Frederic Leighton, Capri, c. 1859
From The Baffler:
In writing about the novelist Shirley Hazzard, one should probably begin with a poem. After all, this is someone who said that poetry not only “opened [her] mind and [her] heart” but “changed the facts of [her] life,” too; someone whose early encounter with the poetry of Thomas Hardy was a literary coup de foudre (late in life, she would recite “After a Journey” and, as a friend recalls, “The distance between the poem and its meaning to her . . . seemed to collapse altogether”); someone who, in order to express her disgust with Richard Nixon, wrote his initials in the margins of Byron’s Don Juan next to many lines, including, “An orator of such set trash of phrase, / Ineffably, legitimately vile”; someone who struck up a friendship with Graham Greene when, sitting by him at a cafe in Capri, she provided him with the last line of Robert Browning’s “The Lost Mistress.” From memory, he got all the way to “I will hold your hand but as long as all may,” leaving her to add, “Or so very little longer.”
Frederic Leighton, View in Capri, c. 1859
The poet Rosanna Warren was close with Hazzard, first through her parents, Robert Penn Warren and Eleanor Clark, then on her own. In her poem “Le Silence,” Warren describes two sculptured forms, a man and a woman. They appear “Crystal figures in a / mineral world,” somehow both vulnerable to the world’s grossness and above it. “The man / supplicates,” the speaker says, while “the woman demurs / floodlit in pelvic tilt.” Then, the speaker revises things: “Or / say: she supplicates, he demurs.” Who is doing the supplicating, who the demurring, is unclear; what we know is that this is a moment of passion, of desire presented and withheld, and that somehow the artist has chiseled it into lasting form. The poem concludes:
. . . The past
has been incinerated, the
future stalled; they now
unspeakable, oh, but with
such style: sorrow
petrified gives off its own
glow in masque, tableau, sacrifice,
sanctum, infinity contracted
to a high, inhuman, fashionable gloss.
In such festivals
do we pass our
hours upon earth.
These stanzas, enraptured by the style and glow of sculpture, drawn to its inhabiting of erotic desire and the sorrow that comes with it, could just as easily describe the prose of Shirley Hazzard. For sorrow petrified, try “A Place in the Country,” her 1963 story of a young woman’s short-lived love affair. “Calamity has a generalizing effect, and as yet she could foresee her suffering only in a monumental way and not in its inexorable, annihilating detail.” For high, inhuman gloss, sample any sentence on Tertia, a chilly beauty from her 1980 novel The Transit of Venus: “So sleekly pretty, so fair and tall that she seemed an advertisement for something very costly.”
Frederic Leighton, Capri-Sunrise, 1859
To be sure, Hazzard knew the world in all its mineral coarseness. She grounded her exquisite style in earthly plots: petty jealousies; romantic betrayals; boring office jobs. Her fiction has an awareness of place and exhibits impressive geographical range, appropriate for a woman who was born in Australia but lived all over.
“Shirley Hazzard’s Republic of Letters”, Anthony Domestico, The Baffler