briefly mentioned Shirley Hazzard's essays on Naples, Ancient
Shore, in our earlier piece on Gomorra,
but felt that both the book and the writer deserved separate
mention - after all The Times of London suggested that she
is the greatest
novelist of the 20th century!
Hazzard is a New York treasure. And a treasure with a
storybook life. Born in 1931 in Australia, she moved to Hong
Kong with her family, and at the age of 16 was recruited by
British intelligence. She discovered poetry and literature
there: "I would sit on the edge of a desk somewhere, and
somebody would come in and say a poem. That was a great
release." Then, a love story with an English war
veteran in his 30s, which her parents ended--what she described as
"...a massacre -- very cruel." This story became
the basis for her novel, The Great Fire (2003), winner of
the National Book Award. She moved to New York, alone, at 20, and
worked at the United Nations, " … in the dungeons there…"
by day, writing on the side, for 10 years. Then a literary
break and the start of a life where she could support herself with
her writing. Also, in 1963, the meeting and immediate
marriage to the older Francis Steegmuller, scholar and translator
of Flaubert. Then a marvelously happy life with him spent between
New York, Capri, and Naples.
a story from the storybook life: It is the late 1960s. A
café on a
rainy December day in Capri. Hazzard sees the very recognizable
Graham Greene come in with a friend and sit down at the tiny table
next to hers. Hazzard is finishing her crossword
puzzle. She can't help but hear their conversation.
Greene is quoting Browning's The Lost Mistress…but then
is unable to finish the poem - the last line eludes him.
I will say what mere friends say
Or only a thought stronger;
I will hold your hand but as long as all may-....
A woman of style, she finishes her puzzle, and her coffee, pays her
bill, takes her raincoat and umbrella, and then, and only then,
turns to Greene and his friend and says, " The line is 'Or
so very little longer.'" And walks out. This was the start of a
lifelong friendship -- Greene, like Hazzard returned to Capri
every year -- which she chronicled in her luminous biography, Greene
on Capri, A Memoir (2000).
then, what might probably be her most brilliant novel, The
Transit of Venus. John Leonard, writing in The New York
Times in 1980, said of the book: "No matter the object - a
feeling, a face, a room, the weather -- it is stripped of its
layers of paint, its clots of words, down to the original wood;
oil is applied; grain appears, and a glow. Every epigram and
apostrophe is earned. A powerful intelligence is playing
with a knife. It is an intelligence that refuses to be
deflected by ironies; irony isn't good
Transit of Venus
on Capri, A Memoir