Shirley Hazzard

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John Colmer

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In its poignant but clear-sighted exploration of the birth and decay of love, the loss of innocence, and the painful process of self-discovery through love, [the fiction of Shirley Hazzard] seems to take its inspiration from continental models, from Benjamin Constant, from Chekhov and Turgenev, while in its regard for economy of means and perfection of phrase it surely owes much to Maupassant and Flaubert. In its concern with distinguishing true from false values, spontaneous from conventional codes of behaviour, it may owe something to Forster, especially in the two short stories 'Harold' and 'The Worst Moment of the Day'…. If the comparisons I have made with the great European writers seem to imply extravagant claims for Shirley Hazzard's art, this is not my intention; it is rather to place these delicately wrought love stories in their appropriate literary context. (pp. 461-62)

[All] Shirley Hazzard's fiction springs from a … recognition of the supreme importance of love and the difficulty of remembering and conveying the exact experience…. In much of her fiction so far, Shirley Hazzard has been concerned with the process of achieving self-knowledge through loss, disenchantment and recovered vision. Her heroines have a special gift for salvaging what was permanently valuable in past love affairs. Quiet gratitude for former happiness and a frank recognition of transience and human fallibility modify the tenderness of regret that would otherwise become cloying and self-indulgent. The style, in which poetic insight and irony constantly interpenetrate and qualify each other as they do in Turgenev, holds in poised balance the moments of idyllic love and cool reflective analysis.

The outward surface of this fictional world is rational, calm, cultivated, but beneath this surface lie 'cliffs of fall', as the title story of the collection Cliffs of Fall makes clear…. [Many of the stories in this collection develop] an ironic contrast between the stultifying unrealities of sheltered conventional behaviour and the troubled quest for personal sanity, involving a recomposing of the patterns of love. 'In One's Own House' is another story about someone who has had visions of the 'cliffs of fall'. In it Russell is a victim of acute depression and his anguish is contrasted with the confident optimism of his brother James, who cannot even wait for Russell's departure abroad before declaring his love for Miranda, his wife. Russell's state of mind is also contrasted with the self-conscious serenity of his dominating mother. In The Bay of Noon it is not mental break-down but sudden illness that disturbs the conventional rhythms of life and brings about a deeper insight into the self.

Two other themes that play an important part in later works also appear in the short stories. These are a young woman's love for an older man and the limited value of reason. The presentation of Isabel's love is tinged with sentiment in 'Vittorio', but the handling of the theme in 'The Party' and 'A Place in the Country' is utterly unsentimental. In the first, the elderly Theodore maliciously and spitefully undermines Minna's confidence in one of those appalling after-the-party post-mortems. In the second, Nettie's eyes are soon opened to Clem's insensitivity and insufferable male condescension but without destroying her love. The following passage defines with exact precision the characteristic position of Shirley Hazzard's heroines and foreshadows the confused plight of Sophie in The Evening of the Holiday and Jenny in The Bay of Noon:

It comforted her not at all that her judgment of him should remain thus pitilessly detached—that she saw him, perhaps, more clearly and with less admiration than ever before. The insight was useless to her,...

(This entire section contains 1575 words.)

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trapped as she was in the circumstance of love.

Few modern novelists have succeeded so well in exploring this paradox of love. In [The Bay of Noon] Jenny comes to see 'how tortuous these strands of love are', how 'contingent' love is, that 'trapped in the events, we must live through them in order to learn the outcome.'

The second theme, the limits of reason, assumes many forms but is mainly explored through the basic contrasts between man's trust in rationality and woman's trust in instinct and emotion. Nettie's attempt to assemble an enormous armoury of rational ideas when Clem tells her that their affair must end illustrates neatly the limits of reason.

But ideas don't supplant feelings, she thought; rather, they prepare us for, sustain us in our feelings. If I understand why I am to be hurt, then, does that really mean that it will hurt me less? I know that I risked—invited—this, wounded May. I have disturbed the balance. There is balance in life, but not fairness. The seasons, the universe give an impression of concord, but it is order, not harmony; consistency, not sympathy. We suffer because our demands are unreasonable or disorderly. But if reason is inescapable, so is humanity. We are human beings, not rational ones.

The idea that there is a balance but no fairness, and the related idea that the claims of humanity are prior to the demands of reason, inform all Shirley Hazzard's fiction. A characteristic extension of the theme of the limits of reason occurs in her treatment of 'organization life'. In the male-dominated society of business and public administration, a superficial rationalism dehumanizes all action and language. It is not only in the brilliant satire on UNO in People in Glass Houses that Shirley Hazzard pillories this perversion of reason; in several of the short stories she shows that a facile faith in reason blinds her male characters to reality and bolsters their self-esteem.

In People in Glass Houses Shirley Hazzard arranges her otherwise isolated 'portraits from organization life' around two related paradoxes. The first is that the attempt to bring new life to the underdeveloped peoples of the world often destroys them and also the high principled automata, the agents of their destruction, the international bureaucrats and technologists, who translate the intractable sufferings of the poor and the hungry into impressive official reports…. The second paradox is that language and reason, two of the great sources of truth and reality, are translated into instruments of power, self-deception and unreality. (pp. 463-65)

It was difficult to think of two more dissimilar works by the same author than the witty satirical People in Glass Houses and its predecessor, the tender, nostalgic novella The Evening of the Holiday. Could [Hazzard], one wondered, bring the satirical and romantic elements together in a longish novel, as she had occasionally done in some of the short stories in Cliffs of Fall? With the appearance of The Bay of Noon the answer seems to be a tentative yes, tentative because although the two elements are beautifully fused in the new work, it is hardly more than a novella. But the indications are that this writer will always prefer to communicate her vision through brief works, through forms that allow her to combine poetic insight, deft social notation and delicate verbal restraint. She is not an elaborate scene-painter, but a creator of exactly localized interiors and exteriors, sensitive to architectural form and play of light; she evokes atmosphere with a strict economy of means. In The Bay of Noon the technique is impressionistic, because she is concerned to render only those objects that impress themselves on her characters at a particular moment. After recreating her impressions of her first visit to a friend's flat in Naples, the heroine, Jenny, remarks: 'I took note, that first time, of all these fittings and fixtures I was never to notice again.' Amid the wealth of impressionistic detail, two contrasted images of life stand out, those of the volcano and the bay, the one an image of life as impending catastrophe, the other an image of life as a detached panorama, an object of temporary contemplation for the convalescent Jenny before being implicated once more in the 'volcanic extravagance' of Naples, the mixed life of love and suffering. (pp. 465-66)

The twin themes of The Bay of Noon are the achievement of happiness (Jenny achieves her first moment of pure happiness in the 'confusion of the ignominious and grandiose' in her cold flat overlooking the bay), and the search for one's true home; they are related through the preoccupation with memory; and the time-shifts are subtle and unobtrusive. Beginning and end are crucial to the meaning of the novel. At the be ginning there is a reference to a military plane that, setting out from base at Naples, had disappeared in the fog, only to be seen when the fog lifted 'crumbled against the snow-streaked cone of the volcano, overlooking the airfield from which it had set out. No one had thought of looking close to home.' The comment that follows this implicitly connects this incident to the theme of the novel. 'Since that time, so they say, we have developed better methods of keeping in touch.' At the end of the novel Jenny, now married to an English solicitor, revisits Italy, the scene of her search for happiness and quest for spiritual home. Whereas once she had expected to find the object of her pilgrimage in people and places, now she has come to realize that the pilgrims of the heart must learn to take their inward bearings if they are to know the meanings of their journeys. (p. 467)

John Colmer, "Patterns and Preoccupations of Love: The Novels of Shirley Hazzard," in Meanjin, Vol. 29, No. 4, Summer, 1970, pp. 461-67.


Robie Macauley


R. G. Geering