“There were days in winter when the narrow spiralling streets of this town were reduced to slippery channels banked with snow; when, viewed from the foot of its hill, the city rose up like a symmetrical, frosted fir tree, branching into great terraces of church, palace, and piazza.”
“Ordinariness, the affliction and backbone of other cities, was here nonexistent. Phrases I had always thought universal—the common people, the average family, the typical reaction, ordinary life—had no meaning where people were all uncommon and life extraordinary.”
“Tancredi had grown up in Sicily, where no entertaining is ever done in the summer afternoons, where there is a solitary, almost therapeutic drinking of lemonade or almond milk in darkened rooms before the sun goes down.”
“A town of overhead wires and small discouraged shops.”
“Brick houses were symmetric with red, yellow, or purple respectability: low garden walls, wide verandas, recurrent clumps of frangipani and hibiscus, of banksia and bottlebrush; perhaps a summerhouse, perhaps a flagpole. Never a sign of washing or even of people: such evidence must be sought inside, or at the back.”
“A weatherboard town with telegraph poles and the sort of picture-house where you could hear the rain.”
“Filth was in fact on Peter Exley’s mind in those first weeks: the accretion filming the Orient, the shimmer of sweat or excrement. A railing or handle one’s fingers would not willingly grasp; walls and objects grimed with existence; the limp, soiled, colonial money, little notes curled and withered, like shavings from some discarded central lode.”
“From intersections you could see, beyond the quays, the blue harbour and far mountains, whose incommunicable grandeur might, for all the town seemed to care, have hung there on a calendar.”
Shirley Hazzard’s fiction depicts young women traveling to new places and reckoning with strangeness. Her first two novels end with journeys, wonderfully described. The narratives are open-ended, the women at their center moving out toward change.
The Transit of Venus, too, ends with a journey, but here the narrative is tragic, end-stopped. Travel is perilous in Hazzard’s fiction. An astounding number of planes crash over the course of her work; a ferry capsizes, ships are sunk, a man dies because a boat’s engine fails. My guess is that somewhere in her mind Hazzard associated travel with World War II—hence with danger. In The Bay of Noon, Jenny remembers the names of ships destroyed during the war; the list is impressive. Like Jenny, Hazzard was a child during that war, which she likens to “a great syphon that sprayed human beings all over the globe.”
Hazzard left Australia in 1947. The journey brought marvels; also appalling knowledge. One of the ports at which the ship called was Hiroshima. Hazzard was sixteen; it was barely two years after the city’s destruction. Unsurprisingly, the encounter is branded into her fiction. Hiroshima was a place where “the merciful were at an even worse disadvantage than usual.”
One of Caro’s female coworkers in The Transit of Venus says, “You feel downright disloyal to your experience, when you do come across a man you could like. By then you scarcely see how you can decently make terms, it’s like going over to the enemy.”
The narrator continues: “All this was indisputable, even brave. But was a map, from which rooms, hours, and human faces did not rise; on which there was no bloom of generosity or discovery. The omissions might constitute life itself.”
A map is a metaphor for faith: an agreed-on simplification of complexity. In two different books, Hazzard quotes Henry Reed’s poem about the inadequacy of maps:
Maps are of place, not time, nor can they say
The surprising height and colour of a building
Nor where the groups of people bar the way.
Novels, unlike maps, are a form of counterpoint; they exist to create fruitful complications. (Karl Kraus defined a writer as someone who makes a riddle out of an answer.) Novelists’ minds tilt to exceptions; to the omissions that might constitute life. “Singularity engaged him”: Hazzard’s remark about Graham Greene applies equally to herself. No wonder, since novelists trade in a form that fetishizes the individual—which is to say, ambiguity and contradiction, “all the movement of meaning which we know to be the nature of life.”
Politics, on the other hand, requires maps. Political life is grounded in solidarity and belief. Brigitta Olubas writes that Hazzard’s politics are “consistently of the Left.” But Hazzard remains wary of the political in the sense of formal affiliations. As a character in The Transit of Venus observes, “Even a right side imposes wrongful silences, required untruths.”
That kind of thing tends not to please anyone. But Hazzard was concerned with truth, not with finding favor. “Nothing creates such untruth in you as the wish to please.”
Hazzard reserves solidarity for the vulnerable—for whoever is oppressed, disregarded, or outcast—rather than for a specific cause. The victims of a Latin American dictator, the survivors of Hiroshima, colonized people, workers of all kinds, the poor, the socially inept, rejected lovers, war veterans, foreigners, stray animals, or simply the targets of ordinary, workaday malice: all engage her sympathetic attention.
She practices an ethics of noticing. Charlotte Wood, writing about The Transit of Venus, paraphrases Iris Murdoch: “Paying attention is a moral act.”
From The Transit of Venus:
My window looks on a courtyard full of flowering trees—hawthorn, a Judas tree, and, very near, a big lilac coming out in purple pyramids. There is a fountain and—concealed—a thrush. During the holiday I drove with two French colleagues to the mines near Lille, where we went down a pit. The coal-face straight from Dante, worked by boys of sixteen or so, mostly North Africans who spoke no French. Worse than this were the hovels they went back to afterwards, ten to a filthy hut.
If there had been a paragraph break after “thrush,” the first two sentences would have been skillful scene-setting. Without the break, the primary function of those sentences is to point up an obscenity; they make the shocking information that follows more shocking. It’s a lesson in how the arrangement of sentences can speak political truth.
Where Hazzard’s politics show unequivocally is in her refusal to be cowed by power—her scorn for it, in fact. Her two nonfiction books about the United Nations, Defeat of an Ideal and Countenance of Truth, are political in the conventional sense. The first documents the history of U.S. intervention in the organization and the consequent mutilation of its aims. The second details a story Hazzard had broken in a piece of investigative reporting, Secretary General Kurt Waldheim’s cover-up of his Nazi past.
Here are two passages from The Transit of Venus that are concerned with war. They’re quiet, incidental passages (one of them is literally parenthetical), told from the perspective of minor characters. A less confident writer would have made much more of them. Hazzard knew that quietness is a force.
(In 1916, during the Battle of the Somme, Charmian Playfair, volunteering as a nurse’s aide, was assigned to ambulance duty at Victoria Station where casualties were arriving on hospital trains. The loaded ambulance trundled back through dark streets carrying its racks of blanketed men—who, from their spotless newspaper anonymity of “the wounded,” were suddenly incarnate as moaning, silent, or plucky inhabitants of rent, individual flesh. Enclosed with these spectres in swaying gloom, a nineteen-year-old girl put her hand to her soft throat. Yet moved as best she could, to supply water or answer questions, among the grey blankets and the red, rusty, or blackened bandages. There was a boy of her own age to whose whisper she had to bend, her face nearly touching his: “So cold. Cold. My feet are so cold.” And, almost capably, the girl answered, “I’ll fix that”; turning to adjust the blanket, and discovering he had no feet.)
Someone came to the open window and threw a cigarette accurately into a dark pond in the garden. There was the flicker, the sizzle, and a small protest from insects or a frog.
The old physicist stood by the window, hitching his belt. Recalling a night of war when he had done fire-watching on the roof of the Savoy. The black river reflected, red and white, the flames and searchlights, the earth rocked and shuddered with the impact and recoil of armoury. And a burning plane twirled down from the sky, shedding its pilot, who plunged in his separate fire. The plane exploded in fragments before reaching earth, but the blazing man plummeted to the river, which—as if he had been a cigarette butt—sizzled him out forever.
Both passages derive their force largely from their calm accounting of the price that bodies pay in war. But that isn’t the only source of their power. In the first extract, there’s the girl’s stunned realization, shared by the reader, that nothing can “fix” what has happened.
The second passage deals graphically with war, witnessing, violent death. The burning pilot is one of those Hazzard images that remain imprinted on the inner eye long after the end of the book. But the narration of those large, horrific things, which could so easily have spun out into windy abstraction, is earthed by the specificity of a detail everyone has, at some time, observed: an old man hitching his belt. Trust is created: efficiently, without show.
Michelle de Kretser was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Her family emigrated to Australia when she was a teenager, and she was educated in Melbourne and Paris. She is the author of five novels, including the Miles Franklin Award winners Questions of Travel and The Life to Come, the Man Booker Prize long-listed The Lost Dog, and a novella, Springtime. De Kretser now lives in Sydney with her partner, the poet and translator Chris Andrews. She is an honorary associate of the English department at the University of Sydney.
Copyright © 2020 by Michelle de Kretser, from On Shirley Hazzard. Excerpted by permission of Catapult.