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Monumental Afternoon Quality

Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life
Brigitta Olubas
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, pp. 576, $35.00


At lunch with Graham Greene at a trattoria on the Italian island of Capri, Shirley Hazzard and her husband, Francis Steegmuller, once found a plaque commemorating the first-century poet Statius. Greene asked, one assumes rhetorically, whether anyone still read that old Roman. When Hazzard and Steegmuller promptly responded that in fact they did, Greene laughed and said, “What swank.”

Swank or no, Hazzard the novelist and Steegmuller the biographer established a reputation as one of the major intellectual power couples of the mid- to late twentieth century. They were among that rare breed of popular writers whose cultural pursuits actually connect them with civilization, and in the broad sense that makes one want to start capitalizing abstract nouns—Literature, Culture—and overusing the word “great” for books, poetry, men, aspirations. There was a timeless element to their interests: Hazzard had whole volumes of Romantic poetry in her head, Steegmuller produced the preeminent translation of Madame Bovary, they spoke French in Paris and Italian in Rome. They read Homer at dawn and Muriel Spark over dinner, and both with pleasure.

One assumes that this cultural dolce vita—New York part of the year, Italy for the rest—could only be the slow-ripened fruit of generations, grown from established wealth and a long lineage of learning. But Shirley Hazzard grew up in the 1930s in a suburb of Sydney, Australia, and then shuttled around Hong Kong and New Zealand following her father’s career as a diplomat. She started teaching herself Italian in her teens after stumbling across some Leopardi translations and saw Italy for the first time at age twenty-five when she was stationed in Naples as a young missionary for the United Nations. Her marriage and writing were intertwined in an intense literary fusion that insisted on the epic over the essay, fate instead of happenstance, the whole historical sweep of Italy over dusty Australia. In Shirley Hazzard: A Writer’s Life, the first biography of Hazzard, Brigitta Olubas shows this autodidact and cultural aspirant using fiction in the highest Romantic fashion—as magic. Hazzard rewrote reality into fiction when the former didn’t suit and created an entirely new life for herself through literature.

This was a pursuit Hazzard shared with Steegmuller, who started out ahead of her. Twenty-five years older than Hazzard, when he met her he was an accomplished widower with half a shelf of detective novels, biographies, and translations to his name. Hazzard, by contrast, was relatively new to the New York scene, with a C.V. that was mostly blank. But she was sharp: she could remember poetry on sight—famously, she later made friends with Greene by supplying the final line of a Browning poem he was struggling to remember—and she had a vibrant voice and magnetic personality, which had led to some early successes with magazine editors. In 1963, when she first met Steegmuller, she was writing her first novel and had published some short stories in the New Yorker. The first, “Woollahra Road,” is a period piece that evokes her dissatisfaction about her Australian origins. It is promising, charming, but unquestionably minor.

Still, Muriel Spark, a fortuitous early New Yorker connection, saw something. She introduced the two, saying to Hazzard: “There’s a man coming I think you ought to marry.”

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