Shirley Hazzard’s Stories Observe Pain and Disappointment With a Witty Intelligence

The Australian-American writer Shirley Hazzard (1931-2016) wrote her first short story when she was 28. She sent it to The New Yorker, where it fell into the hands of William Maxwell, who would go on to publish nearly all her stories. She’d bring one in and he’d read it in her presence while repeating the word “Yes.”

There was much to say yes about. Hazzard’s stories are shrewd, formal and epigrammatic. One feels smarter and more pulled together after reading them. You drop into one as if you were a wet cell phone and it were a jar of uncooked rice.

Her short fiction has been gathered now, in “Collected Stories,” into a single important and elegant volume. The book is divided into three natural sections. The first tranche of stories is from “Cliffs of Fall” (1963). These are about condescending, pitilessly detached men and the trapped women who love them — and they’re simply brutal.

[ This book was one of our most anticipated titles of November. See the full list. ]

The middle section contains stories from “People in Glass Houses” (1967). This book is sometimes considered a novel but reads plausibly as linked short fiction. It’s about the soul-draining imbecilities of office life at an organization that resembles the United Nations.

Hazzard, who never attended college, worked unhappily at a low-level job with the U.N. in New York City when she was young, and she became a lifelong critic of that organization. (See her nonfiction books “Defeat of an Ideal” and “Countenance of Truth: The United Nations and the Waldheim Case.”) The stories in “People in Glass Houses” display her flaying wit. You could derive from them a dazzlingly dark television comedy, Paddy Chayefsky meets “The Office.”

The stories in the final set are previously unpublished. These are closer to vignettes than fully fledged stories, yet they’re recognizably Hazzardish; perhaps the adjective I’m searching for is Hazzardous.

Hazzard pivoted in her career from short stories to novels, from the sprint to the marathon. Her best-known novels are “The Transit of Venus” (1980), which won a National Book Critics Circle Award, and “The Great Fire” (2003), which won a National Book Award.

While accepting the National Book Award, Hazzard gently set the crowd alight. Earlier in the evening, Stephen King had received a lifetime achievement award and, from the podium, had championed “popular” writers and proposed a reading list of his favorites. When Hazzard came to the microphone, she dryly remarked that King’s list wasn’t “much of a satisfaction.”

After the 1960s, Hazzard rarely returned to the short story form. But her “Collected Stories” shows a mature talent. She dispensed intelligence and irony as if each were fresh herbs in a reticule she kept tied to the belt of her dress.

Many of the stories about men and women unhappily in love are set abroad, often in Italy. Her characters, if not always wealthy, have well-stocked minds. They quote poetry. One character says of another, “He’ll get old quite suddenly and look like Somerset Maugham.” Another says, “You look like an allegorical figure.”

Her people are alone and lonely even in the company of others. “You don’t know how isolated one feels,” a woman says. “You have so many — attachments.” Her illicit lover replies: “You make me sound like a vacuum cleaner.”

Hazzard’s dialogue is parched yet on point. She has a habit of inserting talk into long sections of observation about gardens and the natural world. I don’t always treasure long observations about gardens and the natural world, but I do when Hazzard makes them. About an Englishman in Tuscany, for example, we read, in lines that make you sense the poverty of our weather reports:

“He had never experienced such a sky. In England, where heaven is a low-hung, personal affair, thoroughly identified with the King James Version, a sky such as this would not have been tolerated for a moment. It was a high, pagan explosion of sky, promising indulgence for all kinds of offenses to which he had not the slightest inclination. He felt, beneath it, exposed and ridiculed.”

The women in Hazzard’s stories have few options. (In her later novels, they have multiple avenues of escape.) The chilly men tend to be academics, not fiction writers. But reading these stories I was reminded of one of John Updike’s late poems, in which he admitted, with regret: “I drank up women’s tears and spat them out / as 10-point Janson, Roman and ital.”

The men in Hazzard’s stories are avid consumers of tears. They hurt women with the nonchalance of a fishmonger snipping the faces off soft-shell crabs. It is not a pretty sight. About one woman in need of solitude, Hazzard writes: “One can’t ask to be left alone, she thought, or not to be touched, even once in a great while, without creating a scene — without changing everything.”

Her intelligent women do see these men plainly. After a remark that men are concerned with cause and not consequence, we read: “It was the way men’s minds worked, she supposed; the process, in fact, by which the world was provided with machines and roads and bridges — and ruins.” Her men manage to avoid the pitfalls of love by never entirely falling in it.

The stories about the U.N.-like organization are artful about the perils of small men and large bureaucracies. Hazzard wrings pathos and drama from small events, like denied promotions. In a character named Sadie Graine — “Sadie,” the author implies, is the diminutive of Sadist — Hazzard gives us the Nurse Ratched of secretaries. Graine terrorizes entire departments.

Men and women are shuffled between floors, where they work for the comically named Bureau of Lateral Substitutions or toil on projects like Peaceful Uses of Atomic Weapons and Forceful Implementation of Peace Treaties. They worry about being dispatched to study drainage in, say, Kuala Lumpur.

Hazzard’s stories feel timeless because she understands, as she writes in one of them: “We are human beings, not rational ones.”

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