Jean-François Vernay reviews “On Shirley Hazzard” by Michelle de Kretser

On Shirley Hazzard

Black Inc, 2019

ISBN 9781760640194


“By right of admiration”

Following the publication of Nam Le’s On David Malouf, Black Inc has now released the sixth volume in the Writers on Writers Series. Fiction writer Michelle De Kretser, twice winner of the Miles Franklin Award, has been put to contribution to discuss the works and literary career of Shirley Hazzard. It is noteworthy that On Shirley Hazzard is her first published nonfiction book and chiefly comes across as a labour of love.

For Shirley Hazzard (1931-2016), the novel is an affair of the heart, of its vicissitudes and complexities throughout the world but rarely in Australia. Unsurprisingly, only a portion of her most remarkable novel of the period, The Transit of Venus (1980), takes place in Sydney. A post-World War II expat, Hazzard left Australia at the early age of 16. Her international lifestyle may not impress some fellow writers, like Gerald Murnane who never bothered venturing outside of Australia, but it nevertheless raises interesting questions.

Hazzard’s atypical life journey challenges the boundaries of what can be accurately defined as Australian literature. When Graham Huggan discussed this specific issue in his 2007 monograph (1), he may have thought of her, or else of Peter Carey, or of any other Australian-born writer who ended up building a literary career in the United States: “A more intriguing question is whether it is necessary for a writer to be Australian. Here, it seems reasonable to expect that an Australian passport should be the minimum requirement for eligibility as an Australian writer. However, there are some exceptions to the general rule, and numerous contested instances of dual or changing citizenship — raising the further intriguing question of whether it is possible, say, to be an Australian and a British writer, or an Australian then an American writer, or perhaps all of these at once.”

As a transnational novelist specialised in treating universal concerns, very few of her writings are set in Australia. And it is almost a mystery as to why The Great Fire (2003) was awarded the Miles Franklin Award in 2004, because ultimately even the Australian citizenship of Peter Exley and Helen Driscoll could not obliterate the pervasive international context of this novel set respectively in Asia (Japan, Hong Kong), England and New-Zealand.

Perhaps Shirley Hazzard found herself caught between the temptation to tap into her Australian heritage and the desire to broaden the choice of her subject-matter by colouring her plots with an international flavour — two polarities where every advantage has its disadvantage. Internationalist novelists like her who enjoy a larger readership and greater freedom of expression run the risk of alienating themselves from their fellow citizens by addressing transnational concerns, or in other words, by “look[ing] outwards, away from Australia” (3), as Michelle De Kretser elegantly puts it.
In a series of succinct chapters, readers are introduced to Hazzard’s literary preoccupations, sociological and metaphysical views, left-leaning politics (consistently siding with the subaltern), and innermost convictions which can sometimes be as tranchant as Patrick White’s most memorable caustic quips. She shares a taste for “irony and satire” (36) with the Sydney-based écrivain maudit who quickly gained the reputation of being “Australia’s Most Unreadable Novelist”(2) before he would win Australia’s only Nobel prize for Literature. De Kretser perceptively sees irony and satire as “antipodean weapons, the weapons of the outsider; a way of seeing that punctures and deflates” (37). She also shrewdly hypothesises in a chapter dedicated to The Transit of Venus that Hazzard’s literary hallmark, which was subtly espousing White’s, might have been the psychological cause for White’s rejection of her magnus opus: “He wrote to Hazzard: ‘What I see as your chief lack is exposure to everyday vulgarity and squalor’” (65).

Her poetic style, encapsulated in her use of quaint adjectives which adds a surrealistic touch to her pared-down prose, has a marked rhythm which De Kretser locates in various prosody effects (in her discussions of The Evening of Holiday and of The Transit of Venus) and in a distinctive phonological pattern: “She often ends a sentence with a stressed monosyllable” (20).

Michelle De Kretser astutely conveys her love for reading in the most infectious way, attesting to the lingering consequences of emotionally charged novels which manage to create a bonding intimacy of sorts with impassioned avid readers:

The greedy, gulping way I read The Bay of Noon — a child devouring sweets — returned me to childhood and whole days spent deep in fictional worlds. It was reading as a form of enchantment, a way of reading I continue to value and need. There are novels that, like beloved people, stand between us and the world. They do this by altering our relation to time. They pass through it. They render time irrelevant. (52-3)

The simple fact that “Hazzard had an unwavering belief in the power of art to transform, comfort, reveal”(15) goes a long way to show that she was intuitively aligning herself with what research in neuroaesthetics was later able to articulate at greater length: namely that art somewhat seems to enhance brain function and psychological well-being.
If the “specificity of our own species lies in our ability to represent the world and to share our ideas”, then great novelists like Shirley Hazzard and Michelle De Kretser who are particularly adept at manipulating syntax would be the shining ambassadors of our intelligence as literate animals.

1.Graham Huggan, Australian Literature: Postcolonialism, Racism, Transnationalism (Oxford: OUP, 2007), 11.
2.This reputation was confirmed in 1956 when “the great Panjandrum of Canberra” described White’s prose as “pretentious and illiterate verbal sludge.” For further particulars, see Jean-François Vernay, A Brief Take on the Australian Novel (Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2016), 173-180.

JEAN-FRANCOIS VERNAY’S The Seduction of Fiction (New York: Palgrave) and A Brief Take on the Australian Novel (Adelaide: Wakefield Press) were both released in 2016. His latest book, La séduction de la fiction (Paris: Hermann, 2019), which deals with all the cognitive mechanisms underlying literary passion, is yet to be translated. His Palgrave book is currently being translated into Arabic.