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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

Gra­ham Greene

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