A week or so before Christmas I turned to the Times obits, and read that
Shirley Hazzard had died. Just like that, at the kitchen table with half a grapefruit and last night’s potatoes, I was flooded with sadness and some kind of inexpressible longing.
The Transit of Venus was not her first book, but it was the first book of hers I read. It came out in 1980 and won an award. Did it change my life? That seems a bit melodramatic, but reading it then felt like walking off a cliff, landing in a Borgesian library and having it all make sense. It felt like reading a book in a newly-acquired language in which I was suddenly fluent. I loved everything about the novel. Hazzard could surgically dissect the conflict between a character’s intentions and his emotions, without telling us what she was doing. I loved the sentences that trailed off into the unsaid or unsayable. I loved the acquaintance with sorrow. In The Transit of Venus, much is known and much more is hidden, or coded. For the first time in my life, I wrote a fan letter to an author. I don’t recall what I said, but I suspect I gushed.
Shirley Hazzard wrote back, graciously, on pale blue stationary.
At the kitchen table, I recalled that I first read The Transit of Venus when my life seemed to be disappearing in front of me, when everything I trusted had become untrue. Basically, I was a mess and though I can’t claim that novel fixed my personal clusterfuck, it was an opening. Against all the obvious wisdom, I even longed for another girl child so I could name her Caro.
So it was about 35 years since I read the book, and I wondered how I would find it now. It was still on my shelf, between Hawthorne and Heaney, still in its pale blue dustjacket.
And yes, it remains one of the best books I have ever and most likely will ever read. Just before Christmas I quickly bought several copies – in paperback now – to give away. I plan to buy several more.
Hazzard’s next, and last, great novel is The Great Fire. I read that in 2003, and this time I managed to meet her.
That is, I was a member in those days of the Trollope Society and at the annual dinner Shirley Hazzard was to be the keynote speaker. It delighted me to learn that, like me, Shirley Hazzard enjoyed Trollope, and she admired him enough to discourse in public on Lady Glencora and others. So I paid some ridiculous sum of money, dressed up and went to the Knickerbocker Club one night, for the sole purpose of speaking to Shirley Hazzard and telling her of the extraordinary coincidence (and yes, I know there are no coincidences) that one her characters, Benedict Driscoll, was afflicted with a rare and debilitating disease called Friedrich’s ataxia, and that I, a mere reader of hers, was extremely devoted to a certain cousin-in-law who also suffered, and lived with, Friedrich’s ataxia. I had written about him in a short story, about his profound connection to his mortality and his love of bats. (He was a chiropteraphile, a word we both relished.) Like Benedict Driscoll, cousin Colby had a wide-ranging mind, a sly imagination and knew that death loomed everywhere. My children grew up joyriding with Colby on forest trails in his electric wheelchair. Colby could be reckless. He had attached to his electric wheelchair a high-pitched whistle in case he ever broke down in the woods and was being eaten alive by mosquitoes. One of the reasons he loved bats so much was that a single bat can eat up to 8000 mosquitoes in one night. I told all this to Shirley Hazzard.
And now she has died. She outlived her beloved husband by 20 years. I read in the obit that there were no survivors, that she had lost touch with her only sister years ago, and that she had “struggled with dementia”. I thought about that use of the word “struggle”. How people are said to “battle” with cancer, but apparently they “struggle” with dementia. In our back yard, in her Red House, is that what my mother is doing? Struggling with dementia?
Though I would wish dementia on no one, I realize that - while rereading Hazzard’s novels – I derived a strange and somewhat perverted solace in recognizing that her wonderful mind, like Iris Murdoch’s, like my mother’s, also struggled with dementia.