From Objective to Subjective

By Lynne Sharon SchwartzApril 3, 2016

We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think by Shirley Hazzard

WERE SHIRLEY HAZZARD not the extraordinary novelist that she is, one might wonder what is the raison d’être of the present collection, We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think, a patchwork of decades-old literary essays, reviews, blistering critiques of the United Nations, where she worked for almost a decade, and occasional pieces. The editor, Brigitta Olubas, sees the volume as proof that Hazzard should be deemed a “public intellectual” — a term that never fails to arouse my suspicions — “on the basis of her distinctive life and associations as well as her fiction.” Hazzard herself might have doubts about the designation. In a Paris Review interview of 2005 she praises her New Yorker editor, William Maxwell, for having “nothing whatever of the assertiveness of the ‘New York Intellectual,’ a phenomenon rampant in those years. No bluster, no self-importance, no bullying.” In any case, her fiction, with its stylistic elegance and intellectual verve, is quite enough to warrant our admiration.

As to those distinctive associations: in 1963, Hazzard married Francis Steegmuller, the noted biographer and Flaubert scholar. According to the editor, their social circle included those very same “rampant” midcentury New York intellectuals clustered around Partisan Review, Commentary, and Dissent. She and Steegmuller lived in New York as well as France and England. “With a private income from Steegmuller’s first marriage,” we’re told, “the couple were able to devote their lives to writing, and to reading,” which sounds almost mythological nowadays. Indeed there was a mythology surrounding the midcentury New York literati, but their views leaned more to the left than to private incomes. Hazzard and Steegmuller began spending part of each year in Capri, and she remained there after his death in 1994. She’s been named an honorary citizen of the island.

Even before her marriage she was well traveled. Born in 1931 in Australia, Shirley Hazzard endured the hardships of the war there, including her school being evacuated to a rural area. She notes in the Paris Review interview that Americans “[know] nothing of that Australian trauma,” meaning that Australia was in constant fear of a Japanese invasion (which was finally deflected by the US Navy). On the domestic front she suffered from her parents’ incompatibility, her father’s alcoholism and her mother’s manic depression. It was poetry that got her through the disorder of those early years. “Poetry has been the longest pleasure of my life. It literally and figuratively saved my life, and enabled me to live inwardly.”

When she was 16 the family moved to Hong Kong to advance her father’s career, so that she never finished high school and was entirely self-taught; her essays show enormous erudition and wisdom, and the global scope of her fiction is dazzling. In Hong Kong she worked in government service — a euphemism if we can believe (and I do) her droll essay “Canton More Far,” where she describes this service as placing pins on a map each day to indicate the location of merchant ships in Asian waters. “When, after several weeks, it became clear to me that the map was never consulted, my efforts slackened; I began to bring the flags up to date not twice daily, as instructed, but at intervals of one, two, and then three days.” Unfortunately, one ship was seized and ransacked by Chinese pirates, an occasion when an up-to-date map would have been helpful. She was soon put to work on a different map. Meanwhile, she took pleasure in being with a group of young male civil servants who quoted Auden and liked going out for ice cream.

In 1951, barely 20, she came to New York and took a clerical job at the United Nations. She remained there for nine years and later described it as “a deeply demoralized [place] […] There was no advancement whatever for working women, as most were — like me — in the clerical category. The work itself was virtually meaningless, and cruelly underpaid.”

Hazzard began publishing stories in The New Yorker in the 1960s, which were later collected in her first book, Cliffs of Fall (1963). The atmosphere of The New Yorker offices was a welcome change after the UN. Besides the warmth and support of the generous William Maxwell, who fostered many emerging careers and who is the subject of one of her essays, there was the camaraderie and conversation of the other young writers drifting in and out: it was the magazine’s legendary era.

Over the next 40 years she published four novels, all of them complex and meticulously written. Her style was called Jamesian, which puzzled her since she claims to have read very little of Henry James at the time. She began a “steady but intermittent reading” of his work, and while she couldn’t help but admire him, she was put off by the “excessive […] uncontrolled snobbery” and “certain longueurs of overwrought style.” Despite her protests, her style, if not her subject matter, is indeed reminiscent of James; both require patient and penetrating reading.

Her novels have romantic love at their core, but take place in a broad social and political context, the fluctuations of love governed by tumultuous world affairs as well as by individual sensibilities. The Great Fire (2003), set in Japan, won the National Book Award, the Australian Miles Franklin Award, and several others. I reviewed The Transit of Venus in 1980 and found it a splendid book, the story of two Australian sisters who set out to invent or discover their lives. Their destinies are arduous, enmeshed in war and political turmoil on several continents. They find lovers false and true, and learn the limits and the allure of idealism, romantic and otherwise.

By far the most exciting and timely writings in We Need Silence are five pieces from the 1970s and 1980s about the United Nations, originally published in The New York Times and The New Republic. They cover decades beyond the organization’s early years when she worked there. Their excitement resides in unexpected facts, but even more in the author’s moral indignation, which leaps off the page in white-hot, terse sentences. One can’t help wondering whether and how the culture there has substantially changed since these essays were written, and what Hazzard might say were she commenting today.

The primary fault she names is the UN’s hypocrisy and “resolution of predetermined uselessness.” She finds it “an institution that would proclaim standards only to undermine them; that would profess beneficence while condoning — actively or by silence, or through inconclusive debate — every form of barbarism.” Here is a typical sample of her tone:

The UN Secretariat marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by a last-minute withdrawal of promised facilities for Amnesty International’s conference against torture — for fear of offending governments engaged in that activity from Saigon to Santiago.

In the winter of 1974 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s shocking account of Russian prisons in Siberia, The Gulag Archipelago, was published in Paris. “The director-general of the UN Geneva office,” writes Hazzard, “clandestinely acting at the instigation of the Soviet government, promptly caused the book to be removed” from the two Swiss bookshops on UN premises in Geneva. She received a good deal of defensive backlash for this bit of news, to which she responded fiercely. The books were soon back on the shelves. This incident reflected the extreme nationalism influencing the UN at the time, and which Hazzard believes hindered any effective action on its part.

One of her points seems uncannily to apply to recent gatherings devoted to climate change, not all under UN auspices: “[T]he mammoth UN congresses […] are a complex means of actually deferring urgent international actions while temporarily assuaging rising world apprehensions. The fixed pattern of these wasteful exercises is to disband with the sole explicit agreement of reconvening.”

Aside from the journalism collected here, Hazzard wrote two nonfiction books on the subject of the UN: Defeat of an Ideal, 1973, and Countenance of Truth, 1990. The former deals with the secretariat’s “complete surrender to McCarthyism” during the early 1950s, when Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anticommunist madness not only ruined lives but also made a mockery of American values. Hazzard notes that as part of the secretariat’s general sympathy with US paranoia, the FBI was permitted to maintain an office on the premises and to question prospective employees.

Countenance of Truth concerns the UN’s failure to say or do anything about “American ravages in Asia, and about Pol Pot; about genocide in Biafra and Indonesia, starvation in Ethiopia, torture in Greece, Chile, Argentina, Guatemala, the Philippines, and Uganda.” In addition, she takes up the ugly matter of Kurt Waldheim’s 1980s tenure as secretary general, given his hidden past as a German Army officer attached to units carrying out brutalities in Yugoslavia. She had in fact already written about Waldheim’s unsavory past and subsequent cover-up in The New Republic in 1980, but no one paid attention. Only in the mid-1980s when Waldheim was running for president of Austria did they become common knowledge and cause an international stir. (Apparently the truths did not dismay his countrymen, as expected, but rather helped get him elected.)

Her political writings she felt as an obligation. Her other work was a labor of love. The remaining selections in We Need Silence are devoted to literature and memoir. The handful of book reviews from the 1960s and onward are as insightful and crisp as the day they were written. For example, Hazzard comments brilliantly about Jean Rhys: “[H]er power lies in the very transition of self-pity into literature — a feat of artistic strength seldom accomplished even by poets.” The other reviews — of Barbara Pym, Muriel Spark, her countryman Patrick White, and more — are equally keen. A few of the personal essays, on the other hand, are draped in the typical late–20th century New Yorker garb: wryly amused, ever so slightly superior.

The three Gauss lectures delivered at Princeton in 1982 make up almost a quarter of the book and show Hazzard as a defender of the till-recently-hallowed values of the western humanist tradition. The first is devoted to Virgil and the renowned 19th century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi. (She learned Italian in order to read him.) Her theme is the decline of the poet as herald of the public hero, of a man like Aeneas, say, with a historic mission. She traces the gradual narrowing of poetry’s focus, finally settling on the individual inner life, a centuries-long trajectory from objective to subjective.

Another lecture deplores what she sees as a “renunciation of independent and eccentric views that accompanied the growth of mass culture […]” It helps to recall that these essays were delivered 20 years after the publication of her New York intellectual friend Dwight MacDonald’s Against the American Grain: Essays on the Effects of Mass Culture, a rallying cry for “highbrows” to maintain their purity and standards against the encroachments of mass culture. The struggle suggests a disease on TV ads with cavorting bacteria invading helpless bodies. I remember reading advance sections of MacDonald’s book in Partisan Review, where his blithe triage divided the purveyors and consumers of culture into masscult, midcult, and highbrow. By 1982, those divisions had considerably weakened, and the term “highbrow” could elicit only smirks. By now the lines are so criss-crossed as to be nearly indecipherable.

One of the most satisfying motifs in the Gauss lectures is Hazzard’s pronounced dislike of the deconstructionist school of criticism that took over academic literature departments in the last decades of the 20th century. You can feel her impatience as she writes of “the degradation of language” and the “clinical approach” in these attempts to “explain” art using a “dehumanized and labored vocabulary.” Only someone as potently articulate and as intuitively aware of what art is could crush that kind of criticism so well.

Hazzard’s sensibility and work were definitely aligned with the “highbrows” of her time; everything she wrote speaks to the aspiration to truth and beauty and justice. But she would certainly avoid the label just as she avoided the “snobbery” she found in Henry James. She had seen too much of the world to be an intellectual snob: wartime in Australia and Asia, Third-World suffering ignored by the UN. What is most curious about her literary essays today is the conundrum they pose for the reader: How to take them? As historical documents, illustrating a particular phase in the intellectual life of the country? But Hazzard is a living, breathing author, still working and no doubt still caring about the fate of the world. She writes in the tone of someone addressing an engaged audience of like-minded peers.

And yet that tone feels light years away from today’s techno-based culture and speeded-up discourse. If Hazzard thought in 1982 that “the chorus of dehumanized expression has prevailed, while the word expressive of the root of life can be heard only in an occasional aside, or through the din,” what would she think now, when so many people hear their words through earbuds? And what would readers tethered to quasi-magical devices make of her exhortations to the highest standards of language and truth?

I read Hazzard’s words with a kind of double vision. The values they rest on are still real to me, yet I found in her essays a certain quaintness. At the same time they were tremendously seductive. Surely the seductiveness comes from nostalgia for a more stable cultural landscape. But there is a longing deeper than superficial nostalgia — a longing for trust in reality and the truths of history, trust in the continuity of history and literature, which she, unlike us, would never dream of doubting.

The book closes with a brief extemporaneous speech delivered on the occasion of Hazzard’s receiving the National Book Award for The Great Fire in 2003. The speech reiterates in an informal way what she has been saying all her life, and all through this book. In accepting the award, she is also responding to Stephen King, who it happened had just made his own acceptance speech (an award for lifetime achievement), scolding “literary” authors for condescending to their more popular, best-selling colleagues. Hazzard’s words are strong but companionable:

I want to say in response to Stephen King that I do not […] regard literature […] as a competition. It is so vast. We have this marvelous language […] I’m so grateful for readers, for writers. We are here because we love our language. We are reading and writing from both sides. It draws up all our humanity, and we need our humanity and we need our individuality, our originality. We need them more than we ever did because we are in such a position of power. I don’t mean readers and writers, I mean, in this nation. We should do our best by the language. We mustn’t torture it; we mustn’t diminish it. We have to love it, nurture it, and enjoy it.


Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s most recent books are the essay collection This Is Where We Came In and the novel Two-Part Inventions. She teaches at the Bennington Writing Seminars.

LARB Contributor

Lynne Sharon Schwartz is the author of the novels Disturbances in the Field, Leaving Brooklyn, and Two-Part Inventions, among other works of fiction and nonfiction. Her third collection of poems, No Way Out But Through, will be published in the spring by the University of Pittsburgh Press.


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