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.