Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life by Brigitta Olubas review – dean of love and devastation | Biography books
In 1982, Shirley Hazzard flew to Britain for a reunion with Alec Vedeniapin, a man she had been in love with more than 30 years before. Vedeniapine and his wife farmed in Wales, and their world – cats and cows; rural, humid isolation – couldn’t have been more different from that of Hazzard, who lived with her husband, Francis Steegmuller, biographer of Cocteau and Flaubert, on New York’s Upper East Side in an apartment filled with paintings by Matisse and Picasso. Yet the contrast only made his feelings for the Vedeniapin more adamant. The considerable accomplishments of her own life were, even now, to be measured (favorably) against her sense of what she felt he had “given up” all those decades ago. Carefully closing her eyes to the existence of her family, she found herself struck by “this theme – this transcendental theme – of fulfillment and unfulfillment; and those who restrict themselves. Although the two remain in contact, they have not seen each other again.
As I wrote, it may sound mean, cold to a certain extent. In fact, the opposite is true. Hazzard’s judgments – in life, as on the page – are born of a deep intensity of feeling; an old-fashioned sensibility of romanticism. She and Vedeniapin had fallen in love with each other in post-war Hong Kong, only to part ways when Hazzard, then still a teenager, had to follow her parents to New Zealand, a decision made for the sake of his sister, suffering from tuberculosis. But the memory of their broken engagement – ended by Vedeniapin in a letter – will stay with her forever, underpinning everything she writes. Love between two people, she believed, is never an easy task. He may be frangible, victim of fatal misalignments, but his mark is indelible. The permanent themes of his marvelous novels – there are only four of them, the most famous of which is The transit of Venus, published in 1980 – are love and destiny; devastation, for its characters, is always around the corner for the simple reason that vast, unseen forces are constantly working to hinder happiness and the power of love, its ineffable ability to change everything at once.
Brigitta Olubas’ new Hazzard biography is over 500 pages long and I must admit I approached it with trepidation. Olubas is an academic at an Australian university and his subject’s life was, to a large extent, inward looking: a life of writing, above all. It seemed impossible that she could suit a storyteller who gives her readers (passionately devoted, but still far too few) access to the greatest of emotions; whose husband said of his piercing latest novel, The great fire: “No one should have to read it for the first time.” There would be, I suppose, jargon of the kind that Hazzard, an autodidact who disliked modernism in most of its forms, would have hated.
But it turns out I was wrong. A friend of the intensely social Hazzard once remarked that she made those around her better for themselves – women, the critic says Alan PryceJones, “became more beautiful in her presence, or put on their individuality” – and perhaps she had an effect on Olubas too. In his company, Olubas developed an enviable tenderness; a way both discreet and infallible to link the life and work of its subject. This is an exciting, research and compassionate book. It moved and pierced me. More importantly, it sent me back to the writing of Hazzard, which is so good that I don’t think I can love someone who doesn’t love it too.
It comes with a certain elusiveness. The curious timelessness of his novels is matched only by the feeling that, because it comes from everywhere, it also comes from nowhere. The story of Hazzard, an Australian who shunned the butch, rather philistine world into which she was born in 1931, is one of self-invention, smoothing your corners with voracious learning and civilized companionship. But Olubas is good at it all, carefully contextualizing Sydney’s roots; the influence of her travels, courtesy of her father’s work as a trade envoy, to Japan, where she saw a ruined Hiroshima, and from there to Hong Kong, London and New York; the powerful need to separate from his belligerent and needy parents. In New York, Hazzard worked in a modest capacity – filing and typing, mostly – at the United Nations, an institution that would come to preoccupy her non-fiction (she was a relentless critic), but which also, Olubas concedes, saved her. . Fleeing yet another failed love affair with an older, married man, she is assigned to Naples. Embraced by a well-connected family, the Viventes, she is finally “liberated” into “a larger life”. Thereafter, Italy will always give her the feeling of being at home.
Back in New York, she begins to write stories for the New Yorkerbecoming a lifelong friend of her publisher, William Maxwell. However, it was through another writer, Muriel Spark, with whom she would fall out later, that she met Steegmuller. When they got married, she was between 32 and 57 years old. Steegmuller was wealthy and well-connected; he could – she could see – put an end to her precariousness. But it is also extremely refined and “with Taste itself, honed by diligent application, so essential to both of them”, they embark on what will be a beautiful life together. They rented apartments in Naples and Capri, shipping their Rolls-Royce to Europe to be driven in the months they were there. They went to the opera and the galleries and read all the good new books. They knew John Cheever and Alberto MoraviaHarold Acton, Bruce Chatwin and Graham Greene. Hazzard wore Missoni and Ferragamo.
It’s all pretty perfect. Absorbing the glamorous details, I felt like the Frenchman who, in a signing queue, happily told Hazzard she was watching him exactly as she should. But it’s for his heart and his mind that you really read this book, in my case in two greedy and exhausting sessions. Olubas brings you both closer and it’s exciting and painful. Exciting because Hazzard was a genius. Painful because it is gone and left relatively little behind. Exciting because she knows you better than you know yourself. Painful because that self is so missing. Not only less intelligent and sophisticated than her, but also less demanding and demanding: hopelessly bound to your limits.