What Would Shirley Hazzard Do?


Arts & Culture

What responsibility might a novelist have to use their gift to directly engage political debate? Shirley Hazzard’s authorized biographer examines her life for one potential model. For more, read an unpublished story by Shirley Hazzard in our Fall issue


In 1990, Shirley Hazzard published Countenance of Truth: it was not the long-awaited novel, successor to her 1980 masterpiece The Transit of Venus, but a dry monograph, in which she revealed in excoriating detail the mendacity of the United Nations and its former head, Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim. She chose for its title a phrase from one of the lesser works of the poet John Milton, whom she paraphrased as lamenting the need to set aside poetry to address the urgent evils of his day; in his case, corruption in the clergy. “I have a work that I love as a poet—as if I would turn away from that bright countenance of truth to mix up with antipathetic matters of this kind if I didn’t feel that I could not forbear to do it.”

Hazzard was drawing attention to the vexed question of when and how writers and artists should participate in the public world. While there might be a sense that writers have some particular responsibility to inform and contribute, or simply to add their voice to debate or their body to protests, such actions are themselves at odds with the practice of writing; they signal a kind of torsion, a split or division in the writing self. In 2020, our world of rolling, global emergencies seems to throw out, endlessly and daily, such challenges. As readers, writers, citizens, we are asked, compelled, it sometimes seems, to inform ourselves and to contribute something. And while, say, a presidential election that offers stark choices, or cataclysmic climate events, or the devastating death of a Supreme Court judge “of historic stature” might engage our time because the consequences and the stakes seem clear and pressing, the decisions, political entities, and structures sitting behind those large-scale public events are often less absorbing, less urgent, and the torsion comes to seem less workable.

By 1990, Hazzard had been writing about the United Nations for two decades, and throughout these years, she weighed and lamented the cost of political writing, anxious always about “not getting on with my novel.” Back in the sixties, she had written to Alfred Kazin about the conflicts of public involvement: “I feel as you do about protests etc—that they are a dreary and thankless business for artists to have to involve themselves in and that the maximum influence still rests in one’s work, however far it may seem from the context at that particular mo. However, an occasional lifting of the head seems necessary, just to show it is not bowed on these matters.”

At first Hazzard directed her efforts toward effecting change at the UN, but she quickly became resigned to a different level of influence and participation. As she explained in an interview:

Well, I had information about the UN just by the circumstance of having worked there, and as years go by with nobody else doing it, I feel some obligation. But I can’t go on with it. If this book doesn’t make any immediate impression, at least it’s on the record of history, and I suppose the ultimate reason for writing is to tell the truth. In the beginning I hoped to change things, but one loses that expectation. I think that a truth set out takes on a life of its own. These aren’t private truths, they belong to everybody, although they always come back to personal conduct. People talk in categories; even I have to use this phrase “the leadership of the UN,” but these are single men—we can use the word “men” because there are so few women in the leadership—human beings who should be answerable for their actions.

The writer’s responsibility, as she understood it, was in the service of truth. In her somewhat dated sense of the enactment of public responsibility—with its solemnity and sense not only of occasion but also of the inherent significance of the writer who might speak out on such matters—Shirley Hazzard provides, perhaps, an exemplum, or at least a perspective, for readers and writers today as they contemplate the newly urgent question of public debate. Even in her own time, her actions had seemed somewhat histrionic. For one thing, her knowledge of the institution had been gleaned while she worked at the United Nations as a lowly administrative assistant (or as former Undersecretary General Sir Brian Urquhart observed dismissively, “She was in clerical”). She spoke without formal authority, in the voice of a private citizen. But there was something indecorous about her fervor. In his New York Times review of her first UN book, Defeat of an Ideal—which detailed iniquities at the UN, most prominently the breach of its own charter from its earliest years, through undue and improper influence of member governments, particularly the U.S. and USSR—Christopher Lehmann-Haupt characterized it as “a lover’s quarrel,” an unseemly, overblown, impassioned engagement:

It’s like being at the dullest of cocktail parties—a United Nations reception perhaps—with clichés dripping all around you … when suddenly a voice rises above the others … a finely modulated voice, speaking with rising passion. And you stop what you’re saying to listen in utter fascination … and turn to see this dark handsome woman advancing on this fat, carbuncled blubber of a man, cursing him, befuddling him with scorching wit, flaying him bloody with lashes of rhetoric, backing him into a corner of the room and laying it on without mercy, until all conversation in the room has stopped, and all the guests are staring horrified at this woman cursing and this fat old man, weeping now. And you wonder why this is happening. Until you realize … she loves him…

The scenario of the impassioned woman speaking truth to power (speaking too loudly or passionately, staging a private battle in a public space) suggests we are in the domain of melodrama; not melodrama in the simple pejorative of excess and exaggeration, but rather in terms of what writers such as Peter Brooks have identified as a form representing the secular drive to virtue in the world, which draws subjects into a conflict between good and evil playing out “under the surface” of things. It is Hazzard’s commitment to an underlying truth that justifies the moral force and energy of her political writing: the desire to expose and account for the truth, holding political institutions to task and refusing compromise. Further, melodrama provides a speakerly ethos of critique and articulates a path forward that is bound up with the importance of the word; that is to say, it propels us into the terrain of a literate and literary authority. The impulse of melodrama is toward truth and goodness, toward imposing, as Brooks puts it, “the moment of revolutionary suspension—where the word is called upon to make present and to impose a new society, to legislate the regime of virtue.”

Melodrama enacts a certain bodying of the private self, a self that is importunate, unaccommodated in public institutions, and called forth into the world through hyperbolic performance. This figure bears an obligation to truth and a hope of transformation. And Hazzard reminds us that this figure is itself the business and the matter of the writer: “The writer’s vigilance over language and attention to language are themselves an assumption of responsibility. When, with the Renaissance drama, men and women began to speak—through literature—with individual voices, rather than as types … there was a humanistic assumption of personal accountability for what was uttered. And so we have continued, in theory at least, to regard it. Our words, whether in literature or in life, are accepted as a revelation of our private nature, and an index of the measure of responsibility we are prepared to assume for it.”

Hazzard was always aware of disruption of “public themes” to her work, lamenting to her friend, the Australian writer Elizabeth Harrower, the “lethal effect” of UN writings “on real work.” Nonetheless, she would continue to commit herself, over and again, to producing nonfiction, almost all of it directed at the UN. Her commentary was welcomed at the time by some UN employees (or former employees), but has had scant effect on the institution itself nor more widely on public debate around it. A measure of this apparent failure might be seen in the fact that while she was the first writer to air publicly, as early as 1980, the claim that Kurt Waldheim had concealed substantial wartime connections with the Austrian Nazi Party, a claim investigated by U.S. congressman Stephen Solarz and falsely denied by Waldheim himself, the story only became news when it was picked up and investigated by a journalist some six years later. Hazzard’s role in its disclosure was for the most part overlooked.

Shirley Hazzard’s UN writings are today primarily of historical interest. She will be remembered rather for her novels and stories: for their complex interweaving of moral and erotic dramas, and for their shimmering prose. She understood sharply the relative importance of the two kinds of writing, and she lived as a writer their divergent energies. But her focus was always on the point where they met, on the labor and responsibility of writing and of reading: “There is at least one immense truth which we can still adhere to and make central to our lives—responsibility to the accurate word… In the words of Jean Cocteau, the good and rightful tears of the reader are drawn simultaneously by an emotion evoked through literature, and by the experience of seeing a word in place.”


Read an unpublished story by Shirley Hazzard in our Fall issue

Letter from Shirley Hazzard to Alfred Kazin, currently collected in The Alfred Kazin Papers. Copyright © by Alfred Kazin, used by permission of The Wylie Agency, LLC.

Brigitta Olubas is Shirley Hazzard’s authorized biographer and the editor of her Collected Stories and a volume of essays, We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think.