In Praise of Shirley Hazzard

To mark this year’s Australia Day, we’ve returned to the work of Shirley Hazzard, the Sydney-born author who died on December 12, 2016. We had the pleasure of discovering Hazzard’s work in the best of possible ways, through the recommendation of a beloved writer.

In 1999, we flew from New Orleans to Nashville to interview Ann Patchett for our first book, Novel Voices. Patchett proved to be as generous with her time as she is in her work. Among her generosities (who else would lend her car, for an entire weekend, to two complete strangers? And then, after continuing to spend time with them after the recorder stopped rolling, insist on driving them, with her dog in tow, all the way to the airport?), she passed along names of authors she had recently discovered, writers whose books she couldn’t believe she had gone her entire life without having read. At the top of this list was someone completely new to us—Shirley Hazzard.

“[Literature] is a matter of seeking accurate words to convey a human condition,” Hazzard writes in her essay “We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think.” The quote speaks volumes about Hazzard’s own work, which includes the novels The Evening of the Holiday, The Bay of Noon and The Great Fire, winner of the 2003 National Book Award and the Miles Franklin Award. Besides being a great storyteller, Hazzard is one of the best prose stylists we’ve had the pleasure to encounter. Her writing is at once sharp and poetic. Consider the opening of her 1981 National Book Critics Circle Award-winning novel, The Transit of Venus:

   By nightfall the headlines would be reporting devastation.

   It was simply that the sky, on a shadeless day, suddenly lowered itself like an awning. Purple silence petrified the limbs of trees and stood crops upright in the fields like hair on end. Whatever there was of fresh white paint sprang out from downs or dunes, or lacerated a roadside with a streak of fencing. This occurred shortly after midday on a summer Monday in the south of England.  

The title of Hazzard’s essay, which is also the title of her recently published selected essays, tells us all we need to know about how to read this author’s work. Miss a detail (“A dog raced through a cathedral,” she writes early in The Transit of Venus, one of her many reminders of the layers around us) and you’re not reading Shirley Hazzard. She demands and deserves our attention. Her work offers endless rewards, even after multiple readings.

“The task of the poet or novelist is to convey states of mind and of being as immediately as possible, through language,” she writes in “We Need Silence.” Hazzard seeks to convey that state of mind not only on the page but—also importantly—to build the rhythms of her prose until it permeates the reader’s ear.

“For me, the ear has an essential role in literary meaning,” she writes. “The arrangement of words, phrases, sentences, should sound on the mental ear as effectively as possible, in the silence of the writer’s intimacy with his or her reader. For both writer and reader, this is a sensibility refined by reading—that is, through love of literature.”

Hazzard’s fiction proves particularly rewarding for readers who seek more from the page, the kind of reader who falls into books out of love of story and language, the kind who wants, maybe even needs, those privileged glimpses into the lives of others, those people we will never meet, along with the eras that we can never inhabit but which literature allows us to enter and feel.

“It is through literature that the world has been preserved and nourished,” she writes in “We Need Silence,” “and it is in literature that we find the candor and refreshment of truth.”

I wish that I would have written this while Hazzard was still alive. I wish I had written Shirley Hazzard a fan note to say how much her work means to me as a reader, as a human. Hazzard would have turned eighty-six on January 30. She left us with the gift of her work. For as long as I live, I will continue to read it.

—Kevin Rabalais

While Ann Patchett did introduce Shirley Hazzard’s work to me, and I filed that recommendation away like a gift to savor, I didn’t get around to reading her until I found myself alone in a friend’s apartment on New Year’s Eve, in Australia, several years later. Some books become stained with the knowledge of the place and era—an almost eerie physical sensation that leaps across space and time—in which you first read them. If someone says to me The Perfect Storm, I’m on the hard buckled floor of a New Orleans apartment, using a failing booklight to read long into the night. It’s hot and sticky and I’m about to move to a foreign country for the first time.

The Transit of Venus, Hazzard’s third novel, is one of those books. It’s New Year’s Eve. I’ve been roaming around with friends but the outing, despite the date, is impromptu. I can’t remember the exact turn of events—perhaps there’s no food my allergies will allow me to eat?—but I am sent from the beach to the nearby apartment alone with promises that the group will join me en masse before midnight.

With nothing to do and feeling slightly sorry for myself, I browse my friend’s shelves and pull out The Transit of Venus, that novel I’ve long meant to read. I sink into the book and, almost immediately, wonder how I’ve never read it before—how everyone isn’t reading this book all the time, talking about it every day. How is Shirley Hazzard not a cultural icon? How are there not stacks of her books in every bookstore in this country, in every country?

The minutes, then hours race by, and I’m sure my friends won’t reappear before one year ticks over to the next. I feel like I should be annoyed, but as the fireworks rumble I find that I want to be alone so I’m not ripped out of the world Hazzard has created. This is how I want to enter a fresh year: with the knowledge of community to come but content on my own, astounded by great writing.

—Jennifer Levasseur



Want to read more about Australian writers and books? Check out our list of Australian favorites by writers, booksellers, librarians and other book people.


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