Basking in Shirley Hazzard’s Pure, Cold Light
Mary Duffy Remembers the Shimmering Crispness of Hazzard's Prose
When my aunt emailed me on Tuesday to say that Shirley Hazzard had died Monday night, I think I already knew that 2016 had one more unpleasant goodbye in store for me. Any other week, I might be in true mourning at the death of a favorite writer, a beloved novelist. But for the last few days I’ve been slowly recovering from being in the hospital, receiving emergency treatment for an acute attack. Truthfully, if melodramatically, I had a brush with death. I am confined to bed, re-reading Hazzard, resting as I’ve been told to. Instead of lapsing into mourning, I shut the books and then let my favorite memories of them wash over.
Shirley Hazzard was born in 1931, in Australia. She was a writer who, I think, never achieved the kind of outsized recognition she really deserved. She was too quietly brilliant. At a sentence level, Hazzard forces a pace of thought and demands a level of intelligence from her reader that elevates rather than taxes and rewards you with tears, with a sharp intake of breath, with (what else?) beauty. Words like “moving” and “profound” are too messy for Hazzard—reading her is like bathing in cold light, the way another favorite writer of mine, Norman Rush, describes reading Hume. I crave the crispness of her prose, the formality, because it is not just the surface of things that this light touches: like a theatrical scrim, when lit just right, it reveals all the depths behind the curtain.
Caro was now working—serving was what she said—in a bookshop while studying for a government examination.
It was even worse with Grace, who was in the Complaints Department at Harrods.
There could be no outcome to such activities but marriage.
But her crispness does not mean she’s easy reading. I tried to read the first few pages of The Transit of Venus (the source of the above quote) many times before I was able to keep reading—I found the opening of the novel dislocating and strange. I recall thinking of it as what I call “an English novel”—a country house, people moving through large rooms, social awkwardness, post-war shabbiness. I completely mistook the smoothness and height of Hazzard’s voice for a kind of typical middlebrow, mid-century novelist, perhaps of no great genius. I have never been more wrong in an initial reading nor reversed myself with such torque. When you do find her wavelength, it’s a revelation, an opening. I imagine others experiencing that same initial perplexity and want to assure them, “You’ll be smart enough for this novel one day.” I had to wait for that day to come.
Hazzard has a way of showing us both what hangs in front of each interaction and what is being concealed, at once. She writes everything with occlusion and revelation, circling round and round with her language the way a stand-up comedian uses a “call-back” to best effect. Each time she does this, it’s startling. In
In that first meeting, it is apparent that Tertia is vain, self-important. But Hazzard gives her reader curiosity and empathy with the bonus of one of her call-backs: “As to Tertia, Caroline Bell wondered what
There are not only call-backs in Transit—there are call-forwards. Ten pages in, we learn that Ted Tice (an astronomer who is in love with Caroline) will kill himself, though it’s many years before this will happen. Figuring out why he commits suicide is another puzzle for the reader, written into a mere two lines in separate chapters. The novel is not just peppered with but properly structured around a set of revelations like this one. A whole that is composed, ordered, predestined—its organization recalls the title itself, the stars and planets in their traces, the epicycles. But a reader can hardly hold all these little pieces together after one reading, which is why I’ve returned to marvel at The Transit of Venus again and again.
In dealing with my own mortality as well as Hazzard’s, I have felt as if I were Caroline Bell, a young woman whose life goes through reversal after reversal, a character whose depths (of feeling, of beauty, of intelligence) dwarf my own, really. I do not want to flatter myself by comparison to a fictional character, but I do feel her inhabiting me. Formal, detached, able to watch the whole horrible last week unfold from some distance. Did Caroline’s formality come from great pain? That is one reading of the novel. After my hospitalization, I am, like her, a creature beginning to remove herself from her own body by virtue of new understandings: how completely temporal, fragile, and singular physical existence is. Like Caroline, I suddenly feel preternaturally intelligent, and now, under the gaze of the person who loves me best, I feel more beautiful than I ever have. Lines from
I can’t say that these words are for those who have never read Hazzard, or specifically Transit, but it’s as if the Caroline Bell who lives in me is letting me see the world with her eyes, letting me believe that a character in a novel could be real simply because those who have read about her can picture her so well. Children at the end of a production of
Perhaps what remains closest to me now is the kind of understanding of life that Shirley Hazzard’s writing offered me as a young person—she never presented things with a jaded, knowing eye, but always with an acknowledgment of what the young themselves possess of their world:
For her part, Valda considered Caro as a possibility lost. Caro might have done anything, but had preferred the common limbo of sexual love. Whoever said, ‘When you go to women, take your whip,’ was on to something deep, and deeply discouraging.
Valda would watch Caro, and think along these lines. She would think, Oh yes, let them show her their whip, or some comparable attraction.
It’s difficult to describe the space that a writer like Hazzard leaves. Her oeuvre is small, and odd: four novels, two books of short stories, a variety of non-fiction including some fascinating work on the UN, where she was employed for many years. But I know the precise dimensions of the space she fills in my mind. In 2010 she gave an interview with Richard Ford at the 92