Why Read Literary Biography?

What Shirley Hazzard’s life can, and can’t, tell us about her fiction

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What strange beasts literary biographies are, how mixed their reasons for existing. The desire to read one must come from admiration for the writer’s work, but a literary biographer’s central concern isn’t a writer’s work; it’s the writer’s life. And, though the gods of capitalism may grumble at my saying this, an artist’s work and life are radically separate things. The art comes alive only when it meets another mind, like desert seeds that wait patiently until a freak rainfall wakes them, flowering, from sleep. A life, however, is made of baser stuff, such as breakdowns in grocery-store checkouts, simmering humiliations too banal to record, deeply questionable habits of hygiene. Any smart reader understands that no biography could possibly reveal its subject’s true life, which is to say the humming, prismatic, spiky interior one that gives rise to the writer’s works. We readers are only voyeurs, at a remove from a unique imagination, trying to peep in. The best that literary biographies can do is build a good simulacrum: a scrupulously explicated version of events that happened, a valiant attempt at a filled-in outline.

Still, a window into a famous person’s birth-to-death story may offer enormous and sometimes prurient satisfactions. We can embed ourselves in the subject’s network of famous friends and feel glamorous enough to sit at their lunch table; we can visit the scandals of the time, get the inside scoop on all the spicy erotic entanglements. Some biographies reveal a writer’s disturbed political views (Ezra Pound), or history of mental illness (John Clare), or sexual identities previously hidden. In his biography of Lytton Strachey, published in the late 1960s, Michael Holroyd outed Strachey to readers as homosexual, decisively shifting the genre’s focus from public to private concerns, it has been said. Some biographies earnestly explore how writers could have been so brilliant on the page but so defeated by life that they took their own (Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace). Such portrayals can end up burning nearly as bright in our collective memory as the art does, because the sensational makes for a good story.

This somewhat vulgar mode of curiosity—it does scratch the universal human itch for gossip—is usually intermingled with (though rarely totally disguised by) higher-brow interests. A literary biography can retouch in vivid colors certain important literary people whose outlines have faded over time (William Blake). It can be an attempt to come closer to the historical context of the work, exposing influences that shaped it and showing how a writer sent ripples through their cultural, social, and political era and beyond (James Baldwin).

As I read Brigitta Olubas’s Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life, I found myself wondering if biographers may experience a version of the reader’s hunger for this sense of larger historical intimacy. Perhaps one of their imperatives is to make those ripples spread as far as possible beyond the writer’s pages, to elevate their subject’s cultural standing. At any rate, given that no Titans of Literature exist, or so it seems, without a biography faithfully parsing their life, perhaps the presence of a biography is itself a declaration that a writer yet to be called Great should join the club. Olubas’s book is the first to chronicle the life of the Australian American writer who died at 85, in 2016, and its meticulously researched, intricately detailed, and calmly paced 467 pages implicitly try to make the case that Hazzard is due more serious recognition than she has so far been given.

I was curious about Hazzard’s life because I have read all of her work—four novels, three short-story collections (the last an omnibus, published posthumously, that includes previously uncollected stories), three nonfiction books (among them, two critiques of the United Nations), and an essay collection. During many long, insomniac Florida nights, I’ve also read most of the interviews with her that one can find with a Wi‑Fi connection. I am a Hazzard completist primarily because the third of her four novels, The Transit of Venus (1980), is a razor-sharp masterpiece. As I wrote in the introduction to the Penguin Classics 2021 reissue, I think it is one of the great novels of the 20th century, against all odds: It is the most unsentimental book ever to be devoted to transcendent love. I’ve reread it every year for the past two decades, drawn to Hazzard’s exquisite prose and her attentiveness to the workings, both intimate and structural, of power.

Olubas’s book confirms what I had already gathered about Hazzard’s life: that it featured little in the way of sensational adventure (unless you count youthful love affairs), but a great deal in the way of beauty, travel, books, and privilege. She was born in 1931 in Australia, to middle-class parents of humble origins—a selfish and self-made father and a stunningly beautiful horror show of a mother, the kind of person who would send her daughters casual threats of suicide when she felt lonely or unloved. A bookish girl, Hazzard never finished high school, because at 16, she was uprooted when her father became the Australian trade commissioner for Hong Kong and commercial counselor for Canton. Compared with Sydney, which had seemed to her a stultifying and cultureless backwater, Hong Kong felt vibrant and exotic and full of life.

She promptly took a job in a British-intelligence unit, where at last she met “people who had had what used to be called a classical education, and who displayed this knowledge in the most marvellous, natural way,” she said in an interview later in her life. There her love of poetry bloomed, and she became someone who had poems perfectly memorized for any occasion, often flinging them like fistfuls of confetti into dinner-party conversations. (In the late 1960s, in a café on Capri, Graham Greene was reciting the end of a Browning poem for a friend but got stuck on the last line. Hazzard, who was passing by, tossed it to him, and a long and fractious friendship began, one that she later wrote about in a memoir called Greene on Capri.)

By the time the Hazzard family returned to the antipodes, the brief Hong Kong posting over, 17-year-old Shirley had fallen deeply in love with a dashing White Russian named Alexis Vedeniapine, her superior at the office and 15 years her senior. She was miserable apart from him, and their engagement ultimately failed. When her father was posted to New York in 1951, she was glad of the chance to reset her life. She found a secretarial job at the United Nations and began another intense love affair. In 1956, when she was 25 and had been recently abandoned by her married lover, her smattering of Italian led to a temporary position at a UN emergency mission in Naples. During that year she discovered the great passion for Italy that never faded, and she quietly embarked on her life as a writer who, Olubas emphasizes, often drew on her own experience.

Back in New York, working at the UN, Hazzard was also writing, and for the next few years she saved her pennies for summer trips to Tuscany, where she lived in a private house that served as an unofficial artists’ residency. She started submitting her stories for publication, and after several rejections from The New Yorker, William Maxwell accepted one in the summer of 1960, shortly before she turned 30; he later recalled the astonishment of his colleagues, “because it was the work of a finished literary artist about whom they knew nothing whatever.” A flurry of acceptances followed.

Hazzard began to make literary friends, most notably the novelist Muriel Spark, whom she’d met when Spark was in town for the launch of the U.S. edition of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. The two became close, and it was through Spark that Hazzard met the great love and anchor of her life, the esteemed and wealthy writer Francis Steegmuller, who wrote novels that sank quickly, but also brilliant translations and literary biographies of writers such as Gustave Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant that remain afloat today. At the time the two met, she was barely 32 and he, at nearly 57, was grieving the death of his first wife. He was somewhat nastily up front that he didn’t want a long-term relationship with Hazzard, but soon enough they were married.

Here I admit to finding a startling split in her life, at least as Olubas has presented it. Shirley Hazzard before Francis Steegmuller is delightfully, emotionally chaotic; self-driven; economical out of necessity; and ardently in love with literature and beauty and love for the sake of love. Shirley Hazzard after Francis Steegmuller becomes a personage, aware of her elevated station in the world and her ability to flit to Europe and back multiple times a year; she is a caretaker of her husband’s genius and his extensive art collection, as well as of her own literary reputation. A circumspection has crept into the portrait, something obsessively neat, as though her life—or at least the written traces of it she left behind—is now as painstakingly composed as her work itself.

Maybe a new stiffness comes into the narrative because the early years of life with Steegmuller were her most productive as a writer, and she began to carry with her a sense of her status as a public persona. Perhaps, I began to suspect as I read on, she became hyperaware of what sorts of things might be of biographical interest, living as she did with a literary biographer and helping him with his work. The studious accumulation of famous friends—Maxwell, Lillian Hellman, James Merrill, Bruce Chatwin, Jonathan Galassi, and on and on—starts to seem like a collection of pinned butterflies, cultivated not only out of personal interest and love, but also, perhaps, to supply literary cachet that an eventual biographer would welcome. As one friend observed of her, Hazzard was “a fabulous name dropper.”

Or maybe I’m being unfair, and the arc of Hazzard’s life, along with Olubas’s straightforward chronological approach, account for this feeling of constraint. The pace at which she published novels slowed, even as the awards piled up; The Evening of the Holiday came out in 1966 and The Bay of Noon (a National Book Award finalist) in 1970. A decade passed before The Transit of Venus appeared (and won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction), and The Great Fire, a National Book Award winner, arrived in 2003, after a 23-year gap. Though her later life was peripatetic and rich with friends and beautiful places, it did not contain much eventful drama to mark the passing of the years.

When I turn to literary biography, it is because I am seduced by the genre’s promise to offer clarification, a promise that is most compelling when the subject is a writer of poetry, or of other especially elliptical or mysterious work. We read a life of Emily Dickinson in the hope that precise details of her days as an introvert in Amherst will build a solid bridge between her gorgeous abstractions and our own slippery interpretations. Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus is grand and old-fashioned in its scope and its focus on big ideas—about fate, time, goodness; it is narratively daring in its shifting patterns, its startling prose, its unexpected humor, its ambiguous end, all of which surprise again and again. But this book is not, I think, best served by looking to the life of its author for help in unraveling its full significance. As much as Hazzard loved poetry, her novel is not elliptical like poetry; the meaning is already subtly layered into its pages. More broadly, seeking clarification in biography is perhaps a paradoxical approach to understanding art. Instead of allowing a work’s enigmas to expand outward into the larger world, to reverberate in strange ways, the effect is to fix its meaning to the confines of a particular existence.

This is the deflation I couldn’t help feeling when I emerged from Olubas’s account, though it is as scrupulous and well written as any subject could hope a literary biography to be. The person behind the fiction stands revealed as so much smaller than the fiction itself, less interesting, less important, less distinctive. The spectacle-seeker in me was sad to learn no big secrets and discover no great mysteries; the more serious reader in me was disappointed too. I was no more convinced than I had been before reading the book that Hazzard had wielded notable sway in her cultural moment. She has, though, left other writers who, like me, adore The Transit of Venus feeling awed and inspired in an intensely intimate way. Which is, in the end, how literary influence thrives. We have Hazzard’s books. We don’t need to know how much her life figured in her writing to respond to the vitality beating just below the surface of her art.

This article appears in the January/February 2023 print edition with the headline “Why Read Literary Biography?”