Lovers of short stories should be aware of this excellent writer. She did not write a great deal, five novels, some works of non-fiction and some short stories. A collection of 28 of these has been made by Brigitta Olubas, published by Virago in 2020. You will find critics using such expressions as precise, surgical, elegant, decorousness, scalpel-sharp prose, polished, bitingly funny. Her stories are all these things.
The stories in the first section of this collection are mostly about relationships, often with a young girl at the mercy of a jaded older man, who is pretty hapless. Her observational skills are superb. She is both moral and accurate. Here is a moment in the conversation between Clem, a married man of 42 who is trying to let Nettie down lightly at the end of their love affair. She is a young woman of very little experience.
“What are you thinking about?” he asked her.
“Men,” she said absently.
Taken aback by the plural, he stopped to assemble his thoughts once more. She was not being very encouraging, lowering her eyes and offering him monosyllables in this way. But there was no reason why she should encourage him, and he reminded himself of that; he was nothing if not fair. (38 A Place in the Country)
Shirley Hazzard is not so interested in the drama in the stories, more about the importance of people making authentic connections. As Zoe Heller remarks in her foreword about this story, Nettie, urged by her lover not to “exaggerate the importance” of her broken heart, ‘understands instinctively that the greater sin is to take such matters of the heart lightly’. (xi)
The middle section includes stories mostly set in the ‘Organisation’, which is the UN in a thin disguise, where Shirley Hazzard worked for many years in the 1950s. The stories reveal a certain smugness in the men in high positions. She is not above lampooning organisational speak, people’s attitudes to themselves, the hierarchies of the Organisation, the pointlessness of much of the work and the ability of the organisation to believe that its work had value where there is none.
‘The Meeting’ is a story about Flinders who has been running an operation in a north African country, replanting trees. He makes a presentation to a subcommittee of the Organisation, DALTO (the Department of Aid to the Less Technically Oriented), about his project, but he does not know how to speak their language, whereas another presentation at the same meeting is smooth and accompanied by a film but appears to have done nothing.
He left the room and walked down a gray corridor. He wished he had gone to the trouble of taking a proper film, like Edrich, or had at least prepared the right kind of final report. At El Attara he had thought these things peripheral, but here they seemed to matter most of all. He should have been able to address the meeting in its own language – the language of ends and trends, of agenda and addenda, of concrete measures in fluid situations, which he had never set himself to master. At El Attara they had needed help and he had done what he could, but he found himself unable to speak of this work. He knew the problem of erosion to be immense, and the trees, being handed down that way had looked so few and so small. (171 The Meeting)
There is humour in her description of the language of meetings: the language of ends and trends, of agenda and addenda, of concrete measures in fluid situations. But more than that, this seems to be an indictment of the work of a great organisation, loftily above the needs of ordinary citizens of the world, and quite out of touch with the reality of those lives: he knew the problem of erosion to be immense. The problem appears to be erosion of the Organisation’s purposes.
Among the uncollected and unpublished stories in the third section is ‘Leave it to me’ about the hypocrisy of well-informed people. A group assemble in an Italian house, witnessing a fire in the fields. The English host complains that the Italians used to work together to extinguish such fires, but they don’t now. They let it burn. The party let it burn. Later they go outside to see how it’s going and find that the fire has been extinguished.
I have picked out a couple of quotations, but these short stories are full of such moments, which add up to a collection of thoughtful and intelligent observations of the worlds in which Shirley Hazzard moved, and which have relevance today. They reveal that Shirley Hazzard was as brilliant a writer of short fiction as of longer works.
Shirley Hazzard was born in 1931 in Sydney, Australia. Her father moved the family when he took up a diplomatic position in Hong Kong in 1947, and they moved back to Australia and on to New Zealand before they settled in New York from 1951. She worked at the UN for about 10 years and was critical of its failings. She spent time in Italy and developed a love of the country. She died in 2016 in New York.
The Transit of Venus was published in 1980, and The Great Fire in 2003. Both books gained awards for excellence. Some of her essays have been collected in a volume called We Need Silence to find out What we Think.
Collected Stories by Shirley Hazzard, edited by Brigitta Olubas and published by Virago in 2020. 356pp
The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard (September 2020)
Even more praise for short stories (September 2021)