Oz Feb: Shirley Hazzard

Shirley Hazzard: The Evening of the Holiday, 1966.

I don’t think the name ‘Oz Feb’ is going to catch on for my exploration of Australian literature this month, but a short name for a short month seems about right. My travel to a different country every month is also a way to finally read the books on my shelves instead of acquiring any new ones, so apologies to my Australian blogger friends who made some excellent suggestions that I ignored (and others who said I really should include New Zealand and Oceania too). I will investigate those suggestions in the future, for this is undoubtedly not the last time I venture into that part of the world with my reading. But please allow me and my teensy-weensy, whispy faint traces of willpower some time to recover from book-buying for the time being…

I’ve embarked on a rather massive volume (Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children), which will probably take me a week or two to finish, so I am reading shorter books in parallel. The first of these is a return to an old favourite, Shirley Hazzard, who was a truly cosmopolitan and peripatetic author, to the extent that we might question her Aussie credentials.

The Evening of the Holiday was her debut novel, and is set, like a few of her other novels, in Italy. It is a really simple story, following the love affair between Tancredi, a self-absorbed Italian man recently separated from his wife, and Sophie, whom he believes at first to be the quintessential English rose, but who turns out to be half-Italian. Although both of them are initially is unimpressed with the other, although they tell themselves they see things all too clearly, they appear to fall genuinely in love, but then each go their separate way, a Brief Encounter with more kisses and sex. Of course, the summer in Italy, the holiday atmosphere, the words in both English and Italian poetry, the song of the nightingale, the scent of the flowers all have a part to play in this magic. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the spells being cast in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as well as its own sensible but unsatisfactory resolution.

Lily King called this her perfect novel, that she returns to time and time again, and mentions that the book’s central male character reminds her of the ennui and riff on memory and desire of T.S. Eliot. I didn’t fall quite as much under the spell of the book as she did, even though it is full of the three sentiments I love above all else in literature: Weltschmerz, wistfulness, and the Romanian dor. The two main characters left me somewhat bewildered, although I do not need relatable characters to like a book. But what I do love about Shirley Hazzard is her elegant style, her sentences glittering like jewels, a sense of ironic detachment, a smile in the corner of her mouth, and all of this emerges perfectly formed already in her first novel:

I am perfectly able to deal with this man, who does not even attract me… except in so far as he has the qualities that are attractive about Italy itself – grace and the lack of earnestness. He was probably older than he looked. And then there was the language. If I saw him alone, she thought, I would have to wonder all the time about the subjunctive. I don’t think I can be bothered.

Hazzard can be quite scathing about the ways we are dishonest with ourselves:

Having made up one’s mind to suffer a great hurt, it was somehow disheartening, a disappointment, to be told it need not be borne and that some other way could be found, less lonely but harder, more imperfect but bearable.

I particularly like the way she punctures self-important rhetoric and over-romanticising things:

He had had, like everyone else, an exceptionally unhappy childhood, but his later memories, of adolescence, were predominantly pleasant ones. These memories were frequently represented in single scenes, like paintings – paintings in clear colours, well preserved, perhaps a little over-cleaned. Sometimes he would see himself, a tall young man, walking on the unpaved country roads in the morning. (In these memories, he was always taller, it was always morning, and the roads were still unspoiled by asphalt.)

11 thoughts on “Oz Feb: Shirley Hazzard”

  1. That is a really elegant writing style, Marina Sofia. I can see why it would draw you in, even if the characters didn’t quite as much. And if you do make the decision to read New Zealand, do let me know. I could offer suggestions…

    1. I am sure I will have no shortage of excellent suggestions for NZ authors – the question is how easy it is to find them over here without having to spend a lot of money! Once I start going into the office in London more regularly, I am sure I can find some of the authors at the big university library.

  2. Definitely a writer I want to try this year. I’ve heard so many great things about her from trusted readers (yourself included), and this 1960s-style riff on a Brief Encounter sounds very appealing. Consider me sold – on the wishlist it goes!

    1. I think you would like her, Jacqui. She has that felicity of expression and power of observation which you (and I) admire in Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym or Penelope Fitzgerald.

    1. Sadly, none of the Hazzards I own are from indie publishers, they were reissued a while back by Virago Modern Classics in the early 2000s. Although, now that I think of it, wasn’t Virago still independent back then?

    1. I think she really deserves a bigger audience. I’ve reviewed two more of her books: The Bay of Noon and People in Glass Houses, but I have several more of her books on my shelves.

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