The call came at eleven at night. I was breathless, having raced inside to pick up. I’d been on my way out to dinner, and only a shot of curiosity at who might have been calling at such an hour, on a Friday, had urged me to run back and catch it.
“Is this Matthew Specktor?”
The voice on the other end was remote. It sounded, for a moment, as if she might have been calling from somewhere far away—an analog, transatlantic connection—but that wasn’t it. The accent wasn’t American, wasn’t Australian, wasn’t English, certainly, although it muddled a few of these things.
“This is Shirley Hazzard …”
Once I got to know her—it would take a few years—I’d understand that this “remoteness” was not geographical but temporal. Everything that seemed to constitute Shirley, everything that mattered, was also a piece of the historical past. But just then what I felt was surprise—something akin to what an astronomer might’ve experienced (to borrow a figure from one of her own books) upon receiving a signal from another star. Proof of life.
Six months earlier, I’d sent a letter. I was fevered with admiration after having read Hazzard’s novel The Transit of Venus. For reasons I couldn’t quite explain—I had a job then that involved acquiring film rights to literary properties, which meant it would’ve been easy enough simply to call her agent, if such was what I wanted to know; although of course I was writing a novel of my own, so there was that, too—I’d looked her up in the telephone directory. Rather, I’d tried to. There was no listing under her name, but I remembered she’d been married to Francis Steegmuller, the late, great Flaubert scholar. Sure enough, there was a listing, with address, for one “Steegmuller, F.,” on East Sixty-Sixth Street. Lacking the nerve to call, I wrote. And waited. And as the weeks lapsed into months, I assumed, fairly enough, that my letter had either never been received or had, more probably, been ignored. Why not? Hazzard certainly had better things to do than ward off importunate admirers.
Shirley was calling, that night in 1996, to ask for my address. That was all—our conversation was brief. She’d received my letter only to misplace it, and now wanted to respond. She said something about having been in Italy for the past several months—I didn’t yet know she divided her time between her place on the Upper East Side and the one on Capri—and how the mail tended to disappear after it had stacked up on the stove. (It would be a while before I saw what this meant, how her modest-but-elegant apartment in Manhattan House was deluged with correspondence: books, letters, manuscripts, communiques from all corners of the world piled on her dining table, coffee table, kitchen counter …)
A week or so later there came her response: typed, on blue stationery, with a handwritten postscript. She deflected my praise with a wryness I would come to know as characteristic:
I happily accept comparison with Middlemarch and War and Peace, fantastical as such analogy is; since those are works to which I feel very close, from which scenes and passages are vivid to me—one feels that they are one’s own, as Burckhardt would say, “by right of admiration.”
“As Burckhardt would say”? I might have cringed inwardly, but there was no Google, then, to which I could refer the question: Burckhardt who? As Shirley and I struck up a sporadic but sturdy correspondence, I secreted away whatever bits of knowledge I could. She impelled me to read Leopardi. I might, if I could slide the question into a letter without sounding like a fool, wonder which translations of Eugenio Montale, say, she preferred? (For those of us who had to read him in translation at all. Shirley’s Italian—as her French, so far as I could tell; I presumed there were other languages too—would ultimately demonstrate itself as immaculate.)
But what struck me, as I began to know her—on the page, both in her occasional letters and through her other books, all of which were then out of print—was that remoteness I mentioned before. There was nothing antique about it. She didn’t seem to be living in, or writing out of, a vanished past so much as living with it, carrying it around with her. And to call it erudition would be a disservice. She breathed literature, or indeed what one would have to call—to use a word that is now almost embarrassing, indicative as it is of everything we have even since lost—culture. I’ve never met a more civilized, which is to say a more complete, human being. It’s painful to consider now that I—that most of us—likely never will.
The Transit of Venus is one of the great English-language novels of the twentieth century. It’s difficult to make such a straight, simple claim without wanting to modify or amplify it, but it is. It is greater than any novel by Don DeLillo. It is greater than any work by Alice Munro or Thomas Pynchon. No disrespect to those three indisputable geniuses, or to anyone else whose books have been tagged, however deservedly, with the word masterpiece, but I’m hard-pressed to think of a better novel than Shirley’s.
I read everything of hers. At that time, she was still working on The Great Fire, and hadn’t published a novel in fifteen years. She’d written two nonfiction books, Defeat of an Ideal (1973) and Countenance of Truth (1990), the latter an account of how Kurt Waldheim managed to conceal his Nazi past and become the leader of the UN, where Hazzard herself had worked in the 1950s. But my attention was drawn, naturally, to the fiction. The Evening of the Holiday was a short, Jamesian novel about an affair between an older Italian man and a young, half-English visitor; The Bay of Noon (1970) was more expansive, if similarly Jamesian in its frame: a young woman, this time positioned in Naples as a NATO observer, becomes involved with an Italian writer and her lover, a famous filmmaker. This one had more of the telescopic intelligence, the sheer magnanimity—I’ll come to it in a moment—of Hazzard’s later novels, but it felt still like a rehearsal. There were also two collections of stories, Cliffs of Fall, published in 1963, which rounded up her early fiction published in The New Yorker, and People in Glass Houses, a curious, satirical collection of linked pieces based on her experience at the UN.
The Transit of Venus, though. Where had it come from? I’d never read anything quite like it—still haven’t—and so was reduced to sleuthing her letters and the rudimentary Internet for old interviews and articles, then marching over to Gotham Book Mart on my lunch hour to find what I could. Elizabeth Bowen? Patrick White? Muriel Spark, maybe? (Hazzard had mentioned in one of her letters a friendship, and a falling out, but no. For all of her early books’ excellence, there was none of Hazzard’s planetary grandeur in Spark.) The accomplishment wasn’t merely one of style, though it was certainly that, too; it was one of scale.
In one sense, The Transit of Venus is a love story: a young astronomer comes to study with an older, eminent one in England, in the 1950s. He meets and falls in love with the astronomer’s Australian ward, a girl named Caroline Bell. The next thirty years of his life will be dedicated to his—possibly, seemingly—fruitless pursuit of her. That’s … not much. It sounds, in a way, like it could easily be a bodice ripper, or at least a more minor-key triumph. To treat private passion as a matter of import—and of course Hazzard’s triumph is that she both does and does not—is to risk seeming sentimental, even ridiculous, in the late twentieth century. Except that Hazzard politicizes it. By sending Caro to work in a government office, by making young Ted Tice’s argument over the placement of a telescope a matter of iconoclastic conviction, Hazzard has greater things—if there are greater things—on her mind than love. The novel moves: from rural England, to Australia, to London, to South America, to Stockholm, to New York. Its people move (even, briefly, to Los Angeles; a fair-haired playwright named Paul Ivory writes a letter from a hotel that sounds suspiciously like the Chateau Marmont: “So far, California offers the greatest contrast imaginable between the works of God and the desecrations of Man. California is a beautiful woman with a foul tongue.”) And the various forms of unrest that rippled through the sixties and seventies are present throughout:
In America, a white man had been shot dead in a car, and a black man on a veranda. In Russia, a novelist had emerged from hell to announce that beauty would save the world. Russian tanks rolled through Prague while America made war in Asia. In Greece, the plays of Aristophanes were forbidden, in China the writings of Confucius …
On the Old World, History lay like a paralysis. In France, the generals died. In Italy, a population abandoned the fields forever, to make cars or cardigans in factories; and economists called this a miracle.
What sounds a little cursory here, in excerpt, begins to unlock the novel’s defining quality: its elevated, sometimes uncomfortably Olympian, perspective. Which is partly, but not exclusively, tied to its style, an unabashed omniscience that hesitates not at all to tell us things its characters do not know. There are no spoilers in this novel. We learn on page twelve that the protagonist will eventually commit suicide. What we do not know until the book’s final, pulverizing paragraph is why.
It’s tempting to refer to this style as nineteenth century, but that’s not it. One can hear in the passage quoted above a note—several notes, in fact—that are distinctly more modern, not least the incredulous dismay that concludes it. Hazzard’s aphoristic intelligence goes full tilt here. Her simple descriptive powers are no less lethal:
A man stood on a white porch and looked at the Andes. He was over fifty, white-haired, thin, with a stooping walk that suggested an orthopaedic defect, but in fact derived from beatings received in prison. His appearance was slightly unnatural in other ways—pink, youthful lips and light, light-lashed eyes: an impression, nearly albinic, that his white suit intensified.
Really, though, the book’s achievement goes beyond style, and even beyond structure. The characters exist within, and at the mercy of, a widest possible cosmos. As the astronomical metaphor of its title suggests, Venus grapples squarely with the unanswerable: the gulf between man and … well, whatever word applies when God seems far too domestic a concept.
I met Shirley, finally, in 1999. I’d prevailed upon my friends at The Paris Review—former management—to allow me to conduct an interview. The project ultimately failed (I was living in Los Angeles at the time, and the difficulty of coordinating my schedule with Shirley’s was knocked aside when George Plimpton decided to have J. D. McClatchy conduct it instead, on evidence a superior idea), but it gave me an excuse to knock on her door. I did, tape recorder in hand, and that first day we spent three or four hours together. She talked, for the most part, and I listened. She showed me her apartment, which seemed fully inhabited by two people, rather than just one. Her husband, Francis, had died five years earlier, but his presence, and their relationship, felt ineradicable. There was the overcoat hanging on a stand, the English brand of tooth powder in the spare bathroom. At one point, Shirley was showing me a photograph taken on Capri and indicated, with a delighted grin, how he’d crept into the frame.
“Look,” she said. “His toe!”
One can never speculate too far upon the intimate lives or losses of others, but what struck me then, and on each subsequent meeting, was how he seemed to remain. This wasn’t a Miss Havisham situation: Shirley never struck me as someone draped in desiccated widow’s weeds. Rather, she was someone whose past was so fully vitalized within the present that it seemed almost inseparable. In fact, one of the qualities I noted in Shirley was how young she could now and again seem. Not in the way you’d expect, bursts of energy or vitality or any sort of cosmetic indication of “beauty.” It was something that happened when she spoke of things or people she’d loved. Her face would seem—this is hard to describe, since I honestly can’t say I’ve ever observed this in any other human being—to blur, almost. She would appear, at least to me, almost girlish. At one point in that first conversation she brought up a poem by Thomas Hardy, and recited it from memory. As she did, her voice broke a little, and her eyes clouded. It was perhaps the most immediate reading of a poem I’d ever encountered. And yet there, too, the distance between the poem and its meaning to her, whatever memories it carried, seemed to collapse altogether.
I’m reluctant to lean on such subjectivities. I knew Shirley for the better part of a decade after that, before we fell out of touch. For a while, in the fall of 2004, when I was living again in New York with my then-wife and our infant daughter, I saw her often: we would have lunch at least once a week, and we came to speak regularly on the phone. I came to know her, at least, as someone unflappably elegant (I will never again see a pair of Ferragamo shoes without thinking of her), unerringly gracious, and—at least at times—as abundant in her speech as she was in her written language. I’d actually managed, eventually, to track down and acquire the film rights to The Transit of Venus, and then to adapt the novel myself—the project was then in development at Warner Brothers—so we spoke a fair bit about work, both mine and hers. But I don’t pretend to have known her any better than that. I would often observe the way she reached directly into the fathomless past. Asking after a small painting above her mantle that proved, upon inspection, to be a Braque, I was told, “Francis acquired that, in Paris. It was very cheap, considering. Right after the war.” Inquiring how she and Francis had met, I was told of a party that had included “Stephen”—Spender—“Wystan,” and others. It was, I suppose, like her conjuring of the eighteenth-century Swiss art historian, Burckhardt, further proof of the world that, once upon a time, could almost be taken for granted. The things one knew, and the people one did, and the things and people one knew of, altogether almost consubstantial. If that’s not a fair definition of civilization, in the personal sense, I’m not sure what is.
The Great Fire was published to proper acclaim in 2003. It’s a wonderful novel, echoic in certain respects (though not in others) of The Transit of Venus, and it was gratifying to feel that Shirley and her work were anything but forgotten. (I’m not sure they had been, really, but a twenty-year gap between novels is formidable.) It won the National Book Award, as Transit had won the National Book Critics Circle Award. But Transit is the one that changed me, perhaps because of its ruthless tragic force. Once, when she was describing The Great Fire to me a few years before its publication, Shirley remarked, proudly, that it had a happy ending. When I said that readers of The Transit of Venus might be glad to hear it, she smiled, perhaps a little deviously.
“My Transit has a happy ending,” she said. “The stage is littered with bodies, but it is a happy ending.”
True, too. And if there are no truly happy endings in life—or, indeed, in civilizations—there remains the happiness of what one has known. “Memory is more than one bargained for,” she writes in The Transit of Venus: “this sense of past, past, past, that can turn even the happiest memories to griefs.” Yet the reverse may be so, too: the present can occasionally resurrect one’s misery into delight. Shirley’s work, so touched with both suffering and an almost suprahuman capacity to understand it, offers the consolations of both.
Matthew Specktor is the author of the novels American Dream Machine and That Summertime Sound, as well as a nonfiction book of film criticism. He is a founding editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books.