The Exquisitist

The aesthetic sensibility of Shirley Hazzard
Shirley Hazzard, 2004 (Justin Williams/Shutterstock)

Shirley Hazzard’s writing has been for me a constant source of pleasure since I discovered it in 2003. That was late: by then she had been publishing for over forty years, and I regret not having had her literary companionship earlier. Since then, I’ve read, I think, everything she published—three novels, one novella, thirty or so short stories, a brief memoir, two books about the United Nations, a collection of essays in homage to the Italian city of Naples, some occasional writings—and have found her a precise and astringent purveyor of beauty and observer of the human condition.

Hazzard died in 2016 at eighty-five, with a minor but real literary reputation that has grown since then. Shortly after her death a volume of her uncollected essays, We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think, was published by Columbia University Press; and in 2020 her Collected Stories was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Her two principal novels, The Transit of Venus (1980) and The Great Fire (2003), have been continuously in print since they were published, and she has enthusiastic acolytes among some of today’s better-known young writers. She was a New Yorker writer (most of her stories were published there, beginning in 1961), won awards for the two major novels, was interviewed by the Paris Review for their “Art of Fiction” series in 2005, and rated respectful obituaries, sometimes tending toward the enthusiastic, in all the major newspapers.

But she never captured the zeitgeist. She wouldn’t have wanted to. Her own literary enthusiasms—the Italian poet, philologist, and encyclopedist Giacomo Leopardi (1798–1837) first among them—weren’t of her moment. She wrote, as far as I can tell, as all good writers do, principally to please herself and to show the world as she saw it. Her vision is cosmopolitan, precise, infused with poetry, sensitive to the beauty evident in squalor and decay as much as in well-wrought urns, and laced with desire and disappointment, which for her are inseparably intertwined. It is also a vision contemptuous of, and revolted by, what she sees as the unloveliness, crudity, and lack of depth in the mass-produced goods and lives of late modernity.

Hazzard is also a pagan writer. She may have been baptized—she writes that she grew up “a perfunctory Anglican”—and she certainly knew more than most about Christian tropes, images, understandings, and monuments. You can’t write as she did about Renaissance art and romantic poetry without seeing a long way into Christianity. But she doesn’t see the world as Christians do, as sin-damaged and grace-threaded, seeking and finding its repair outside its boundaries, requiring prostration and abnegation. Hazzard’s longings are for the touch of the flesh, the rhythm of the sentence, the evening of the holiday, to use the title of one of Leopardi’s poems (La sera del dì di festa), which she took as the title of her one novella—not for the holy day itself, but for its dwindling into dusk. And certainly not for God. Never that.

The world she makes and shows in her writing [is] soaked in nostalgia for the lost beauties of a pagan past and the inevitable insufficiencies of the passions of the present.

Reading her, then, is both a delight and a difficulty for a Catholic. Because of her literary virtues, her eye for the world and her ear for prose rhythm, she is instructive and arresting. But the sensibility through which her observation is filtered, and the world she makes and shows in her writing, are both soaked in nostalgia for the lost beauties of a pagan past and the inevitable insufficiencies of the passions of the present, ecstatic though they may occasionally be. Reading her often brings to my mind A. C. Swinburne, a poet not unlike Leopardi in tone: “Laurel is green for a season, and love is sweet for a day; / But love grows bitter with treason, and laurel outlives not May.” Which is of course true, but not the whole truth. Leopardi’s version of this attitude is to address “ancient, omnipotent nature,” and to say to her that she made him for suffering and denies him hope: “Your eyes should shine only when weeping” (Non brillin gli occhi tuoi se non di pianto), she says to him. This is the sensibility that mourns before monumental ruins and burnishes its sensitivity to beauty’s particularities in order to show their transience; it is Shelley’s vision of Ozymandias; it is, in short, romantic—or, better, Romantic. Hazzard belongs to it, and she shares with it a tendency toward contempt for the crudities of people and things whose pleasures are not nuanced and whose lives are unflavored by poetry. Christianity, a religion of proles and peasants with almost unremittingly bad taste, a kitsch-religion (this is praise), finds no significant place in such a world. For me, that is the principal difficulty of reading Hazzard. That I delight in her so much, and am so like her in taste, may be evidence that I am a bad Catholic.

 

Hazzard writes powerfully as a disappointed lover. I don’t mean of people: she seems to have had a long and happy marriage to Francis Steegmuller, to whom many of the books she published during her lifetime are dedicated, including The Great Fire, which came out almost a decade after he died. The dedication of that book is accompanied by Louis Aragon’s anguished lines “Parce que j’ai voulu te redire Je t’aime / Et que ce mot fait mal quand il est dit sans toi” (Because I wanted to tell you again that I love you / And these words are painful when said without you.) No, I mean a disappointed lover of an institution, an obscure object of desire called the United Nations. Hazzard worked there for a decade or so, the decade of her twenties, partly in Italy and partly in New York City, and she wrote about it extensively afterward.

One of her volumes of stories, People in Glass Houses (1967), shows people at work in what is clearly the UN, and the writing in that volume is the closest Hazzard ever got to satire. The UN of these stories is almost a character, an octopus-like strangler of aspiration, talent, energy, and hope. More directly, and very instructively, Hazzard wrote a number of essays about the UN, and two full-length books: Defeat of an Ideal (1973) and Countenance of Truth (1990). The books show a barely controlled fury at what Hazzard takes to be the unredeemable failure of the organization. The first deals largely with its founding and the derelictions of its first two secretaries-general, Trygve Lie and Dag Hammarskjöld. The second is mostly devoted to the scandal of the appointment of Kurt Waldheim, an unconfessed Nazi complicit in war crimes, as the UN’s fourth secretary-general in 1972, and his holding of that office until 1981.

Hazzard identifies the point and purpose of the UN with clarity, and roots its coming to be not merely in the pragmatism of politicians and sovereign states but in the hopes of the world’s peoples following the slaughters of World War II. In Defeat of an Ideal, she writes that “the peoples of the world have never fully renounced the expectation that deliberations in United Nations councils would render, as was implicit in the Organization’s founding, something more than an airing of national intransigencies”—that is, the avoidance of war and the mitigation of other transnational disasters. In Countenance of Truth she writes, “The capital function for which the United Nations had been created—the prevention of hostilities around the world—had, from the time of Hammarskjöld’s death, in September, 1961, lapsed as an active concept at the U.N., replaced by a claim that the organization’s usefulness lay...in providing a forum for face-saving rhetoric in the wake of decisions taken elsewhere.” “Elsewhere,” of course, means the corridors of power in Washington and Moscow.

That “capital function” was never, in Hazzard’s view, recovered, and became unrecoverable after Waldheim. In its founding, particularly because of the location of its headquarters in New York and its agreement to permit the FBI to vet proposed appointees during the McCarthy era, the UN was subservient to the United States. It later became, especially under Waldheim, subservient to the USSR. And throughout its first forty years, Hazzard shows, it was never more than a timid creature, subject to the theatrics and whims of its powerful members, “a place where governments might—without abating their transgressions—go to church.” It failed in Vietnam, it failed in Biafra, it failed in Bangladesh: it did little other than fail. And the passion with which Hazzard tells the story of that failure—with rich and thorough documentation and apt quotations from Flaubert, Eliot, Auden, Dickens, Leopardi, Trollope, and others—shows how important to her the story was.

Why was it so important? Perhaps because of Hazzard’s cosmopolitanism. She was born in Australia, dislocated by the war in her teens to Hong Kong, New Zealand, and London, moved as a young woman to Italy and then to the United States, and as an adult divided her time almost equally between Italy (Naples and the island of Capri) and New York, with occasional residence in France. She eventually became a U.S. citizen in 1970, but her comments in interviews and essays about the matter suggest that national identity was never, for her, more than a secondary good. She didn’t like being called an Australian writer, or an American one. She writes often of her love for Italy, and especially for Naples, but that seems to have been a love not so much for a sovereign state as for a way of being in the world, and for a particular, layered past. She glories in the openness that cosmopolites have to languages and arts and cultures; and her passion for the ideals of the UN has at least an affinity with this. She would have liked, I think, a borderless world in which the world’s beauties might be frictionlessly available to those who can appreciate them, and the UN might have been an ingredient in the birth of such a world. Her work there, mostly low-level (she was in her twenties, without the certification of a degree, and not yet a published writer), was the beginning of what might have been a love affair. But by the end of it she could see that her hoped-for lover could never give her what she’d wanted. Hence the passion, and the bitterness.

Hazzard, of course, is almost entirely correct about the UN, and is still worth reading on it, even though the events she analyzes are more than four decades in the past. Had she observed the series of UN-sponsored COP climate conferences, the twenty-sixth of which happened in Glasgow in November 2021, she would have amply confirmed her understanding of what the UN is and can do after the unredeemable compromises of its founding and early years. It is a toothless talk shop, subservient in all that matters to the interests of the sovereign states it is supposed to order and constrain, while they, in turn, are largely subservient to corporate interests. Here, at least, Catholic sensibilities and Hazzard’s are at one, and she is a good instructor for us: the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity together require that there be transnational entities concerned with the common good that have real executive power. Hazzard saw this with clarity and wrote about it well. One of the ancillary pleasures of reading her on these matters is the liveliness of her comments on the stygian darkness of the style in which UN documents are written, and her sense, rare in those or any political circles, that the darkness matters—that it is a partial index of the failure of the institution.

 

Hazzard’s work is threaded with quotations of poetry in several languages, and with frequent allusion. I’m able to identify only about half of her quotations without help, so I’m far from her ideal reader. She is, however, helpfully explicit about what she takes poetry to be and to do, and why it’s important. In her early novel, Bay of Noon (1970), she writes of “the physical aspect of poetry that sends a shiver across the sight and skin.” Perhaps she echoes here, even intentionally, A. E. Housman’s 1933 description of what poetry does: “Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act.” Those sensitive to poetry, formed by it and with a memory for it, are, for Hazzard, paradigmatic of those attuned to beauty. In her memoir, Greene on Capri (2000), her acquaintance with Graham Greene begins because, sitting in a café in the main square on the island of Capri, she overhears him reciting part of a poem by Robert Browning and is able to supply a line that he cannot recall. The line is “Or so very little longer” and the poem from which it comes is called “The Lost Mistress,” which ends with the sadness but inevitability of parting: “I will hold your hand but as long as all may— / Or so very little longer.” Hazzard would of course know that poem—its sentiments and its mood are hers—and it’s little surprise that Greene did, too.

One way to recognize that a character in Hazzard’s stories and novels interests her positively is by their precise and apposite use of lines from poems. Those shown to do this are the characters whose sensibilities are rightly attuned, and they’re the ones Hazzard would like the reader to admire—and perhaps those she would herself have liked to have been, the instruments of her self-fashioning. By contrast, when a Hazzard character is insensitive to poetry, or, worse, condemns those who are moved by it, that is a sure sign of crassness, crudity, blindness to beauty, and, worst of all, absorption in the bland everydayness of late modernity. Those are Hazzard’s villains.

Not only would Driscoll have known no poetry; he’d have been proud of it. And people like that, in novels like Hazzard’s, do the kind of monstrous things Driscoll is shown to do.

In a memorable scene early in The Great Fire, Brigadier Barry Driscoll, an Australian in Japan just after the war’s end, is presented as someone who reads only “real books rather than novels” and thinks opera a joke; he delights in being practical and getting things done. He is seen through the eyes of Aldred Leith, the novel’s protagonist, a man of precise perception and poetic sensibility, to whom Driscoll seems repellent and dangerous, an apostle of ugliness. Driscoll delights in the buildings he’s had put up, which to Leith’s eye are without character and grotesquely maladapted to their setting. Shortly after they meet, Leith happens across Driscoll “shrieking into the face of the young Japanese who [was] his maggiordomo” about some minor offense against protocol. Driscoll is hysterical with rage, and he insults and threatens the Japanese man. Later Leith finds a body: the majordomo has committed suicide in the ritualized Japanese manner as his only honorable response to the dishonor he’s been given. Not only would Driscoll have known no poetry; he’d have been proud of it. And people like that, in novels like Hazzard’s, do the kind of monstrous things Driscoll is shown to do. They sow ugliness and destruction. In the same chapter, Leith is shown presenting a book of poetry to Driscoll’s children. He will, later in the novel, come to love Driscoll’s daughter, who at this stage is barely adolescent, and she him. That affair is the spine of the novel. (The love of a much older man for a young woman is an utterly standard theme in Hazzard’s work, as it was in her life: Steegmuller was twenty-five years older than she.) An absence of poetry in Hazzard’s characters always stunts, and sometimes even kills.

Such was her love for poetry that some of her prose is ekphrastically related to particular poems. That is, it describes or renders a particular poem in the medium of a short story, transfiguring the words and mood of one genre into those of another. The clearest example of this is her already-mentioned novella, The Evening of the Holiday (1966), with its epigraph from the Leopardi poem from which it also takes its title: “Questo dì fu solenne: or da’ trastulli / Prendi riposo” (“This was a holy day: from its delights / Take your rest”).

Leopardi’s poem is saturated in romantic gloom. A man looks out over a still, moonlit night; he thinks of the woman he loves; he’s sure that she doesn’t know what a wound she’s opened in his heart; he is, he thinks, condemned by nature to the tears of disappointed love; there is nothing left for him but to protest his fate and contemplate the inevitability of loss, as the glory of Rome herself is now lost (could any nineteenth-century Italian romantic avoid this thought?). Songs heard in the distance, passing on the road, gradually dying away into silence (how lovely in Italian: “Lontanando morire a poco a poco”), pierce the heart as does love.

The poem’s central conceit, borrowed by Hazzard for her story, is that there has been a festal day—a holy day or holiday—on which love is, or seems, possible. But that day inevitably ends, and with it the love. The music dies: both the poem and the story end with that image. Holy days give way to work days, days for ordinary things, and those are days of routine, days without love. In Hazzard’s story, a young half-English, half-Italian woman boards a train to finally leave her Italian lover behind, and as she does a military band strikes up on the train “until the train, gathering speed, made it impossible to play any longer.” Those are the novella’s last words, and they conclude a precisely observed and carefully understated story of love between a young woman visiting Italy and a considerably older man (that theme again). Hazzard’s technique makes the story entirely convincing and entirely heart-rending. Both points of view are rendered, and she is able to show the progress of a day or of a moment’s flirtation with very few words. The story’s most intense moments, involving eros and its opposite, include the dropping and retrieval of a bracelet into the water of a fountain (a sleeve is rolled up), and the climbing of a ladder to look at the face of Mary on a decayed mural in a hay barn. And there are gorgeously aphoristic jewels: “At times she seemed to him (as women often did) like a piece of information he must acquire”; “He had had, like everyone else, an exceptionally unhappy childhood”; “Since his nostalgia for her was inevitable, he preferred to embark on it as soon as possible—even in her presence” (Proust would have approved).

Hazzard’s story is better—truer, more beautiful—it seems to me, than Leopardi’s poem, heretical as that will sound to his advocates. There is in the poem, as often in his work, a self-dramatizing self-pity. There is none of that in Hazzard herself, or in her characters. They are what they are, without dramatization; she shows what she shows without emphasis or overt lament. There is a love affair. Like all of them, it ends. The knowledge of that ending suffuses it, as always. It is enough to show that, virtuosically. Every love, like every marriage, ends with betrayal or withering or death. Hazzard sees this clearly. There is, short of the life of the world to come, no other possibility, and even there, Jesus says, marriages have no purchase. Catholics tend these days to romanticize sexual and married love in ways that the tradition calls into question, and close, careful reading of pagans who are attentive and clear-sighted about these matters can do us nothing but good.

Catholics, this Catholic anyway, can therefore celebrate and be instructed by some of what Hazzard does with poetry and poetical sensibility, and can admire the elegance and precision of her writing. There we find ourselves in a world of decay-laced beauty. Poetry is excellent as an instrument for sharpening our ability to see both the worm and the bud, and for showing both as they are. The doctrines of creation and the fall tell us that both the world and we are damaged, in need of repair, and incapable of seeing clearly either of those states of affairs; they also tell us that we are sometimes capable of making beautiful things. All this Hazzard sees and shows. But sometimes in her work—and perhaps this is her version of Leopardi’s self-regard—poetic sensibility is used as a weapon, its presence signaling virtue, its absence vice. That cannot be endorsed. Virtue has other channels and other expressions than the finely tuned capacity to perceive and to make that she values so much. And that possibility doesn’t interest her. She was, I think, mostly blind to it.

 

Hazzard’s romanticism about literature is matched, perhaps exceeded, by her romanticism about place and time. These romanticisms are evident most clearly in her writing about Naples, found in both her fiction and her essays. For her, to live in Naples or on Capri was to live “among the scenes and sentiments of a humanism the New World could not provide”—and for Hazzard the New World is not only America but also Australia. There is a normative contrast here. Naples, because of its layered past, and because “the modern world of massed material power...has bypassed Naples for almost two hundred years now,” has complexities and beauties unavailable in the modern world. There is sometimes in Hazzard a similar contrast between the past and the present: “The modern visitor to the past may yet embrace abroad what is déclassé at home—ripeness, grace, ceremony, repose, an acceptance of mortality.” And space and time are brought together when, as often, Hazzard or her characters inveigh against the encroachment of the characterless new upon the layered and decayed beauties of the old: “New apartment blocks rise in thousands, ever higher on the Vesuvian cone, erected by developers who feel little need of appeasing San Gennaro [that is, the patron saint of Naples, who protects especially against eruptions of Vesuvius]...modern suburbs offend the sight.”

All those quotations are from Hazzard’s The Ancient Shore: Dispatches from Naples (2008), which collects some of her essays on that city, written over several decades. What the quotations say is, on the face of it, both harmful and confused. They show an unreflective contempt for the houses and possessions and modes of living of the proletariat—and perhaps of all the poor except for those whose poverty involves picturesque squalor. There is a remarkable moment in The Evening of the Holiday in which Hazzard’s lovers visit a farmhouse owned by the man, in which his tenants, we might say his sharecroppers, live. Sophie, the woman, observes the picturesque poverty of the house, full of things “grooved and glossy with age,” and then sees a “naked circle of fluorescent lighting” set into the ceiling and remarks that it is “the only truly new and truly sordid object in the room.” This is a notation of contempt—leave the poor to themselves and what you’ll get is sordid ugliness—and I shudder at it. Can Hazzard’s love for Naples, and her indisputable capacity to show it to us, be separated from this nostalgia, this consigning of modernity and its proles to a wasteland?

Perhaps it can, but it’s difficult. Hazzard is obviously right that the architectural, monumental, artistic, and literary past of Naples is more layered and complex than that of, say, South Bend, Indiana, or Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. She is right, too, that some people have cultivated refined sensibilities attuned to the intricacies of that past, and other pasts like it, and that it is such people (Leopardi, Keats, Flaubert) who can see what she sees and write as she writes. Acknowledging this fact implies no contempt. It need not be accompanied by the strong normative judgments—this is better than that; those who like that sort of thing are less good, less developed, less human, perhaps, than those who like this sort of thing (for example, that circle of fluorescent light)—that sometimes do accompany it in Hazzard. She could say that Naples is Naples, and show it to us with all the resources at her disposal, without also saying that it’s a better place than Alice Springs. She could show us the estate at Recanati, Leopardi’s home, as she lyrically does in her introduction to Iris Origo’s biography of him, without implicitly—and all too often explicitly—contrasting it and its like with the featureless blandness of the modern. But to do that would be to say only that Naples is Naples and Alice Springs is Alice Springs, and I rather think that Hazzard wants more.

No Catholic can easily accept the more that she wants. We affirm beauty, of course; it is one of the transcendentals, convertible with goodness and love; it is what God is. But our hierarchies are not of sensitivity and elegance; they are of holiness. And there is little overlap, perhaps none of significance, between the hierarchical order of Hazzard’s loves and those of Catholics. Our saints are crude, crazy, unsubtle; they’d prefer the ugly circle of fluorescent light to the aesthete’s grooved glossinesses; and they’d have little time for Hazzard’s burnishings of aesthetic sensibility. We cannot accept the elevation of what Leopardi or Hazzard or even Dante write over the crass martyrdom stories of the early Church or breathless accounts of healings at Lourdes.

Perhaps. Perhaps not, though. There is something that makes me uneasy about what I’ve just written, and in my response to Hazzard’s gorgeous body of work. I’m moved by reading Hazzard in a way that little in the long Catholic tradition moves me. I resonate as she does, and in considerable part to the same kinds of literature to which she does. Should I simply feel convicted by that, as St. Jerome felt by his love of pagan literature? Perhaps there’s a middle way here. Perhaps I can love Hazzard’s capacity to see clearly and write precisely about what it is like to live and love as a human creature in a world such as this, while also lamenting the characteristic deformity of that capacity: a contempt for those who lack it. Perhaps it is possible, though difficult, to have the capacity without the contempt. If so, then I can love what is good in Hazzard’s work without being derailed by what it lacks. I can remember, too, that someone of Hazzard’s wit and learning is much more likely to be right about nearly everything than I am, and that should call into question a too-rapid critique of her work.

Hazzard takes the ability to make exquisitely beautiful things, and to contemplate the beautiful things others have made, to have ethical import.

The point of the criticism remains a serious one, however, and the screw can be tightened. Hazzard takes the ability to make exquisitely beautiful things, and to contemplate the beautiful things others have made, to have ethical import. She thinks that those who can do such things tend to behave with compassion and sensitivity, to have and to show love, and that those who cannot tend to behave with self-centered blindness to what is around them, and to act violently. But self-fashioning that cultivates exquisite aesthetic sensibility has in fact no such power. The roots of violence and vice in us—even the Leopardis and Hazzards among us—strike too deep for that. To think otherwise is, to borrow a phrase of John Henry Newman’s, to think it possible to quarry granite rock with razors. It can’t be done. The task is beyond the competence of the tool. Sensitivity to the exquisite can, at most, permit those who have it to see and make fine distinctions, to be aware of subtle shades of motive and sensation, to resonate to art’s delicacies of tone and rhythm. No bad thing, I suppose. But such skills have almost no purchase upon the gnarled and chthonic roots of violence struck deep in each of us. For those, other tools are needed, tools as blunt and forceful as what they attack.

 

It is a mark of good literature (a very Hazzardian locution) that it unsettles those who read it. Hazzard does that for me. She might do it for you, too, whether for the reasons I’ve identified in my case, or for others. If you’ve not read her before, I recommend that you start with The Evening of the Holiday. Move from there to the short story “Vittorio,” and then to the novel The Great Fire. Should you get that far, you’ll have become a devotee.

Published in the April 2022 issue: 
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Paul J. Griffiths is a longtime contributor to Commonweal and the author of many books, most recently Regret: A Theology (University of Notre Dame Press) and Why Read Pascal? (Catholic University of America Press).

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