Masterful essays from an award-winning fiction writer.
Assessing the novels of Barbara Pym, Hazzard (The Great Fire, 2003, etc.) writes, “her candid, penetrating humanity can be disconcerting, like a quiet, strong, perceiving presence in a busy room.” Much the same can be said of Hazzard’s exquisitely crafted essays, which radiate with shrewd wisdom and intelligence. Of the pieces collected here, only three, lectures she delivered in Princeton’s Gauss Seminar series, have not been previously published in periodicals or as contributions to books. Editor Olubas (English/Univ. of New South Wales; Shirley Hazzard: Literary Expatriate and Cosmopolitan Humanist, 2012, etc.) notes that Hazzard sees nonfiction as “something of a distraction…from her primary labor.” But the same qualities acclaimed in her fiction are evident here: acute attention to language and a passionate commitment to fostering “the private bond, the immortal intimacy” between reader and writer. Among many fine pieces are an elegy to her mentor William Maxwell, who first published her stories in the New Yorker and became a cherished friend; her praise of Nobel Prize–winning author Patrick White for work that celebrates “the bloom of a bound humanity”; and five uncompromising critiques of the United Nations, where Hazzard worked in the 1950s. Characterizing the U.N. as a useless body of frightened men, she calls for reforming the “corrupt political basis” endemic in the organization, singling out former Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim for his disastrous record on human rights. One autobiographical essay stands out for its gentle, telling revelations of the author at 16—naïve and craving adventure—living with her parents in Hong Kong, where her need for “an occupation” was fulfilled by a mundane job in a government office. Sent on an assignment to Canton, she recalls the alien “contours of Eastern lands, those landscapes that have never heard of Romanticism or Impressionism.”
A rich, urbane, insightful collection.