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Review: Still decorous and still scathing: Shirley Hazzard’s timeless tales collected

The late author Shirley Hazzard, whose "Collected Stories" are out this week.
(Nancy Crampton)

On the Shelf

Collected Stories

By Shirley Hazzard, edited by Brigitta Olubas
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 368 pages, $28

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What does it mean to say a literary work is “dated”? Must fiction be timely or à la mode to resonate? In a harsh pre-publication review, Publishers Weekly branded the late Shirley Hazzard’s “Collected Stories” “quaint antiques from a bygone time.” But Hazzard’s stories were out of step with her times even when they were first published in the 1960s, primarily in the New Yorker.

To read them now will indeed transport you to a bygone time — when travelers hungry for culture and history hopped on airplanes to Italy without viral anxiety and enjoyed civilized communal dinners in pensiones rather than takeout in Airbnbs. This new volume offers fans of Hazzard’s much-loved, prize-winning novels, “The Transit of Venus” (1980) and “The Great Fire” (2003), a chance to look back at her development as a writer.

And what an exquisitely polished writer she was, at once serious and bitingly funny, a master of both the plush, well-rounded sentence and the oblique takedown. Not for Hazzard the stripped-down prose and catchy conversational style that were already coming into vogue when these stories were written. Zoë Heller astutely notes in her trenchant introduction that Hazzard’s formal language has “a closer affinity with the classic prose of the 18th and 19th centuries than with the frank, unbuttoned work of her contemporaries.” And yet her targets — the deadening limitations of bureaucracy and patriarchy — are timeless, along with her unerring, worldly wit.

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Hazzard lived a cosmopolitan life, which is reflected in her work. Born in Australia, she left for Hong Kong with her parents in 1947, at age 16, which is when her formal education ended. They moved to New York City in 1951, and for the next decade Hazzard held a frustrating dead-end job at the United Nations Secretariat — about which she later commented, “A young woman was given a typewriter and told to shut up.” Her experience there led to the scathing portrait of “the Organization” and its petty bureaucracy in her second collection of stories, “People in Glass Houses,” along with two nonfiction books whose gist is summed up by the title of one of those works: “Defeat of an Ideal.”

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A one-year post in Naples further expanded Hazzard’s world. She later set much of her writing in Italy, and Capri became her part-time home with Francis Steegmuller, the writer and Flaubert scholar she married in 1963. But she lived much of her life in New York, where she died in 2016 at age 85.

No one would argue that her short stories are Hazzard’s best work, nor recommend reading all 28 straight through. A volume of selected stories might have served Hazzard’s legacy better. Many are slices of life too thinly cut to fill a satisfying narrative sandwich. Novels gave Hazzard more room to develop the foreshadowing and looping chronologies that light up “The Transit of Venus.” But you can see the seeds of growth here, especially in stories that return to the same characters.

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The jacket cover of "Collected Stories" by Shirley Hazzard.
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Unhappy relationships between young women and uncaring men abound. Set eight years apart, “A Place in the Country” and “The Picnic” both track the disillusionment that follows an affair between a pretty young woman named Nettie and her older cousin’s husband, Clem. When Nettie rues the hopelessness of her situation, Clem snaps defensively, “You knew that. I never promised you anything.” Later, impatient with her distress after he cuts off the relationship to save his marriage, he says cruelly, “You mustn’t exaggerate the importance of this.” It’s a line that comes back to bite him.

Men still hold the upper hand in these tales, but tenuously, as the women gradually realize they don’t need to stay in these painful situations. After a party, a misanthropic boyfriend picks apart his lover and asks why she’s bothered to come home with him. “Eventually, I suppose, I won’t,” she says.

Another couple, touring Tivoli, dance around the question of marriage. “It’s quite impossible,” says the woman. “I don’t understand,” the man says. “‘And that,’ she returned, ‘is precisely why.’”

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While misogyny and disappointed love were hardly groundbreaking subjects 60 years ago, literature about office culture was less common. Decades before Daniel Orozco’s deadpan tour-de-force, “Orientation,” Hazzard’s satirical depiction of her stand-in for the U.N. was novel on many levels. Her scathingly funny stories underscore the contrast between the institution’s noble, peacekeeping cause and its culture of soul-crushing, petty bureaucracy. Also unusual at the time was Hazzard’s multicultural cast of displaced persons, portrayed with humor and sympathy.

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Although tedious at points, especially when read in aggregate, Hazzard’s stories about paper pushers who subordinate “individual gifts to general procedures” are peppered with zingers. Yes, there’s a tinge of intellectual snobbery, but this is revenge writing of a high order: “Swoboda was not a brilliant man. He was a man of what used to be known as average and is now known as above-average intelligence.”

Hazzard nails one “Life-blighter” repeatedly. “Words fail me,” says the noxious Mr. Bekkus, whose personal mission is to routinely postpone promotions. Hazzard’s parenthetical retort follows immediately: “(A poor workman will tend to blame his tools.)” When Bekkus ventures, “I have been dimly aware,” the third person narrator pounces: “It was the best description he had ever given of his general state of mind.”

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One of my favorite lines knowingly overlays antiquated decorum with contemporary absurdity: “May I see you to your elevator bank, Miss Kingslake?”

In her excellent, recently published appreciation, “On Shirley Hazzard,” Australian novelist Michelle de Kretser flags the writer’s fondness for the words “unaccountable,” “human,” “mercy” and “revelation.” To dismiss these revelatory, human stories as fusty relics would be merciless — and unaccountable.

Shirley Hazzard, an award-winning novelist who wrote of love affairs disrupted and intensified by age, distance and war, has died at 85.

McAlpin reviews books regularly for NPR.org, the Wall Street Journal and Christian Science Monitor.


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