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Poise and wit: The Collected Stories of Shirley Hazzard reviewed

21 November 2020

9:00 AM

21 November 2020

9:00 AM

The Collected Stories of Shirley Hazzard Edited by Brigitta Olubas

Virago, pp.355, 16.99

Shirley Hazzard was in her late twenties when, in 1959, somewhat diffidently, she submitted her first short story to the New Yorker. It was, William Maxwell remembered, ‘an astonishment to the editors, because it was the work of a finished literary artist about whom they knew nothing whatever’, and he immediately accepted it for publication.

Hazzard’s arrival as a fully formed and refreshingly cosmopolitan writer was a result of her peripatetic and often unhappy early life. ‘By the time I was 25, I had emerged from a lot of trouble,’ she recalled. ‘I had also, more interestingly, lived for appreciable periods in six countries and diverse languages.’ She was born in Australia, but her family relocated to Hong Kong, where at the age of 16 she joined the Office of British Intelligence and fell deeply in love with an older colleague. The relationship ended when her family moved on again, to New Zealand. ‘It’s something I can hardly bear even now to think about,’ she said in 2010, ‘the misery of those years.’

A sense of hopelessness infuses her earliest stories, collected in Cliffs of Fall(1963) and largely set among people on holiday in Italy or escaping New York to their ‘place in the country’. They delineate, with sometimes distressing clear-sightedness, love that is wholly or insufficiently requited or has otherwise gone wrong; but this is observed with the writerly poise and sharp wit that marks all Hazzard’s work.

Like Elizabeth Bowen, Hazzard is attentive to subtle shifts in the moods and feelings of her characters, though she said her true influences were Henry Green and Ivy Compton-Burnett, particularly when writing dialogue (which she does brilliantly) because ‘speech — in literature as in life — can crucially suggest what is not said’. Indeed, her entire work is characterised by a preoccupation with language, beautifully deployed by herself, but often used by her characters in order to deceive themselves or others. She frequently exposes the gap between what people say, particularly when lazily using stock phrases, and what they really mean: ‘Try not to worry,’ a character says in one story, ‘implying that one must by all means worry, though possibly notto distraction.’

The stories in Hazzard’s second volume, People in Glass Houses (1967), seem at first glance very different. They are all set in ‘the Organisation’, otherwise the UN, where Hazzard spent an unrewarding decade working in the secretariat, and are mostly seen from the point of view of decent people treated badly by those who are notionally their superiors but in every other way beneath them. Essentially comic, they nevertheless explore the moral force of words. That, for example, the Organisation should boast a Department of Aid to the Less Technically Oriented is funny, but also suggests the kind of institutional self-deception and ethical equivocation that Hazzard would expose in her two non-fiction books about the UN.

Of the eight previously uncollected stories in this new volume, none is merely makeweight. ‘Sir Cecil Rides’, for example, both in its dense texture and Far Eastern setting, bears comparison with Hazzard’s final novel, The Great Fire (2003). The two unpublished stories are perhaps less compelling, though ‘The Sack of Silence’ plays an amusing set of variations upon the theme of noise and its absence. While the book has been poorly served by its editor, who has not troubled to give a date of publication for any of the stories, the 28 collected here perfectly showcase the elegant prose, emotional intelligence and dark humour that make Hazzard such a pleasure to read.

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