cover image Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life

Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life

Brigitta Olubas. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $35 (576p) ISBN 978-0-374-11337-7

A woman raised in tumult seeks a higher realm in art and literature in this rich biography from Olubas (Shirley Hazzard: Literary Expatriate and Cosmopolitan Humanist). Born in Australia in 1931, Hazzard had an “unhappy childhood” and “embarked early on a project of self-cultivation and self-creation through extensive and passionate reading.” That culminated, the author writes, in her marriage to the well-heeled Francis Steegmuller, a Flaubert scholar and translator 25 years her senior, as it cemented Hazzard’s social position and offered her financial security. Of strong opinions, Hazzard roundly condemned Nixon as “Satanic,” while calling Reagan “a new dimension of blatancy in evil.” The book’s chief charm, however, lies in documenting Hazzard’s witnessing the span of the 20th century—as Hazzard herself wrote to a friend, “I saw Hiroshima in ruins, I knew a Hong Kong without skyscrapers... heard Eliot read The Four Quartets... walked about a blitzed but marvellous London.” All of this became fodder for Hazzard’s well-received stories, essays, and novels. Olubas does a fine job dealing frankly with those who disliked Hazzard’s “elitism” as well as those who praised her, with a careful touch for capturing the “implicit misogyny” she was up against. Hazzard emerges as intelligent, complex, and determined—fans of her work should check out this insightful portrait. (Nov.)