“A book comes to find you at a particular season of your life. Afterwards, nothing is the same.” So writes Michelle de Kretser in her slim, spectacular book of criticism On Shirley Hazzard. Many will recognize the kind of transformative reading experience that de Kretser, the author of five novels herself, describes here. For me, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead was such a book. I needed it; it came to find me; everything seemed different afterwards. For de Kretser, the book that caused the scales to drop from her eyes was Shirley Hazzard’s The Bay of Noon.
Hazzard, an Australian-American novelist who died in 2016, is best known for The Great Fire, a lush, elliptical work of historical fiction and winner of the 2003 National Book Award, and The Transit of Venus, an almost unfathomably gorgeous novel published in 1980. (She was also great friends with Graham Greene; Greene on Capri is her light- and sea- and food- and drink-filled memoir of their years vacationing together.) De Kretser’s introduction to Hazzard, The Bay of Noon, attends to beautiful things—Italy, romance, painting, poetry—and it created in its reader “the rush of gratitude: that such writing existed, that it had come my way.” She delights in the book’s precise, vibrating details, and remembers how she read it:
The greedy, gulping way I read The Bay of Noon—a child devouring sweets—returned me to childhood and whole days spent deep in fictional worlds. It was reading as a form of enchantment, a way of reading I continue to value and need. There are novels that, like beloved people, stand between us and the world. They do this by altering our relation to time. They pass through it. They render time irrelevant.
On Shirley Hazzard, the result of de Kretser’s decades of reading Hazzard’s work, is a love note from one spectacular writer to another. This love arose at least in part due to biographical circumstance. Both writers are Australian, though both have felt, as de Kretser puts it, a “question mark…hover[ing] over our right to be considered Australian: in her case, because she left the country at the age of sixteen; in mine, because I didn’t arrive until I was fourteen.” (De Kretser was born in Sri Lanka; Hazzard moved in her teenage years to Hong Kong, then to New Zealand, then to the United States, then to Italy.)
But the affinity between de Kretser and Hazzard also comes from a shared style—a tendency toward the sumptuous and painterly, the surprising verb and electrifying adjective. Neither seems capable of writing a boring sentence, and one of the joys of reading this book is seeing one splendid stylist marveling at the stylistic splendor of another. De Kretser quotes liberally and with obvious love on every page. Some of my favorites of de Kretser’s favorites: Hazzard noting “the hard apple” of a cat’s head; Hazzard describing the “mad grin” of lightning; Hazzard seeing “a bathroom varicose with streaked marble.”
“Quotation seems the best way of indicating what I admire in Hazzard,” de Kretser writes. It also seems the best way of indicating what I admire in On Shirley Hazzard. Here is de Krester on Hazzard’s sentence rhythms:
[Hazzard] often ends a sentence with a stressed monosyllable: “The decline of a sea-girt house offers no phase of seedy charm.” The effect is not simply of closing a door, but of shooting the bolt home. The sentence is sealed.
And here she is on the jolt offered by good writing:
Language is examined up close in Hazzard’s work. “We are human beings, not rational ones.” The stock phrase “human beings” is disrupted by isolating its first element; the mind receives a little jolt.
On Shirley Hazzard
Michelle de Kretser
$14.95 | 112 pp.