Shirley Hazzard: ‘Writing was such a release for me’

The Times

May 15, 2010


Almost a year ago Shirley Hazzard was knocked to the ground in Rome. A mugger, attempting to steal the handbag of a woman walking in front of her, felled Hazzard instead. This was not only frightening — she lost consciousness momentarily; her memory of the incident is splintered — but also frustrating. She has long loved Italy after being sent there as a disillusioned twentysomething employee of the United Nations. It’s where her life first opened up. “I know Rome, I wasn’t even carrying a bag,” she says, sitting in her Upper East Side apartment in New York. “I’m sorry for the limp. I’ve given up on the physiotherapy. It became too boring and took up too much time. One thing: I remember I screamed a scream I never thought I had in me.”

That scream is not the only surprise lurking in Hazzard. Her genteel propriety — she speaks precisely, is serenely coiffed and attired in conservative blouse and skirt — is deceiving. The 79-year-old writer is sharp, as dry as a stick in the sun, and one of only two living nominees (Nina Bawden is the other) for the Lost Man Booker Prize, to be awarded after a public vote to one of a raft of books published in 1970 that for odd-timing reasons did not qualify for the 1971 award. Hazzard’s The Bay of Noon is up against Bawden’s The Birds on the Trees, Troubles (J. G. Ballard), Fire From Heaven (Mary Renault), The Driver’s Seat (Muriel Spark) and The Vivisector (Patrick White).

“I’m terribly pleased to be nominated,” Hazzard says, “although it is better not to have any expectations. Being one of only two living writers makes one feel very old, but I think a living novelist should win it. What’s the point of giving it to a dead novelist? They can’t enjoy it. Patrick [White] refused to collect prizes. He hated the publicity so would send a friend. Now he’s nominated for this one: how many more do they think he needs?” She smiles. “And how will he receive it?”

The Bay of Noon is a spiky yet languorous tale of love and self-discovery set in Italy. It is autobiographical only in the sense that Hazzard discovered the country with the same vivid joy as its protagonist. Hazzard is probably best known for the award-winning, much-praised The Great Fire, a love story set in the aftermath of the Second World War that is at once intelligent and epic. Like The Bay of Noon and Hazzard’s other books — The Transit of Venus, The Evening of the Holiday and the short story collection Cliffs of Fall — it shows her complex gifts as a storyteller: the sweep of history as exactingly realised as the domestic and personal. The author Michael Cunningham has called Hazzard “one of the greatest writers working in English today”.

She has also written a memoir about Graham Greene and a trio of indictments of the UN: one a short story collection (People in Glass Houses), the others nonfictional critiques, Defeat of an Ideal and Countenance of Truth (about Kurt Waldheim, the former UN Secretary-General who was reputedly complicit in Nazi war crimes).

Hazzard takes her time writing her books, she admits, but it’s not down to block. “I found out when I was little that everybody wanted to be a writer and I had a very sceptical feeling about that. Writing seems a very accessible thing when you’re not involved in writing. But to do something well is never accessible.”

She was born and spent her early years in Sydney, in a household she describes as “not happy”. Her father was a diplomat, her mother a housewife “who wasn’t a person who enjoyed life. She was not tragic but she had the feeling she had been short-changed in life.” Hazzard has an older sister, Valerie, to whom she is not close (“by now it’s just Christmas cards”). She immersed herself in poetry and literature, reading Wordsworth, Auden, Tolstoy, Hardy, Conrad and Browning. With the onset of war, her parents sent her to a school outside Sydney. “They thought the Japanese were coming, even though the Americans had sunk most of the Japanese fleet at the Battle of Midway. I’ll never forget the loneliness of that countryside. My sister hated it so much she came home after a week. I stayed for two months until it seemed fairly apparent the Japanese were not coming. Then one night, back home, we were woken by a fierce bombardment. It was a suicide attack by Japanese submarines that had gotten into Sydney Harbour to sink the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, at that time the fastest troopships in the world.” Was she scared? Hazzard looks at me, wide-eyed. “No. We were quite excited to be in the big-time.”

The family travelled with her father’s posting: first, when Hazzard was 16, in 1946, to China, then to Japan and Hong Kong. “It was thrilling, five weeks on a ship. I remem- ber one morning waking to see forms of mountains and trees I had never seen before.” Of Hiroshima (which Hazzard is careful to pronounce “Hero-sheema”, not “Hir-oshima”), she recalls: “You never forget it. It was like going to Lunar Park and, of course, a terrible sight. It had been erased. We’d known of the terrible blitzes of London and other British and German cities. But Hiroshima had been pulverised in a moment, you could tell. I feel like I have been absorbing that sight for a long time. We’d seen the newsreels, but when you realised what it was and so many people lost in a second . . . This wasn’t the ordinary grinding down of war, or many bombs, it was another notch in the level of violence and I’ll never forget how the world stood still to look at it.”

Her parents’ marriage fell apart. “I think my father got tired of it. He was quite stingy and my mother felt this, especially during the war when you couldn’t get domestic help — she felt like a slave. She was a big resenter. Sometimes they would be happy, then it would fall apart again.”

Hazzard herself had a “marvellous” life in Hong Kong. “I worked in an office full of young British intelligence officers. It was lovely for me to be able to talk to people who shared my interests in literature and poetry. I fell in love with somebody there and we would have liked to have married. But my mother cut up rough about our association.” Why? “Why you might ask,” Hazzard says archly. “She didn’t ask herself why. I was young, perhaps it was that I was mixing with people who were much more sympathetic to my interests than she was.” Perhaps she was jealous or envious? “Yes she was, but I don’t want to simplify it. She didn’t have a tactful way of doing things. She was very emotional and could be very unpleasant.” Valerie contracted TB and the family returned to Australia, “for its climate”. Then they were relocated to New Zealand. “I don’t want to sound negative. New Zealand is extraordinarily beautiful and the people were nice. But back then it was literally the end of the Earth,” Hazzard says. “I was bored, unhappy and homesick for my life in Hong Kong.” And perhaps she was missing her love? “Yes, of course, we wrote for a long time, but . . .” She shrugs.

After a posting in London, her father was sent to New York. Her parents divorced, her mother returning to England. “She felt my father had been most ungenerous with the settlement. We found out later he had a mistress who was following us around the world.” Did Hazzard ever meet her? “I felt I couldn’t while my mother was still alive.” Was it a surprise? “By then we were beyond being shocked.” Later in life, her mother was happiest “on the move”, Hazzard says, “being on a ship for six weeks meant no commitments”. She went to Australia to see Valerie and suffered a stroke. “I went to see her. The nurses were interested to see if she would recognise me. They said, ‘Mrs Hazzard, this is your daughter Shirley’. My mother said they’d got it all wrong. ‘But the strange thing,’ she said to me, ‘was that you do look like her’.” In the early 1950s Hazzard was crafting a life in New York. “You had to do something to get noticed here. You still do. When I was 20 I joined the UN and was thinking very idealistically. I didn’t realise how it would count for nothing. A young woman was given a typewriter and told to shut up. I knew it was a place where I couldn’t have a future. The years passed. I looked around at my colleagues getting grey, not just in their hair but also in giving up on larger enjoyment in their lives. I wasn’t doing anything for the world or for myself.” Five years into this dispiriting period “the gods intervened”. The UN needed Italian speakers in Italy: Hazzard went. She stayed with an anti-Fascist family, “and that’s when I began to write. They were of such a quality you didn’t want to disappoint them. Being sent to Italy encouraged me to think I could have a different life. I can hardly explain how much of a release it was. My life had been so circumscribed. Now it wasn’t.”

She sent her first short story to The New Yorker. “As I expected to be rejected, I thought why not send it to the best place?” But William Maxwell, the fiction editor, took the first story. “It was wonderful. [William] Shawn [the editor at the time] paid the writers well; he thought they should be living a fine life. After two or three stories they asked if I’d sign an agreement allowing them first reading of anything new I wrote.” She gave up her UN job and in the early 1960s she met her husband, Francis Steegmuller, “at a party in New York, given by . . . I don’t know if you know of her . . . a writer called Muriel Spark.” Yes, of course I know of her, I laugh. And they are both on the shortlist, of course. “She and I were great friends. She was extraordinary. She would say things nobody else would say that would cut like a knife. I don’t mean just cruel things, although she could be pretty sharp in her observations. She was planning a party and said, ‘There’s a man coming who I’ve met and I think you should marry him’. People were always saying such things, and I was surprised she would say something so banal, but it was her clairvoyant thing. She introduced us in January and we married in December. She always called us her ‘best novel’.”

To be equally banal: was it love at first sight? “I think one could say that. He wrote to me a few days after meeting me: ‘If you are the Shirley Hazzard in the telephone book who I met at Muriel Spark’s party, would you care to come out for dinner?’ ” Steegmuller, an author, was “20-odd” years older than her and they lived in Paris (he was the biographer of Cocteau and Apollinaire), Italy and the US. “We would have liked to have had children but didn’t,” she says. “The reasons elude me, but we decided we were not going to make a tragedy out of it. We had friends whose children cut up rough, despite every advantage.”

It sounds the ideal union of hearts and artistic minds. Her novels received growing acclaim, one was optioned to be filmed by Harvey Weinstein, “but I’m very sceptical about these things”. Living on Capri (and that’s “Cap-ree”, not “C’pree”), they became friends with Greene. “He was a terror,” Hazzard says. “He was very temper- amental and could be very nice, but also quite sadistic. He could do kind things: he would send money to writers trying to finish books and did it so they wouldn’t know. But he could cut you off. I would speak back to him, which he didn’t mind if you were amusing. He liked being angry. He liked things to be wrong, but on his terms.” Hazzard shows me a painting of Steegmuller, handsome in summer clothes. “He was the most wonderful man in the world,” she says. “I lived happy ever after.” He died 15 years ago. “I have many friends and a busy, full life. I’m not lonely but I am lonely for him,” she says. “I often talk to him.

She doesn’t think one theme overarches her novels. I suggest “love”, perhaps, in its many forms and endurances. “But doesn’t every novel deal with love?” she replies. (She is working on a new book but won’t talk about it.) She turns 80 next year. “I don’t care for that, but it’s thrust on you. I am healthy (she touches the wooden legs of her chair), and I still have my mind. Everybody who gets older thinks about their mortality, but I’m not going to concentrate on the possibility of dying tomorrow or going gaga next week.” Hazzard says she would have liked to have been a more “industrious writer” and looking at her compact CV you might concur. But, as with Hazzard herself, appearances are deceptive: quality has certainly trumped quantity.