When I moved to Kabul in 2013, among the first things I noticed was a giant neon sign hanging across the length of a nondescript building near my house. Lit up against the dark, it read: “BU PAR WEDDI G HA.” I wondered about this sign often—I remembered it for years after—and came to believe that it held some great secret, a mystery which, when cracked, would help me to better understand my newly adopted home.
Then one day, driving past that same building only this time in daylight, I saw that the sign read: “KABUL PARIS WEDDING HALL.”
A similar moment of cosmic farce comes in Shirley Hazzard’s peerless 1980 masterpiece, The Transit of Venus. Lovers Caro and Ted pass a country fair sign that reads “UNFAIR,” the first letter F long lost to time. Hazzard, an Australian writer and the subject of Michelle de Kretser’s paean On Shirley Hazzard, wrote about an off-centered world, where letters are missing, gone the way of old values such as continuity, honor, and grace.
Born in Sydney, Australia, in 1931, Hazzard grew up in a country “where sameness was a central value,” which gave her something to chafe against—and enabled her to write about frontier feelings with authority. It was also a time when it took six weeks to get from Australia to Europe by ship, and this gave Hazzard a tremendous sense of distance, present in all of her books (but most especially in The Great Fire, the 2003 epic which won her the National Book Award).
A teenager when she traveled to Hong Kong, where her father was working, Hazzard witnessed Hiroshima 20 months after the bomb. What she saw there, that scale of destruction, informed her coming of age and her singular vision as a writer. Her first novel, The Evening of the Holiday, published in 1966, looks into the interstitial space where the old world orders have fallen away like sheets of ice and the new ones have yet to take shape. Hazzard always let readers feel the larger forces shaping peoples’ lives. But she balanced these forces with bright, sharp portraits of men and women forging on, even as they struggled with the “silent inestimable losses” that modernity brings.
Hazzard wrote about off-centered worlds, where letters have gone the way of old values.
At 25, Hazzard moved to Naples to work for the United Nations. She sustained forever her ties to Italy, a country with a long tradition of rusticating English writers—Byron, Shelly, Keats, Auden, Greene, Spark, Lahiri. Her time at the U.N. would become essential to her satirical short stories People in Glass Houses (1967) and The Bay of Noon (1970), books populated by undeserving men who say things like “I have been given Africa” in describing an assignment, who use the verb “to do” to refer to countries that become “posts,” who are always returning from being “in the field” or “on the ground”; characters for whom cars have turned into “vehicles,” and for whom “aerial space” has replaced, simply, “skies that are huge as in a Dutch painting.”
Second That Emotion
Like many, I began my Hazzard journey with The Transit of Venus, reading it over a long summer weekend in a country house upstate. The prose is inherently romantic, like a wartime hotel, and I returned home in a near trance. I devoted the next few days to reading Hazzard’s other books, getting up only to refill my tea cup. I realized I was feeling nostalgia for a past that was not my own.
At other times, Hazzard’s books made me gasp with recognition, laugh out of surprise, or weep in catharsis. Here’s Hazzard on men: “Men go through life telling themselves a moment must come when they will show what they’re made of. And the moment comes and they do show. And they spend the rest of their days explaining that it was neither the moment nor the true self.” And here she is on women: “With women disappointment could take the place of experience.”
Reading Hazzard, I realized I was feeling nostalgia for a past that was not my own.
As a woman writer of color, I feel a certain responsibility toward underscoring the fact that a female writer of such immense talent hasn’t become a household name as her contemporaries have. Contemporaries such as Norman Rush, Cormac McCarthy, or Philip Roth, who were all born in the early thirties as Hazzard was, and who all won the National Book Award, as Hazzard did.
There is a line early on in The Bay of Noon where a young woman working for an organization that resembles NATO is unexpectedly given a free afternoon. It is her first day in Naples, her first day away from the strictures of home. She likens her freedom to a feeling of assignation. Reading this passage, it occurred to me that this was how reading Hazzard makes me feel: thrilled, dislocated, and grateful to be alive.
May Jeong is an investigative reporter living in New York City