One comes away from Brigitta Olubas' biography of Australian author Shirley Hazzard (1931-2016) with a sense of having come to know a very complicated woman. Her luminous social energy and ability to connect with other people was described memorably by Alfred Kazin in his diary as "the magic of Shirley the Hazzard. When will we learn from a woman like this — with her incredible gentleness, the light that fills where she is, that love is a form of intelligence — a way of listening to the world, of taking it in, of rising above one's angry heart."
As Olubas shows us repeatedly, sometimes in sections that get a little name-droppy, since her life was a Who's Who of literary Manhattan in the second half of the 20th century, people easily fell in love with Hazzard. She made quick connections, gave wonderful dinner parties, formed deep friendships with other writers like Muriel Spark and Elizabeth Harrower, but often her "angry heart" prevailed, as both of these relationships ended in estrangement, and she and her husband, Francis Steegmuller, also an important writer, fell out with Kazin himself during the latter's acrimonious divorce.
Olubas also shows us the troubling disconnections underlying the social magic. In addition to her sometimes shaky friendships, she was alienated from her family and had a vexed relationship with her home country. Hazzard's mother was a rageful and difficult woman, and Olubas leaves us to draw our own conclusions about the ways this shaped Shirley's character, or at least doesn't tuck in all the edges, which I rather appreciated.
The publication of this biography follows the reissue in 2020 of Hazzard's" Collected Stories"; to be honest, that was the first I'd heard of her, and true to form, I did kind of fall in love. Though I have yet to read her National Book Award winner, "The Great Fire" (2003), or her National Book Critics Circle winner, "The Transit of Venus" (1980), Olubas does a fine job of showing how her work grew out of her life, as well as glossing the plots and summarizing the mostly ecstatic critical reaction at the time. Certainly one closes the biography eager to proceed to the fiction.
One of the pleasures of reading biography is the way contemplating the shape of a particular life can reflect on one's understanding of one's own. In Olubas' telling, Hazzard's story contains a couple of critical transitions, moments when everything changed. One of these came about when she first arrived in Italy. As Hazzard put it, "Those who have never experienced solitude in a strange and complex place — never arrived in the unknown without credentials, without introductions to the right people, or the wrong ones — have missed an exigent luxury. ... The moment comes: we intersect a history, a long existence, offering our fresh discovery as regeneration."
I so recognized that feeling, of forming a singular bond to a new place and re-experiencing oneself in its context. (For me, it was Austin, Texas, circa 1976.) Another juncture that resonated came when Shirley met and married the much older, widowed Steegmuller. Olubas allows us to fullly experience the life-changing effects of this alliance and Shirley's "sense of wonder at her own great good fortune."
"She delights in the new 'we' and sounds as if she has been born to this life — a far cry from her stalled UN career, the $10 brought back from her annual trip to Italy, the misery of her early life, and her subsequent difficult single years. .... Marriage to Francis Steegmuller ... gave her grounds and wherewithal to fashion her life and herself around the coordinates of literature, integrity, and love."
It was a great life, as Olubas shows us, one absolutely ready for the revival now underway.
Marion Winik is a writer and professor in Baltimore.
Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life
By: Brigitta Olubas.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 560 pages, $35.