It was nearly 40 years ago that I first read Shirley Hazzard’s Transit of Venus, a book so completely absorbing that I remember I kept it in the kitchen during the day, to read between cooking and the dishes, and then took up to bed with me as early as I possibly could for the pleasure of its company before sleep. It opens with a storm, vividly described, and the power of both the storm and the language used to describe it, the power of the sentences themselves, propel the reader through its exacting architecture — of place, of ethics, of the ways in which human beings construct relationships and destroy them, and the overwhelming configurations of love. I read her later novel, The Great Fire, with perhaps less excitement, though it was so much more engrossing that most of the novels I read.
Maybe two months ago, I read that Brigitta Olubas had recently published a life of Shirley Hazzard and I sort of filed the information away, thinking that it was a book I’d love to read one day. And one day, just before Christmas, Bev Shaw who owns Talewind Books in Sechelt called me to say that there was a book waiting for me. Not one I ordered but a gift. When I went to pick it up, I was handed a heavy package wrapped in dark blue paper and Bev said, It’s a gift from Anik. (Anik See is my dear friend, living in the Netherlands, and between us we are fishgottaswimeditions.com.)
The package went under the Christmas boughs (we didn’t have a tree this year), under the twinkling little silvery-blue lights and felt birds, glass stars, and a single paper lantern from the dozen or so given to John’s family by his grandmother in the last century, and on Christmas Day I opened it, delighted to discover Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life, by Brigitta Olubas. all 564 pages of it. I tell you the number of pages because I want you to imagine me propped up on 4 pillows, reading lamp positioned just so, and a heavy book resting on the covers. Really heavy. And yet I couldn’t wait to come up to bed each night for the week it took me to read this wonderful biography. It is a perfect marriage of a life and work, a detailed account of Shirley’s early years (traumatic and unsettling), her love of poetry and ability to memorize and recite a huge range of verse, her travels, her love affairs, and how she found her way to fiction. How she brought her wide and generous intelligence to life in general and to writing in particular. She was assigned to a clerical position with the UN for a time in Naples and it was here that she found a city, a population, an ambience that suited her.
When I entered that city I knew that it was a coup de foudre. I knew that this was where I wanted to be. Bit by bit I began to have this great companion, the city of Naples, and of course to learn all sorts of things there–to change my way of looking at things, to enlarge my way of looking at things.
She noticed everything, the remnants and fragments of the past in every street, “where the city ‘splits’ along its Greco-Roman axis’, to the Gesú Nuovo”, and the Italian she learned in Australia in order to read Giacomo Leopardi serves her well in the life she will now live largely in Naples and Capri, with a home in New York with her husband-in-the-future, Francis Steegmuller.
It’s been a strange 3 years, confined as we’ve mostly been to home–even a beloved place can feel confining after a bit–and quiet pursuits. So balancing this large and richly evocative book on my chest while rain fell on our metal roof and barred owls began their winter chorus was almost as good as travel. Almost. Because in part the kind of travel undertaken by Shirley Hazzard, especially after marriage to Steegmuller when their gold Rolls Royce would be shipped to Europe from New York to provide them with suitable transportation, wouldn’t be possible for most of us. But she brought it to life in her letters, her journals, her novels. For years she stayed with the Vivante family at the Villa Solaia, near Siena, and this passage gives us the time and place in its beautiful particulars.
Every evening of the summer, lanterns were hung from the oleanders and they had dinner in the garden. The table was a long and rickety affair on trestles, and there were always insects because of the lights, but on balance it was worth it. The evenings were cool even after the August days, which recorded heat, long after dark, in the villa’s outer walls…The scene, too, was worth the discomfort: the white table, three flasks of wine, pale dishes of bread, red dishes of meat, green bowls of salad; the summer dresses of the women, and crimson shawl hung on a chair; everything scented by the flower beds, in eclipse beyond the lanterns, and by lemon trees, which stood about in great stone urns. Above the line of hills facing across a valley, the sky glowed from the lights of Siena, but the house at night rode its hilltop in rolling, dark countryside with the purposeful isolation of a ship at sea, and people around the table, too, assumed something of the serene animation of voyagers.