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Women's History Month - Deborah Biancotti

Novelist, memoirist and essayist Shirley Hazzard has won the Miles Franklin Award (2004), National Book Award (2003) and National Book Critics Circle Award (1980). She’s been nominated for the Orange Prize (2004) and was shortlisted for the ‘Lost Man Booker Prize’ of 1970. She’s been described internationally as “unusually old-world” (from Slate, link below) and “one of the few living novelists who seems able to traverse the distance” between heaven and earth (Salon.com, link below). But locally, our own presses have preferred to focus on her geographical absence rather than her literary presence.

Hazzard was born in my adopted hometown of Sydney in 1931 but left the country when she was fifteen. Fifty years later she won the Miles Franklin Award for The Great Fire; an award which recognises “the novel of the highest literary merit that portrays Australian life in any of its phases” (Miles Franklin website, link below). In a parallel win for the ‘tall poppy syndrome’, Hazzard – who dared to be an apparently affluent, well-read and successful woman – ignited ire from such respected journalists as Kerry O’Brien and Jana Wendt (links below). Perhaps forced into a defensive position, even Hazzard herself seemed surprised by the win, explaining it like this:
I thought this was also very generous to include me in that way but, of course, Australia was the first fifteen years of my life and you are already Australian for life by doing that.
- (link below)

It’s unclear what criticism the judges received.

By then, however, Hazzard wasn’t unfamiliar with contention. Winning the 2003 National Book Award for The Great Fire, she was second on stage after Stephen King. As noted in The Paris Review (The Art of Fiction #185, see link below):
[King] delivered an extended, pointed, even aggressive, defense of "popular" writers that seemed to condescend to mere "literary" writers. When Hazzard got to the microphone, she hit back--with brief, polite but firm eloquence--at King's claims, and noted that his having offered a reading list of best-selling authors wasn't "much of a satisfaction."

She skewers his defence with her sheer understatement, and she doesn’t skip a fight. Even being a traditional King fan, I found myself chuckling out loud.

Hazzard has spent little time in Australia since leaving it, though she seems to talk about it with insight and some affection. More affection than I would have felt if I’d had the opportunity to leave so young. She praises her early education in Australian schools, but rejects the ‘institutionalised dreariness’ of the Australian arts in the fifties. Of her history education in particular, she says,

The only history that was boring was that of our own country--a sad little brown book of failed explorations, intrepid deaths of those who tried to map the dead interior of the Australian continent. This was so shamefacedly presented, with the terrible chronicle of the convict settlement that was the founding of the nation, that it wasn't until the publication of Patrick White's masterpiece (as I think of it) Voss that most Australians began to consider the drama of it all.
- Shirley Hazzard, The Art of Fiction #185 (see link, below)

Though I admit even during my schooling in the seventies, the Australian history component struck me as dull, full of the deaths of white men in either exploration or war. The only drama I recall was presented by my second-grade teacher who told us the aboriginal kids in our class were smarter than the white kids, in a kind of blanket statement that had something to do with ‘the land’ and our white-kid inability to live off it. Looking back, I recall the aboriginal kids taking the news with grace, and the white kids – children, mostly, of immigrants responsible for clearing the land for “settlement” – being mainly baffled. The land had always struck me as a grim place, even before then, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to live off it. Which I now consider a dreadfully ‘white’ reaction, and just one of several examples of my dreadful whiteness.

In her most famous work, the 1980 National Book Critics Circle Award-winning novel, Transit of Venus, she contrasts Australia to Britain through the eyes of young Caroline Bell:
“Australian summer is a scorching without a leaf to spare. Out there, the force is in the lack, in the scarcity and distance. [snip] For colours like these you need water.” But even with water, in Australia the pigment might not be there. It was doubtful that pinks or blues lay dormant in Australian earth; let alone the full prestige of green.”
- Shirley Hazzard, Transit of Venus, Part I: The Old World, ch. 3

Words that I think, in my mid-twenties, I would almost have written myself if I’d had Hazzard’s power. That yearning she expresses to be elsewhere has been part of my Australian experience for as long as I can remember, and I don’t just mean for me. In twenty years of travel, I’ve found it impossible to be anywhere that other Australians aren’t, as we strike out from our island as far as feet and plane and ship will take us.

Since Hazzard averages around twenty years between books (though in recent years, that’s sped up – mostly through essay collections), it’s no surprise to see her career stretch from the 1963 short story collection Cliffs of Fall to the 2008 non-fiction of The Ancient Shore: Dispatches from Naples (with her husband, Francis Steegmuller). In between, she has been nominated for the Orange Prize (2004) and the ‘Lost Man Booker Prize’ of 1970 (for The Bay of Noon). She’s also written two non-fiction books that criticise the United Nations where she worked when first arriving in the USA (though the UN sounds, sadly, about as bad as any bureaucracy I’ve ever encountered), and a memoir about her friendship with Graham Greene.

Hazzard is known for her masterful prose, her detailed attention to even the minutiae of everyday life and ‘ordinary’ relationships. At times, her writing feels like it has that particular qualities of Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Locke, where each tiny movement, each hair on the head of each protagonist is meticulously wrought into large, almost overwhelming shapes fraught with consequence.

It’s been said that her prose outweighs her narrative and character to the point where even readers who care deeply about those elements will put them aside to feel the sense of portent and the strength of moment that only Hazzard can bring. This has certainly been my experience, as I’m swept along by her stories about characters I despise in circumstances I find strange and foreign. As Judith Shulevitz describes it (Slate, link below):

[This is] a standard Hazzard trick, in which an abstraction is rendered concrete and given its own agency and power. At another point Hazzard describes the action of a man swabbing down a sickroom from which a patient has been removed as "creating vacancy." This is a novel about and in protest of the abstractions that work upon us—war, history, bureaucracy—and Hazzard has found a language evocative enough both to make us feel them and to worry about them.

There is indeed something about Hazzard’s writing that isn’t exactly timeless, that feels caught in a very particular era where women could be headstrong but not liberated. And yet that very call to history is one of Hazzard’s strengths, along with a wry humour and fierce perceptiveness. She opens us up not only to the world as it is and was, but the worlds inside ourselves, as they’ve been throughout human history. Her writing is bold and wry, her words deceptively gentle, her insight uncompromisingly sharp.

I love Shirley Hazzard because before reading her work, I despised most relationship and romance writing for never quite getting the full picture of even the most ordinary relationship. But Hazzard writes about relationships with a towering maturity that makes you realise just how central our relationships are to our humanity, how they can bring out the best and worst of what we have to offer. And how they will do that – bring out the best and worst – for as long as humanity survives.

Links:
Old World Style: Shirley Hazzard’s long-awaited novel, by Judith Shulevitz:
http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2003/10/oldworld_style.html

“The Great Fire” by Shirley Hazzard, by Charles Taylor
http://www.salon.com/2003/10/28/hazzard/singleton/

Shirely Hazzard: Miles Franklin Award Winner (reporter Jana Wendt):
http://sgp1.paddington.ninemsn.com.au/sunday/art_profiles/article_1584.asp?s=1

Shirley Hazzard’s Rich and Varied Career (reporter Kerry O’Brien):
http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2005/s1399427.htm

The Miles Franklin Award website:
http://www.milesfranklin.com.au

Shirley Hazzard’s Australia: Belated Reading and Cultural Mobility, by Brigitta Olubus:
http://www.nla.gov.au/openpublish/index.php/jasal/article/view/1509/2080

‘At Home in More Than One Place’: Cosmopolitanism in the work of Shirley Hazzard, by Brigitta Olubus:
http://www.australianbookreview.com.au/files/Features/April_2010/ABR_April_10_Olubas_commentary.pdf

Shirley Hazzard, The Art of Fiction #185, The Paris Review:
http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5505/the-art-of-fiction-no-185-shirley-hazzard

New Yorker Bookclub discusses The Transit of Venus (with spoilers):
http://downloads.newyorker.com/site/bookclub/bookclub_june2010.mp3?_kip_ipx=658205317-1328851271


Deborah Biancotti's first short story won an Aurealis Award and her first collection, A BOOK OF ENDINGS, was shortlisted for the William L. Crawford Award for Best First Fantasy Book. Her second collection, BAD POWER has recently been launched by Twelfth Planet Press.
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