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Cover of Shirley Hazzard=

By Michelle De Kretser

I’m honoured to be launching this collection of essays on the work of Shirley Hazzard and I’m very grateful to Brigitta Olubas for kindly inviting me to do so.

We all have reason to be grateful to Brigitta. She has dedicated years of intellectual labour to Hazzard’s work, calmly insisting on its importance to our literary culture. In 2012, Brigitta brought us the groundbreaking monograph Shirley Hazzard: Literary Expatriate and Cosmopolitan Humanist. As Robert Dixon has said, it was a transformative book that placed an expatriate writer at the centre of Australian literary studies. Also in 2012 – fittingly, a transit of Venus year – Brigitta organised a symposium on Hazzard’s work in New York. It was there that the essays that make up this new collection of scholarly writing were first aired.

In her Introduction, Brigitta describes Hazzard as ‘something of a critical conundrum’ and this book as a ‘critical conversation’. A conversation about a conundrum: I thought about that, quite a bit. All you clever people will of course know what I had to go to a dictionary to find out, namely that a conundrum is a word of uncertain origin: cod Latin, like hocus pocus. It’s a highly apt word in this context because the conundrum Hazzard’s work has presented to Australian literary studies can be summed up in this question: How Australian is it? Notions of authenticity and fakery and origins come into play. It seems to me that calibrating Australianness is one of our more squalid national obsessions. Its ultimate aim is always to denigrate and exclude those deemed un-Australian, or not Australian enough, or not Australian in the right way – not insouciantly Australian.

How desperately we need books such as this, which look beyond authentications and exclusions to create a conversation: a word that means an intimacy, a turning towards one another.

Here is a confession. I am a fan of Hazzard’s work, and like all fans I believe that I have a secret, special, singular relationship with the object of fandom. Over time, I’ve inhabited Hazzard’s writing like a house that I thought I knew comprehensively: from cellar to attic, from panoramic terrace to the view, known only to myself, from the upstairs bathroom window. Behold the delusional hubris of the fan.

Reading this book, then, has been a humbling, sometimes jolting, and ultimately exhilarating experience. Essay after essay led me to hidden rooms, concealed staircases and startling vistas: I learned that the house of Hazzard’s writing is riddled with Lucy Dougan memorably calls the ‘secret space of possibilities’. I believe that literary criticism is useful, necessary and precious to the extent that it expands our understanding of the work it examines, and in the past month I have returned again and again to Hazzard’s fiction, filled with wonder and delight at the new spaces these essays have uncovered for me.

I’ll mention just a few revelations. There is John Frow’s meticulous tracking of slippery narrative temporality in The Evening of the Holiday, and Fiona Morrison’s perceptive detailing of a female aesthetic in the same novel. There is Lucy Dougan’s transformative viewing of The Bay of Noon through the lens of Rossellini’s Journey to Italy. There is the thrilling audacity with which Bridget Rooney goes ghost-hunting for Australia in The Bay of Noon. There is Nicholas Birns’s scrupulous account of the political idealism that drives Hazzard’s satire. And there is Robert Dixon’s remarkable apprehension of The Transit of Venus as a crime scene and his detection of narrative clues hidden in plain sight.

I love the way essays in this book jostle one another intellectually. Thus discussions of narrative suspense offered by Gail Jones, Robert Dixon and John Frow are projected against the narrative suspensions discerned by Lucy Dougan and Claire Seiler. John’s assertion that Hazzard has ‘cut all emotional ties except that of resentment’ with her homeland is matched by what Brigid and Nicholas have to say about the ways in which Hazzard’s work is haunted by Australia. And I note that Fiona and John read the same passage in The Evening of the Holiday and find, in one case, an instance of gendered neo-classicism and in the other, a comedy of incommensuration! This is wonderful conversation, an affair of connections, sparks, illuminations, collisions, swerves.

Good conversation, like good scholarship, also makes space for courteous disagreement. It’s in that spirit that I wish to take up Claire Seiler’s essay on The Great Fire. In a reading that is largely sympathetic to the novel, Seiler makes a thoughtful case for identifying suspension as its governing trope. Weirdly, however, she has nothing to say about the character Rita Xavier. Rita, a Portuguese-Chinese woman, is a living embodiment of suspension in the novel: ‘a bridge’, as Hazzard calls the mixed-race community. A secondary but significant character, Rita is vividly realised – I find her almost unbearably touching, this woman who carries a vanished empire coded in her DNA. And I am profoundly moved by Hazzard’s empathy for this figure of radical suspension and uncanny otherness, for the act of imaginative inclusiveness with which she offers Rita to her readers. Here, surely, is an outstanding instance of what Robert calls Hazzard’s ‘forensic ethical intelligence’. Yet Seiler contends that there are ‘no three-dimensional Asian characters’ in this novel. In other words, her reading imputes racial blindness to Hazzard while passing over Rita Xavier, who remains hidden in plain sight. What are we to infer? If I might revisit the hocus pocus of racial calibration, is Rita ‘not Asian enough’ to be visible? We are back to a conundrum. We are back to origins and authentications and exclusions. I very much hope that the conundrum in this essay will be taken up by one of the eminent scholars present this evening so that it might be transformed into a conversation.

Because, as Brigitta points out, the aim of this book is to not to shut down but to open out discussion of Hazzard’s work. Appropriately, the collection ends with two illuminating biographical essays that point to a book as yet unwritten, the story – or stories – of Hazzard’s life. While looking forward to that book, I congratulate all the contributors to this one, and thank them for the conversations they will go on inspiring. I congratulate and thank Brigitta for her steadfast and visionary scholarship. I congratulate and thank Sydney University Press for this exemplary series.

Michelle de Kretser, born in Sri Lanka, emigrated to Australia when she was 14. Educated in Melbourne and Paris, Michelle has worked as a university tutor, an editor and a book reviewer. She is the author of The Rose Grower; The Hamilton Case, which won the Commonwealth Prize (SE Asia and Pacific region) and the UK Encore Prize; The Lost Dog, which won a number of awards, including the 2008 NSW Premier's Book of the Year Award and the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, and the 2008 ALS Gold Medal; and Questions of Travel was the winner of the 2013 Miles Franklin Award, the Prime Ministers Literary Award for Fiction and the Western Australian Premier's Prize and Award for Fiction.

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