Shirley Hazzard: Literary Expatriate and Cosmopolitan Humanist

by Brigitta Olubas


This book is in the Cambria Australian Literature book series (Series editor: Susan Lever).

Shirley Hazzard is one of Australia’s most significant expatriate authors, and a major international literary figure by any measure. Her work has been extensively and extravagantly praised by writers and reviewers, such as Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Richard Ford: ‘If there has to be one best writer working in English today it’s Shirley Hazzard.’ Similarly, novelist Michael Cunningham: ‘One of the greatest writers working in English today, and London Times critic Brian Appleyard ‘For me, the greatest living writer on goodness and love’.

Shirley Hazzard has lived in New York and Capri since 1951. Internationally, she is one of the great writers of movement, passage, transposition and transit. Her novels trace the fate of a series of young expatriate female protagonists in the geographical and emotional vistas opening up after World War II, but before the social upheavals of feminism. They take her readers into moral territory that is at once utterly sure and breached at every turn, with the certainties of romance forms tested by human vulnerability and the often brutal social and political canvas of modern life.

She has published four novels: The Evening of the Holiday (1966), The Bay of Noon (1970), The Transit of Venus (1980) and The Great Fire (2003); two collections of stories: Cliffs of Fall and Other Stories (1963) and People in Glass Houses (1967); two monographs on the United Nations: Defeat of An Ideal: A Study of the Self-Destruction of the United Nations (1973) and Countenance of Truth: The United Nations and the Waldheim Case (1990); a memoir of her friend Graham Greene: Greene on Capri: A Memoir (2000); and, most recently, a collection of her own and her late husband Francis Steegmuller’s occasional writings on Naples: The Ancient Shore: Dispatches From Naples (2008). All her fiction has remained continuously in print since its first publication.

She has received major literary awards including the 2003 US National Book Award, the 2004 Miles Franklin Award, the 2005 William Dean Howells Medal for best American novel, the 1981 US National Book Critics Circle Fiction Award, the 1977 O. Henry Short Story Award; and has been shortlisted for the Orange Prize and the (‘Lost’) Man Booker prize. She is a Fellow of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and an Honorary Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.

Despite the critical acclaim for Hazzard’s work, there has not yet been a full critical study, and only a handful of scholarly articles have been published since the early 1990s. This scholarly neglect is in part a consequence of Hazzard’s complicated location outside the limits of national literary canons.

In particular, Hazzard’s highly significant writing about the United Nations has never before been considered by critics, and it is not widely known today that she was the first writer to publish an account of the US State Department McCarthyist involvement in UN hiring of staff from its earliest years, and the first person to air claims that UN Secretary-general Kurt Waldheim had concealed details of his World War II activities. This public writing stands in a fascinating relation to her highly wrought literary fiction, presenting particular challenges to her critics and readers.

This study brings together Hazzard’s highly regarded literary fiction and her impassioned, polemical critiques of the United Nations through the rubrics of her humanist thought and her deep commitment to internationalist, cosmopolitan principles. Chapter 1 provides the first critical analysis of Hazzard’s public writings, paying particular attention to their rhetorical and poetic structures and their moral appeals. Olubas then works through each of Hazzard’s published works of fiction in turn.In chapter 2, she analyses the two collections of short stories through their shared concern with the question of institutions––bureaucracy and marriage––in modern life. Chapter 3 turns to Hazzard’s two early novels, both set in Italy, and examines the appeal made in each to Romantic poetry, and to the ways narrative, desire and death play out across the stories of love. Chapters 4 and 5 are devoted to Hazzard’s two great novels, The Transit of Venus and The Great Fire, respectively. The Transit of Venus is analysed as a melodrama, with particular focus on its complex narrative manipulation of concealment and revelation, and the ethical drive of its central love story. The final chapter focuses on the interplay of love and war in The Great Fire, and argues that this novel returns Hazzard’s readers to her own journey, her departure from Australia at the pivotal points of post-war Asia: colonial Hong Kong and post-nuclear Hiroshima.

Shirley Hazzard: Literary Expatriate and Cosmopolitan Humanist is an important book for all literature, Australian literature, women writers and contemporary fiction collections.


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