between being a drinker and being an alcoholic, but it isn't imaginary. Perhaps drunks were a phenomenon of the past--they weren't into drugs, they got up and went to work every morning, and in the genteel society where I grew up, lived an outwardly respectable life--conformist, materialistic. My father played golf, had a fine sailing boat, belonged to a good club. But he was deeply damaged by a forlorn childhood, and, as years went on, by a terrible marriage. He was seriously musical, but gave up on that because of my mother's hostility to it. My parents were both wounded and, in very different ways, deeply selfish people. As time passed, my father became unbalanced about money, miserly toward everyone but himself.

My mother was manic-depressive, which became a great trouble as the condition intensified. The character of Dora, in my Transit of Venus, is a very mild dose of my mother--a destroyer who sees herself as a perpetual victim. I should have said that my parents were both very good-looking, in their Celtic way--dark hair, blue eyes, fair skin, fairly tall. My mother was strikingly beautiful even into late life, and had fine taste in clothes. Both could be quick and amusing, both had a flair for words. I think they had been fairly happy in the first years of their marriage, and--in their best selves--rejoiced in giving, to my sister and me, a better childhood than they themselves had had. My memories of very early life are touching in that way. My father prospered, after the bridge, in the steel business, and we had a nice house. In 1939, the war came, and the Pacific war at the beginning of 1942. We expected to be invaded by the Japanese, and my school was evacuated to the countryside. All things changed. My father, as I uneasily realized, was having affairs. Like many another Australian family of the time, we were living a double life: decorum and tea parties on the outside, and screams and scenes within the walls. The private wars, and the global one. It was very much a male-dominated society.

INTERVIEWER

And after the war?

HAZZARD

After the war, my father was asked by the Australian government to travel through what we then called the Far East to examine possibilities of trade. As a beneficent result, we settled in Hong Kong. He later had other posts, eventually in New York. It was in this way that I left Australia as a schoolgirl. My parents' marriage foundered forever during the New York stretch. These were ghastly years for me: the terrible partings from loved places, from the loved person; the helplessness of stark impoverishment. My parents' story is a sad one, very much of its era--people who had undeveloped better natures going under to mediocrity. For me, there was great suffering, loneliness, a sense of isolation. No one to stand by me, or imagine my difficulties, let alone comfort me. One is young, yet already old. One becomes, at times, the parent of one's flailing parents. It would have been easy to die. But, oddly, one didn't. By the time I was twenty-five, I had emerged from a lot of trouble. I had also, more interestingly, lived for appreciable periods in six countries and diverse languages.

INTERVIEWER

For you, as a precocious child and a passionate reader, did Sydney--at the time or in retrospect--seem a remote or provincial place to grow up?

HAZZARD

Provincialissimo, especially to a reading child who had the evidence, on the page, of other worlds, other affinities. The Sydney of my childhood had no concert hall. The echoing old Town Hall was used by the unadventurous orchestra, and the Conservatorium of Music by the ballet company. The theater was very limited, with constant repetitions of casts and plays, yet there was interest in the theater, and some circumscribed efforts by small groups. The visual arts  were worst off. The public gallery at Sydney had some good paintings--some, for instance, by nineteenth-century British painters who had come "out" to what was then a colony--but even these were displayed in such gloom and institutional dreariness that one dreaded the Sunday afternoons on which one was taken there. The government, entirely male and philistine, was actively inimical to the arts; ridicule was the keynote. These things, in Australia, have greatly, if not entirely, changed.

INTERVIEWER

What about school?

HAZZARD

My sister and I were both clever at school. Did well--although I didn't work much at it, and was bad at algebra, geometry, trigonometry, etc. Could not grasp the principles. I have always felt the lack of that understanding, a real ignorance. Subjects such as English literature, history, geography, French, even geology, scarcely seemed like "study" to me. They seemed natural, something one wanted to enter into. Bravely, the two principals would not teach "domestic science," as other schools did--and as our local Anglican minister wanted our school to do, saying that girls should be prepared for their only future: marriage, domesticity, children. (It certainly was their only future, then, in Australia.) Our private girls' school, now renowned, was not unusual in its reading, although that reading now seems wonderfully precocious. I was a fluent reader at four years old, and at school we had accessible poems by Browning by the time I was eight, and were reading wonderful stories by Conrad ("Youth"!) and novels of Dickens at nine or ten. Pride and Prejudice, A Midsummer Night's Dream-no one appeared mystified; even the dimmest girl in the class needed no explanation. History, too, in that remote country, was far advanced over what most children now seem to learn. British history, European wars, global explorations, the great navigators, the French in North America, even, God help us, the Tennessee Valley experiment.

The only history that was boring was that of our own country--a sad little brown book of failed explorations, intrepid deaths of those who tried to map the dead interior of the Australian continent. This was so shamefacedly presented, with the terrible chronicle of the convict settlement that was the founding of the nation, that it wasn't until the publication of Patrick White's masterpiece (as I think of it) Voss that most Australians began to consider the drama of it all.

INTERVIEWER

You make it all sound pretty grim.

HAZZARD

Yes, the Australia of my childhood was a place that one might want to escape from. The narrowness of just about every outlook, the overt rawness, and the hypocritical puritanism, weighed heavily even on one's uncomprehending spirit. I realized early that "nothing would come of nothing," and that I wanted to be away. I was not alone in this--thousands of Australians felt it.

INTERVIEWER

I don't know anyone who has more poetry by heart than you. How early did that start--and why?

HAZZARD

"It" started before I can remember. My mother--allowing for maternal indulgence--said that I recited back to her "The House that Jack Built" when I was eighteen months old. I do not recall a time when poetry was not central, and I could say poems from Kipling and Swinburne (the only poets, I think, other than Shakespeare--oh yes, and Burns--whose volumes we had in the house) when I was little, just going to school. One might say the form, the lilting, attracted me. There would be a lot else, besides, to account for it. And thank God we never can account for such things. Very soon there were the "school" poems--I've written something about this in The Transit of Venus. Along with Alfred Noyes and the patriot Henry Newbolt, and Australians such as Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson and Henry Kendall, we quite quickly had poems from Browning; songs from Shakespeare, even sonnets; much Tennyson, Wordsworth, and the anthologized poems of Coleridge; Gray's Elegy--eventually everyone. Thank God for anthologies, how much they spread before us. With my pocket money I began to buy the works of the great poets. At times, I could hardly read the lines for excitement, ecstasy. My copy of Keats is still on my shelf, with my name written therein and my childish habit of writing the landmark date when it was acquired. The Great War poets. Then, aged about twelve years, the explosion of Auden, MacNeice, and co. But I should not make this seem chronological, either for the works or my successive ages. I was reading  all over the place in poetry. Of course I knew from what diverse eras the poets came, but that meant little to me--the impression of the poem was everything, and, I make bold to say, the quality. The ear develops, and there is scarcely any important poem I look back on without understanding why it mattered to me. Hardy was a mighty discovery, and I read a great deal of Hardy when I was in Hong Kong and deeply in love. His poems after the death of his first wife, transcendent to me, reached me with such force in those years, I could remember them almost as I read them. "Memorizing" was never involved. I can only say that I ate and drank them up as nourishment, knowing they could only do me good. Here I might add that I think that the poems of T. S. Eliot did me harm for a time--enforcing a sense of desolation, hopelessness: Should I really, at sixteen, have been saying to myself that I did not hope to turn again? (How glad I was, years later, to discover that Eliot had absorbed that poem from the great Italian.) French and, soon after, Italian poetry was another benediction. Leopardi influenced my whole life--when I was at my wits' end, and at the end of the world, in New Zealand, in 1949 and 1950, I began to study Italian in order to read Leopardi in the original.

When I met Francis, I was long in thrall to the Elizabethans. Later, in Italy, he and I used to read aloud at breakfast, usually sitting outdoors, plays of Shakespeare continually, also Byron's Don Juan inexhaustibly, anything we felt like. Clough's "Amours de voyage," Paradise Lost. Gibbon. Poetry has been the longest pleasure of my life. It literally and figuratively saved my life, and enabled me to live inwardly. I do not know how people manage without it.

INTERVIEWER

Perhaps not as a child, but as a teenager, a writer is often stamped by certain books, by a certain style of writing. Was that so for you?

HAZZARD

I can't say that particular books (contrasted with particular poets) marked me conclusively. When I was ten or eleven, I was already reading adult books, and these intermingled easily enough with what were lightweight novels then--romances by Baroness Orczy (The Scarlet Pimpernel) and rather fine novels by Dorothy Broster set in eighteenth-century Scotland. Contemporary novels by Rosamund Lehmann. By Howard Spring. Jane Austen--the refusal by Elizabeth Bennet of Mr. Darcy's unmannerly proposal was a high point: consequential. Christmas, 1947, in Hong Kong, I asked for Graham Greene's new novel The Heart of the Matter as a present. It made a strong impression: that one could write with such apparent simplicity of the daily complications and pain of a usual existence, a baffled sensibility. The women--the Brontes and George Eliot through Virginia Woolf--were influential; and Forster's Passage to India, which I still consider a work of greatness, quietly unique. Proust was a late love, when I was over twenty. I cannot quite single out any of these, or any of the subsequent others, as a conclusive influence: They all swam together, like stars in the firmament.

INTERVIEWER

The elegant, even epigrammatic character of your writing--was there ever a model?

HAZZARD

I don't think of any particular exemplar. I was attracted, always, to concise, original observation--which was part of the magic of poetry, of course. This could be heart-wrenching, could call up all one's humanity--or be satirical, or acutely amusing, as is Oscar Wilde. It could be met with in Seneca or Rochefoucauld or Dr. Johnson or Pope, and in the masters of the languages I could read in. I don't think I can separate the epigrammatic from other strong influences of literature--for instance, the intuitive deployment of sounds, whose rise and fall, something sensual, creates the force of a phrase and mobilizes meaning. Pope is wonderful in this, swift and light and diamond-bright; but surgical, not sensuous.
Vladimir Nabokov told his American students that they must saturate themselves in the poetry of their language, poetry in English, in order to develop the ear. This seems to me the most valuable advice one could give to readers or writers. Of course, he did not mean that this should be done with a "purpose" in mind, as if to exploit the power and beauty of great art. Accessibility to expressive language will not come that way. It is an act of love, with implicit humility, and must develop itself. So much of this is intuitive, and intuition itself must be developed from an early age if it is not to languish. Our era of interpretations and explanations and the piling up of convoluted lingo in the academic world--the self-gratification of many a "close reading," the psycho-sociological overlaying and, often, undermining that commentators apply to works of genius--has been inimical to the nurturing of intuitive affinity and understanding. Much of that arises, I think, from a modern fear of immediacy and of the loss of the illusion of control. Housman's reference to the hairs rising at the back of one's neck as one reads a poem remains a test of quality. Such response is individual and cannot merely be generalized, dismantled, controlled.

INTERVIEWER

Literature, art, history--all of it seems your lifeblood, and yet when you left to live in Hong Kong at the age of sixteen, that was the end of your schooling, no?

HAZZARD

Yes, my schooling did finish when I went with my parents to the Far East. The idea was that I was to go to the university in Hong Kong. But the university had been destroyed in wartime bombardment and looting at the end of the Pacific war. What miraculously happened for me was a greater education, at sixteen, when I went to work, in 1947, for the Special Operations branch of British Intelligence there. The literary atmosphere of that office--British officers, linguists, young veterans who were almost innately charged with literary reference--was joyful. For the first time, I could share literature with delight and freedom. I began then to read the great Russians--War and Peace, stories by Chekhov and Turgenev, Dostoyevsky--and to be aware of contemporary poets, although Auden was already a rapturous enthusiasm with me. 

At that time I also read novels from the recent war--H. E. Bates's The Purple Plain, set in Burm a, was very close to the experience I was vicariously absorbing from my friends in the intelligence establishment. That was the climate in which I expanded, each day an adventure. When I was snatched from that Eden, late in 1948, I was equipped through later sorrows with the knowledge of a companionship that could not be taken from me. But the rupture was terrible, and, even now, hard for me to dwell on. I regret the lack of university in my life in this sense: that I might have studied Ancient Greek, or philosophy, or mathematics. I cannot think that I could have loved and enjoyed literature more through an academic exposure to it. I occasionally feel, on the contrary, that I've had a narrow escape from such contortions as deconstruction. Whatever has been "missing" from my accidental approach, I've enjoyed an immediacy, a sort of impassioned humility, and inexpressible delight from a life of reading, and would not have it otherwise.

INTERVIEWER

I remember your once telling me of your rather fortunate start as a writer. It had to do with one short story and a remarkable editor.

HAZZARD

Yes, a miracle--obscure to the world, but a momentous rescue for me. I had been working some years at the UN Secretariat in New York, a deeply demoralized atmosphere that--due to an illicit policy of geographical distribution in upper ranks--rigorously precluded a merit system. There was no advancement whatever for working women, as most were--like me--in the clerical category. The work itself was virtually meaningless, and cruelly underpaid. However, entirely thanks to having studied Italian, I was precipitately sent on a year's mission to Naples, in 1956, as a complicated result of the Suez crisis that autumn. I thus found myself at short notice on a plane bound for Rome. I was still in my early twenties. This was a time of crisis in my private as well as my working life, and the assignment came as if by divine intervention--the first of a series of miraculous reprieves that transformed my life. I had to earn my living, and, at the end of the mission, I returned to UN headquarters in New York. But before I sailed back, I made a journey in northern Italy. I had a lot of leave saved up, and a little money in reserve from my mission allowance. Winter was coming on. At Milan, at beautiful Verona, Vicenza, I walked by day; evenings were an excruciating loneliness. However, one's impressions are, in such circumstances, vivid, and there is time to digest them. At Venice I received a letter from a Siena family to whom I had written: a family who took paying guests, in their villa just beyond the walls of Siena. As antifascists, they had spent the war in exile in England, and returned to find their property shattered. Later, they received guests introduced by their English friends. This was the second miracle. I spent two weeks at their house. Villa Solaia. The quality and integrity of these people altered for the better, I think, every person who came in touch with them. I returned to New York and the UN, and six months later came back to Italy, to stay for the summer in that house--as I was then to do for the following six years. It was there, and through them, that I was released into a larger life; restored to the measure of belief in myself that the United Nations had eroded. There was, also, the beauty of place. In 1960, I wrote a story--a simple story of a young poet, derived from an evening in that Italian garden. I sent it to The New Yorker, without keeping a copy. It was accepted by William Maxwell, and I received his letter standing in the big old kitchen of my friends' villa. Moments like that don't come twice: The Order of Release. (I was also extremely poor; my UN salary was negligible, I had no other means. The payment from The New Yorker for my brief story was my UN salary for months--another aspect of rescue.)

INTERVIEWER

In a recent elegy for William Maxwell, you noted that he was not an intellectual, he was an artist. How would you describe the difference? What was it like working with him?

HAZZARD

I don't know that I can "describe" the difference. One glimpse of Maxwell's face was the illustration of it. I met him soon after he had accepted my story. I returned to New York City and the UN, and he wrote asking me to come and see him. In the meantime, I had written a second story--all I had, then--and I took it to him. When I saw him, I knew that "everything"--whatever that is--would be all right. That story was also accepted, it was one of the best I ever wrote, or at least the most satisfactory to me. I then began writing stories, nearly all of which he accepted as I wrote them, reading them, quite often, in my presence, and saying "Yes." It was a very happy time in my life. The atmosphere of The New Yorker, in those years, can never come again. It was a place of temperamental people, yet of eccentric
goodwill, civility, amusement, liveliness. Yes, of generosity. Of literature, and of fun. Any issue might contain a story by Nabokov or Pritchett or Frank O'Connor; a poem or a review by Auden; an essay by Edmund Wilson or Lewis Mumford. There was Cheever. There was, on occasion, Salinger. There was Maxwell. There was the infant Updike. There was the gentle Joe Mitchell, and the ebullient Dwight Macdonald. William Shawn held it together, and Maxwell presided (although no one had a "title") over the fiction. No one acted presidential. Yes, Maxwell was an artist. He had maintained his course, nurtured his unique affinity with a difficult simplicity and pure truth. He was very firm in his preferences and principles, and this firmness was manifest to his friends, but he had nothing whatever of the
assertiveness of the "New York Intellectual," a phenomenon rampant in those years. No bluster, no self-importance, no bullying. An extraordinary questing repose--in his case, not at all contradictory.

INTERVIEWER

Your first book, Cliffs of Fall, is a collection of short stories from those New Yorker years. That's not a form you pursued much after the sixties. Why not?

HAZZARD

Yes, that was my first book, some of it quite, though never completely, autobiographical. I love the form of the short story, and still hanker for it. To choose three examples, quite distinct, of self-sufficient stories much envied by me: Conrad's "The Secret Sharei;" uncanny in the levels of thought and imagination conjured; "The Dead," by James Joyce; and the story called, in English, "The Professor and the Mermaid" (in Italian, "Lighea") by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa--each of these utterly disconnected, in social and inventive terms, from the others. There are also, of course, countless other stories that delight and move me. I don't know if I can return to the short story. Whatever I write tends to turn, now--who knows why?--toward the form of the novel. Even so, I think some form of the short story emerges in my novels in what reviewers call "set pieces"--self-contained adventures within the sustained narrative. Certain chapters from my novels have been published (mostly in The New Yorker) as stories, even though conceived within the plot of a novel. To some extent, I see life as "occasional" or "incidental," with episodes starting out from the dailiness of things. A novella would be more of a difficulty for me--"Neither the one thing nor the other," as Winston Churchill observed of the surname of a politician called Bossom.

INTERVIEWER

Your many years of working for the United Nations resulted in three very different books--the novel People in Glass Houses and two reportorial books. The latter are quite polemical--not a note usually struck in your work.

HAZZARD

When, having become a writer, I resigned from the United Nations Secretariat in 1960, it never occurred to me that I would write directly about that experience--my years in a bureaucracy that, given its pretensions, funds, and opportunities, was the most disillusioning and stultifying experience imaginable. People in Glass Houses gradually developed in my mind, as time passed and I realized more acutely the waste of years spent there. The waste of people and possibilities. The book, composed of pieces published in The New Yorker, had no commercial success, Knopf did nothing for it. The New York Times had taken its long vow of silence on UN realities. But it brought me wonderful readers, some of them UN denizens or ex-denizens, or people who had worked in large organizations, others simply indomitable humanists. Now, republished, it has a new career.

INTERVIEWER

People in Glass Houses has a satirical edge--Orwell crossed with Waugh. I remember a sentence describing one bureaucrat; "Swoboda was not a brilliant man. He was a man of what used to be known as average and is now known as above-average intelligence." But that tone, when the book first appeared in 196J, disconcerted some critics, no?

HAZZARD 

The main thing that disconcerted critics was pressure from UN cronies. In Britain, there was a contrasting reception. Evelyn Waugh did cross my mind when I was writing those stories. I enjoyed the exercise of satirical style. I don't know that Waugh cared particularly about satire in a good cause--which was a satisfaction to me--but of course there was always, in his early books, the service of satire to aspects of truth. Satire is, or was, also, an exercise in accurate language, and I liked that. The book remains a favorite with me, one piece in particular, "The Story of Miss Sadie Graine."

INTERVIEWER

And the two nonfiction books?

HAZZARD

The two factual books arose, to some extent, out of that renewed consideration of my UN years. Defeat of an Ideal was an act of indignation against the silence surrounding the UN Secretariat's complete surrender to McCarthyism in 1951-55--scarcely a surrender, since all the power in the Secretariat was held by the U.S., and the Americans installed, in heavy disproportion, in top positions were of a glaringly inadequate nature, some having been appointed there precisely to promote the destruction of any flicker of internationalism, and having their instructions from Washington. For decades, all United States employees at the UN were "cleared" by the CIA and EBI. During the McCarthy period; the FBI had offices in the Secretariat building, on international territory. Any person--and they were few--who audibly objected to this violation was removed. I saw that the truth would never be disclosed except by someone who had been present and was willing to testify. I knew that I could get a book published, and knew where to look for the documents. In all my UN writings, the UN vituperation against me has never challenged the scholarly apparatus appended to the two factual books, and has never questioned any of the evidence adduced. I was also aware that, in the mass of the UN records, the documents would become harder to trace, and might be destroyed; and that the men and women who could testify would age and die. When the Waldheim case seemed to lift a comer of the protective rug in the late 1980s, I wrote Countenance of Truth, which was first published in two issues by Bob Gottlieb in The New Yorker. The corruption and ineffectuality of the UN Secretariat and its "leaders" in the increasing dangers of the 1970s and 1980s were beginning to attract criticism and attention outside the United States, particularly in Britain. That the United Nations--whether as world body or as a bureaucracy--never managed to mention the Vietnam War or the Gulag Archipelago, or to defend human rights, could not escape comment; nor was Waldheim's character--however cloaked in slavish public compliments from his deputies--obscure to the world. I had published, in The New Republic, on January 19, 1980, while Waldheim was still secretary-general, an article saying that he had been in the Hitler Youth and was lying about his youth. That was six years before he was finally unmasked by a small Austrian publication, Profil. Literally thousands of people had always known the truth, but no one came forward to support my statements or utter a word. The New York Times instantly published a large front page story the day after Profil broke loose--the story had presumably been held in readiness. In any case, it was quickly swept under the UN rug, having revealed the Secretariat's true face for those few instants. No one other than myself pressed for a commission of inquiry into Waldheim's preposterous "clearance" by the Great Powers for his post as Secretary-General of the United Nations. I am very glad that I published those books. One begins by thinking one can change things by bringing truth to light. One discovers that certain truths are not acceptable, at least not for a long time. What has been important is to testify to them and to give the supporting context. The truth, as Coventry Patmore observed, "is great, and shall prevail, / When none cares whether it prevail or not." 

I'm following now, with some sardonic amusement, the press accounts of UN corruption and disarray--just what I wrote of fifteen, and thirty, years ago, when it was doggedly disparaged and ignored.

INTERVIEWER

The book that first brought you wider attention was The Bay of Noon, in 1970. A young impressionable Englishwoman caught up in ruined postwar Naples with a group of sophisticated foreigners in a sort of game of sexual musical chairs. It's certainly your most Jamesian fiction.

HAZZARD

In those years, reviewers and readers did quite frequently refer to Henry James in connection with my books (most of all, The Evening of the Holiday, and certain early stories). It has always puzzled me. When I began to write--the very stories that were later called Jamesian--I'd read almost nothing of Henry James. Seeing him often ascribed as an influence over me, I did then embark on a sort of steady but intermittent reading. Although he's grown on me, the excessive Jamesian uncontrolled snobbery continues to bother me, certain longueurs of overwrought style, plots that try the reader's patience and credulity. There are marvelous moments, and the short stories especially do thrill me. A measure, certainly, of greatness. The connection made to my work might derive in general from the novels set in Italy: northern girl meets meridional sensuality and charm. And there is also a care for language and a willingness to be what reviewers now call, in me, "stately" or "measured," or--lately--"haughty." However, James rarely discloses his full heart. The Bay of Noon is a love letter to Naples. I set it in the first person when I found that it would otherwise become a descriptive third-person commentary, too much of a travelogue. I don't think Henry James would have been so sensual or, if I may say so, so openly amusing, and I wanted the action to be swift in contrast to the self-knowledge and antiquity of the ruined city. James does rather move in slow motion--al rallentatore. And he'd have cared immensely about getting himself into those palazzi, meeting his eternal contesse. I'm being too hard on him, but I can't feel that he has ever been a vital model to me. In fact, quite disparate "influences" have been ascribed to me--James, Elizabeth Bowen, Flaubert, Patrick White, Henry Green recur. In these matters, critics and reviewers stick, I notice, close to home: They "detect," inevitably, only those writers familiar to themselves without allowing for the power of works they may never have heard of. In The Great Fire, for example, my hero walks through China rather in an atmosphere derived in part, perhaps, from the writings of Victor Segalen--Les Immemoriaux and, particularly, Chine: La grande statuaire. This last book stayed on my desk while I was writing The Great Fire. Congenial company, atmosphere and ambience have mattered greatly to me, in the work of others and in my own. I keep to myself certain of the obscure spirits who have, for me, made their contribution.

INTERVIEWER

It was almost a decade before your next novel appeared, The Transit of Venus, in 1980, and suddenly (if that's the word for something that was seven years in the making) there is a dramatic shift in the scale of your fictional treatment. Where the earlier work had been largely focused on one scene or set of characters, now we are thrust into a much wider world, a span of time, interlocked stories. The narrative is altogether more complex. What set that in motion?

HAZZARD

Who knows? An accumulation of years and experiences and reflections. After all, The Bay of Noon explicitly announces the trip through the Looking Glass that crystallizes in The Transit of Venus. A simple "explanation" might be that I was growing up, growing older as a writer, and extending always my concept of what I might attempt. In the case of the "material" from the Far East, those experiences had been waiting for me a long time. The Transit of Venus is almost as much an antiwar novel as The Great Fire: Ted Tice goes to Hiroshima; and Caro and Grace are influenced, from childhood, by the horror of the Great War--the amputees and veterans of Gallipoli and France, impoverished by the Great Depression, passing by on their annual commemoration through the streets of Sydney. Both novels testify in different ways to a world trying not to go to pieces under its burden of modern experience.

INTERVIEWER

Which parts of it came easily to you, and which did not? And where did you get your knowledge of prisoner-of-war-camp life?

HAZZARD

I can hardly say which parts came more easily than others, although what did come, after false starts, was the tone of The Transit of Venus--a tone of detachment, though not, I trust, of condescension to my characters when they were genuinely struggling with their lives and sufferings, or when they tried to be their best selves. As to prisoner-of-war life--both in The Transit of Venus and in The Great Fire--my first-hand observations occurred when my school in Sydney was evacuated to the countryside in expectation of the Japanese invasion early in 1942 and we found Italian prisoners of war at work on the Australian land. The U.S. Navy in the battles of Midway and the Coral Sea deflected the Japanese invasion of Australia; the U.S., in general, knows nothing of that Australian trauma: Australian losses of its male population in arms, the constant bombing of Darwin, the Japanese suicide midget-submarines arriving by night in Sydney's harbor . . . the defenselessness of a huge coastline exposed to any momentary attack by vast invading forces.

In The Great Fire, the prisoner-of-war experiences of my colleagues in my Far Eastern office life contributed. And we had all come to know more, by then, about prison life under Japanese domination. In Europe, prisoners of war and concentration-camp survivors had told their tale, much had been written and documented. And, again, there is one's imagination of such things.

INTERVIEWER

Early on in The Transit of Venus, a character says of James Cook's 1769 observation about the planet Venus crossing the face of the sun that "the calculations were hopelessly out. . . . Calculations about Venus often are." The remark goes to the heart of the transitory nature of love in this novel.

HAZZARD

Incidentally, the remark is genuine--scientific calculations about the planet Venus have been notoriously inaccurate, even in recent years of advanced astronomy. The power of passion is incalculable too. As to "the transitory nature" of love--yes, unpredictable, despite all the pronouncements made by "experts" in retrospect. The accidental nature of such matters is inscrutable. However, please note, as to the transitory aspect, that Tice reflects, on the theme of love, that "the tragedy is not that love doesn't last. The tragedy is the love that lasts." Henry James, in The Portrait of a Lady, has Caspar Goodwood reflect that "there are disappointments that last as long as life." Yes, of course my title was figurative, emblematic, symbolic, whatever one wants, and also has a factual historical significance. As Professor Thrale points out to Caro in the opening pages of the book, she wouldn't exist if it had not been for Captain Cook's journey to the Pacific to observe the transit of Venus. Again, a reminder of the dominance of the accidental factor in human affairs.

INTERVIEWER

The jar of Marmite that Rex Ivory held on to through his imprisonment in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp seems like a symbol of the primitive human need to hold onto something, to make some sort of meaning. Has art been like that for you?

HAZZARD

There was an actual jar of Marmite, recounted to me long, long ago by a British survivor of Changi Camp near Singapore and of the camp called Outram Road. Don't forget that it has a real and immediate significance. Men died of malnutrition in those camps, and of diseases from lack of any coherent diet. Marmite would have been a treasure, and a lifesaver. Keeping it unopened was not only symbolic; it was a possible element for a day or two's survival in the case of escape. In the Japanese camps, British and Australian prisoners hid tiny rice cakes saved from their starvation rations for just such motives. Immediate factual truth comes before symbolic cogitations. But yes, I suppose art is a Marmite, and the conserved shred of civilized life must seem intensely so to isolated and persecuted people. I remember a heart-shaking description by Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago about prisoners exchanging whispered remembrances of poetry, or a phrase from a Mozart opera, precious passwords of sanity and civilized life, and of the ineffable power of art; Marmite.

INTERVIEWER

Your memoir, Greene on Capri, takes on a particularly elusive man and a perhaps over familiar place. In the end, I thought Greene retained his odd mystery, but that Capri was revealed as never before. What was your sense of the balance between your two subjects in that book?

HAZZARD

"Balance"? More like a trade-off, perhaps. In my book I haven't tried to "explain" Graham, only to give impressions from a long and sustained association during which we spent much time in close company, a quatre. He was extravagantly unreasonable, and didn't like things to go well--at least, he liked them to go wrong on his own terms. His moods were volatile, according to what had pleased or displeased him, or whether he'd expended his ever-hovering hostility on some objective earlier in the day. I have called him octagonal--that is to say, he was not "simply" a Jekyll or Hyde. He had many personalities, not as poses but as states of being. The novelist within. An intensely literary and ever-interesting man.

And Capri? Well, Capri has seen a lot. The populace, as far as they thought about him, took him, in the Italian way, for granted--pleased to have him aboard as MM grande personaggio, on an island accustomed to, but never jaded by, its historic attraction to "monsters"--Tiberius, Augustus, Norman Douglas, Munthe . . .The word in Italian, mostro, can have a somewhat different significance from the English--meaning outlandish, or larger than life . . . Capri's ability to retain, or at least seasonally revert to, its unique and self-possessed beauty, after the incredible depredations and inanities of the half-year scene of mass tourism, is certainly mysterious. It helps, no doubt, to have known the island as I blessedly did, in the 1950s and 1960s, before that craziness took over.

A strong impetus of that memoir was my pleasure in depicting the life that Francis and I shared on Capri in those years. In fact, Graham was perhaps something of an excuse in that regard.

INTERVIEWER

If you had the time and inclination to write a couple of short books about your friendship with other writers, who might they be?

HAZZARD

What a good question, and it sets any number of strands rippling off. I particularly think of the writers who befriended me when I was first published. I was fairly young, and looking back I see that I took the kindliness of established writers rather for granted. Why that should be I don't know, as I was coming from my United Nations years, an institution where no one helped anyone. Why, for instance, should one of my first friends in literature have been the poet John Hall Wheelock? He and his wife would ask me for tea on Sundays quite often, and Van Wyck Brooks would be there. It was the last of nineteenth-century literary America. Anne Fremantle was working part-time at the UN when we first met, even before I began to write. She was a generous heart, eccentric without the slightest pose. She would have us to dinner with Auden ("Come early, we must dine at six because Wystan gets up at five. He wears slippers because of his corns.") Or she would call up one winter day to ask me for Sunday lunch: "It will be quite cozy. Just the two of us and Elizabeth." This was Elizabeth Bowen, who became a friend and often visited us in New York after Francis and I met and married. Anne set many literary connections in motion. Above all, she gave encouragement, animation. Subsequently, I came to know many writers, at first through my New Yorker friendships and then through infinite connections. It continues. Affinity, liking, love--central to a fortunate and affectionate life.

INTERVIEWER

The long interval between The Transit of Venus and The Great Fire prompts a few nuts-and-bolts questions. First, do you write every day?

HAZZARD

If only I could write every day. I look back to the far-off time when I did so, mostly early morning and then late in the day. I do write in my head every day--I'm tempted to say all the time. One does instinctively reserve a part of oneself as the writing self, visiting it secretly while doing and saying all the daily things. I envy writers who feel compelled to write--John Updike, for instance--who are overflowing into reviews and articles and lectures. I have rarely felt that way--only when I was first writing, one short story after another, even though I had my bureaucratic job then, still full-time. Mostly I have to goad myself to it. And these days I'm beset by so many interruptions and by a sense of obligation. And there are the precious pleasures. It is hard to do. Yet one is never happy unless one is doing it.

INTERVIEWER

I remember that you rewrote the ending of The Great Fire when the reviewers' galleys had already been sent out. Do publishers have to wrench books out of your hands?

HAZZARD

No. The Great Fire has been the first of such trouble. I gave the publishers a terrible time with those cliff-hangers and procrastinations. I hope never to do that again. The previous books had minor episodes of the kind (I'm speaking here of novels, not nonfiction), but nothing of consequence. The Great Fire was a singular experience in various ways for me. I didn't "rewrite" the ending of my Great Fire, but developed what had been too abrupt. I found what I wanted for the last sentence as the publisher's courier came to the door to collect the page.

INTERVIEWER

What are you looking to change when you revise?

HAZZARD

It is mainly a question of the ear. If one has read a lot, and especially in poetry, all one's life, one's ear signals falsity, infelicity, banality. What one can do about it is another matter.

INTERVIEWER

Like much of your work. The Great Fire has a romance at its heart. But it differs, really, in being itself a romance, a literary genre not often encountered nowadays. Were you aware, during its composition, of trying for something more than a mere novel?

HAZZARD

"A mere novel"? Hmm. I do think that novelists should do their best with what has become their theme, and not be deterred by the sense that the material or the treatment of it may be derided or misunderstood. Of course, we should be as lucid as possible. One must sometimes test oneself against the possible or probable disbelief of some readers. In The Dyer's Hand, Auden says something like, It doesn't often occur to the critic that the author, in writing some passage or other, has foreseen precisely what the unfavorable critic may say--that is, the writer has something more in mind than the critic divines, and should persist, despite the likelihood of incurring critical sarcasm or obtuseness. I wanted to write, perhaps, a story of falling in love. I wanted to be as true as possible to a phenomenon now passing away from our society: the accidental meeting of man and woman and a sense of destined engagement that would possibly last out their lives. This, to serve as counterweight to the huge disillusion of a ravaged world. I will let myself in for derision, whatever I say on this theme, I suppose. Yet I think that such a story is not necessarily idealized, and that the dream, at least, of such love still supplies the poetry of all manner of unpoetic lives.

INTERVIEWER

Your heroine, Helen Driscoll, seems almost too young to be so wise. And perhaps for some readers too young to be the object of a passionate love. But that goes to the genuine sense of daring in The Great Fire. Do you think the novelist has an obligation to push at the limits of tradition and expectation?

HAZZARD

What you suggest about Helen has come up in some reviews. This, together with the related criticism that Helen and her brother are improbably well read, has much to do with generational change. Young people of my generation were not raised in an expectation of "happiness." Their difficulties and sufferings were forced in on them and did not make a contrast with an advertised or televised fiction of well-being and self-assertion, or lend themselves to psychological formulae. That made for much pain and many wounded lives. But it also could produce, not entirely exceptionally, acute sensibilities; and more people found comfort and human solidarity, and pleasure, in good books than would be the case today. Helen and Benedict, who had, also, the benefit of a highly educated tutor, had led an enclosed life. Practically all they'd done was read, and share the adventure of reading with one another. I've known people who would not have been amazed by such "prodigies," as they would now be considered.

INTERVIEWER

And you're launched now on a new novel?

HAZZARD

I'm launched on it in my mind, and visit it under cover of darkness. My life has for a year now been, in wonderful ways, out of my control--travels, appointments, talks, readings, readers, lovely times, lovely people. I'm very, very grateful. However, the context of reverie and gawping into space above an empty page that I need for extended work has been almost completely lacking. And one spills out words--on the telephone, in discussion, in many more conversations than one usually has, and in correspondence--ready words that reduce the capacity to form phrases and dialogue on the silent page. This must come under control again, because I like the idea of my new novel, which will be set, I think, in the 1960s, partly in New York. And, once embarked on, should occupy a couple of years in the writing. I look forward to making some headway soon. Soon.

INTERVIEWER

What novel from the past do you wish you had written?

HAZZARD

I don't think I can answer this. Rather, I might speak with a joyful envy of passages that I myself would not have conceivably written. I would say that Great Expectations may be the most greatly realized novel in English (though I steer clear of that sort of competitive judgment). Conrad's Victory, Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse . . . Wuthering Heights . . . Ulysses  . . . I can line them up forever--especially scenes to which I feel very near. Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea is an extraordinary novel that often comes to mind, yet I have no feeling that I could have imagined it or set about writing it. Tess is just about unbearable, a wonderful book in which I participate almost as if I created it. Such a disparate range of books your question summons up! A little masterpiece like Nigel Balchin's The Small Back Room speaks to our own time, but with so much literary experience behind it. Then there is nonfiction so personal as to be novelistic--Sebald's Rings of Saturn, for instance. There are passages in many good novels that I feel affinity for. In responsive reading, one participates, so to speak, in the rainbow of creation.