Shirley Hazzard

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R. G. Geering

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Shirley Hazzard is … stylish but she … writes with restraint, preferring understatement and implication to explanation and assertion. The controlled sensitivity of her prose gives even to her love stories a slightly detached air. We share the heroine's consciousness, through which the story comes to us, without wanting to identify with her. The artistic detachment is, of course, more obvious in the satirical People in Glass Houses. But, whether in satirical vein or not, Shirley Hazzard is an eminently quotable writer…. (p. 31)

Shirley Hazzard's first book, Cliffs of Fall, reveals an outstanding talent for the short story….

The main subject of this volume (and of Shirley Hazzard's novels too) is love. The point of view is usually the woman's, the source of tension the difference between man and woman in their attitude towards love. Young love is innocent and vulnerable; the women in these stories, older in experience, know this and have come to accept the bondage of love, the pain and sense of loss that follow in its wake. (p. 32)

The man is essentially selfish, ready to betray the woman once his reputation and comfort are threatened. The best account of this occurs in 'A Place in the Country', where Nettie has a love affair with Clem, the middle aged husband of her cousin May. The inevitable break up and disillusionment follow once May finds out…. 'The Picnic' takes up the situation some years later: characteristically Clem thinks the affair happened ten years ago: Nettie knows it was exactly eight. 'The Picnic' is built on an account of the thoughts of the two characters in turn, which represent two distinct viewpoints and sets of values. This is an extension of one of Shirley Hazzard's favourite devices (employed usually on a more limited scale than in this story) whereby she presents the interior musings of different characters juxtaposing them ironically for the reader to contemplate. (pp. 32-3)

The best qualities of Shirley Hazzard as a short story writer, leaving aside for the moment the satirical, are exhibited in 'Cliffs of Fall'—psychological insight, evocation of atmosphere, and suggestive symbolic touches. This story takes its title from the lines by Hopkins,

          O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall           Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap           May who ne'er hung there.

This quotation also provides the imagery which Shirley Hazzard develops in a subtly allusive, poetic way. (p. 33)

This story works through a complex association of images of height, inducing fear and illusion. Two lines of mountains, the Alps and the Jura, flank the green plateau where Elizabeth finds refuge with the Stricklands. There is her casual observation of the hawk plunging and soaring over the house looking 'like a child's kite on a string'. Her hus band's death in the sky and Etienne's lucky escape from death on the mountainside lie behind the menacing calm she feels while walking on the heights. In her illness she longs for the winter, for the break in the trance-like effect of the immoderate sunlight. At the end she faces a sixteen-hour flight back to New York knowing she will not sleep, staring up at the sky. This moment is another return also, to a life full of obstacles she must continually surmount. (pp. 33-4)

The skill with which Shirley Hazzard presents the man's and the woman's view of love in this volume is highly persuasive but her compassion is in the main reserved for the woman. When the man's viewpoint is explored it takes the form more often than not of self-exposure, as in the sharply observed picture...

(This entire section contains 1663 words.)

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of the family in 'In One's Own House', where Miranda's relationship with her neurotic husband is the more difficult to bear in his mother's home. Another criticism that might be offered of this elegantly written collection is that certain stories ('Villa Adriana', 'Weekend') are, undeniably, slight pieces. (p. 34)

Shirley Hazzard, having a very clear awareness of her capacities, restricts the range of her observation and achieves in her novels a … harmonious, artistic effect. She brings to The Evening of the Holiday and The Bay of Noon the delicate perception and subtle touch which give distinction to her short stories. It would be less than fair to describe these books as the novels of a short story writer but their success does stem from the same kind of artistic discipline which informs Cliffs of Fall…. [She] knows exactly what she can and what she cannot do.

Both The Evening of the Holiday and The Bay of Noon are studies of love presented through the consciousness of the heroines. (p. 39)

The Evening of the Holiday is an extended treatment of the version of love that appears in some of the early short stories.

Place and occasion, in the manner of E. M. Forster's Italian novels, are important in Shirley Hazzard's books…. But the part played by Italy in The Evening of the Holiday and The Bay of Noon has nothing to do with the travelogue; it is woven firmly into the central theme of the search for personal identity.

Sophie is half Italian, a fact that Tancredi discovers to his surprise on their first meeting, just as he is deciding that she is 'the archetypal Englishwoman'. Sophie's problem is to decide where she belongs—to the security of England or to Italy and Tancredi. Her hovering between the two worlds is exquisitely captured in an early scene between her and Tancredi in the Tuscan summer countryside where their different expectations and responses mark the distance between them. They part in the autumn and Sophie's brief return in the bitter winter when Luisa dies is the end of her Italian self.

The search for self through love is worked out within a more complex set of relationships in The Bay of Noon. (pp. 40-1)

We are the creatures of others as well as ourselves. The heroine of The Bay of Noon was christened Penelope but by accident became known as Penny and then Jenny. Her journey to Italy is an attempt to free herself from her brother and establish her own identity. The chiming of the names points to the shifting roles within this group of lovers—Gioconda, Gianni, Jenny, Justin; Jenny takes Gioconda's place; Gianni's tears are for the lost Gioconda and so, embracing Jenny, his hand gropes for the tortoise-shell comb he has often unclasped from Gioconda's hair. (p. 42)

The literary element in Shirley Hazzard's fiction … is discreetly allusive. So too the symbolism in her work…. (p. 43)

In discussing Shirley Hazzard's novels it is more accurate to talk of symbolic touches than symbolism as such because her best effects are won through a delicately poised, poetic rendering of scene and a sensitivity to nuance and atmosphere. Her unique quality is found in The Evening of the Holiday in the scene in which Tancredi's view of Sophie at their first meeting is suddenly transformed into vision by the simple incident of her gold bracelet falling into the basin of the fountain and the unrehearsed but statuesque beauty of the pose as she recovers it; or, in the account of the visit by the lovers to Tancredi's farm to meet the tenants and view the mediaeval fresco in the shed that was once part of a monastery. The latter scene is composed almost in the manner of a painting, with its allusions to a Renoir landscape with figures. (p. 44)

Finally, there is Shirley Hazzard's People in Glass Houses, which stands apart from all the other books discussed in this essay…. At first glance People in Glass Houses seems to show another side of Shirley Hazzard's talent—the writer of love stories turned satirist, except that a feature of her previous books is the cool, probing sympathy she brings to her analysis of characters in and out of love. In summary The Evening of the Holiday and The Bay of Noon might be made to sound like the conventional woman novelist's stories of romantic love set in historical, picture-book Italy; in fact their detachment and the quality of their perception and style make them much more like the love stories of, say, Turgenev, in his elegiac mood. (pp. 44-5)

[People in Glass Houses] has no continuous narrative line; certain characters and events overlap so that we get a series of interrelated episodes, each of which contributes towards the general picture and the underlying theme….

People in Glass Houses shows what really happens in the day-to-day life of any large organization, whatever its origins and functions. Like all good satire it goes farther—by implication to question the nature of idealism, which is not only subject to the lapses and accidents of time, breeding disillusionment, but also carries the seeds of its own destruction in the self-delusions that provided its original impulse. Shirley Hazzard has the true satirist's insight into the fallibility of man. (p. 45)

The abuse of language is one of Shirley Hazzard's main targets; her objection is, of course, more than aesthetic. The waffle that Bekkus and his like use is a disguise to cover their retreat from reality….

Most of the employees, whether resentful or not, succumb to officialdom; even the virtuous are eroded by it…. The Organization becomes more important than the people who compose it (and this in a sense is inevitable and right) but, such are the subtleties of Shirley Hazzard's art, the individuals are not lost to us. (p. 46)

People in Glass Houses is an achievement of style. The prose has a wit and a delicate irony that are ideally adapted to its satiric stance. (pp. 46-7)

The people in these glass houses are vivid etchings only, but that is all, for the writer's purpose, they need be. A knowledge of the Organization as a way of life, and a sharp sense of the incongruities of situation are equally important. And the sketches are memorable. (p. 47)

R. G. Geering, in his Recent Fiction (copyright © 1973 by Oxford University Press, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1973, 52 p.


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Robert Sellick