A Rediscovered Writer: Shirley Hazzard’s “The Transit of Venus” and Brigitta Olubas’s “Shirley Hazzard: A Writer’s Life”

“At first, there is something you expect of life. Later, there is what life expects of you. By the time you realize these are the same, it can be too late for expectations.”
— The Transit of Venus, by Shirley Hazzard

 I used to browse at an old-fashioned independent bookstore, which, at that time, was a nearly extinct species, though its business plan was revised to compete with the mega-chains.  It donned the creaky armor of size and an added cafe with espresso machines, biscotti, and scones . We readers loved to browse and linger, reading the first sentence of new unknown novels aloud, and drinking cappuccinos to seal our choices.

And then one afternoon, standing in the aisle, I picked up a reprint of Shirley Hazzard’s 1980 masterpiece, The Transit of Venus, the winner of The National Book Critics Circle Award.  As I began to read her exquisite prose, I felt elation.  Hazzard’s style is rooted in poetry, its prose rhythms accentuated by fragments and flowing participial phrases. Hazzard, one of the great Australian-American writers of the 20th century, is, at her best, one of our most lyrical writers. And, according to Brigitta Olubas’s new biography, Shirley Hazzard: A Writer’s Life, she learned reams of poetry by heart and recited it at cocktail parties in Manhattan.

The Transit of Venus is a traditional novel about an untraditional family, not traditionally told.  It centers on two beautiful Australian sisters, Caro and Grace Bell, who have come to London.  Hazzard is concerned with what befalls them in England, and later, what happens when Caro marries an American and lives in the U.S. But as young women in London, they work in shops, Grace in the complaints department of Harrods and Caro in a bookstore. 
Money does not matter when one is young, though they earn little.  And because they are beautiful, rich men flock around them.  Grace, the sweeter sister of the two, makes a conventional marriage to Christian Thrale, a rich, cautious, unemotional Englishman who does not love her as well as she deserves.  The unconventional, not always likable, Caro has a love affair with a vicious playwright, Paul Ivory. Later, she falls in love with and marries Adam Veil, a rich American who tries in vain to intercede against the CIA puppet revolutions in South America.

Though Caro is glad to have escaped provincial Australia, and enjoys her life with Adam, there is no happy ending in sight for her or Grace. Not everybody wishes them well, and loved ones sometimes die.  Their older sister, Dora, a character based on Shirley Hazzard’s mother,  is cruel, neurotic, and made their lives fearful and hellish after their parents died and she came home to raise them.  In London they learn that Dora is unfit  for the workplace, and Caro and Grace (who is loosely based on Hazzard’s sister Valerie)  make over most of their income to Dora.  Later, their husbands take over Dora’s problems.
As the characters age, they learn more about what was and was not told them in their youth.  Lovers were  deceived, and  admit they have been mistaken in love, while others triumph in duplicity, rejoicing in confessions of how they got away with deception.   Only Ted Tice, a scientist who fell in love with Caro when she arrived in London, though she did not return his love, is entirely faithful.  But in terms of Caro’s world-view, Ted’s near-saintly character will prove to be heartbreaking. 

Hazzard’s books are, to an extent, autobiographical. In her gorgeous new literary biography,  Shirley Hazzard:  A Writing Life, the critic Brigitta Olubas has written a fascinating study of Shirley’s character and work.  She charts the history of Shirley’s reinvention of herself from a bright Australian girl to a sophisticated writer who socializes with the international elite, including Lillian Hellman,  The New Yorker editor and writer, William Maxwell, Graham Greene, about whom Shirley Hazzard wrote a memoir, Muriel Spark, and countless other writers, artists, and benefactors.  Hazzard was happily married to Francis Steegmuller, the scholar and biographer of Flaubert and Stravinsky, and they divided their time between New York, Italy, and Capri.

But Shirley paid a price to thrive in this new world she had created.  She cut off ties with her mother, Kit, whose mental illness made her especially hostile to Shirley.  Fortunately, the Australian writer, Elizabeth Harrower, befriended Kit, who could be charming when she was not ill.  Elizabeth  voluntarily took over her care and escorted her to doctors and oversaw her medication.  But over the years, Harrower lost respect for Shirley, who tried to solve Kit’s problems by paying money to Elizabeth.
Hazzard, who worked for the UN in her twenties, made lifelong enemies by her diatribes against its bureaucracy and hypocrisy.  She wrote controversial nonfiction about the U.N. and a collection of short stories, People in Glass Houses. She also penned letters daily to politicians, condemning Watergate, the Vietnam War and subsequent wars, the Reagan regime, the Bush and Cheney regime.

But what makes this understated biography especially moving are the long quotations of passages from letters and diary entries.   Shirley wrote letters and a diary almost daily.

Olubas’s biography is clear and consistently interesting, and will enhance your appreciation of Shirley Hazzard (1931-2017) as a woman and a writer. 

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