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An Interview with Shirley Hazzard

[WRITER]
“I AM FULL OF LINES OF POETRY,
IMPRESSIONS, EXPERIENCES, WORDS.”
Things that seem implausible, either in books or in life:
Two characters in a novel reading the same book at the same time
Undesired flinging-together
Distant rocks visible only in July
by Vendela Vida
Illustration by Charles Burns
header-image

An Interview with Shirley Hazzard

[WRITER]
“I AM FULL OF LINES OF POETRY,
IMPRESSIONS, EXPERIENCES, WORDS.”
Things that seem implausible, either in books or in life:
Two characters in a novel reading the same book at the same time
Undesired flinging-together
Distant rocks visible only in July
by Vendela Vida
Illustration by Charles Burns

An Interview with Shirley Hazzard

Vendela Vida
14 Snaps

Shirley Hazzard was born in Sydney in 1931 and she left Australia in 1947. She has since lived in Hong Kong, New Zealand, Britain, and France. Now an American citizen, she divides her time between Italy and New York.

Between the years 1952 and 1962 Hazzard worked in the United Nations as a clerical employee, an experience which led her to write not only People in Glass Houses (1967), a satirical collection of character sketches, but also Defeat of an Ideal (1973), a nonfiction book which detailed the weakness of the UN, and Countenance of Truth (1990), about the United Nations and the Kurt Waldheim case. She is also the author of the nonfiction books Coming of Age in Australia (1985) and Greene on Capri (2001).

It’s fiction for which Hazzard is best known. She is the author of the short story collection Cliffs of Fall (1963), and the novels The Evening of the Holiday (1966), The Bay of Noon (1970), The Transit of Venus (1980), and The Great Fire (2003). She was awarded the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for Fiction in 1980 for The Transit of Venus; last year, The Great Fire earned her the National Book Award.

Many have compared Hazzard to Henry James, perhaps because like James, Hazzard peppers her novels with clues for the astute reader. In The Transit of Venus, it’s left to the reader to piece together the circumstances of Ted Tice’s suicide. Throughout The Great Fire, repeated references are made to a thick book Aldred Leith is reading, but Hazzard leaves it to the reader to deduce that it’s War and Peace. And indeed, Hazzard herself—in her treatment of love and war and the burden of history—is perhaps the closest thing we have to Tolstoy.

This interview took place shortly after Shirley Hazzard won the National Book Award. We met on a snowy afternoon in the Manhattan apartment she shared for many years with her late husband, the translator and biographer Francis Steegmuller.

—Vendela Vida

I. “THE ONLY CARD I HAD TO PLAY  WAS LITERATURE.”

 

THE BELIEVER: In Greene on Capri, you recount how you started a friendship with Graham Greene essentially through poetry. He and a friend were sitting at a table next to yours at a café in Capri. Greene was reciting a Robert Browning poem, “The Lost Mistress,” but he couldn’t recall the last line. As you left the café, you recited the elusive line of the poem to him. In The Great Fire, the protagonist, Leith, is reading a book on a train, and when he arrives at his destination he’s greeted by a soldier who is reading the same book. In fact, in a lot of your books it’s poetry or literature that brings people together.

SHIRLEY HAZZARD: Yes, it’s quite intentional. You see, books were a theme of life, a lifetime, for whole populations who grew up before the 1950s, when television broke on the world. In one of his novels, Travels with My Aunt, Graham’s protagonist remarks that one’s life is more formed by books than people. “It is out of books,” he says, that “one learns about love and pain at second hand.” He once said to me that we—those of my generation and of his—had known a world where poetry cut across the classes and the generations. It was true. People spontaneously invoked lines of poetry without self-consciousness, and weren’t considered to be showing off or eccentric. A single allusion, to a familiar book or poem, could create affinity. My novel The Great Fire is set in the late 1940s, before television came on the scene. I’ve noticed that some reviewers question whether the young people in my story could be so well-read. This reflects a generational gap. Critics don’t realize that books were central to millions of lives, and were a predominant pleasure and a chief form of education. Years ago, John Bayley, the British literary critic, wrote of  “the solace that great language brings.” In my childhood and early youth, men and women who read were all beneficiaries of the comfort derived from a great range of human expression. Through authentic expression, we recognized ourselves and one another, and were no longer isolated. This is a sense of sharing that we can enjoy through all the arts. Through reading, I grew up. I am still hoping to grow up through reading, through music, through experience. When I was sixteen, living in Hong Kong, I went to work in an office of British Intelligence. The young English officers there knew Asian languages, had fought in the war, were clever and amusing. The only card I had to play was literature. They were all full of poetry, and so was I. We were walking anthologies. That was a great happiness and, in those times, not unusual.

BLVR: As readers, we find our expectations challenged so frequently when reading your work. One of the things we’re continually surprised by is how funny so much of it is. One of my favorite scenes in The Transit of Venus is when you write: “The country bus lurched over an unsprung road. The girl thought that in novels one would read that he and she were flung against each other; and how that was impossible. We can only be flung against each other if we want to be.” And then a page later you write: “The bus plunged and bucked, determined to unseat them. We are flung against each other.” I thought that was such a beautiful synthesis between life and art, and how what may seem far-fetched or unlikely in novels can actually be true.

SH: In that same book, I say a similar thing: that one wouldn’t dare put into a novel the amount of coincidence that occurs in life itself.

BLVR: Yes, one of the characters says: “I’ve thought there may be more collisions of the kind in life than in books.” Maybe the element of coincidence is played down in literature because it seems like cheating or can’t be made believable. Whereas life itself doesn’t have to be fair, or convincing.

SH: Life doesn’t have to prove itself. Life happens; we have to accept it. Reading fiction, the disbelieving, skeptical critic likes to feel in control. Yet his own existence, all existence, is subject to the accidental element, to the inexplicable or magical, or dreadful intervention that cannot be justified by logic. A friend of mine who knew the Shetland Islands told me that in the long light of the northern summer there comes a moment, in July, when a rock becomes visible that lies between the Shetlands and Norway. If the weather is favorable, a watch is kept from a certain promontory, and the rock can be seen. This phenomenon was denounced by scientists as wishful thinking, and quite impossible, but the rock has continued to manifest itself irrefutably: the thing is standing there, indifferent, or perhaps laughing
to itself: unaccountable.

BLVR: That reminds me of the scene in The Great Fire that I mentioned before, when Leith gets off the train—I just love that scene—he gets off the train and the soldier who meets him has a book. And as a reader you’re thinking, “It’s not going to be the same book,” and at the same time you’re kind of hopeful that it is. You think, “It’s a novel, she can’t do that,” and then you do it! It’s wonderfully surprising, and surprisingly rewarding.

SH: That was important to me. Leith is on the train. He has his father’s book. Arriving, he apologizes for the long wait the driver has had. And the young driver says, “It’s all right. I had a book.” Nowadays the young driver might of course have his cell phone, or an audio tape, or a Walkman. In those days you read a book—which in this case turns out coincidentally to be the book by Leith’s father. All that would have been completely natural.

II. “I FEEL THE SURF OF THE CITY BEATING ON MY WINDOWS.”

BLVR: I thought it was interesting that in Greene on Capri you put the explanation of why you wrote the book at the end, instead of at the beginning, as a foreword or preface.

SH: It just seemed to fit better.

BLVR: Did you experiment with it?

SH: No. You shouldn’t start a book by telling the reader, “Here is how I feel, and therefore how you ought to feel.” Let readers form their own conclusions. At the end, you can say,“Here is how it came about.” In some measure, my memoir of Graham Greene was an opportunity for me to write about the life I shared there with my husband. In that sense, it is really a memoir of our own lives. Of course, Graham rampages about the book, just as he did throughout those years when he was a strong element of our Italian times, when we saw him frequently in spring and autumn on Capri, although our own temperaments and days were distinct from his.

BLVR: As you describe it, your marriage with Francis Steegmuller was an extremely literary marriage.

SH: Yes, that was an indivisible part of the whole.

BLVR: Was there a great deal of exchanging of work at the end of the day, or what was your typical work pattern?

SH: People often expect—I don’t know why—that two writers living together must generate some hostility or friction. With us, it was the contrary; each understood what the other was up against: the need for seclusion, silence; and a need also for stimulus, sociability, sharing. Even the need for interruption, but only if one could dictate the interruption on one’s own capricious terms. I had the study there [she points], and Francis had the study near the door. In a New York apartment, no room is really distant from another, so that tact and a sense of privacy are involved. Each of us understood that behind the closed door, on some particular day, the other might be going mad over a recalcitrant paragraph. And then, it always does fall to the woman to come and make the dinner. However, I should add that—and in this, as in much else, I was very spoiled—Francis did nearly all of what I call the administration of our lives: documents, taxes, leases, all those things that now fall heavily to me. As we were fond of each other, we wanted to be reasonable. We didn’t have to make an issue of every small thing that came up. That sort of running resentment can become, I think, an outlet for other forms of discontent between couples. We didn’t feel like that, didn’t hew to that line. Looking back, I realize what a great change came over our world. When we were first married, over forty years ago, New York was certainly not a quiet place, but there was space for leisure. In the mild evenings, when there was long light, we might walk out after dinner, walk over to Madison Avenue and look into the windows of antique-furniture shops, of which there were many more in those days, or peer into the displays of the art dealers, and stroll home by some roundabout route. Now, one never has any such time. I feel the surf of the city beating on my windows. Whatever I’m doing, I feel I should be doing something else; should be catching up on some insurmountable backlog.

BLVR: You address the issue of memory, and the dangers of note-taking, in Greene on Capri. You write:“Over our years of Capri meetings, I seldom made ‘notes’ after our conversations with Graham and Yvonne. An underlying intention to record changes the nature of things, blighting spontaneity and receptivity: an imposition, like a snapping of photographs.” I love that description about how our need to record a conversation (surely these present words included) changes the conversation. I felt, when reading this book, that if someone had just given me a transcript of your conversations with Greene, it would have somehow rung less true.

SH: Of course. I didn’t keep what would be called a record. And then, I have a good memory for what interests me. Not so good, I admit, for what is useful. We kept, I still do, a little appointment book for each day. I might write “Dinner, Gemma, with Graham and Yvonne,” perhaps adding four or five words to recall some matter touched upon: a word or two that evoked the whole evening. Yet sometimes I might clearly recall whole exchanges of conversation long after.

BLVR: A lot of your novels are so rich with detail and place. Do you ever take notes or do you work purely from memory?

SH: Memory. I think I have a fairly remarkable memory. I’ve always reserved what gave me pleasure, what interested me. Also, what has been poignant: the nature of sadness, the private anguish of tragedy, regret. I am full of lines of poetry, impressions, experiences, words. If remembrance were all pleasure, that would be too easy. I keep hold of matters that can’t be resolved—why something went wrong, who was at fault, or how the difficulty was shared. These remain with me—no doubt as they do with many people. I see, too, looking back from that early youth I kept a reserve of what was beautiful, pleasurable, even sad, as a capital to draw on, and perhaps as evidence of a better self that I could consistently summon before the world.

III. “I’M ONE PERSON IN THREE PLACES IN THE WORLD.”

BLVR: I was reading an interview you did with Michiko Kakutani after the publication of The Transit of Venus, in which you said,“I think there is a tendency to write jottings about one’s own psyche, and call it a novel. My book, though, is really a story. And that might have contributed to its success.” All of your books are stories. They often start off after a big event—whether it’s in The Transit of Venus, which starts with the capsizing of a boat in which the girls lose their parents; or in The Great Fire, which begins in the aftermath of a war and the bombing of Hiroshima; or the first sentence of The Bay of Noon, when a military plane crashes on Mount Vesuvius. Is there something in those tragedies that contains the seeds of a story? Or in your mind, does the story begin with a tragedy?

SH: I think my books often start out with the arrival of a loner. Ted Tice is “arriving” at the beginning of The Transit of Venus; Leith is arriving at the start of The Great Fire. The circumstances are obviously quite different, but the loner is appearing on the scene. In The Bay of Noon, the lonely girl is arriving at Naples. So there has been a break with previous experience; something new is beginning. The protagonist is in each case relatively young. So the future is before them.

BLVR: Both The Bay of Noon and The Evening of the Holiday take place in Italy, where you still spend some part of the year. Where do you go in Italy?

SH: In the south of Italy. On Capri and at Naples. In my early twenties, I spent a year in Naples, and have loved the city ever since. It is a complicated place—but all great cities are difficult now. Its street dangers are intimidating to outsiders. The dangers are far less than those of New York City, but they are of unfamiliar kind. Naples retains its strange, singular, ancient ways.

BLVR: I think it’s the only place I’ve been in Italy where I felt a little wary.

SH: It requires time. For the last twenty years I’ve had the use of a pied-à-terre on the property of friends in Naples, right on the sea. Very near where I lived in my first Neapolitan incarnation in the late 1950s. In The Bay of Noon my heroine lives in the district of Posillipo in Naples. And that is where I now stay when at Naples. However, there is also Capri. For many years we rented a dear shabby old place in an old building of Capri. It was never for sale, and, after my husband’s death in 1994, the owners wanted it for their daughter. So I sold a painting that we had here in New York and bought a tiny old habitation on a Capri hilltop, and fixed it up. It has a huge view of the sea and sky, and of the green central mountain of the island. Thus, New York is my headquarters, and I have the two outlying nests in the Bay of Naples. I’m one person, now, in three places in the world, only one of which I own. Perhaps absurd—financially and otherwise. But continuity—habit, and the memories of habit—are precious to me.

BLVR: Can you tell me a little about where you lived when you were growing up? Your books are set in so many places, and you, as the writer, seem so knowledgeable about and equally familiar with these various settings.

SH: When I was twenty-five, I looked around and realized that I’d lived in six completely different parts of the world for substantial periods: Australia, the Far East, and New Zealand; in Britain, with repeated returnings; New York; and Italy. In the nineteen-sixties and early nineteen-seventies, we lived half the year in Paris. Wonderful. My husband was writing on Jean Cocteau.

BLVR: Which won him the National Book Award.

SH: Yes. He had it twice—the second time for [translating The Letters of Gustave Flaubert, 1981].

BLVR: It must have been fun, for lack of a better word, when you won the National Book Award, too.

SH: Of course. I thought the other evening [at the National Book Awards ceremony] how we would have shared the pleasure—the fun, as you say. I thought, when I was required to say a few words, that I would talk about him, but then…

BLVR: At the dinner?

SH: Yes. Well, everyone had been talking about their spouse—how helpful, how devoted. So I said to Francis, on the quiet, “Forgive me, but I won’t join the crowd. I’ll make it up to you in some other way.”

BLVR: [Laughs]

SH: He was lovely.

IV. “YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU WILL DO THAT MAY PLEASE YOU MORE, LATER ON.”

BLVR: This might be a hard question, but which book are you most proud of?

SH: I don’t think I can separate them just like that. Perhaps I can touch on it by invoking William Maxwell, who, as the chief fiction editor of the New Yorker, took my first work out of a slush pile and published it. Divine intervention. He was a marvelous man, who became, with his wife Emily, a great friend to me. I wrote a number of short stories rather quickly at the time. And then suddenly I was writing a novel. I said to Maxwell, “It’s markedly different from my previous work. Perhaps I’ve grown up as a writer, or the material’s different, but I begin to wonder whether some of my first stories will eventually seem quite juvenile to me.” Maxwell said, “I wouldn’t count on that. Rather, you’ll look back on them as things absolutely fresh and spontaneous, with a kind of innocence that you will only rarely recapture in later work. Your later work may be more mature, riper, more imaginative, more inventive perhaps. But there will always be the freshness about the
first work.” I’m aware of the truth in this. A very early story—the second story, really, that I ever wrote, called “The Worst Moment of the Day”—continues to please me, just for a mood or a feeling, or a sentence or two that stand on their own. You don’t know what you will do that may please you more, later on. Of course an entire novel exists differently: to bring it all together, you feel, yes, that you’ve achieved something. But what is that something?—it’s hard to know. On occasion, the authentic moment can be conveyed in just a sentence. All the same, I like my novels. If I reread one of them, with a lapse of years, I don’t wish it away. The later books—The Transit of Venus and The Great Fire—are closer to the way I feel now. But I have an attachment to The Bay of Noon; and to some particular stories in People in Glass Houses—satirical stories that are on the side of truth. People in power, even if it’s only petty bureaucratic power, are rarely good news. They become unreachable, unless by satire. Alexander Pope sees them as “Safe from the Bar, the Pulpit, and the Throne, / Yet touch’d and sham’d by Ridicule alone. / O sacred weapon! left for Truth’s defence, / Sole Dread of Folly, Vice, and Insolence!”

BLVR: I’ve read that you’re an avid reader of Elizabeth Bowen.Who else do you think has been an influence? Do you read D. H. Lawrence?

SH: Elizabeth was a great friend of ours, an incomparable person. The best of her writing is singular, inimitable. As an influence—I really don’t know. So many poems and novels have influenced me, have developed my ear. Too varied to discuss here. Browning was the first perhaps, when I was nine or so. The great poems of Hardy, first read at sixteen when I was in Hong Kong; and, later, his excruciating novels. Conrad, first read at school in his stories, remains a companion. His novel Victory travels with me.

BLVR: Joan Didion loves that book, too. I’ve heard her say she rereads it every time she’s about to start a novel.

SH: And one of the greatest of all short stories, “The Secret Sharer,” told on so many levels that the reader has to wonder—are there two men here, or is there only one? Consummate. Graham Greene said that the spell of Conrad over him in youth was so powerful that we sometimes avoided rereading him. Greene himself broke on me early, in adolescence: The Heart of the Matter was the first for me, perhaps the best. D. H. Lawrence?—I haven’t read him in years. I appreciate him, but I don’t turn to him eagerly. There have been particular books— Nigel Balchin’s The Small Back Room, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, Nabokov’s The Defense, Muriel Spark’s The Girl of Slender Means—many others—that eccentrically touch the imagination. Whether any of this amounts to “influence” I can’t really say. It’s just that certain books moved you, and you never forget them. They become intimate, indelible. I’m often linked to the influence of Henry James, yet I had written for years before I settled in to read James, as in youth I’d never really liked him. He has some greatness, but there are even now reservations in my feelings about Henry James. Similarly I’m told that Patrick White has influenced me. He hasn’t; but I consider his Voss one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. God help us, the other day someone wrote that I was influenced by Somerset Maugham. Maugham was a splendid writer; he told a fine story. It’s true that some sympathy is lacking in his work, but he is a master of narrative language and its deployment. I see nothing in my work that reflects Maugham. But once someone says it, it will go on being said.

BLVR: Right. [Laughs]

SH: In the same vein, people will tell you that you clearly had this or that happen to you at an early age, and you consequently respond in such and such a way. But they don’t know what else may have happened, since what is most important for you, you keep to yourself. The greatest literary influence lies in arousing us to words, to expressive speech. That comes through reading, through the pleasure and excitement of reading that creates receptivity. These are wide impressions, not narrow particular ones. Such matters can scarcely be critically addressed. As I consider our modern lives, I feel that, due to the growing uncertainty of the world, people anxiously want to believe themselves on top of things, in control. Especially in the United States just now, at the height of world power, there is the impulse to settle on what is attestable, to pronounce and explain; to exclude mystery, imagination, the intuitive powers of individual existence. What about the inattestable, that informs all that most matters to us? What about the accidental nature of our life? The salient events of private life are always tinged with the accidental. If I hadn’t gone to a party that Muriel Spark gave down the road here in the Beaux Arts Hotel, I would never have met Francis Steegmuller.

BLVR: Which brings us back to the coincidences and collisions in your work.

SH: From the psychiatrists and sociologists, we never hear a word about the accidental, the inattestable. Max Beerbohm said, of this era of explanation, “They explain, because they can’t  understand.” Which is perhaps why, with so much elucidation, we’re still in the dark.

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