IMPRESSIONS, EXPERIENCES, WORDS.”
Two characters in a novel reading the same book at the same time
Distant rocks visible only in July
Shirley Hazzard was born in Sydney in 1931 and she left Australia in 1947. She has since lived in Hong Kong, New Zealand, Britain, and France. Now an American citizen, she divides her time between Italy and New York.
Between the years 1952 and 1962 Hazzard worked in the United Nations as a clerical employee, an experience which led her to write not only People in Glass Houses (1967), a satirical collection of character sketches, but also Defeat of an Ideal (1973), a nonfiction book which detailed the weakness of the UN, and Countenance of Truth (1990), about the United Nations and the Kurt Waldheim case. She is also the author of the nonfiction books Coming of Age in Australia (1985) and Greene on Capri (2001).
It’s fiction for which Hazzard is best known. She is the author of the short story collection Cliffs of Fall (1963), and the novels The Evening of the Holiday (1966), The Bay of Noon (1970), The Transit of Venus (1980), and The Great Fire (2003). She was awarded the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for Fiction in 1980 for The Transit of Venus; last year, The Great Fire earned her the National Book Award.
Many have compared Hazzard to Henry James, perhaps because like James, Hazzard peppers her novels with clues for the astute reader. In The Transit of Venus, it’s left to the reader to piece together the circumstances of Ted Tice’s suicide. Throughout The Great Fire, repeated references are made to a thick book Aldred Leith is reading, but Hazzard leaves it to the reader to deduce that it’s War and Peace. And indeed, Hazzard herself—in her treatment of love and war and the burden of history—is perhaps the closest thing we have to Tolstoy.
This interview took place shortly after Shirley Hazzard won the National Book Award. We met on a snowy afternoon in the Manhattan apartment she shared for many years with her late husband, the translator and biographer Francis Steegmuller.
THE BELIEVER: ... one of the characters [in The Transit of Venus] says: “I’ve thought there may be more collisions of the kind in life than in books.” Maybe the element of coincidence is played down in literature because it seems like cheating or can’t be made believable. Whereas life itself doesn’t have to be fair, or convincing.
SHIRLEY HAZZARD: Life doesn’t have to prove itself. Life happens; we have to accept it. Reading fiction, the disbelieving, skeptical critic likes to feel in control. Yet his own existence, all existence, is subject to the accidental element, to the inexplicable or magical, or dreadful intervention that cannot be justified by logic. A friend of mine who knew the Shetland Islands told me that in the long light of the northern summer there comes a moment, in July, when a rock becomes visible that lies between the Shetlands and Norway. If the weather is favorable, a watch is kept from a certain promontory, and the rock can be seen. This phenomenon was denounced by scientists as wishful thinking, and quite impossible, but the rock has continued to manifest itself irrefutably: the thing is standing there, indifferent, or perhaps laughing to itself: unaccountable.