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Hazzard remembered for two great novels

AAP logoAAP 15/12/2016 Don Woolford

Shirley Hazzard was an expatriate Australian novelist with a relatively slim but highly regarded oeuvre and an ambivalent relationship with her country of birth.

Her reputation rests largely on two novels written more than 20 years apart, The Transit of Venus and The Great Fire.

She also wrote many short stories, a memoir of Graham Greene and savage critiques of the United Nations, for whom she worked for about 10 years.

Hazzard, who died on Monday aged 85, was born in Sydney on January 30, 1931. Her Scottish mother and Welsh father met while working on the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

She had an unhappy childhood. She felt her parents were wounded and deeply selfish people and Australia was narrow, raw and hypocritically puritan. She found solace in poetry, for which she had a near-photographic memory, and dreamed of escape.

Escape came when her parents were sent to Hong Kong in 1947 and, improbably, the 16-year-old, fresh from a Sydney school, got a job with British intelligence.

What she added to Britain's knowledge of the convulsions in China is unclear, but she found the literary atmosphere of the office "joyful".

After an unhappy period in New Zealand, the family ended up in New York. There her parents irretrievably split and, at 20, she was alone in the big city.

She joined the UN for work that was "virtually meaningless and cruelly underpaid". But there was "divine intervention" when the UN sent her to Italy in 1956 for a year. She'd already fallen in love with Italian poetry. Now she fell in love with the place.

Her other rescue came when The New Yorker accepted a short story she'd written and paid her the equivalent of several months UN salary. That was the first of many stories the prestigious magazine published.

In 1963, at a New York party given by British novelist Muriel Spark, Hazzard met US biographer and translator Francis Steegmuller, a fellow cosmopolitan.

They married within the year and lived happily, dividing their time between New York and the Italian island of Capri, until his death aged 88 in 1994.

Very broadly, Hazzard's work falls into two categories - exquisitely crafted and complex high romances and polemical, long-form journalism.

Between her first two novels, The Evening of the Holiday (1966) and The Bay of Noon (1970), came People in Glass Houses, a satire of UN bureaucrats which one critic described as Orwell crossed with Waugh. The early novels have been called ravishing, and The Bay of Noon a love letter to Naples.

Hazzard followed up the satire in 1973 with Defeat of an Ideal: A Study of the Self-destruction of the United Nations - a denunciation of how the world body was captured by McCarthyist Americans.

She returned to this sort of work with Countenance of Truth: The United Nations and the Waldheim Case (1990), which detailed the unsavoury war record of Kurt Waldheim, the UN Secretary-General 1972-81 and Austrian president 1986-92.

"No one other than myself pressed for a commission of inquiry into Waldheim's preposterous `clearance' by the Great Powers for his post as Secretary-General," she has said.

By then Hazzard had gained great critical respect with The Transit of Venus (1980) which won the US National Book Critics Circle Award.

Transit, which largely revolves around the lives and loves of two Australian sisters in Britain, is widely seen as a difficult book.

Several critics have said it needs at least a second reading.

One such critic is leading Australian novelist Michelle de Kretser who's described how she came back to it after 20 years.

"She brings a clarity and steeliness reminiscent of classical tragedy to her material - an extraordinary achievement," de Kretser said.

Another Australian author, Charlotte Wood, has said every sentence in Transit is an iceberg, hinting at greater meaning and depth than is visible on the surface.

Back in the late 1960s Hazzard met the towering British novelist Graham Greene while both were wintering on Capri.

They were in a cafe, sitting nearby. Greene was reciting a Browning poem to a companion, but stalled at the final lines. As she left, Hazzard leaned over and supplied them. From that developed a somewhat ambivalent friendship and, in 2000 - nine years after his death - her memoir Greene on Capri.

It provoked an acid response from Greene's long-term lover Yvonne Cloetta.

The Great Fire came in 2003. Set mainly in Japan in 1947, its central plot is the relationship between a highly civilised British officer and the 17-year-old daughter of a coarse brigadier.

This is played out against a fraught background - guilty questioning of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, turbulence in China and the beginnings of the Cold War.

It won the US National Book Award for fiction and the Miles Franklin.

Hazzard became a US citizen whose heart was in Italy and whose returns to the country of her birth were intermittent.

However she came back to deliver the 1984 Boyer Lectures, which were published as Coming of Age in Australia.

And in 2004 she said "Australia was the first 15 years of my life and you are already Australian for life by doing that."

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