75 at 75: Stacy Schiff on Shirley Hazzard

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A special project for 92Y Unterberg Poetry Center’s 75th anniversary and beyond, 75 at 75 invites authors to listen to recordings from our archive and write a personal response. Here, Stacy Schiff reflects on a recording of Shirley Hazzard’s reading from The Transit of Venus. It was recorded live at 92Y  on December 14, 1981.

Posted on June 19, 2018

It had snowed that morning. It rained hard that evening. Both Shirley Hazzard and F. D. Reeve, who introduced her, thanked the audience for braving the downpour. The weather suited the occasion: no one who has ever picked up The Transit of Venus, for which Hazzard that fall won the National Book Critics Circle Award, is likely to have forgotten the tempest with which the novel opens, one that seems to split earth from sky to deliver a man—amid streaming mud, crackling thunder, wet wool, and a dissolving suitcase—to his destiny. He advances, Hazzard tells us, the weather whipping up her prose, into the frame from the left-hand corner, assuming his place in the landscape “under a branch of lightning.” I am not the only reader who has read those lines under the impression that Hazzard was riffing on another tempest, one painted in the early sixteenth century by Giorgione. She is that kind of writer. 

Everywhere the erudition shimmers through the prose. It does so like a demure, decorous spice: You may only dimly register its presence. You may mistake it for something else. But even if the name eludes you—caraway? cumin?—the effect is incalculable. Some will thrill to the imported line of Browning, the nod to Wordsworth, the classical allusions and painterly touches. They are hardly necessary to the enjoyment of the novel. As Hazzard’s heroine observes late in those pages: “Knowledge was for some a range of topics; for others, depth of perception.” Hazzard herself managed both. While she is in a league with Muriel Spark and Elizabeth Bowen, she is more muscular than either. There is a reason she admired Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series.

For whatever reason, Reeve included in his introductory remarks a preview of coming attractions. With excitement, he noted that a very conspicuous, flamboyant author was scheduled soon to appear at the Y before announcing that on this particular December evening, “quite a different kind of writer” would take the stage. Hazzard gamely acknowledged the advertisement when she came to the dais. She had not been able to hear terribly well; at first, she had assumed Reeve was speaking of her. “I’ll be as flamboyant as possible,” she promised. It was a rich line coming from a writer of colossal intellect who managed, as a friend put it, an entirely convincing impersonation of an ordinary woman. Or as the art critic John Russell noted, marveling at the steely character behind Hazzard’s equable demeanor: “If a highly intelligent and principled moth were able to talk, that is what she would sound like.”

What Hazzard sounded like that winter evening was sprightly and precise. Her voice bright with wonder, she read chapters 3 and 36 of the novel. The latter features the same characters a lifetime later; a romance begun in the first section has matured in the second, when a very different one approaches consummation. Hazzard suggested the passages were as pendants one to the other, a symmetry of which the reader need not be aware. (This one was not.) Aloud, her signature awkwardness suddenly makes sense; the lines come across more as the stunted sentences in which we actually think. (“But when he leaned for biscuits felt her eyes on him as if.”) She got a good laugh from a particularly Hazzard-esque observation (“She was one of those persons who will squeeze into the same partition of a revolving door with you, on the pretext of causing less trouble”). She took audible delight in her own punch line, reporting on the dead canary mailed back in a box to the store from which it had come for a refund: “And got it back stuffed, from Taxidermy, with a bill for five guineas!” (She would confide in a friend that she thought she was much funnier than Henry James. She is.) She sounded nothing like that more flamboyant writer, Norman Mailer. It comes as a bit of a shock to hear her say the name Caro and to realize you have, in your North American head, for years been mispronouncing the name of a beloved heroine.

Hazzard’s December diptych gives some sense of the opulence of her prose, by turns euphoric, astringent, aphoristic. Like no other writer I know, she combined the intimate with the epic. She could wrap history around a waistline as if folding tissue into a crisply pressed shirt: “The belt of her school uniform, which at the time of Dunkirk has banded a mere child, by the siege of Tobruk delineated a cotton waist.” In the Q&A, she offered a lesson in her literary magic: “If you’re doing it properly, you try to put everything you know into every word in some sense or another,” she explained, as if assigning the easiest homework in the world. No one asked if she had had Howards End in mind when in chapter 3 she wrapped a life-changing encounter around two sisters, their chaperone, a concert hall, and an umbrella. Nor did she address what keeps one returning to The Transit of Venus time and again: In a line, she could capture a man (“He had the complexion, lightly webbed, of outdoor living and indoor drinking”), a place (“California is a beautiful woman with a foul tongue”), the human condition (“Upstairs, a child wept, laughed, spoke, then mumbled, acting out the ages of man”). Whole short stories lurk between her sentences. So do any number of tropes and themes. The mustard offered on page 11 might materialize nine paragraphs later, on page 13. A word queried by one character might drop heedlessly to the page from the mouth of another long afterward. Is the reader listening? You aren’t likely to know what it means when a character’s back rests against her chair in chapter 36 unless you recall that hundreds of pages earlier, the spine in question had been instructed never to contemplate such a surrender.

Lurking within the book are all the clues to what we will slowly piece together. “I always had a taste for the play within the play,” a tough Transit character confesses, speaking for his creator. Hazzard has secreted Easter eggs all along the way. In her cataract of an opening, she hides a murder, ours to discover hundreds of pages later. Early on, we learn that our sopping-wet hero will ultimately commit suicide, before the height of his fame and outside the scope of the book. We understand why only if we pay attention to a certain straight-shooting, nearly parenthetical ophthalmologist. Asked about the body count in the novel, Hazzard conceded that indeed she had been accused of killing off a lot of people. But the book, she pointed out, covered fifty years! “And in fifty years, people do manage to die,” she noted. “I think,” she added, “if I may say so, that it’s a rather modest turnover.”

Knowing of my reverence for Hazzard’s work, a mutual friend proposed to introduce us in the early aughts. I resisted. He repeated the invitation, as he would again and again, until it was too late. I was finishing a book on a tight deadline, but the truth, I think, was that I was terrified to come face-to-face with someone who had achieved perfection on the page, who seemed so profoundly schooled in aching hearts, defective hearts, full hearts, who had incorporated the sweep of history into a flamboyantly romantic novel. I think, too, I could not escape Hazzard’s account of her first encounter with Graham Greene, on another waterlogged occasion. As she tells it, she was doing the Times crossword late one morning in a Capri café when Greene and a friend came in to escape the damp. They sat nearby. She could not help but overhear them, the more so as Graham soon launched into a recitation of Browning’s “The Lost Mistress.” Despite repeated attempts, he found himself unable to retrieve the final line. Hazzard finished her puzzle. She settled her bill. Umbrella in hand, she paused long enough to supply the five fugitive words—then disappeared, anonymously, into the rain.

Stacy Schiff is the author of, among other books, Cleopatra: A Life and The Witches: Salem 1692.