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Shirley Hazzard

 
 

Hazardous to your Heart...

   

 

  

 

We 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!

Shirley 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.  

And 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. 

Yet, 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).

And 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 enough."     

 

Read: The Transit of Venus

Read: Greene on Capri, A Memoir

Read: The Great Fire   

Tags:  hazzard


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