A Rediscovery of a Literary Virtuoso: Shirley Hazzard’s “Collected Stories”

The month of May has rushed by. Lots of rain here – two weeks, actually – and more of the same in the future. So what have I been reading? This month, Collected Stories by Shirley Hazzard proved irresistible. Whether you plan to spend the weekend on the lake (I wish!) or dilly-dallying at home, I am sure you will love at least some of these stories. Hazzard (1931-2016), an Australian writer who had dual citizenship in the U.S. and the UK, won many awards, including The National Book Award and The Miles Franklin Award.

Last fall Farrar Straus and Giroux published Collected Stories, which comprises her two story collections, Cliffs of Fall and People in Glass Houses, and ten uncollected stories, eight of them published in The New Yorker and other magazines. As if this were not enough to keep us busy, Penguin recently reissued her award-winning novel The Transit of Venus. It is reasonable to say that Hazzard is back in fashion. And both books have been widely reviewed (or re-reviewed) by the critics.

I think of Hazzard mainly as a novelist, and I still have my 1990 Penguin copy of her 1980 novel, The Transit of Venus. I was intrigued at the time by her intelligence, grace, and nuanced writing, though, honestly, I remember little about the novel now. But I kept it all these years; it is now on the nightstand pile. When her National Book Award-winning novel The Great Fire, set in the aftermath of World War II, was published in 2003, I found it painful and uneven, almost too full of events, as it turns from a ghastly investigation of the ruins of Hiroshima into into an unlikely romance. But much of Hazzard’s life was in this book – she knew the shattering aftermath, having worked in the late forties for British Intelligence in Hong Kong, and in the fifties as a secretary for the UN.

I read the Collected Stories at my leisure, only one or two a day. Surprisingly, I preferred the energetic early stories to the later stories. I loved “A Place in the Country,” the second story in her first collection, Cliffs of Hall, which begins with the upacking of boxes in a country house. Hazzard shares this country house territory with Updike and Cheever: it is the place where intelligent, well-educated women read poetry and give dinner parties, while their husbands work in the city. (Perhaps Hazzard and Updike knew the same people.). And the opening of “A Place in the Country” is bound to hook avid readers.

“Try to keep the poetry separate,” said May. “The rest can be arranged later.” She made her way around the boxes of books and china to the doorway, and called up the stairs, “Clem, when you’re finished up there, you could help Nettie with the books.”

Not surprisingly, it turns out Clem and Nettie are having an affair. May has no idea: she is busy arranging objects in their country house, where she and the children will live for six months, while Clem works in town, coming down for an occasional weekend. Nettie is so in love that at one point she wishes – like an adolescent- that she could darn Clem’s socks. She is too young to understand marriage, and glosses over May’s potential pain: Nettie thinks the marriage must be worse than most.. But the love between Nettie and Clem turns out to be unequal. At the end of the story, Clem will tell her he should never have said he did not love his wife.

In “Forgiving,” Kate gets out of a party by saying her husband Lucas is sick. Actually, they sit in the woods, discussing Kate’s infidelity, and Kate assures him that she will never cheat again. “‘You leave me alone too much,’ she says”. Aa indeed, he does. He was away two months on a business trip in Africa. He snaps, “Well, one doesn’t go to Africa for the day, you know.”

I am especially charmed by the witty linked stories from People in Glass Houses, set in the offices of the Organization, which is a thinly-veiled U.N. (Hazzard worked at the UN for seven years.) She gently mocks the bureaucracy, the Methods of Enforcement report and the Advisory Commission on Administrative and Budgetary Questions, the firing of a misunderstood anthropologist (Ashmole-Brown in “The Story of Miss Sadie Graine”), who then becomes a best-selling writer after he publishes the report he’d been working on at the Organization, and various other workplace events and scandals. The employees come from different countries and different backgrounds, but nobody quite understands how the Organization works, especially the idealistic character Mr. Flinders in “The Meeting,” who discovers he has taken insufficiently professional photos of people in a third-world country planting trees to stop erosion. A man with better slides has actually contributed to pollution with his mission, but no one has the background to tell the difference.

In “The Flowers of Sorrow,” the Director-General departs from the agenda of his speech to say, “In my country, we have a song that asks, ‘Will the flowers of joy ever equal the flowers of sorrow?” The audience is flustered. Some are annoyed that there has been no mention of the proposed change in retirement, or longevity increments. One of the English interpreters is freaked-out: “It would be better not to give us a prepared text at all than to make all these departures from it.” But two of the characters, Miss Kingslake and Mr. Willoughby, feel heartened by a feeling remark that isn’t on the agenda.

If you do not have time to read all the stories, do try People in Glass Houses. At first I didn’t “get” them and found them dry, but the employees of The Organization now hold a special place on my mental bookshelf of workplace fiction.

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