Thursday

R.I.P. Shirley Hazzard

I've read a few books by Shirley Hazzard, but in the end my opinion of her and her work comes down to two books: The Transit of Venus and The Great Fire.

The two novels were published more than twenty years apart - and maybe it should be noted that she published no fiction in those intervening year. Hazzard wrote only a handful of books in her life. Born in Australia, Hazzard lived in New Zealand, Asia, Europe, and spent much of her life in New York City where she worked for the United Nations for a few years and then lived there with her husband the late scholar Francis Steegmuller

Both of the novels that I mentioned, which are her two finest works, are narratives involving a handful of characters in globe-spanning adventures. Hazzard was a duel citizen and spent much of her adult life in the US and Italy, neither country where she was born or spent her youth, and I think that this quality can be seen in her fiction because there is a global perspective to it which many of her contemporaries - American or British or elsewhere - do not have. The title, The Transit of Venus, being the central metaphor of these people and their complicated lives over the decades moving through the world, is at the heart of much of her work. She wasn't an Australian abroad, but she was a thoughtful woman who was part of this globalist culture, steeped in the classics and the best of our intellectual traditions, and that was where she was from above all, more than any single nation.

Her books are very consciously intellectual books. When she was awarded the National Book Award for The Great Fire, she spoke passionately and eloquently in defense of high culture in a way that was striking and moving for its passion.It's something that no doubt turns off many readers. To be honest I have no idea how widely she is read today or by others, but those two books are magnificent. I have an itch to reread both of them.

It seems petty to say, but the only thing worse than the death of Shirley Hazzard is the fact that there will be no more Shirley Hazzard novels.


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