Shirley Hazzard's Collected Stories is a handsome compilation from one of Australia's best writers

  • Collected Stories, by Shirley Hazzard. Hachette, $39.99.
Shirley Hazzard, a writer of peerless elegance. Picture: Supplied

Shirley Hazzard, a writer of peerless elegance. Picture: Supplied

To read the short fiction of Shirley Hazzard (1931-2016) is to be reminded how far Australian literary tastes have shifted in the past half century.

Her fine and formal prose features high-minded protagonists who prize love, beauty and art, and who are frequently hamstrung by the philistines or the callous in their midst.

While Hazzard has a peerless elegance and effortless control over her material, her occasional haughtiness may seem naive to a contemporary audience.

This is nonetheless a handsome collection from one of Australia's best writers. It brings together for the first time all of Hazzard's short fiction, much of it published in the 1960s, and arguably less well remembered than her novels.

Knowledge, like love, is often a bitter cup for Hazzard's characters. Sir Cecil's Ride, one of the best stories in this collection, is reminiscent of The Great Fire (2004), a glorious novel which earnt Hazzard the Miles Franklin award.

In Sir Cecil's Ride, the trauma of the post-World War II order is the backdrop for a story about a pair of lovers. The older, dashing Constantin leads Elizabeth along a riding trail cut into the hills of Hong Kong by a former British governor. At the end of the arduous march - Constantin gives Elizabeth nothing to drink the whole way, nor sympathy or humour - our young heroine realises that she will not marry this man. She stands up "out of her element, in helpless independence, before turning, as she must, along the unmade furrow of some other course".

The precision with which Hazzard closes this story, and the startling oxymoron of hopeless independence is emblematic of her admirable skills.

Nettie, the young lover in A place in the Country, prizes love more than life itself. When Clem, Nettie's married lover, breaks off their affair, she thinks it would be easier to die than to get used to life without him. Nettie appears again in The Picnic. She is eight years older, but still pierced by the strongest emotions about her affair with Clem, even as she finds him touchy and solemn. We know little about Nettie's life in the intervening years, apart from the fact that she herself married briefly. Love is the primary lens through which Hazzard brings Nettie back into sharp relief.

In their pursuit of love, Hazzard's characters often put up with bad behavior from their lovers. Miranda, the young wife in In One's Own House believes that without passion, she may as well be dead. This is in spite of the determined cruelty of her husband Russell. Russell perversely imagines that the pain he causes Miranda is a thread which helps him navigate the labyrinth of his own anguish. Hazzard's female characters typically respond demurely to male churlishness and cruelty, often remaining serene while privately refusing to jettison their belief in love or beauty. (The passivity with which some of Hazzard's women respond to male bullying may cause a little heartburn for female readers today.)

If Hazzard's romantics suffer, so too do the virtuous and the patient. In The Statue and the Bust, a young Italian man, admiring an English school teacher and deducing that her lover is either poor or a miser, silently warns her against being too much of a stalwart. Swoboda, the anti-hero of Swoboda's Tragedy, gives decades of honest toil to his workplace, gaining only an understanding of the precise failings of his superiors, petty and weak men who never risk rocking the boat.

In Nothing in Excess, Algie Wyatt also defends truth at great personal cost. Knowing that he will soon be fired from his lowly translating job, he refuses to mount an appeal. Instead, he gives his colleague, Jaspersen, a rousing explanation of the ancient epithets, know thyself and nothing in excess. In a later story, Jaspersen realises that he has failed to live by either principle, losing all sense of an inner life.

Not all of the works in this collection reach the high water mark of Hazzard's best. The stories previously published in People in Glass Houses, including the two mentioned above, feature secretaries, clerks and mid-ranking officials working for the organisation, Hazzard's moniker for the UN.

In some of these, there is a straining for effect, a touch which is too glancing or arch. In panning across the organisation, and rendering its myriad contradictions, tragedies and comedies, Hazzard had to pull back from the small canvases used elsewhere to such skillful effect. (On a historical note, Flowers of Sorrow is interesting in that it contains a character sketch of the former UN director general, Dag Hammarskjld, who died in suspicious circumstances in a 1961 plane crash.)

The sensibility in some of these works may have dated. But this remains a fine collection and one to savour.

  • Christine Kearney is a Canberra-based writer.
This story Elegant, stylish and haughty first appeared on The Canberra Times.