A new assessment of the works of expatriate author Shirley Hazzard places her at the centre of an international vision of Australian literature, writes Geordie Williamson Shirley Hazzard: Literary Expatriate and Cosmopolitan Humanist
ONE rainy morning in the late 1960s, in a cafe on the island of Capri, author Shirley Hazzard was huddled over The Times crossword when two men sat down at the table beside her. One was a stranger to Hazzard; the other, she knew by sight. He was Graham Greene, then England’s most famous living author, who stayed for part of each year in a village nearby.
Hazzard eavesdropped as the men discussed a poem by Robert Browning, one whose conclusion Greene could not recall. As she rose to leave, Hazzard furnished the poem’s final lines to the presumably dumbfounded pair. In doing so she crystallised the friendship described in her brief, beguiling memoir from 2000, Greene on Capri.
That meeting may well stand as a thumbnail for Brigitta Olubas’s larger thesis in Shirley Hazzard: Literary Expatriate and Cosmopolitan Humanist. Her study of the life and work of Hazzard, astonishingly the first of its kind, is primarily concerned with the author’s cosmopolitanism. Olubas no doubt would observe that these two literary expatriates did not meet on the firm ground of native soil but on top of a limestone crag in the middle of a sea: an island, moreover, whose ownership had been contested for millennia.
This is just the point that Olubas, a University of NSW-based academic and longtime admirer of Hazzard, attempts to make. Her monograph argues that liberal humanism does not have a geographic home; it is not fixed in space, does not emerge from a single source. Rather its fragile decencies are founded on connections between disparate individuals, creative artists and people-smugglers of the intellect who carry other people’s words around inside their heads.
Encounters such as the one between Hazzard and Greene speak of taste, hard-earned erudition and proper care for the signal artefacts of cultures across language and time. To Olubas, then, the Australian writer’s career suggests that it is in the network of such links where such cultivation makes its home. ‘‘ Rather than looking to the nation for the explicit context from which her work emerges,’’ writes Olubas, Hazzard’s writing ‘‘ directs readers to the broad and cosmopolitan web of humanist inheritance’’.
This is a generous decision on Olubas’s part. As a local scholar she is familiar with what she calls Australia’s ‘‘ unpredictable protocols of literary acknowledgment’’. She may well have felt an obligation to co-opt Hazzard for purposes of cultural nationalism. The Jesuits used to claim that it took seven years of teaching and indoctrination to fully own the body, mind and soul of an individual. By those lights Hazzard, who was born in Sydney in 1931 and who left in her teens, belongs to us. She admitted as much in interviews following the award of the 2004 Miles Franklin for her second novel, The Great Fire: ‘‘ Australia was the first 15 years of my life and you are already Australian for life by doing that.’’
But it is a measure of Olubas’s subtlety that she notes the characteristically ironic edge to Hazzard’s words. Her monograph proceeds according to the proposition that Hazzard’s place of birth and childhood habitation are significant to the degree that they were set aside as the author matured. It suggests that nationality may be a springboard as much as the pool in which we endlessly swim. ‘‘ It is a privilege,’’ as New York-based Hazzard By Brigitta Olubas Cambria Press, 272pp, $114.99 (HB) E-book versions also available says, ‘‘ to be at home in more than one place.’’
Privilege is a keyword here. Contemporary cosmopolitanism cuts across ideas of class, ethnicity and language. The recent movement of people from the developing world to the West is the greatest diaspora in history. The scale of this exodus and the political instability, environmental pressures and economic inequalities that drive it have reconfigured our sense of emigration and expatriatism.
Olubas studies Hazzard’s writing in terms of an earlier version of cosmopolitanism — white, middle class and mainly Anglophone — one that travelled along the old routes of empire and settled in its various colonial outposts. So we learn Hazzard’s parents — father from a Welsh background, mother of Scottish extraction — met while both were employees of a British firm involved in the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Hazzard, top, and with husband Francis Steegmuller