Shirley Hazzard! Who knew? I suppose many did, since her 2003 novel “The Great Fire” won the National Book Award, and “The Transit of Venus” took the National Book Critics Circle fiction prize in 1980.
Somehow I remained in the dark, and not since the publication of Lucia Berlin’s “A Manual for Cleaning Women” in 2015 have I had such a lovely experience of discovering a writer I missed during her lifetime. (Hazzard died in 2016.)
Her new “Collected Stories” brings together two collections and adds eight that appeared in the New Yorker but were never collected, plus two that were never published.
One of the collections, “People in Glass Houses,” is a satire based on her 10 years as a typist at the United Nations, 1951-1961, here called the Organization. This wicked sendup plays out in eight linked stories with a droll cast of international characters. With one ludicrous event and wry observation after another, the stories are all the more enjoyable for their very datedness.
From the grounds of the Organization, where there is “a statue ferociously engaged in beating swords into ploughshares,” to the names of its departments and initiatives (Forceful Implementation of Peace Treaties, Peaceful Use of Atomic Weapons, and DALTO, the Department of Aid to the Less Technically Oriented) to the officials and underlings at every level of its impenetrable hierarchy (“He was a man of what used to be known as average and now was known as above-average intelligence” ), Hazzard creates a bureaucracy every bit as dysfunctional as Kafka’s and quite a bit funnier.
Yet she was not known mainly as a humorist, and the other stories are generally about troubled relationships — as one of her characters observes, “Marriage is like democracy — it doesn’t really work but it’s all we’ve been able to come up with.” Often the characters’ frustrations and losses are balanced by the wonderful details of their locations — Italy, Greece, the Swiss Alps, Hong Kong, the Connecticut shore.
In the title story of the collection, a young woman is at the home of friends outside Geneva, recovering from the death of her husband in a plane crash. Here’s what Hazzard gives her for distraction: “The house had just been built; there were interminable difficulties with newly installed electrical appliances, and a procession of mechanics came to the back door in the mornings on their bicycles — young men with perfect manners and unbelievably high, clear coloring, who lay on the kitchen floor with their heads in the oven, or under the dishwasher, or otherwise obscured according to their particular competence, and were made the object of untimely demonstrations of affect by Aurélian, the Stricklands’ spaniel.”
The woman is a genius of creating character with just a few physical details. In the story “Out of Itea,” set on a ferry returning to the Greek mainland, the native guide accompanying a wealthy Irish couple wears “that slightly sad look of misplaced cultivation that guides inevitably acquire.” The female half of a sunburned Norwegian couple carries “a frying pan strapped to the side of her pack — the sole token of her sex.” Two American ladies, perhaps college professors, sport “seersucker dresses that have dripped and are dry, and canvas sneakers over white socks.”
Truly, I recommend you get on the ferry with them.
University of Baltimore Prof. Marion Winik is the author of “The Big Book of the Dead” and host of the Weekly Reader podcast. Visit her at marionwinik.com.
By: Shirley Hazzard.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 356 pages, $28.