Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life 
by Brigitta Olubas.
Virago, 564 pp., £12.99, June, 978 0 349 01286 5
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Shirley Hazzard in 1957

Shirley Hazzard​ liked to tell the story of how she got to know Graham Greene. A rainy morning in the late 1960s, a café on the island of Capri. She was doing the Times crossword. Greene and his friend Michael Richey came in from Mass at the church across the square and she overheard them at a nearby table fumbling for a line of Robert Browning’s ‘The Lost Mistress’:

Tomorrow we meet the same then, dearest?
May I take your hand in mine?
Mere friends are we – well, friends the merest
Keep much that I resign …

Yet I will but say what mere friends say,
Or only a thought stronger;
I will hold your hand but as long as all may –

And then, according to Hazzard, Greene

could not remember the very end. He recurred to this several times, trying to draw it up from his memory, but did not manage it. When I had finished my coffee and my puzzle, and had paid, and had taken my raincoat and umbrella from the dank stand, I said: ‘The line is “Or so very little longer.”’

Back at her hotel, Hazzard told her husband, Francis Steegmuller, about the encounter. When the two of them entered a restaurant near the piazza that evening Greene stood up to greet them. They dined together, the first of many meetings over the years.

It’s a neat story, despite the difficulty of crediting that anyone who had got as far as ‘stronger’ would be lost for the thumping rhyme ‘longer’. Hazzard proves her worth in a game played by her literary elders. Age is important to her. She carefully notes that at the time of this encounter she was in her thirties, Greene in his mid-sixties, Steegmuller two years younger than Greene, and Richey in his late forties. Steegmuller – who had by then published several major biographies (Flaubert, Maupassant, Apollinaire), but was best known as a translator of Flaubert – had met Greene years before in America, when he was still with his first wife. Hazzard would go on to write a clutch of spiky, ambitious novels including The Bay of Noon (1970), The Transit of Venus (1980) and The Great Fire, which won the National Book Award in 2003. But in the late 1960s she had published just two volumes of short stories (collected from the New Yorker) and a first novel. Nonetheless, she claimed literary equality: ‘We were, all four, writers and readers in a world where the expressive word, spoken or written, still seemed paramount – beneficiaries of what John Bayley once called “the inevitable solace that right language brings”. We were all, in varying degrees, sociable yet solitary.’

It was a bold assertion. She was not only young, and relatively unproven, but the wrong gender; she was pushed right up against the ‘dream of womanly self-effacement’ that she diagnosed in her elders:

From the 1920s into the 1940s, Greene and several of his talented male contemporaries were working, in English fiction, related veins of anxiety and intelligence, anger and danger, sex and sensibility, and contrasting an ironic private humanity with the petty vanities and great harm of established power. Their narrative frequently centred on the difficulty of being a moody, clever, thin-skinned – and occasionally alcoholic – literate man who commands the devotion of a comely, plucky, self-denying younger woman … In the characterisation of women, the male novelists of those years wrote as though Elizabeth Bennet, Dorothea Brooke, Becky Sharp and Emma Bovary had never been created.

She describes Phuong, Fowler’s Vietnamese mistress in Greene’s The Quiet American – a novel that invokes Cyril Connolly’s dictum in Enemies of Promise about the pram in the hall – as ‘a toy for her lover’. In Hazzard’s fiction there are very few children, and the ones who do appear are not particularly rewarding. But they are not the enemy. The enemy is the person who sees others as playthings. The enemy is the writer.

At the time of the Capri meeting Hazzard was writing her second novel, The Bay of Noon, a book that begins with a plane crash, dispatches a major character in a second one, and features, inter alia, a car accident, a missed flight and an unlucky decision to pull a rowing boat onto a buried wartime mine. The plot of her most famous novel, The Transit of Venus, published ten years later, is kickstarted by a ship going down in Sydney harbour, carrying Caroline and Grace Bell’s parents with it, and ends with yet another plane crash. In between there are further accidents of road, rail, air and sea. A character in The Transit of Venus draws attention to the unlikeliness of these multiple pile-ups: ‘I’ve thought there may be more collisions of the kind in life than in books. Maybe the element of coincidence is played down in literature because it seems like cheating or can’t be made believable. Whereas life itself doesn’t have to be fair, or convincing.’ No doubt if your name is Hazzard you try to live up to it.

The number of fictional collisions is given a certain realist permission by how often and how far her characters travel: Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, England, Italy, Malta, Madeira, Ireland, the US, South America, Sweden. They are always shifting about, for work – exporting Anglo-American postwar infrastructure, or politics, or diplomacy – or love, or just because they can. In The Bay of Noon, the narrator, Jenny, has been shipped from England to South Africa as an evacuee during the war. She moves to Somaliland to keep house for her brother, who has taken a job as an irrigation engineer, until he returns to England to get married and she follows. She escapes suburbia and an increasingly complicated case of ‘brotherly love’ by accepting a job in Naples, translating Nato documents about docks and airfields, using the Italian she picked up in Somaliland.

This is all a version of Hazzard’s own journey. She was born in Sydney in 1931, the younger of Reg and Catherine (‘Kit’) Hazzard’s two daughters. She liked to claim that her parents were Welsh and Scottish but Brigitta Olubas has uncovered hazier beginnings, including illegitimacy and uncertain birth records for both parents, and for Reg, whose early life was, Hazzard said, ‘shrouded in unspeakability’, shakily documented adoption.

A British backstory suited Hazzard’s self-mythology. All her life she was keen to deny Australia. As with Jenny’s exile to South Africa in The Bay of Noon, growing up in Australia engendered ‘a permanent sense of lack’. Returning to Europe, Jenny recalls: ‘It pleased me … that plants and seasons now corresponded to literature; that Nature was not the sole index of age; that the rewards of one’s surroundings were rendered in architecture, rather than in the unearned prestige of Table Mountain.’ Australia is sketched in a long flashback in The Transit of Venus as ‘a parched unvisited mystery, a forlorn horizon strung on a strand of slack barbed wire’, a country that ‘required apologies, and was almost a subject for ribaldry’. In choosing ‘the elsewhere of books’ (in particular, according to her own legend, the poems of Leopardi) as her method of escape from antipodean blight, Hazzard set herself apart from her community as a misplaced, cultured European. (‘As far as I can recall, I never heard a man refer to a good or to a great book. I knew no one who had mastered, or even studied, another language from choice.’) But in looking to a fantasy north-west for salvation she was borrowing from the stranded Anglo-Australian tribe in which she was raised. A whole people misplaced, continuing to perform ‘airless episodes of England’ long after they were out of date: ‘Refinement was maintained on the razor’s edge of the abyss. To appear without gloves, or in other ways to suggest the flesh, to so much as show unguarded love, was to be pitchforked into brutish, bottomless Australia, all the way back to primitive man.’

There were other reasons, beyond Australian provincialism, to want to get away. Her parents, who met while working on the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge for the engineering company Dorman Long, were wildly incompatible and dramatically unhappy. Hazzard frequently recalled the acrimony of their marriage: her father’s dereliction and the manipulative behaviour of her mother, who was ‘melodramatic to the point really that became a kind of derangement … she had a recurrent need for hysteria and would lash out, would sulk, and would let it be known through the house that she had been mortally wounded.’ Hazzard was in her twenties when her parents finally divorced; living with her mother afterwards, she described herself as ‘trapped with this incubus’. Parents in her fiction are either dispatched early or persist as life-denying prison warders whom characters must escape, at any cost, if they are to survive at all. Adolescents learn early how to give their parents the slip: Helen, the ingénue in love with an older man in The Great Fire, bides her time until she can make a break for it; in The Transit of Venus, the teenage Caroline, allowed into town on her own, sneaks in visits to bookshops – enemy territory to her older half-sister, Dora, who has been forced into the maternal role after the sisters’ parents drown. ‘Dora could always die, so she said. I CAN ALWAYS DIE, as if this were a solution to which she might repeatedly resort.’

In 1946, Hazzard’s father, still very much alive, had been offered the post of Australian trade commissioner for Hong Kong and commercial counsellor for Canton, and the family escaped Australia for a little over a year. After some months hanging around in colonial circles (she described the city in these years as ‘a colony retouching … its prewar existence’), the 16-year-old Hazzard got a very junior job (mostly filing, I imagine) ‘in a British inter-services intelligence unit’, tasked with gathering information about the progress of the civil war in China. She later said that the visit to Hong Kong ‘changed many things in my life … The very dramatic, very worldly life there was what I had imagined real life to be. Also, going above the equator, now things came right, things like the seasons were in the proper order that was given in literature.’ (By the time of this interview, with Geoffrey Dutton in 1984, the coincidence between real life and literature had become an article of faith for Hazzard.)

But perhaps the most lasting impression came on the long journey from Sydney, during a week’s stop at Kure, the port city outside Hiroshima. It was late May, less than two years after the bombing. Hazzard took in not only the devastated landscape and the pitiable survivors, but the stilted reaction of her family, who held to the conventional line that the bomb was ‘an inevitable and justified – and even merciful – outcome of the total war’ but were uncomfortable discussing it. In The Great Fire, this attitude is described as ‘the unease of conquerors: the unseemliness of finding themselves few miles from Hiroshima’. In 2007, looking back across a distance of sixty years, Hazzard said that the visit to Hiroshima taught her to start thinking ‘with compassion or imagination of the people who were our enemies, who had gone to blazes in those two atomic droppings’. It’s this perspective that unites Hazzard’s ‘heroes’: Ted Tice and Adam Vail in The Transit of Venus, and Aldred Leith in The Great Fire, who like Tice is posted to Kure in 1947. Those who can’t or won’t imagine other people’s suffering (including a host of obtuse and self-serving characters who work for Nato, the UN, the Foreign Office and Parliament) are not simply not heroes. They are all but irredeemable.

Hazzard’s fictional journeys are freighted with the drama of relationships severed or unfulfilled. In Hong Kong she met Alexis Vedeniapine, a British army officer. Olubas tells us that Vedeniapine was ‘a White Russian, born in St Petersburg in 1916’ who had escaped the Russian Revolution with his family and was brought up in Shanghai before being sent to boarding school in, of all places, Woodford, Essex. From there he entered agricultural college, and worked for a farmer in Berkshire. He joined the First Parachute Brigade in 1939, served in Tunisia and Sicily, fought at the Battle of Arnhem, was imprisoned in Stalag IX-C, and later underwent intelligence training and was assigned to Hong Kong.

Vedeniapine was fifteen years older than Hazzard, who was still not eighteen, and from all the evidence they weren’t well-suited. Marriage was arranged, put off and later abandoned – all by post between New Zealand (where Reg had a new post as trade commissioner) and a dairy farm in Hertfordshire, where Vedeniapine settled after he left the army. He figured throughout Hazzard’s life as a lost (and unconsummated) ideal – romanticised to a dream of manly self-effacing heroism in The Great Fire. Her infatuation with Alec was the first in a series of relationships with much older men, most of whom were married, and many of whom turn up, as lightly transfigured bounders and seducers, in the fiction.

In​ 1951, Reg was posted to New York and the family moved continents again. Hazzard was twenty. She got a job in the Technical Assistance Administration offices of the UN, where she found herself frustrated, as Olubas puts it, by ‘the conventionality and smallness of … vision’ of the young women she worked with. The ‘friendships she established were mainly with her more senior male colleagues’, and several of them developed into long and unsatisfactory affairs. She also befriended the wives, to the point of holidaying with them. Her first sexual relationship, with Tex Goldschmidt (whom she met when filling in for his regular secretary and who later said of his affairs, ‘I don’t carry a load of guilt: it’s just as though I danced with someone’), was fictionalised in a number of stories featuring the lovers Nettie and Clem (‘A Place in the Country’, ‘The Picnic’) published in the New Yorker in the early 1960s. It is there again, more bitingly, in Grace’s husband’s affair with his temporary secretary in The Transit of Venus:

There was nothing for it but the clean break. It was, as he told her, the hardest thing he had ever had to do. I blame myself. If I have hurt you, Cordelia. IF, she said, and in such a voice … In his heart, as the unconscious used to be called, he knew he had asked for trouble. But loathed every second of it.

Olubas’s account of these years is full of New York literary society names, encountered at salons, parties, dinners and concerts. At the UN, Hazzard met the journalist and literary host Anne Fremantle, who introduced her to Auden and Elizabeth Bowen. Later she became friendly with James Merrill. She applied for a secondment to Naples in 1956 and in the summer of 1958 holidayed at Elena Vivante’s villa near Siena, which took writers and intellectuals as paying boarders. There she met Dwight Macdonald, who introduced her to people at the Partisan Review and the New Yorker, including William Maxwell, who became one of her first editors. Her first book of short stories, published in 1963, is dedicated to Vivante. Through Maxwell she got to know Muriel Spark, whose New Yorker period was at its height in 1962; they called each other ‘Shirlers’ and ‘Mu’.

She met Steegmuller in New York in 1963. They were introduced by Spark, who described the engineered meeting as her ‘best novel ever’, at a party in Spark’s ‘tiny suite’ at the Beaux Arts Hotel. (‘There’s a man coming I think you ought to marry’.) Although Hazzard claimed that from their first encounter both knew there was ‘something destined about it’, the relationship began much like the others. Steegmuller was recently widowed. He had been married to the artist and heiress Beatrice Stein, his elder by seven years, who had used a wheelchair since contracting polio at the age of ten. Olubas’s account of Stein and Steegmuller’s prewar life of art, culture and global adventure seems to come from a different book, the lists of names conjuring a cultural Atlantis. Stein had been a pupil of Jacques Villon, Marcel Duchamp’s brother, in Paris in the late 1920s. She and Steegmuller married in Vienna in 1935, wintered in New York and took rooms each summer at the Hôtel Palais d’Orsay, where they socialised with the Villons, Duchamp, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Albert and Juliette Gleizes, Henri Lefebvre and, later, Richard Wright. They bought paintings (Renoir, Picasso, Degas); travelled to Egypt and the Caribbean; in New York they knew Ralph Ellison, Truman Capote, Alfred Kazin, John Cheever, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Robert Penn Warren, Eleanor Clark.

When Hazzard met Steegmuller, he was engaged in an on-off relationship with another woman, or so he said. ‘Everybody knew’ he was gay, according to Olubas’s sources, except, apparently, Hazzard. ‘Do let me know developers,’ Spark wrote, adding: ‘You might consider asking him whether “the other girl” is male or female.’ The question was born of personal experience, she explained, since she rarely fell for ‘the whole-hearted male’ herself. Hazzard’s reply was almost prim. This was something she was not going to acknowledge. One of Olubas’s interviewees recalls that friends were ‘amused that Shirley seemed to be completely unaware … or rather had reinvented Francis as this perfect role model of a husband, whereas he’d been, in their views, a very, very … active homosexual’.

The courtship was painful. Steegmuller blew hot and cold, though from the evidence of Hazzard’s letters and diaries it seems mostly cold (‘in all these weeks of being with me Francis has never so much as held my hand’); Hazzard drowned in ‘tears and entreaty’ worthy of the maternal incubus. A holiday in Spain resembled ‘something in a Goya-nightmare painting’, yet by the end of the year they were married.

The marriage brought Hazzard serious wealth. Steegmuller had inherited Stein’s fortune and a large apartment in Manhattan House, a modernist building on East 66th Street; there were yearly visits to Rome; trips to Paris, Morocco (‘to wallow in Delacroix’) and Greece; a rented apartment in Naples and another on Capri. In 1961 Steegmuller had bought a gold Rolls-Royce with the proceeds of his translation into French of ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’. The car would criss-cross the Atlantic over the next several decades, to wait with a driver at various European ports. But in the first years of the marriage both their diaries record ‘pressure’ (Steegmuller), ‘distress’, ‘fury’, ‘tears’ (Hazzard, who also confided that the phrase ‘I could always die’ had begun to occur to her). Olubas is circumspect, arguing that nothing can be deduced ‘that would challenge or disrupt recognition of Francis and Shirley’s devotion to each other’, but it seems likely that one cause of her despair was lack of physical intimacy, and the harder to ignore but still half-buried knowledge of Steegmuller’s sexuality.

Olubas steadfastly looks on the bright side. Of a miserable holiday in Italy the year after they married, in which Steegmuller, not for the first time, suggested splitting up, she writes: ‘Despite these moments of hurt and chagrin, they were happy to be there and to be together.’ The marriage lasted, after all. And Hazzard’s writing flourished, a fact Olubas attributes to a shared dedication to concealment:

What remains, and remains important for Shirley Hazzard’s life and work, is that she found happiness in marriage to a man with inclinations toward literary and artistic figures marked by complexity rather than transparency, with a preference for the undisclosed rather than the vaunted truth, interests that drew her to him, which she shared.

The word ‘inclinations’ is coy. (It seems to refer to Steegmuller’s biographical studies of Apollinaire and Cocteau.) And the diagnosis of happiness ignores the evidence of the fiction. Stories and novels showcase the recurring figure of a cruel, secretive man who toys with people’s affections. Take Justin in The Bay of Noon, the older man whom Jenny meets in Naples. Working out his changeable attitude towards her is the driving force of the narrative. He encourages her to intimacy, then staves off any attempt to be serious by switching to schoolroom banter so that for most of their time together ‘we operated, the two of us, in code.’ He reminds her of her brother, but since she has bolted from illicit and unspoken ‘brotherly love’ this hardly helps. ‘Was he passionless perhaps; or effeminate,’ she wonders. Justin tells her they are fated to miss each other, a case of bad timing: ‘Asyngamy. The inability of two plants to achieve cross-pollination, owing to their unsynchronised development.’ When he runs off with her friend it’s not exactly a betrayal because there has been no promise, but that makes it all the harder to deal with.

Steegmuller must have recognised himself in Justin, though there are also elements of Robert Sonkin, a (gay) New York friend and neighbour with whom Hazzard had hoped for romance in 1961. But this portrait, written in the early years of their marriage, was benign compared to the one she published ten years later: Paul Ivory, the playwright with whom Caroline Bell has a long and self-destructive affair in The Transit of Venus. Ivory is introduced as ‘a man of promise’, which should immediately alert us. Also, he wears espadrilles. Something is awry in this man for whom ‘sincerity was something to fall back on when other methods flagged.’ He has ‘the face of the future, skilled in perceiving what the world wants’. A closeted gay man who has taken a rich wife to shield him, he is compared to Dorian Gray (‘his very sins were impressive to him’).

When Paul reveals, in the novel’s late stages, that he has killed a lover in order to keep his sexuality secret (or rather, has let a man die – an event mentioned on the first page of the novel when no one, least of all the reader, appreciates its significance), Caroline is faced with the knowledge that she has made a lifetime of wrong choices, realising ‘the ignorance in which she had passed passionate years of her life … She had wanted knowledge, but not to know this.’ And now it is too late. The cruelty of this moment in the novel is dizzying – and it is a writer who has orchestrated it, turning experience into fate, by withholding information. Or rather, two writers: Paul Ivory and Shirley Hazzard.

I think Olubas is right to suggest that the undisclosed was the gift that Steegmuller brought Hazzard – not only through the drama of his sexuality, and his relationships with men, but also through his relationship with Flaubert. Hazzard once described her marriage as ‘an extended ménage à trois with Flaubert’, and it’s worth taking the description seriously. Hazzard was practised at ménages à trois, or at subtracting what she needed from relationships with people in relationships. Lacking her own, she had borrowed her lovers’ families in her early affairs. From Steegmuller she stole Flaubert: not only his style (most 20th-century novelists tried to do that) but also his plots, and his habit of vexing his characters’ desires. The Transit of Venus is, I think, in direct conversation with L’Éducation sentimentale. It was her way of getting even.

Readers of Hazzard love to comment on her elaborate yet exact prose. ‘There were sentences that brought tears of gratification to my eyes,’ Anatole Broyard wrote of The Transit of Venus. One of the pleasures of reading her is that there are no short cuts; she always goes the long way round, expending baroque effort, and especially highly wrought adjectives, on the least likely of subjects. Of a Christmas tree fair in Naples: ‘The slain trees, niggard and meridionial, lay about in dismal heaps in a little park.’ Of First World War veterans in Sydney: ‘Who or what they had singly been … sunk in the delved sameness of the eyes. Nothing more could be done to them, but their unsurpassable worst would be sustained for ever.’ She likes to draw attention to the artifice of the scenes she describes, comparing an Italian street to an antiquated postcard, a landscape to a canvas ‘painted from top to bottom’, or a view from a balcony to ‘a box at the opera’. She peoples the scenery like a film director considering each frame, or a stage manager arranging entrances and exits. The Transit of Venus begins with a landscape drenched by a storm, into which a character enters ‘from the left-hand corner’.

The staging is of a piece with her tragi-comic plots, stuffed with fateful encounters, characters in disguise, family members substituted for one another, mistaken identities. They look like romances, but the women rarely get to choose. Agency, when it appears, is all for men. Early on in The Transit of Venus, Ted Tice, who is an astronomer, tells Caroline the story of Guillaume Legentil, who travelled to India to observe the 1761 transit of Venus but ‘was delayed on the way by wars and misadventure. Having lost his original opportunity, he waited eight years in the East for that next transit, of 1769. When the day came, the visibility was freakishly poor, there was nothing to be seen … His story has such nobility you can scarcely call it unsuccessful.’ It’s a typically extravagant, indeed cosmic figure for the lifetime of missed opportunities that will compromise the relationship between the two. And since this is a book about the catastrophe of information withheld or misconstrued, Hazzard has fun with literal withholding, including delivering sentences with bits missing. (‘These are the cells for solitary confinement, here is where they.’) The feelings generated in her characters are subtle, and delicately unpacked, and the contrast with the ornate detail and stylistic jokes with which she likes to point up significance is gloriously peculiar, like the interior of a baroque church offered as the setting for the sound of a single violin.

We learn in the first chapters of The Transit of Venus that Tice will kill himself; our job as readers is to figure out why, but to do that we must read the novel as a story of Tice’s sentimental education, not the romantic fortunes of Caroline Bell. Like the ‘apparition’ of Mme Arnoux that appears to Frédéric Moreau, Tice sees in the novel’s first pages the woman he will love throughout the book without attaining her. It’s a carefully orchestrated vision: ‘The lights went up by themselves, as on a stage.’ The narrator explains not only that Tice is in a battle with Ivory (‘one of them must lose if the other were to win’), but that Tice is going to lose. Nothing is unforeseen, but disclosures always come too late for collisions to be avoided, or opportunities to be grasped. It isn’t simply that Hazzard’s characters are kept in the dark so that they can’t take control of their own destiny. Decent characters, by definition, can’t take control: to be a man of feeling, in The Transit of Venus’s bitter dissection of postwar masculinity, is to be unable to act.

Tice’s education begins during his postwar billet in Hiroshima and prefigures Hazzard’s judgment on the moody, clever, thin-skinned men of Greene’s generation:

Due to the unearthly flatness where a city had been famously incinerated, the events he already called his life were growing inconsiderable before he had practised making them important. This derived from a sense not of proportion but of profound chaos, a welter in which his own lucky little order appeared miraculous but inconsequential; and from a revelation, nearly religious, that the colossal scale of evil could only be matched or countered by some solitary flicker of intense and private humanity.

Whether this amounted to a loss of faith, or to the acquisition of it, was uncertain.

It was at this period that Edmund Tice’s fate became equivocal, and he ceased to make quite clear whether he would win or fail.

Tice is the type of passive hero, dedicated to acts of private humanity (he lets a man live while Ivory lets another die), who ends up ‘impotently watching’ the success of his moral inferiors. His most obvious rival is Ivory, but there are many others, mediocre individuals who are packed tight and stacked high in positions of power. Grace marries a man in the Foreign Office, Christian Thrale, whose only ambition is to rise in the hierarchy. When she teeters on the edge of an (unconsummated) affair with her son Rupert’s orthopaedic surgeon, after twenty years of marriage, the sentence ‘these exchanges with Doctor Dance were Grace’s first conversations’ seems to be the height of satire against Christian. But here is Hazzard’s account of his long-awaited promotion:

Christian said: ‘Grace, I must speak to you.’

Rupert yelled: ‘It’s a programme about Pompeii!’

Grace sat with Christian on a sofa that was rarely used because of the velvet. He told her: ‘Something momentous has occurred.’

In her mind, Grace Thrale swooned.

‘I have been given Africa.’

He might have been Alexander, or Antony. The younger Scipio. Grace stared whitely. He added: ‘South of the Sahara.’

She was looking through such tears as would never rise for Angus Dance, who could not need, or evoke, pity for impercipience or self-exposure. She wept for Christian, insulated in the nonconducting vainglory of his days.

In Defeat of an Ideal, subtitled ‘a study of the self-destruction of the United Nations’, which Hazzard published in 1973, she targeted the ‘international political impotence’ of the organisation and called for ‘a new and active United Nations’, disentangled from US domestic policy concerns (she was thinking of the McCarthyite turn which she had witnessed in her junior role there in the 1950s). It is an account of the petty vanities and great harm of established power, and echoes throughout her fiction in the banal and clichéd voice of the establishment, where lack of imagination has real political consequences. In The Bay of Noon Hazzard skewers the officials in the Nato military outfit where Jenny works: ‘Their cruelty could not be shamed. No revelation of its origins or its consequences abashed them. Armoured with the most brutal of emotions, self-pity, they were invulnerable to the human claims of others.’ These men, along with Christian Thrale and the bureaucrats who appear in the stories collected in People in Glass Houses (the glass house is the office building that serves as the beating heart of ‘the Organisation’), are satirised to a degree atypical of 1970s and 1980s fiction, which is mostly uncomfortable with deliberate moral seriousness. Hazzard makes it clear what we are up against. But in the struggle against compromise and corruption her ‘good’ characters are disabled by their very capacity to tolerate moral complexity.

Hazzard insists that Tice’s equivocation has world-historical causes. It is born of a recognition of powerlessness in the face of the colossal evils perpetrated by modern states. He has the reader’s sympathy, but it won’t do him, or us, any good. We watch impotently too. The problem of human agency is also a problem for the novel. What happens to plot when a hero can’t or won’t act on his aspirations? The Transit of Venus introduces an alternative postwar male in Adam Vail, a man who looks like Orson Welles and who ‘concerns himself with humanitarian and political causes’. Caroline (who is also in the civil service) meets him as part of a deputation to persuade the British government to intervene to save some men in a South American country from execution. He acts even in the knowledge of future failure. But Hazzard kills him off long before the end of the novel. He won’t do as an answer to the problem of the modern hero. He is larger than the irresolute life that the novel credits as real life. It was only after Steegmuller’s death, in 1994, that Hazzard allowed herself the wish-fulfilling fantasy of achieved romance with an active hero, Aldred Leith, whose backstory closely mirrors that of the decorated war veteran Alec Vedeniapine.

Flaubert’s provincial characters want their lives to measure up to the stories they read in books. They dream of travel and especially of Paris, where real life begins. Flaubert always frustrates them. Madame Bovary never gets to the capital; Frédéric Moreau makes it that far but misses all the events (romantic, political, financial) that match his aspirations. Hazzard’s biography reads like a Flaubert fantasy gone right. Stuck in the provinces, she yearns for the real life in Europe that she encounters in books, the seasons in their proper order and the men who master other languages, and she gets the whole lot: the travel, the cities, the money, the gold Rolls-Royce, the fame. Moreover, it’s literature (reading Leopardi, or knowing lines of Browning) that opens doors for her. Even her marriage is scripted by a novelist – no wonder she felt it was destined. She’s the ambitious Flaubertian protagonist willing heroic success – and so she’s precisely the type of character her fiction disapproves of, a woman of promise.

One thing this means is that we shouldn’t go to Hazzard for those absent 20th-century portraits of Dorothea Brooke or Emma Bovary. Hazzard isn’t to be identified with one of her women, despite the biographical echoes – she’s in the company of that group of male writers in a Capri restaurant, toying with their characters for their own ends. She might say of Ted Tice: ‘c’est moi.’ But she knows very well that she is also Paul Ivory.

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