A Rejoicing: Rereading Shirley Hazzard
The Look2 essay series, which replaces our print book reviews, takes a closer look at the careers of accomplished authors who have yet to receive the full appreciation that their work deserves. Reviews of new books can still be found on our blog at http://blog.pshares.org.
Devastating partings—man from woman, person from place—haunt the literature of Shirley Hazzard. There is often war and its casualties, always love, and the threat of separation that is the catastrophe of both. In her books, simple conversation creates seat-edge drama, and otherwise sentimental occasions bristle with freshness and clarity. It’s for the sentences and scenes that blaze with the most precisely articulated passion and high moral stakes that I keep returning to Hazzard’s work.
Among her six books of fiction are two masterpieces, The Transit of Venus and The Great Fire. The former won the 1980 National Book Critics Circle Award, and the latter the 2003 National Book Award. In December of 2011, Tad Friend wrote a blog post for The New Yorker that opened, “Nothing gave me as much happiness as Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus.” Yet, so few people I know have read her. When I thrust her name forward in conversation—and hers is always the first out of my mouth—people ask who she is. Her books have not been patiently waiting on the nightstand for a stretch of quiet reading; they are firmly off the radar.
In all of Hazzard’s fiction and literary essays is a meaningful attention to place: Capri, Naples, Ita Jima, Hong Kong, London, the English countryside, New York, Auckland. Literature and travel have been Hazzard’s intertwined passions her entire life. The most mediocre of Hazzard’s characters are blind to their surroundings, to beauty—human, natural, architectural, textual—and to the poignancy of the enveloping moment. Those who bluster forward without taking note of the present and whose ambition is for some future fame or comfort are shown to be callow, callous, and stupid. Vividness of experience—through love, through reading, through an arc of time-blemished marble—is the pursuit of Hazzard’s most admirable and captivating characters and of the author herself. Her fictions are unafraid of struggle, of time, of loneliness. Their sentence-level mastery, their dramatic turns and high stakes, and their nuanced revelations combine to compel the reader’s passionate, sustained engagement.
The places Hazzard is drawn to are often difficult places, which take their toll on both people and landscapes, natural and manmade. Throughout her work, the sensitivity to environment and emotion that Hazzard values above all else leads to a certain authentic battering, which in turn creates a kind of beauty that is not possible with lives and objects that have been more gently handled. For example, in Hazzard’s celebrated memoir of her relationship with Graham Greene on the island of Capri, she describes the writer’s modest house in Anacapri at the north end of the island. The house was built in an era of “emulative architecture” that could appear fake or inorganic but for the intervention of the Capri climate, which “through seasonal alternations of scorching and soaking, weathers any tactful, durable structure into authenticity. The island’s prolific growth of flowering plants, shrubs, and vines does the rest.”
In The Evening of the Holiday, Hazzard’s first novel, published in 1966, an elderly aunt can accept the idea of one’s life being “benevolently directed,” but she cannot imagine a life worth living that is not also earthly and messy. She says, “It matters to have committed yourself at one moment, even at great cost and disorder, and know that you have that capacity. We can’t be orderly all the time without becoming bores.” Real lives richly considered are the drama of Hazzard’s beautiful fictions.
“Provincialissimo” is how Hazzard describes the Australia where she lived for the first sixteen years of her life. Born in Sydney, in 1931, to two charming but troubled UK natives, Hazzard endured her mother’s manic depression and her father’s heavy drinking and serial affairs by living, most of the time, in books. There was the occasional concert or play on the cultural side, but these were amateurish. Hazzard recalls that Australians were often uneducated and deeply ashamed of their past—their origins as a penal colony and their repeated failed attempts to conquer the harsh interior of their immense island. Yet, at the same time, her milieu was one in which people were completely satisfied with the modest achievements of owning a nice house or belonging to a good club. In The Great Fire, Peter Exley leaves his native Australia for Italy as a young man because he is desperate to study the visual arts. Years later, when he is a soldier befriended by the novel’s hero, Aldred Leith, he says, “I’d grown up in a country where sameness was a central virtue.” Resentful but not self-pitying, he continues:
I’d come from the land of the single hope attained. One thing didn’t lead to another, but was the sole consummation. People longed for house and garden, or they pitched it all on a sight of the cliffs of Dover. The women longed to be married, come what might. The evidence achieved, you could die happy. In my childhood there were many such walking about, who had died happy and left it at that. And they were the enterprising ones.
Though there were precious few paintings to look at in the Australia of Hazzard’s youth (something the late Australian art critic Robert Hughes also noted), there were books and poetry, which Hazzard drew in like oxygen. She says, “Thank God for anthologies, how much they spread before us. With my pocket money I began to buy the works of the great poets. At times, I could hardly read the lines for excitement, ecstasy.” Poetry has always been at the tip of Hazzard’s tongue. Poet J. D. McClatchy, who has known generations of writers and critics, says to Hazzard during a 2005 “Art of Fiction” interview in The Paris Review that he doesn’t know anyone who has more poetry by heart than she. The lines and stanzas of Hazzard’s favorite poets naturally infuse her fiction, and the delicate economy of the poetic form is a hallmark of Hazzard’s prose.
When Hazzard was 16, her father took a post in Hong Kong, abruptly ending her life in Australia and her schooling. Hazzard loved Hong Kong, but her family soon moved on to New York, where her parents’ marriage continued to dissolve dramatically. She secured clerical work at the United Nations, an organization about which she’s written two very critical books, Countenance of Truth and Defeat of an Ideal. Hazzard’s late teens and early twenties were “ghastly” years, Hazzard tells McClatchy: “the terrible parting from left places, from the loved person; the helplessness of stark impoverishment…For me, there was great suffering, loneliness, a sense of isolation…One is young, yet already old.” Then, in a startling turn, she adds, “It would have been easy to die. But, oddly, one didn’t.”
In 1956, as a result of having studied some Italian, Hazzard was sent by the UN to Naples. At the end of the mission, she journeyed to northern Italy: “Winter was coming on. At Milan, at beautiful Verona, Vicenza, I walked by day; evenings were an excruciating loneliness. However, one’s impressions are, in such circumstances, vivid, and there is time to digest them.” In Siena, she stayed with an Italian family who took paying guests, which began a personal relationship that continued for the next seven summers and a lifelong engagement with Italy. In 1963, Hazzard met her future husband, Francis Steegmuller, the renowned translator, biographer, novelist, and critic, at a party in New York thrown by Muriel Spark. The couple traveled to Italy regularly, eventually moving to Capri where, in 1970, they settled into a regular pattern of springs and falls in a particular house on the island. Hazzard now divides her time between residences on Capri, in Naples, and on New York City’s Upper East Side.
Her time on Capri led to what is, to many, her best-known book: her memoir, Greene on Capri, published in 2000. Hazzard and Greene, nearly three decades apart in age, met on the island in the late 1960s when Hazzard overheard Greene talking with a friend in a café. Greene was struggling to remember the last line of a Robert Browning poem, and Hazzard boldly supplied it—Or so very little longer—then promptly fled the café. But the two ran into each other again that night (one understands that Capri society in those days was rather small), and Hazzard and Steegmuller for years thereafter enjoyed the frequent company of Greene and his companion Catherine Walston. In her memoir, Hazzard recalls the “daily” Graham Greene, drawing the reader in close to the habits and expressions of a complex and frequently ill-tempered man responsible for some of the twentieth century’s most significant novels.
As the title indicates, there are actually two subjects in Greene on Capri. A book limited to Greene in this setting would have produced a narrow and claustrophobic volume, and Hazzard takes care to illuminate brilliantly the island as well, a place dear to both resident authors. It is arguably Capri that shines more greatly. She writes of the ruins of Tiberius’ Villa Jovis, “Alongside is the ambulatio, a columned walkway where the emperor paced alone to reflect on state matters, and on lives and deaths, defended by impregnable surroundings and encircled, as today, by some of the loveliest scenery on earth.” Capri’s sea vistas and weathered architecture create not just a backdrop but also a suffusing mood and an angle from which to understand more deeply the people who choose to live there.
While the intimate portraits of the great Greene and the madly captivating Capri reveal both Hazzard’s compassion and her penetrating mind (“alarmingly intelligent” reads one back-of-the-book blurb), they do not, and cannot, offer the exquisite drama of her fiction, the highly charged moments of piercing impact found in multiples in her novels, nor the broad canvas upon which the dramas are indelibly inscribed. Her novels, like those of her British and Anglophile forebears, such as Muriel Spark, Henry Green, and Henry James (to whom Hazzard has been favorably, if erroneously, compared), are not always easy, but in their swift, tense action and startling language they more than reward the reader’s effort. Her best work, in fact, easily rivals that of her friend Graham Greene.
“By nightfall the headlines would be reporting devastation.” This line opens The Transit of Venus, published in 1980, the story of a small collection of Australians and English men and women coming into adulthood in England after the Second World War. The devastation is a summer storm that unearths crops, takes the roofs off houses, and causes a body to be swept under a bridge. The identity and significance of the body is withheld for most of the novel and is one of many casualties that hang portentously over the book’s events.
At the heart of The Transit of Venus are two radiant Australian sisters, Caro and Grace, who were orphaned at a young age and raised by their mincing and resentful half sister Dora, who says things like “I don’t care to be told I’m angry all the time. I certainly am not angry,” to her trembling young charges. She is a bitter woman who possesses a rare ability to chase away even the wispiest cloud of joy. Caro and Grace try to safeguard their own small moments of pleasure; coping stoically, they grow mature beyond their years. “The girls heard it said that Dora was raising them. Yet it was more like sinking, and always trying to rise.”
Like many women of their era without means or social standing and with the additional handicap of being from the uncultured hinterland, the sisters are the recipients of some stinting generosity from the well-established Thrale family—Grace will marry son Christian—but they must make their way in England on their own. Golden-haired and conventional, Grace finds her marriage financially fortunate but stifling, the ambitious Christian increasingly insufferable. Caro, milky-skinned and raven-haired, becomes entangled in a long and painful love affair with Paul Ivory, a handsome and talented playwright, whose inconstant, self-serving nature is reminiscent of Graham Greene. Though she is bright and strong, Caro suffers greatly from Ivory’s whims, and for most of a lifetime she ignores the sincere love repeatedly offered her by another man, the astronomer Ted Tice. Nerdy, poor, and with a defect in one eye, Ted eventually distinguishes himself in his field, both out of a genuine desire to contribute to scientific progress and, one thinks, in order to make himself more attractive to Caro, who might, one day, see his virtue and capitulate.
Long before Caro discovers the depth of Paul’s malice, she sees that one of his fundamental failings is that he has never suffered. Not only that, he believes he should not: such an ordinary thing as bad luck should not be his lot. At that point, Caro has already fallen for him, she cannot help it, but neither can she admire him: “By now she would have given up her life for him, but repudiated his wish to be indemnified, by arithmetical advantages, against experience.” She does not criticize Paul in this moment, for fear of losing him, but this knowledge of him never goes away. Meanwhile, she becomes brazen. One afternoon, Caro and Paul rise from their love-making to the calls, from two stories below, of Paul’s fiancée, Tertia. Caro listens, hidden, then steps unselfconsciously to the window: “Caro’s hand rested on the sill. She was wearing nothing but a small round watch.”
After they have already parted once, and Caro has been working for years in an office and earning barely enough to sustain her (an echo of Hazzard’s own clerical servitude at the UN), she runs into Paul outside the theater where she has just seen the matinee of his latest work. When he calls her name, “Paul saw her spasm of surprise and the sequence of quick, contradictory impulses…Her lips closed to a deliberate curve he had not seen before because it derived from his desertion.” Paul says, “You always had some contempt for me.” She says simply yes and yes again when he says, “And love too.” It’s not so unusual, the story of good woman falling for bad man, but Hazzard’s moment-by-moment navigation of the holds of desire, complicated shifts in power, and the potential for destruction at any moment is unsurpassed.
In Hazzard’s fiction, lives are not only altered by the course of Venus but also rocked, continually, by small but consequential failures of nerve, partings, changes of mind, and discovery. She never strays from the small actions of daily life, while also giving broad breadth to life-changing random encounters and larger forces, such as war. The great and the small, the unalterable and the agential, add up to a definition of destiny that involves both personal responsibility and fated accidents. When things go wrong, when a body is swept away in a storm, when people who love each other are separated, the result is devastation. A character’s worth is measured in how he responds: does he engage and examine suffering, or turn a blind eye and soldier on?
The Evening of the Holiday, which Time magazine called “nearly perfect,” draws the reader stealthily into the relationship of Sophie, half English and half Italian but uneasy with the language, and Tancredi, who meet at a June garden party in a northern Italian town and have in common Sophie’s aunt, the wonderful and elderly Louisa. The novel is a riveting meditation on how we cannot protect our happiness given incomplete self-knowledge.
Narrated in the third person omniscient, as with all of Hazzard’s fiction except for The Bay of Noon, the novel first reveals Tancredi’s cool indifference to northern women who are “always afraid you might find them interesting or treat them as something other than men.” But the town is small, and circumstances—the draw of the generously open plaza and its pleasant café—push the two toward adventures together. Identifying and pursuing a destination contains an inherent romanticism in Hazzard’s work: without a fountain to visit, or the house of a peasant family in a countryside glowing with golden wheat, Sophie and Tancredi would not have fallen in love. There would be no destiny without destination. For even the tiniest of journeys takes time, and the chances taken and decisions made along the way build shared history. The couple’s continual day trips also call foreboding attention to their lack of the kind of domesticity necessary for ongoing love.
Instead of attempting climactic action during Sophie and Tancredi’s excursions, Hazzard builds tension simply by demonstrating the couples’ vastly differing reactions to the landscape. Though Tancredi is not from this region, “this countryside was to him phenomenal, possessed of an almost communicable significance.” Then he sees how Sophie feels distant from it; she feels “the solitary pang of the expatriate.” When he tries to kiss her, she rejects him. “It was not simply that she did not want his kiss. She did not want this inadvertent, troublesome encounter. She did not want to be disturbed.” They leave the scene quickly, awkwardly; each thinks the other incapable of appropriate response to what they’ve seen.
The excitement of this novel is its upended expectations. For a while, Tancredi believes that Sophie is unquestioning of the good match they make. He thinks he’ll have to bring to her attention the fact that their living together is not easily sustainable, but then she announces—abruptly, to his point of view—that they don’t have much time left together. Suddenly, he is forced to deal not only with the unhappiness of breaking up—which was hypothetical just moments ago—but also with the fundamental mysteriousness of his lover:
The astonishment Tancredi felt at being thus relieved in an instant of any necessity to describe their position had nothing to do with a sense of deliverance—for by demolishing his belief in her unawareness of their dilemma she automatically brought into focus the dilemma itself, and he was faced not with discussion of the thing but with the thing itself. He felt a perverse disappointment that his concept of her love as an ideal love, something intact and indifferent to everything but its object, had turned out to be fictitious and that she was after all touched by the same earthly questions as himself. But what was strangest of all to him, and most interesting, was the revelation that she had in reserve these thoughts, perhaps limitless thoughts, of which he could have no knowledge; that her ideas might be entirely at variance with his assessment of them just when he was convinced he understood them best.
Tancredi was wrong about Sophie; he was wrong to believe their destiny was something particular and immutable. He discovers that as much as circumstances have shaped their togetherness, they each have reserves of agency: the capacity to act contrary to patterns of past behavior and to rise above compromise.
Bringing the reader in so close, and so sympathetically, to characters’ complicated states of mind is a talent not only of insight but also of language: it is what we value most in our treasured writers.
Hazzard’s most recent novel, The Great Fire, published in 2003, is also her most explicitly autobiographical, based on a relationship she had as a teenager in Hong Kong. The university Hazzard was supposed to attend in Hong Kong, when she arrived there with her family in 1947, was destroyed by wartime bombing and looting in the years following. So at age 16, instead of continuing her formal education, she went to work for the Special Operations branch of British Intelligence. She describes the atmosphere as literary and joyful, containing “British officers, linguists, young veterans who were almost innately charged with literary reference.” An intelligence office like this one is where the Australian soldier Peter Exley works, though he is not nearly so fortunate in finding kindred spirits.
It is here, in Hong Kong, perhaps between the typewriters of that office, that Hazzard experienced one of the most intense and significant relationships of her life. She was “deeply in love” in Hong Kong in 1947. Though she has told interviewers that the love story between exalted war hero Aldred Leith and the ethereal, precocious, not-yet-18-year-old Australian Helen Driscoll at the heart of The Great Fire is based on her own life, she has not revealed, in what I have read, anything more about her beloved. “When I was snatched from that Eden, late in 1948,” she tells McClatchy, “I was equipped through later sorrows with the knowledge of a companionship that could not be taken from me. But the rupture was terrible, and, even now, hard for me to dwell on.” One notes that The Great Fire was published in 2003, almost a decade after the death of her cherished husband, Francis.
Helen Driscoll and Aldred Leith meet in the spring of 1947 on the island of Ita Jima in the Inland Sea of Japan. Leith has received Britain’s George Cross Medal (established in 1940 by King George VI in recognition of “the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger”) three years prior. He wears it with some reluctance. The reader is only aware of the medal because Leith sees how others—soldiers and civilians both—straighten their spines into obeisance once they notice it on his uniform. The details of his act of bravery are not dwelled on. More important is how Leith is now working himself out from under the weight of massive casualties and suffering and the guilt of his own active role in destruction. Leith describes a moment of his war to Helen: “Battling in the mire, more like 1915 than 1944. More like Agincourt: rain, mud, the freezing cold. The enemy’s proximity, their faces, the shared intimacy with fear and death. Explosions, slaughter. With the wound, I was captured on the last day. I’d been all night in the forest, dying.”
Though she has not seen battle, Helen, too, has suffered. Her brother Benedict, her only companion, has been slowly dying of a rare disease for years, and her militaristic father and shrill mother are hard, ambitious, damnable people. Of the father: “In youth an athlete, [Brigadier] Driscoll continued to hold himself in past tension, barreled against every challenge.” Mrs. Driscoll possesses “a piping voice, active with falsity,” “martial shoulders,” and eyes that are “small, animate, and marble.” With such powerfully concise descriptions, Hazzard displays particular ferocity toward these brute, middling people; people who have lost their humanity but not yet their power over others.
One might think that a love story built around a war hero and a virginal young woman beaming with insightful questions and knowledge of the world gleaned through books would, at best, strain credulity. It does not; not here. Leith’s virtuous combination of intelligence, modesty, and bravery could push him to the unbelievable side of goodness, but Hazzard shows that he is also coldly, often unforgivably, restrained. Surely this is the mark of an upstanding British man of a certain era and education, but it does not mean the reader can’t fault him for it. Those who love Leith rarely receive the affection they deserve. During a return trip to England late in The Great Fire, Leith visits his widowed mother, quietly holds her hand, and reflects, “He saw that she had feared never to see him again, not only from his travels and perils, but from his indifference. That he might have chosen never to return.” His ability to easily separate and his refusal to endure emotional displays and surplus kindnesses make the reader understand that Leith, while he will always fulfill moral obligations, will often fall short in those tasks in which only feelings are at stake. Hazzard reinforces this emotional distance by referring to Aldred—whom an American bunkmate of Peter Exley’s mockingly calls “Our Hero”—by his last name. When there might be some confusion because Aldred’s father is also being discussed, Leith the younger becomes “the son.” Not even “his son.”
This restraint is representative of Hazzard’s signature style. Reviewers have called this tone “stately,” “measured,” and “haughty,” but this is a mistake. Her exacting language flashes with heat, and the sequence of her sentences is tumultuous. Meaning, when I read them, I tumble down the rabbit hole in the most pleasurable way. Here is Exley recalling a schoolgirl crush—and his relief that his options now, if not great, are at least better than they were in Australia: “Pattie’s pusillanimous plait. Well out of that beige existence, at any rate.” The hard triple ps could have killed the passage, but Hazzard softens with beige and the casual at any rate.
Like Henry Green, a writer Hazzard admires, she often eliminates the implicit subject of a sentence, providing forward-pushing momentum that counters the presence of uncommon vocabulary (uncommon for the reader, that is, not the author), such as in this description of Leith walking across China.
It was May, he had slept in the open. After sunrise, came through steep bushy hills into a valley floored with green cultivation—less alluvial than the land preceding it…The hill above the tiny town was gravid in the way of that landscape, its grassy garment stretched like soft cloth over an imagined anatomy of ancient, unremembered walls, graves, and ditches: a tumid rise, over which you might mentally pass your hand.
As in Tancredi’s fervent reaction to the Italian countryside in The Evening of the Holiday, Leith’s descriptions connect his own body to the land by comparing the spread of grass to a garment and invoking a passing hand. A foreign place is made close and vivid without losing any of its compellingly exotic character. Words like pusillanimous, gravid, and tumid (the latter two I had to look up) might distance a reader, but Hazzard skillfully yokes us to the page.
Which brings us to her remarkable dialogue. From her earliest published works, beginning with the luminous stories in Cliffs of Fall, published in 1963, she displays an unerring ear for the rhythms and phrases of people from widely varying cultural and professional backgrounds. Her rendering of corporate speak is hilariously on display in People in Glass Houses, a collection of character sketches that parody the bureaucrats of the ineffectual Organization, modeled on the United Nations. The dialogue in her later fiction maintains a high-wire act between tight structure and intense emotion. It is not what we, especially we Americans, would call “realistic.” As McClatchy observes, Hazzard’s characters “articulate their thoughts and feelings with enviable clarity.” Hazzard replies that she enjoys writing dialogue and explains, “There is so much unconsidered speech, one’s own included (not to speak of the audible nightmare of the cell phone), that expressive speech becomes a luxury. And, speech—in literature as in life—can crucially suggest what is not said.” Hazzard’s characters give voice only to the most necessary. In between the quotation marks, the author provides context. Here is Caro in The Transit of Venus talking to her former lover Paul Ivory after running into him at the theater and following him back to his new house: “Is Tertia here?” The bull by the horns.
When Caro then says something piercing about his bloodless marriage, Paul says, “Have a bit of mercy,” and she replies, “How should you hope for mercy, rendering none?” The register is high, some readers might think too much so, but this shift in tone from plaintive to admonishing is appropriate, even necessary, to reflect Caro’s choking feeling. She cannot speak naturally in this moment; she is too angry, too torn. In another moment, years later, Caro’s American husband appears at the side of her hospital bed after a miscarriage and says, “There are two of us to bear it.” She says simply, “It wasn’t this I meant to share.”
Occasionally, characters give a speech of a short paragraph, expounding a worldview. Here, too, the dead words and filler phrases of “real speech” are absent. Why should we resist in books the same kind of craft lauded in plays and television—such as Harold Pinter’s “Homecoming” and the popular HBO series Deadwood—where speech is heard and not written? It’s also true that the voiced thoughts of Hazzard’s characters are not all that unrealistic given who they are. Most have had early twentieth-century, British-style educations in which they were immersed in sophisticated language from a young age. Helen and Benedict Driscoll are extremely isolated, due in part to the boy’s illness, and their interactions are primarily with books and each other. So Benedict’s words to Leith upon his return to them in Japan, after visiting Exley in China, are unsurprising: “Takes you back, to find me upright. A sense of imposture. If one thing improves, another worsens…There are so many things to go wrong with the human body. When people are well, it’s a miracle of coordination.” To which Leith says something gentle but not facile: “If men had devised it, it would never have worked at all.”
Hazzard’s tendency to elide pronouns, especially in her two most recent novels, can sometimes lead to frustrating ambiguity. For example, when Leith is riding along in an army jeep, talking about the male world of war with a young soldier, he thinks, “Soldiering, or seamanship. Young recruits with their dreams of transformation: of conquest, plunder, fornication.” When we read the line that follows, “Women’s yearnings had scarcely featured, being presumably of mating and giving birth,” I don’t know if this is an indictment of the broader culture, or if Leith is revealing something about his own mistaken views. More often, though, if I don’t understand a sentence, it means I should return to it. Usually it’s not a case of muddled expression but of language so condensed one needs multiple immersions. I continually reread the works of Shirley Hazzard because no word is wasted; each passage excavates more thoroughly characters’ minds and motivations. In her books, the linguistic excitement of poetry is combined with soaring narrative.
For while there are many shocking and gruesome effects of war throughout The Great Fire, the novel ends with optimism. This was a late but crucial revelation for Hazzard. In an earlier ending, one that was printed and bound in publishers’ galleys, the future of the couple remained uncertain. Hazzard says she “developed what had been too abrupt. I found what I wanted for the last sentence as the publisher’s courier came to the door to collect the page.” It is a marvelous final sentence for a postwar story of two hearts: “Many had died. But not she, not he; not yet.”
The most recently published book of Hazzard’s writings is The Ancient Shore: Dispatches from Naples (2008), an odd but charming collection of pieces on the city coauthored with her late husband. In a beautiful essay called “Pilgrimage,” whose remarks on travel and discovery I return to again and again, Hazzard recalls a poem from the 1940s, “A Map of Verona,” in which the poet visits this place he loves on paper because war prevents him from going in person: A stranger entering the gates of the city possesses a “new devotion” that will “attend and haunt you everywhere.” Hazzard writes:
In those lines there is still the ancient nature of pilgrimage: the difficulty, the long yearning; the constancy, the consummation. Arrival as an achievement that cannot be denied—arrival, with all its consequences of transformations, encounters, self-knowledge, exposures, disappointments. The destination is not in this case a sacred shrine, yet it has a magnetic quality and is both a completion and a beginning.
Travel, like reading, is not about ease; it is about encounter. It is about openness to the currents of the environment. “One needs leisure; one needs imagination,” she says. “And something more: vulnerability. Vulnerability to time interleaved; to experiences not accessible to our prompt classifications, into the impenetrable phenomenon of place, which no one, to my knowledge, has ever explained.” About her beloved Naples in particular, she acknowledges “the grotesque, the diabolical,” but asserts that, in this city, “few days will pass without some fresh discovery of dignity, delicacy, and endurance…For myself, each arrival on this shore is a rejoicing. And I wonder at the stroke of fortune that first brought me here to live in intimacy with this civilized spirit and to share its long adventure.” Every time I part again with one of Shirley Hazzard’s novels, I begin looking forward to the next reunion. The next arrival. Rejoicing would not be too strong a word.
Jennifer Acker is editor-in-chief of The Common, a new print and online journal, based at Amherst College, featuring literature and images with a strong sense of place. She has an MFA in fiction from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and her short stories have been published in n+1, Ascent, Dogwood, and Sonora Review. Translations and essays have appeared in Harper’s, The Millions, The New Inquiry, and the San Francisco Chronicle. Acker teaches literature, creative writing, and editing at Amherst College and NYU Abu Dhabi.