Once I read Shirley Hazzard’s mischievous portrayal of the United Nations in People in Glass Houses, I knew she would be the kind of writer that I’d like. I quickly ordered two more of her books (which are not easy to find, she seems to be somewhat out of print) but have only just read one of them now, five years later. I can relate so well to this ‘citizen of everywhere and nowhere’.
Born in Australia, she nevertheless felt somewhat ambiguous about it, a backwater that she was all too eager to escape from. Although she made America her home for many years, she did not feel she fitted into the sassy, young, casual style of writing there. She felt closer to the more formal English style and has been compared to her contemporaries Anita Brookner, Muriel Spark and Beryl Bainbridge. In fact, she reminds me more of earlier writers such as Ivy Compton-Burnett, Henry Green or Barbara Pym – an excellent ear for dialogue, especially for what remains unspoken, much more tightly controlled and tight-lipped – but without their obsession with class.
The Bay of Noon is one of her early novels, published in 1970. Already, the author demonstrates her ability to write satire, cast her withering cold stare on absurd people and behaviours, yet still show some vulnerability. Her remarkably clear and precise, yet poetic prose style is already fully formed in this book. It is perhaps a style that has become unfashionable in recent years – maybe even in her own lifetime (which might explain a long gap in her writing.) This is not about sparkling linguistic gems and fireworks; instead, it rewards the patient and attentive reader (above all, the rereader) – because nothing is wasted, everything is packed in tightly. Blink and you might miss an important point.
As in most of her novels and short stories, the story seems to be comfortably domestic at first: about expats trying to make a home for themselves in a different culture and caught up in a sort of love triangle. But there are bigger issues at stake – the effects of war (in this case in Italy, in other novels we have Occupied Japan or post-war England) and personal trauma.
Jenny is an expat working for a section of NATO headquartered in Naples in the 1950s. She befriends the glamorous writer Gioconda and her loud macho boyfriend Gianni, and also has occasional forays into a relationship with taciturn Scotsman Justin. Feeling supplanted in her brother’s affections by his wife, not quite at home in any part of the world, she has had to learn to cauterise her heart and wounds. Yet she finds herself once again cast as the spare wheel in a tangle of relationships where no one is entirely happy or satisfied, and everyone is lying to themselves and to others.
Jenny is ferociously bright and observant, but lonely – you can’t help feeling that Hazzard has put a lot of herself in that character, but there is something in the elegance and more resigned sadness of Gioconda which is perhaps the portrait of the more mature author.
But that’s a way to go on loving – a place or a person. To miss it. In fact, to go away, to put yourself in the state of missing, is sometimes the simplest way to preserve love.
Naples is the main character in this novel – and Hazzard clearly loved the place (she eventually settled in Capri with her husband after a peripetatic career all over the world). But she does not romanticise it or avoid its poverty and social problems:
Ordinariness, the affliction and backbone of other cities, was here non-existent. Phrases I had always thought universal – the common people, the average family, the typical reaction, ordinary life – had no meaning where people were all uncommon and life extraordinary; where untraceable convulsions of human experience had yielded up such extremes of destitution, of civilization.