There it is, Shirley Hazzard fans will know, something sublime in hearing the perfect truth, no matter how bad it is. As a child during World War II, Hazzard learned from listening to Winston Churchill that simple words, arranged at the right pace, could be devastating. In 1940, when Churchill announced the German invasion of France, he said: “The news from France is very bad.” It was, he later declared, “an immortal sentence.”
In Hazzard’s precise fiction, devastation – in love and war – is the theme and the goal: and the reader is not saved. He writes about people sensitive to beauty and feelings, who are punished for it by those whose ruling planets are reason, machinery, power. Once in love, its protagonists change forever.
Born in Australia in 1931, when Hazzard was 25 she had lived in Hong Kong (where at 16 she was working for the British Intelligence Office), New Zealand, Great Britain, the setting for her 1980 novel. The transit of Venus – and Japan, scene of The great fire, which won the 2003 National Book Award. Most of the 28 pieces in this collection, edited by Hazzard’s biographer Brigitta Olubas, originally appeared in the New Yorker.
Hazzard’s stories begin as if the minute hand on the clock has passed noon. Tick: the course of the day is set, it is too late to change the result. In the sweltering heat, women protect their eyes from the sun. The soft focus of the golden hour will always turn into a cool twilight. In “A place in the country“ writes: “The warm afternoon, the garden, the tray of empty glasses on the grass, managed to convey omens and dissatisfaction.” And meanwhile “the shadow of a strange afternoon “in” Sir Cecil’s Ride““There was the glare of the day reflected and unceasing; and the spell. “The title of” The worst moment of the day“ he refers to the period immediately after lunch, the uncleared table “like a beach from which the tide had gone out.”
The middle section in Collected stories draws inspiration from the 10 years Hazzard spent working, primarily as a typist and increasingly disillusioned, at the newly established United Nations. In 1961, when the New Yorker published his first story, “Woollahra Road,” he resigned. He later exposed, in two non-fiction books, the influence of McCarthyism on top UN leadership and Secretary General Kurt Waldheim’s complicity in Nazi war crimes.
In these satirical stories, in what Hazzard calls “The Organization,” employees scoff at language and truth when they ask about a colleague’s daughter when they have a son, and misspell the name in the staff newsletter. of a former employee who has passed away. A larger figure describes her baby as “just learning to verbalize.”
The afternoons here are for meetings: getting work done when people are too tired to possibly take action. The Organization is riddled with that precious metal: irony. As the idealists, the “crushable substance,” try to break through the bureaucracy, these silver seams shine their light. “He is not naturally malicious, he had developed rapidly since he entered the bureaucracy,” he writes about a man. On another, her colleagues wonder: “Didn’t her rounded back with its old-fashioned tweeds become two potentially useful windows? Is it not possible that the fluorescent light that illuminated him had more profitably illuminated another?
To enter this world – “Hazzard-land“As writer Alice Jolly calls it, it is surrendering to being in the company of characters who know the classics, quote poetry, and move through elegant surroundings in pretty clothes. His writing feels more dated than the 1950s and 1960s in which his stories are set, which could be the reason why, like a frog simmered in a delicate consommé, we don’t see our own total annihilation coming. .
Robert Harrison, his friend, said recently that he only heard Hazzard use the word “hate” once. Walking home one night after dinner, he stopped on a staircase. “I hate change,” he said. Few writers capture so well what cannot be undone. In Greene in Capri, a memoir about his friendship with Graham Greene, Hazzard describes the “attesting gains and silent and inestimable losses” from the island’s transformation after World War II. Novelist Michelle de Kretser writes in her brilliant tribute About Shirley Hazzard from the “understanding of a character, shared by the reader, that nothing can ‘fix’ what happened” in the First World War.
In the story “Cliffs of Fall“, the husband of a young woman died in a plane crash. She is doomed to think of him every time she sees the sky. “All this punishment simply because (she pressed her hand tighter on her eyelids to cover the sun) she had loved him,” she thinks. “That was it. Because she had loved him.” At night she dreams of her own death, not his.
• Shirley Hazzard’s Collected Stories is published by Virago (£ 16.99). To order a copy to go guardianbookshop.com. Shipping fees may apply.
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