Shirley Hazzard’s writings eloquently bear out her love of literary humanism and her faith in the power of posterity, writes Geordie Williamson
There should be a term for the surprise, or frisson, or delighted recognition that arises when a supposedly antiquated world view comes roaring back into view. Even those who disagree with Bernie Sanders’ politics, for example, recognise that an earlier current of American politics is suddenly back in currency after decades of ideological alienation. And even those who do not share her religious belief must grant that US author Marilynne Robinson has, in her novels and essays, rejigged the 19th-century thought of everyone from Emerson to William James in ways that gain fresh purchase on the present.
It may also be also how readers greet this slight but not insubstantial selection of Shirley Hazzard’s nonfiction, guided into print via the We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think: Selected Essays By Shirley Hazzard, edited and with an introduction by Brigitta Olubas Columbia University Press, 248pp, $57.95 (HB) tender editorial ministrations of Australian scholar Brigitta Olubas and built mainly around three previously unpublished lectures delivered by Hazzard in 1982 as part of Princeton’s Gauss Seminars. Supplemented by reviews of contemporaries such as Muriel Spark and Patrick White, pieces related to the flawed UN — where she first worked on arriving in the US — and a clutch of speeches, biographical essays and travel pieces, We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think manages the difficult task of making old-school, mid-century liberal humanism feel alive, urgent and necessary once again.
Admittedly, taken together, it is not a lot of piecework to show for decades of literary labour. But then, Hazzard’s marriage to scholar, biographer and translator Francis Steegmuller — whose first marriage left him independently wealthy — freed her from the obligation of writing with her left hand. What we have instead in these pages are essays, reviews and recollections that reflect her true loves as a reader, and her central concerns as a writer and public intellectual. As Olubas observes in a clear and comprehensive introduction, Hazzard has been shaped in interesting ways by such rare and happy circumstance.
Though formidably well read, Hazzard is not of the academy. Mistrust of the euphuistic interpretative tendencies of American universities in the latter decades of the 20th century shadows her defence of literature throughout. And although she has spent much of her adult life at the heart of a great literary capitol — working and living on equal terms with those scholars, writers and editors whose talents
Shirley Hazzard in London in 2004, left; in Sydney with her husband Francis Steegmuller in 1976, right; and on her own, below right