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Brigitta Olubas on the Life and Work of Shirley Hazzard

Also comes beauty, unfurling in phrases and sentences that seem to be carrying more weight than the storm that they are describing. That unfurling is bedded into the structure and sequence of the sentences... luring us to larger and longer moments.

Brigitta Olubas

Hear from author and English Professor Brigitta Olubas as she shared insight from Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life, her fascinating biography of the great Australian novelist of stories such as The Great Fire and The Transit of Venus. She charts the globetrotting life of Hazzard and a celebrated body of work that, in grappling with ideas of power, passion and longing, yielded some of the world’s most beautiful and enduring fiction.

This event was presented by the Sydney Writers' Festival and supported by UNSW Sydney. 


UNSW Centre for Ideas: Welcome to the UNSW Centre for Ideas podcast, a place to hear ideas from the world's leading thinkers and UNSW Sydney's brightest minds. The talk you are about to hear, Brigitta Olubas on the Life and Work of Shirley Hazzard, features UNSW Sydney Professor and author Brigitta Olubas, and was recorded live at the 2023 Sydney Writers’ Festival.

Brigitta Olubas: I’m Brigitta Olubas. I first of all want to acknowledge that we're meeting here on the unceded lands of the Cadigal people of the Eora nation. I want to pay my respects to elders past and present, and to any First Nations people who are here today. It’s a huge pleasure to be here. Thank you all for coming.

So, I'm going to give, I've been asked to give a talk, a lecture, about the life and work of Shirley Hazzard. So, I'm doing that, and then I'll read a little from the biography. So before I became Shirley Hazzard’s biographer, I was one of her readers. I was a devoted reader, like so many others. I'd read The Transit of Venus in 1981. It had been sent to me by my sister. We'd grown up reading together. She wrote inside the cover that she thought it must have been written just for me. She was right. I was thrilled by it. At that time, I was studying English and French literature was very much at the heart of my life. It brought the world alive for me, it made things matter.

But literature was (it seemed to me then) mostly concerned with other worlds, other times and places. It touched me profoundly, but it didn't seem to touch the world I lived in. Even Patrick White and Judith Wright, and Kenneth Slessor, and Thomas Keneally (whose works I'd read at school) were writing from or about a largely distant Australia.

The Transit of Venus seemed somehow to be different in the way it paid attention to lives that seemed close to mine, even though they were historically distant. That is, young women. Australians. And it paid attention through the medium of prose of the utmost gravity and beauty. Prose that took itself seriously, that impelled its readers to take it, and themselves, and the work of reading very seriously. It was this Shirley Hazzard’s on sentences I think the provided the real hook.

On the first page of The Transit of Venus, I read this: 

“By nightfall the headlines would be reporting devastation. It was simply that the sky, on a shadeless day, lowered itself like an awning. Purple silence petrified the limbs of trees and stood crops upright in the fields like hair on end. Whatever there was of fresh white paint sprang out from downs or dunes, or lacerated a streak of fencing” 

This occurred shortly after midday on a summer Monday in the south of England. This extraordinary sequence of sentences in a way embodies the upheaval that a reader undergoes when we are immersed in great works of literature, in great novels, in particular. The landscape around us, familiar, banal, is upended, is made strange – as the Russian formalists had it – made thrilling and unexpected. With the upheaval comes threat – what the narrator will later describe as “threat and promise of meaning” – and also comes beauty. Unfurling and phrases and sentences that seem to be carrying more weight than the storm that they are describing. 

That unfurling is bedded into the structure and sequence of the sentences. I counted four stressed syllables in that first sentence, eight in the next, then 12, luring us to larger and longer moments. And the sentences scan like lines of poetry: “Whatever there was a fresh white paint sprang out from downs or dunes”. Five stressed syllables in a row! The sound drama carried over into the alliteration, “whatever”, “was”, “white”, and then “downs” and “dunes” with their half rhymes. 

I can still remember my excitement back then in 1981. I wanted whatever was coming next. The storm swept over me; went on for another page or two. The New York Times critic Parul Sehgal wrote recently — when The Transit of Venus was reissued in 2021 — she wrote, “Did it ever rain in fiction — really properly rain — before The Transit of Venus? Has the mud streamed in that particularly vivid way, has a character stuffed his sopping cap into his waterlogged pockets, squelched indoors and stood, horribly aware of the smell of his wet socks, the way Ted Tice does, watching his cheap suitcase leak its orange dye all over the floor?”.

After finishing Transit, I tracked down Shirley Hazzard’s two earlier novels and devoured them. They were strange and compelling in different ways. Undoing and remaking the forms of pastoral romance and comedy. But in these shorter works, too, I found the poetry of her lines, charging the story that simmered and flowed beneath them with a kind of electricity. I'll give you an example. Now these earlier books are both very familiar kinds of romances, both set in Italy, young woman in Italy.

Indeed, in a review of the first of them, The Evening of the Holiday, the critic Bernard Bergonzi wrote that “the plot was of a weirdly familiar kind”. Then he added, “when we read what Miss Hazzard...” — love that, "Miss Hazzard’ — “has actually made of this unpromising material, we are usefully reminded that the right treatment can perform miracles”. And that novel was also described as a perfect novel. A perfect pastoral.

In the second of the novels, The Bay of Noon, the young English woman is living in Naples in the 1950s. She meets a fascinating, slightly older Italian couple, and an oblique Scotsman with whom she has a kind of flirtation that goes nowhere. Near the end of the novel, on the second last page, is the protagonist who has returned to Naples some little time after the events that make up the story reflects (so this is a quote, here): “That epoch, our time at Naples, seems historic now. It doesn’t seem like modern life. But it didn’t seem like modern life then either, it was more like life than modern life, more lifelike, livelier, likelier.”

I wrote about this passage in the biography. I wrote: “This is writing that works on the nerve endings, not the cerebrum, the play of sound in these sentences. Rococo, insistent, connects “like” to “life” in all their permutations. It connects the work of figuration, of writing, of poetry, to the question of living to the enlivening, and enduring power of words, Shirley Hazzard’s sentences school us in reading. They force us [as a] reviewer wrote, to become “uncommonly attentive”.

I want to return for a minute to the picture I started with a young woman reading about another young woman, both Australians living small and unimportant lives. The US critic, literary critic, Wai Chee Dimock argued that this kind and quality of attention to the insignificant and the small is intrinsic to the to the nature, to the genre, of the novel. She writes that one of the things novels do is to affect a massive shift of scale. She argues that they work in the gaps between the small and the large, between the person and the world. She has this to say about Henry James' heroine: “Isabel Archer’s suffering is inflicted upon her, not by a nation or a public institution, but by a private individual. An expatriate, no less. No major event on the national calendar is inscribed in this puny ruin of one woman's happiness. And yet this despicable size is just what makes it not despicable, within the sponge-like texture of the novel. Because the novel is, in fact, of uncertain dimensions. It can be bumped up to a much larger scale”.

In Wai Chee Dimock’s argument, this shift in scale is fundamental to the way that the novel provides a small entry to a large fact, creating a break, also, in the novels account of human affairs, a point where the small and the large come up against each other. For Isabel Archer, as an American, the large also includes her nation, her homeland, the USA. 

Dimock writes, "This is what novelistic subjectivity amounts to. Its frame is global, but the “global” here (bearing the compass of time) enfolds (rather than erases) its scalar opposite. In other words, the large and significant, the national, the global embrace the small and unimportant, the young woman, the Australian”.

This is probably perhaps, I think, why and how, we come to care so much about Isabel Archer, or indeed about Caro Bell, or Ted Tice. Or, in Shirley Hazzard’s last novel, for Helen Driscoll, whose story Hazzard herself said was based very much on her own youthful life. Helen Driscoll sitting in her bedroom in Wellington, New Zealand, recording in letters the uneventful events and the suburban scenes that make up her days. On the other side of The Great Fire’s glow in the northern provinces of England, the novel pauses to attend to the whole world that is to be found in a pile of firewood. So, I'll read this passage. 

“The scrubby bark, coruscated, or the smooth angular pieces like bones. Forms arched and grooved like a lobster, or humped like a whale. Dark joints to which foliage adhered like bay leaves in a stew. Pinecones, and a frond of pine needles still flourishing on the hacked branch. And the creatures that inched or sped or wriggled out, knowing the game was up: slugs, pale worms, tiny white grubs scurrying busily off as if to a destination. An undulant caterpillar, and an inexorable thing with pincers. Or the slow slide of an unhoused snail – the hodmedod, as they called him here – re-visiting the lichens and pigmentations and fungoid flakes that had clung to his only home – freckled growths dusted, seemingly, with cocoa; red berries, globules of white wax”.

The animation here equal to that storm in The Transit of Venus slows time, it demands our richest attention, the large bedded in the small. Shirley Hazzard novel strive to connect themselves and her readers, to the great achievements of literature, to poetry itself, even as they turn their attention, and our attention to the daily, the lived, the unremarkable.

I'm not saying I apprehended all this when I first picked up The Transit of Venus in 1981. But reading it then allowed me to begin to read and think in ways that would lead me to an understanding of it, that would lead me in fact here to the biography.

So who was a woman who wrote that ensorcelled prose, and how did she come to writing? Shirley Hazzard had always, she said, lived in poetry. She was born in 1931 and grew up on Sydney's North Shore, in an unhappy family of less than modest origins. Both her parents began their lives in circumstances of illegitimacy and material deprivation, and their adult selves were marked by that lack and the misery. Everyone in the family was it seems antipathetic, insular.

It's no accident that all the protagonists in Shelley Hazzard’s fiction are orphans, or changelings, their origins obscure. The very young Shirley took to literature as constellation as compensation. Dickens, Conrad, Browning were early loves, then Hardy, above all Hardy's poetry. She loved George Eliot, Byron, Auden, and these constituted her life in those early unhappy years. Her father, Reg channeled his unhappiness into alcohol, adultery, and ambition. He rose from nowhere to become Australian Trade Commissioner, first to Hong Kong at the end of World War Two, then more glitteringly to New York at the end in, at the end, of 1951 – taking his family and his mistress with him.

In 1953, he ran off with the mistress, after which surely had very little contact with him. He wrote in a letter a decade or so later, having seen a photograph of her: “It is a peculiar feeling to look at a picture of your own daughter and realise that with a lapse of time, I could have passed you in the street and not have recognised”. Her mother Catherine, known as Kit, unstable, bipolar, attached herself to Shirley, who cared from – sorry – who cared for and ran from her mother, in equal measure. A dreadful misery that lasted ‘til Kit’s death in 1985. I should add that the novelist Elizabeth Harrower, also became entangled in Kit’s web of chaos for nearly 20 years. Dealing at firsthand, on Shirley's behalf, with all of Kit’s demands and refusals, dealing with her accommodation, her pension application, her telephone, the hearing aid, her cap letter. Why she did this is another story, and another book. Kit was also a darkly deeply comic figure. And Shirley’s letters are full of the comedy. For instance:

“My mother writes me that she has a bad foot and (oh how characteristic) is ‘walking extra hard on it as that is usually the best cure’”. She regularly sent Kit frocks from New York and Kit sent back Christmas cakes from Sydney, leading to moments like this (from a letter to Elizabeth Harrower): 

“I’m glad she wore the dress—(last dress was greeted with return letters saying ‘One needs more than dresses’. In the present letter she says she is sending us a Christmas cake, but not a good one. Goes on, “That sounds like a threat—perhaps appropriate?”.

When Shirley wrote Kit that her husband, the acclaimed biographer Francis Steegmuller was considering writing a biography of Stravinsky and was visiting the composer, in New York, to look through the papers he kept in his apartment, Kit wrote back that the Christmas cake that she just posted to Shirley was “a biggish one so perhaps you can halve it for Mrs Stravinsky?” and so on. It wasn’t always funny.

Shirley and her sister Valerie seem to have reserved their greatest animosity, always, for each other. Their tastes and inclinations were diametrically opposed; they went into battle. From New York, Shirley penned long, furious letters to Valerie in Sydney, and Valerie responded in kind. Shirley warned Kit to stay clear of Valerie, and Kit wrote back regularly to both that she would prefer just to disappear. It went on and on unresolvable, some kind of primal battle. When Shirley died in 2016, it was learned that Valerie had died two years earlier, there had long been no contact between them. 

Away from her family, Shirley Hazzard’s life unfolded in quite different directions. She used to lament that Sydney in the 1930s and 1940s, had been a cultural desert. She said, “In the circles where I was raised, I knew of no one knowledgeable in the visual arts, no one who regularly attended musical performances, and only two adults other than my teachers who spoke without embarrassment of poetry and literature – both of these being women. As far as I can recall, I never heard a man refer to a good or a great book. I knew no one who had mastered, or even studied, another language from choice”.

New York in the 1950s, with its rich literary scene, home to magazines that published and paid well for short fiction and poetry and reviews, along with its larger cosmopolitan culture – seems to have been exactly the right place for her to begin, begin again, to invent herself. It was there she met her husband, Francis Steegmuller, 25 years older, he had already published 14 books, and he was extensively connected with the most elevated literary circles in Manhattan. They were introduced to each other by Muriel Spark, who described that as her own best novel.

Steegmuller had inherited a significant art collection (it included a Pissarro, a bunch of Picasso etchings, Redon, Braque, many Villons, Delacroix, Parmigianino amongst others). This was a bunch of paintings that were supposed to come back to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The backstory for that you can read in the in the biography. Ge also inherited money from his first wife, the heiress was an heiress and amateur painter, Beatrice Stein. All this meant that Francis and Shirley were able to devote themselves to writing they didn't need day jobs. When funds ran low, they sold a painting.

Shirley worked as a typist at the UN. She never finished high school, she never went to university. She trained at a stenography school. She was a terrible stenographer, never advanced at the UN, and never forgave them for not promoting her and seeing her genius – which clearly wasn't evident in her daily work. She also began writing stories. After a couple of false starts, a couple of early rejections, in 1960s she managed to bypass the slush pile at The New Yorker, and one of her stories went straight to the legendary editor, William Maxwell, who accepted it and asked her to send more.

William Maxwell later reflected that she seemed from the start to be “a finished literary artist about whom they knew nothing whatever. She must have gone through a period of apprenticeship of one kind or another but under whose eyes? Her own, I would think”. 

And it's interesting, she told often the story of, this kind of this was the first story I wrote, and it was picked up and published, and I never looked back. And, you know, which wasn't quite true, but almost true. And it's as if she wanted to kind of keep that idea of herself as this writer who emerged without an apprenticeship without effort, because she kept no drafts of her, of her, writing, almost no drafts, just finished type scripts of some of them. But amongst all her papers, the drafts have all disappeared, so she didn't want to show the working the extraordinary labor that goes into these highly crafted works. 

From that auspicious beginning she went on to become a writer. She left her desk job, she signed a first writing agreement with The New Yorker, and a contract with major publishers Knopf and MacMillan for a collection of stories and a novel, then another collection, another novel and then her masterpiece, The Transit of Venus. And then, of course, The Great Fire

The Steegmullers’ married life was described by their friend the poet and translator Richard Howard as “a conjugal version of literary high life”. Francis was a scholar of French literature – he made one of the definitive translations of Madame Bovary in 1957. His acclaimed biography of John Cocteau won the National Book Award for biography in 1970.

In the first decade of their marriage, they spent months of each year in France, Paris, where they kept rooms at the Ritz or visiting Francis's friend, the art collector, Douglas Cooper at his home, the Chateau de Castillo near Uzès in Provence. Cooper commissioned, he was a great friend of Picasso’s – his home was a kind of temple to Cubism) and Cooper was probably the first great critic and collector of Cubist art and he commissioned from the artist Lesia the large canvas Les Trapézistes, later purchased by the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra), and we can still see hanging in the gallery in Canberra. So that was hanging in his house when Shirley was visiting there. 

They lived also often in Italy, first in Tuscany, a rented farmhouse outside Florence, and later in rented rooms on Capri and in Naples. Naples was perhaps the most important place in the world for Shirley Hazzard. She had been sent there by the United Nations, in late 1957, when she was still pursuing her unhappy career as a stenographer, and had fallen deeply for the city. It was like no other place she had lived “a blitzed town”, she wrote, “Of large-eyed, overburdened, resilient people. Many of its churches and palaces lay open to the elements; its waterfront was a shambles”. As well as the massive bombardment of war, itself compounded by the recent eruption of Vesuvius in 1944, Naples had continued to suffer from what Hazzard called “recent ravages of dictatorship and conquest”; and it did not attract foreigners. She felt herself to have been one of a privileged few who were living in the city in those years, one of those, as she put it “those who came to know Naples in that era” and who “would feel attachment to it all their lives”. In one of her notebooks from the 1960s she wrote in memory of her earliest days in the city: “There were many times that I walked in Naples in a kind of delight of observation and strangeness, the desire to observe and the happiness of having all this to lavish it on”. Naples was the place where she perhaps began to feel herself at home.

Her infrequent return visits to Australia offered some substantial points of reconnection, but never a sense of home or belonging. In The Transit of Venus, she has the young Caro Belle reflect on Australia's intractable inhospitality to beauty, and to moment, a passage that when I read it chimed with my own sense of place, even though I'd never been even to Sydney. So this is from The Transit of Venus

“There was nothing mythic at Sydney, momentous objects, beings and events all occurred abroad, or in the elsewhere of books. Sydney could never take it for granted. As did the very meanest town of Europe, that a poet might be born there or a great painter walk beneath its windows, the likelihood did not arise, they did not feel they had deserved it. That was the measure of resentful obscurity. They could not imagine a person who might expose or exalted, there was the harbor and the open sea. It was an atmosphere in which a sunset might be comfortably admired, but not much else. Any more private joy, in light or dark, in leaf or gate post, savoured of revelation, and was on countenanced. Even in wisteria or wattle on mornings newest surely than anywhere else could by now achieve.

There was a stillness on certain evenings, or a cast to rocks, or a design of languid branch against the sky that might be announcing glory. Though it could hardly be right to relish where Dora was aggrieved the girls put their smooth faces to gardenias, inhaling December for a lifetime.

An extraordinary sense of loss and lost beauty in that passage for all the criticism of Australia, the capturing of the beauty of light, and the city, which continues through that book and through her other writing. 

The poetic charge of these lines derives not only from their evocative precision, but also from a sense that these are images being encountered, as if for the first time, even though they're being remembered. There's a tight enfolding of poetry with childhood memory, a combination of prospect and retrospect that is strikingly Hazard’s own. The sensual experience of stillness, or gardenias, is already washed with last time. And what we're being given access to is not simply a past, and a particular place and moment, the summer December sense of the 1930s, Sydney childhood, but also a whole landscape of poetic and bodily apprehension. 

Hazzard later reflected on this, not so much as a quality of her writing, but as a phenomenon of memory itself. In 1984, she returned to Sydney to record the ABC Boyer lectures. And on that visit, she told an interviewer, that she had been struck on this visit by the particularity of place and time, a winter's day in August, and by the alignment of a certain quality of light, with memory. Struck by the gap of 30 years, since she had last encountered the city in mid year, and struck surely after all, this time by the antipodean surprise of winter sunshine in August, just as by the scent of gardenias in December, she discovered that, as she said in the interview, “Light has properties of memory, like the sense of flowers, I find myself walking along and looking at Sydney, and having memories pour over me, the whole content of one's youth, and one's experience that's lingering somewhere in one's mind is brought to attention by this quality of light”.

And I'd ask you to just put that reflection on memory, with its hint of melancholic loss, alongside those savage stories of her parents, her father, saying, “I would not have recognised you, I would not have recognised my daughter”, so separate, so divided where they are from each other. And as, she remained, from her origins from Australia for the rest of her life.

And for me as a biographer, I suppose that's, that's, the really the heart of her herself and her writing that did unfold for me through the writing of the biography. Her relations with Australia and with Sydney in particular, despite this lyricism and this joy of recollection, those relations remained thorny and unresolved. The response to her Boyer Lectures was pretty cranky, possibly because of the trenchant criticism she delivered. She spoke sternly of a rise of nationalist sentiment that she detected in Australia through the 1980s and also what she judged to be a reluctance by Australians to reflect critically on ourselves. She said, “Australia is not an innocent country. This nation's short recorded history is shadowed into the present day, by the fate of its native peoples, by forms of unyielding prejudice, by a strain of derision and unexamined violence and by a persistent current of misogyny”. It's kind of little, she was surprised when people were offended. I mean... Critics, critics of the lectures didn't address these issues, though. What they honed in on was the fact that she quoted so much poetry. This is something she did, a lot. She knew a lot of poetry off by heart and she quoted a lot of poetry and almost none of it was Australian. And they said this showed how out of touch she was. 

One critic dismissed her lectures as a Speech Day address by a headmistress of a private girls’ school. Dare I say of Queenwood which was a school she'd gone to, and criticised her apparent ignorance of contemporary Australian thought and letters, and of current social and political events. I suppose reflecting on Australian history, on what she's labelling, you know, misogyny, prejudice, a rise of nationalism, that was somehow seen not to be a comment on contemporary society or politics. It sounds exactly like it is that to me. 

So, this mocking tone of this review and others hit home. Shirley wrote in her diary after reading the reviews, this is a hard one to read because it's so it's very self-pitying that there's a ring of profound truth in it. “What hatred and self hatred, what hatred in that paradoxical Australia, these reviews, primitive unleashed. This is what I wrote about in the talks. It is the appalling lust for exposure, the playground bully, blustering around in so many, many Australians, predominantly but not only men, the seizing like a beast on what they take for the sight of blood, the need to regard an utterance from the heart as an opportunity to stick the knife in”. She continued in the diary, “What a dispiriting episode, what a wretched outcome to my long work, and thought, to do with those lectures and my beautiful visit to Australia”. This would be the end she felt, “How hard for me to learn such lessons. Australia is a fated connection to me”. 

So, I began the talk with a moment of reading Shirley Hazzard, my own discovery of The Transit of Venus in 1981. 40 years later, in 2021, I finished writing the biography, I had, I should say, only spent four years writing it not 40, it’s the long arc. 

The move from reader to literary critic to biographer is not a seamless one, and not one that I thought I was going to undertake or plan to undertake. I had not intended to write a biography. I had resisted the suggestion when it was made to me. To give a sense of how I felt about biography before I began writing this one, and also how I feel about the matter now, I want to read a passage from Rosanna Warren's recent biography of the Cubist poet Max Jakob. Rosanna Warren is a poet and critic. She is the daughter of the writers Robert Penn Warren and Eleanor Clark. She was a close friend, as were her parents, of Shirley Hazzard. Indeed, and parenthetically, and I've learned over the last four years that so much biographical writing and thinking is parenthetical. 

Shirley called Rosanna her fille manquée – her missing daughter. On the birth of Rosanna’s first child, Shirley gave her a toy – a stuffed pink lamb with music box inside – and told her it had been bought for the child she had hoped to have herself. She did not have children. In her preface Rosanna writes about how Max Jakob had inspired a couple of poems in her own first collection, that was published in the early 1980s. Rosanna Warren writes: “I remember, with electrical clarity, the phone call from my editor… suggesting that I write a biography of Jakob. In the sublime arrogance of youth, I replied that I’d never write a biography, that it was ‘a low mimetic mode.’ (Lord knows, I’ve been sufficiently chastened since then.)”.

And I too, have been chastened by the process of writing this book, which I took on after Shirley Hazzard‘s death, out of a sense of scholarly responsibility. I'd spent the previous half decade or so writing about her work. I took that up because I saw that no other academics were doing it. Shirley Hazzard was still being read out in the world admired. She had won the National Book Award, she had won the Miles Franklin. Her books remained in print, but she had almost never been the subject of scholarly attention. And scholarship I would maintain, academic writing about writers, is an important part of building their long term reputation. Of creating the context within which future readers might come back and read writers. And I think biography does some of this work, too, and it's why it's so important that we continue to have critics and biographers working on Australian writers, that this preserves the legacy of Australian letters into the future. It was clear to me that what was needed was a serious substantial and scholarly biography. While the quality and achievement of Shirley Hazzard’s writing have always been self-evident, the story of her literary career her writing life, was less obvious and less legible. Research for the book involved immersing myself in the extraordinarily capacious and quite often obscure literary and intellectual circles of the post war period across Europe and the US, and to an extent Australia. Circles in themselves not necessarily still in view for today's readers.

The researcher also drenched me in her personal life, the terrible letters from and to her mother, and sister. The diaries and notebooks where she wrote down flashes of thought or images, phrases, alongside the chronicle of rage and hurt, and sometimes pleasure at events or relationships. 

Then the long heartbreaking record of her lonely widowhood, her husband died in 1994, she died in 2016. And every day of that period of widowhood, she wrote agonisingly of the heartbreak of doing the things alone that we used to do together. She never gave up, missing him, even after she forgot him. So that long heartbreaking record of her widowhood and then, most heartbreakingly the early signs of her dementia, which she was starting to become aware of, in the years before she stopped writing and diaries. 

So biographies like novels are scalar. They draw us across the large and the small. They compel us to imagine and remember and honour lives both familiar and strange. So that's the end of my talk, I thought with your license, I would read a couple of passages from the book. The first one I want to read from talks about, so it's from a prologue, and I'm talking here about her final novel The Great Fire, which is the one that won both Miles Franklin, and the National Book Award, and that twinning of national literary prizes, in some ways speaks to the impossibility of pinning down her nationality, her location in the world. So The Great Fire was long anticipated, but like her masterpiece, The Transit of Venus, there was also criticism, and there has constantly been criticism of her, as simply a writer of romance, because she writes love stories. And so I want to give some context for that simply love stories. 

So The Great Fire tells the story, somewhat improbable, perhaps, but largely true, at least in its main events, of a love affair between a man, older, a war hero and a much younger woman in the wake of the Second World War. It directs itself not to the world of the plausible, but rather as the poet Sandy McClatchy has it, to an existence out of space and time at once fraught, and miraculous, or as Joan Didion wrote, “It is a hypnotic novel that unfolds like a dream”. 

Along with his other worldliness, The Great Fire is immersed in time and place. It recreates impeccably, the postwar years in colonial Hong Kong, occupied Japan, England and New Zealand. The fineness and liveness of these highly circumscribed novel worlds, are as Shirley Hazzard herself was quick to point out, steeped in her own memories. With previous novels, she'd always been rather circumspect about the sources of characters and events. But now in interviews, she returned again and again, to her youth spent in those places, and to the heartbreak of first love experience there. 

She wanted she said with this novel, to bear witness to that past, she said that atmosphere after the war, it's still so strong in me. She told one interviewer I wanted not to let it evaporate. She was speaking certainly about the historical events and the mood and atmosphere after the war. What her protagonist Aldred Leith records in his diary in the novel as Sunday, [unintelligible], suspension, and the sense of precariousness of what the world had become. And she said the feeling of hope that was among us, especially young people, that mankind could learn to live without an enemy. 

In the process of recollecting that time, she said, I retrieved a part of my life that was waiting for me, her own story, a love story, intense and thwarted. The long making of The Great Fire was then even longer than it seemed, for it reached back into the author's lingering past. At the same time, she took issue with the confining of her novel or any novel within the limits of autobiography or indeed of history or fact. 

The world, she told an audience at the 92nd Street Y, likes to trace the author's life in the novel. But the obvious isn't always true. Something that was very close to you and resembles your experience isn't necessarily the deepest version of the story. That she believed is the work that was done by fiction. One has imagined things in novels that one has never experienced. We are all cheek by jowl on the globe and have experiences which are not quite vicarious. One feels for another person one observes, one imagines. Aligned with that project of feeling, observing, imagining the novelists work is the human and poetic matter of love. She explained that with this novel, she wanted to write a story of falling in love to tell truthfully that accidental meeting of a man and a woman and a sense of destined engagement that will possibly last out their lives. This she continued to serve as a counterweight to the huge disillusion of a ravaged world. I will let myself in for derision, whatever I say on this theme, I suppose, yet  it I think that such a story is not necessarily idealised, and that the dream at least of such love, still supplies the poetry of all manner of unpatriotic lives. 

This statement of large belief in romantic and sexual love stands behind all Shirley Hazzard’s writing. It is aligned with her sense of human connectedness, and above all, with poetry, which is at heart for her a way of being human. She put it like this in one of her last public appearances. Poetry comes in different forms. It can come in me a feeling I think, people realise within themselves that they have deeper feelings than language always allows them to express. And poetry can save very much the souls of people who feel that way you feel cut off from a deeper theme within themselves, and have to fit it in with much more daily forms of expression.

This is the last point. Some years earlier, she had recorded in her diary, how after a performance stupendously beautiful of Lucia di Lammermoor with Joan Sutherland, and Alfredo Clauss. Her friend the art historian John Pope Hennessy had observed, it treats romantic love as an ideal, and how she had responded in words that expressed her sense of the irreducible and necessary power of love, a principle, almost something elevated and supreme, transcendent over reason, ambition, loyalty, even decency. Thanks.

UNSW Centre for Ideas: Thanks for listening. This event was presented by the UNSW Centre for Ideas and Sydney Writers’ Festival as a part of the Curiosity Lecture Series. For more information visit And don't forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Brigitta Olubas

Brigitta Olubas

Brigitta Olubas was born in Hobart, Tasmania and now lives in Sydney. She is professor of English at the UNSW Sydney where she teaches and researches in Australian Literature. Her publications include books and essays on Australian Literature, particularly on writing by migrant, diasporic and refugee writers, as well as on the work of Shirley Hazzard. Her writing is directed at both scholarly and general readerships. She is a recent and late convert to writing literary biography.

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