Issue 173, Spring 2005
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.
Your characters articulate their thoughts and feelings with enviable clarity. Does that seem to you at odds with what other novelists do these days?
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.
Would you say something about your parents and your childhood?
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.
And after the war?
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.
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?
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.
What about school?
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.
You make it all sound pretty grim.
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.