Shirley Hazzard is not prolific. By the time she was 72, she had published only her sixth novel. That one was her first in two decades. And it was based on an incident in her life that had transpired three decades before that. Clearly, she takes her time.
Perhaps that is why the critics fall to their knees in gratitude upon every new work.
Consider the praise for The Great Fire, a World War II romance:
"If The Great Fire lacks the astonishing densities of The Transit of Venus (a novel that, in its own astronomical terms, was really more like a swirling asteroid belt of connected stories), it still streaks through a reader's ken in the manner of a comet, quickly seizing the attention and emotions before disappearing, trailed by hopes for the characters' happiness — which, like a comet's return, the reader only half believes in." --Thomas Mallon, The Atlantic Monthly
"The Great Fire can be counted with Middlemarch as one of the few novels in English that can hold the attention of an adult without recourse to comedy, freakish plot turns or sentimentality. It is also a classic romance so cleverly embedded in a work of clear- eyed postwar sagacity that readers will not realize until halfway through that they are rooting for a pair of ill-starred lovers who might have stepped off a Renaissance stage." --Regina Marler, Los Angeles Times
"Hazzard's elegiac new novel, the first since her modern classic The Transit of Venus in 1980, sails into port like a magnificent ship of fiction from another era: She writes in stately, compassionate sentences of things that matter, such as the triumph of love over loss, taking time to coax each character out of his or her hiding place of 20th-century unease." --Lisa Schwartzbaum, Entertainment Weekly
Critics have been waiting since 1980, when she published her bestselling account of the lives of two Australian sisters in postwar England, The Transit of Venus, to lavish Hazzard with that kind of praise. Her 2000 reminiscence of knowing Graham Greene in the latter part of his life won praise for being "witty and sharply observed" (Harper's ) and "austere, beautifully written" (The Washington Post), but it was nonfiction. Fans wanted a new novel.
Born in Australia, Hazzard wound up in Hong Kong in her mid-teens when her father, a diplomat, was stationed there after World War II. At 16, Hazzard landed a job at the British intelligence office, a position she has credited with exposing her to both international politics and literature. It was there she also fell in love with an English war veteran in his 30s. Her parents ended the relationship -- to The New York Times she described it as a "massacre" -- and it became the basis for the love affair in her 2003 book, The Great Fire.
Hazzard would meet the man she would marry in 1963 at a New York party hosted by her friend Muriel Spark. Within a year, she and Francis Steegmuller, the noted biographer, were married, and until his death 31 years later, they split their domestic life between New York, Italy, and Greece. It was there she met Graham Greene. At the time, her literary life was just getting started.
Over the years, she has earned a reputation for subtle, exquisitely precise prose and intriguing, complex characters.
"Shirley Hazzard has a blithe disdain for postmodern pieties," The New York Times wrote in 2003. "Her fictions are played out on the elevated ground of high romance, although she is far from being what is generally thought of as a romantic writer. She is unique among moderns in that the irony is confined to her style and not to the work's content. She believes in love -- indeed, she believes in Love -- yet writes about it in such cool, subdued, finical prose that one might be forgiven at times for thinking her a cynic. But she is not."
And, sometimes even 20 years isn't enough to get it right. After the galleys of The Great Fire had already gone out, she called her publisher and said she wanted to revise the final two chapters.
"I still wanted it to be better than it ever could be," she told The New York Times.
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Hazzard met the writer Graham Greene when she was able to tell him the line from a Robert Browning poem he was trying to recall over a drink in a Greek café.
She once discarded an early version of The Great Fire.
Hazzard once said of the United States, "Americans' great and secret fear is that America may turn out to be a phenomenon rather than a civilization."
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