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Shirley Hazzard

By Rosanna Warren

Shirley Hazzard leaned over my cradle like a fairy godmother: she and her husband Francis Steegmuller were the first family friends to greet me after my birth. As far back as I can remember, she and Francis were in our lives. I see them on Christmas mornings at the table in our house, a barn, in Connecticut, peeling oranges, cracking nuts, reciting poetry; I see them on the beach with us on the small French Mediterranean island where we spent summers in my childhood, Shirley sitting on her towel, upright, queenly, amused. As I stumbled out of adolescence, Shirley and Francis made room for a friendship independent of my parents. I almost memorized their books; my copy of Shirley’s heart-breaking, exquisite, and tough-minded novel, The Transit of Venus, is the first edition of 1980, battered with much rereading.

After Francis died, in 1994, Shirley and I drew even closer. With my children, we spent days with her in Naples and in Rome, and I visited her often in New York. As so many know, she was not only a piercingly fine writer, but also an artist of friendship, concentrating her fiction-writer’s X-ray gaze and deep listening upon the mysteries of affection, loss, blindness, and vision, the give and take of friendship, the life of the heart.

I wonder if it was her origin in “the antipodes”—Australia— that gave her the eerie combination of seeing her characters from a clear-sighted distance, almost an estrangement, and at the same time in startling inwardness. From her first short stories, her sentences strike like revelations. There’s a slight stylization in syntax, an oddness in diction, surprise in the imagery, that gives you the feel of stumbling into discovery about the way things are. Her description of a storm in The Transit of Venus describes the effect: “A sudden stripe of light split earth from sky.”

Shirley’s life itself had a picaresque quality, perhaps an ideal training for a fiction writer. In 1947 her parents took her to Hong Kong where her father had a job in the Australian Embassy. The university there had been destroyed, so this precocious 16-year-old received her education by working for British Intelligence. She had also by this time memorized thousands of lines of poetry, and would go on to memorize thousands more; she knew more poetry by heart than anyone I’ve ever met. A few years later she went to New York and worked for a decade at the U.N., keeping her eyes well open.

Maybe writers are spies. Shirley certainly learned to observe human nature. Italy was her other great education: the U.N. sent her to Naples in 1956, and ever after she adopted Italy as an imaginative home. Her first two novels, The Evening of the Holiday and The Bay of Noon, are set there, and for many years she and Francis divided their lives between New York, and a high-ceilinged villa perched over the Bay of Naples, and an even higher perch on Capri. It was there that Shirley began the complex friendship with Graham Greene—a comradeship sparked by the recitation of poetry—that she commemorated in her memoir, Greene on Capri.

Shirley’s last two novels are generally considered masterpieces. The Transit of Venus won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and twenty years later The Great Fire won the National Book Award and other prizes. Both are stories of immense scope and at the same time, immense intimacy, roving across continents and decades, and both are stories scarred by wars—especially The Great Fire, set in occupied, post-war Japan, with characters from various countries—Japan, Australia, Britain, the U.S., New Zealand—all variously wounded.

In her last few years Shirley became more and more fragile and finally retreated to bed, and in her last months, into silence, often keeping her eyes closed. But she had not stopped observing. When I last visited, I held her hand and babbled family news and recollections of her life with Francis, not knowing if she was taking anything in. Suddenly she gripped my hand, opened her eyes, and looked straight at me. And said, “I know more than people think I do.”

As she always did.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 9, 2017.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters