• A Brush with Life: Shirley Hazzard and Francis Steegmuller in Naples

    By the age of 21, I’d succumbed to the habit of literary hero worship, and my pantheon’s first idol was Shirley Hazzard. The next year I ended up her student in a writing workshop. With her canted eyes focused on the depths of her own psyche, occasionally taking flight as if in search of provisions, she struck me as a Modigliani. I was too shy to speak, and she herself addressed the class with ascetic timidity. It wasn’t until decades later, reading “The Ancient Shore,” a crown of essays on Naples whose central gem is adroitly set by her husband, Francis Steegmuller, that I learned he too named her a Modigliani.

    The slim volume concludes with Hazzard’s “Coda,” in which she remarks that in Italy “the element of chance regains importance.” In her novels, she wields the unpredictable to just within this side of credulity, and their romantic plots have led her publishers to jacket them in distinctly non-literary, bodice-ripper covers: wistful maidens taking the measure of infinite panoramas, a fountain gushing in the background. We wade in, antennae alert to improbabilities of plot, which Hazzard brazenly produces, appealing to our baser instincts. “The Transit of Venus” opens with a suicide foretold and from that point the melodrama doesn’t subside. But beyond this gambit, her austere, lacunal lines, combined with a Jamesian juxtaposition of Mediterranean against Anglo-Saxon temperaments, dissolve any saccharin fragrance, and we’re elevated to the aeries of Parnassus, set firmly in the territory of literary excellence.

    How does Hazzard manage this and why does a writer so singularly refined insist on testing the waters of sentimentality, running the risk of losing sophisticated readers who might dismiss her books as “women’s fiction,” or even worse, Harlequin romance novels?  It could be Hazzard is rising to her own private challenge with the hubris of an actual goddess. But I suspect that she would term it staged to exclude the grand strokes life deals us. Wouldn’t it be the exaggeration to narrate an unremarkable, banal existence absent of suffering and bliss? Her novels are her response to the skeptic’s question, “What are the chances?”

    Hazzard, her husband Steegmuller, and their friend Graham Greene were all votaries of coincidence in real life; it was the base metal from which they alchemized their literary art. Recalling her first encounter with Greene, Hazzard overhears him reciting a Browning poem to his cafe companion, and when the last line slips his memory, she approaches, furnishes it, claims her umbrella from the stand and disappears into the Capri winter rain. She writes, “It seemed to me like an incident from a novel: from a real novel, a good novel, an old novel… a brief adventure quickened by what Graham valued most, the unexpected.” In “Greene on Capri,” Hazzard is Greene’s remembrancer, narrating the more than two decades of conversation and rambles on the island where their seasonal sojourns often crossed. Greene was by then at the height of his popular and critical fame, having been shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in 1966 — an international star, rich, travelled, a veritable James Bond but for his looks.

    This was also a charmed period for Hazzard and Steegmuller, she securing a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1980 and he netting National Book Awards in 1971 and 1981. The three had lived and breathed books all their lives — the reading, the memorizing, the crafting — but also in the sense of framing the happenstances of autobiographical events as literature. Theirs was something more than a literary friendship: amid the luxuriant flora of Capri, they were collectively devising a means to break boundaries of genre, much as each had jumped the turnstile when leaving behind their country of origin, exiles both literally and figuratively.

    Hazzard and Greene both take on subordinate, ignoble subgenres — the romance novel and the thriller, respectively — and devise strategies to rescue them from their usual habitats, bearing their weight great distances to transplant them in a more rarified soil. Greene spoke of his thrillers, which hinged on subterfuge and intrigue, as “entertainments,” and pointedly classified them apart from his literary novels. In much the same vein, the protean Steegmuller, by trade a biographer, novelist, decorated Flaubert scholar and translator, displays in “The Incident at Naples” the qualities of a deft storyteller, and his contribution to the creative nonfiction genre is entirely original. Each writer subverts their genre, yielding forms of inventive hybridization that we have seen when Jane Austen raided the Gothic novel to create “Northanger Abbey” or Mary Shelley the ghost story for “Frankenstein.”

    Capri was their verdant laboratory. One day, the three look below to the Amalfi coast’s Galli rocks when Greene, alluding to Browning’s lines, “and there slumbered/as greenly as ever/Those isles of the siren, your Galli…” asks the couple if the scorched islands are ever really green. Francis expresses his doubts, especially since the poem had been composed during a “long hot dry autumn.” “Greenly,” concludes Greene, “was needed for the line, then. Well, that’s all right.” All approve of a lie that pleases the imagination.

    Referring to her youth divided among four continents, Hazzard writes, “When I was 15, we went to live in the Far East. Was that a pilgrimage — or merely a stroke of great good fortune? It was a destination that I had not sought, and in that way it was more like a destiny.” The family moved from Australia to Japan to Hong Kong, where her sister contracted tuberculosis, necessitating “a terrible parting” from the only place she’d lived that bestowed the richness of “accidental revelation” she had known in novels. Then to New Zealand, England, and New York.

    Destiny determined by destination, each threshold crossed in a Hazzard novel, even those traversed by letters and telegrams, merits close inspection. In “The Evening of the Holiday,” the English Sophie, who has temporarily set up residence in a Tuscan hotel, returns there from the commuter distance of Florence with her lover, Tancredi. The 20-minute drive is probed as microscopically as when Odysseus bears down on Ithaca: “She had made the journey from Florence a dozen times without it ever feeling too short, but tonight the numbered notices of decreasing kilometers seemed to be posted at every turn…. She would have a good dinner when they reached home and a warm bath and they would make love. Even so, she did not want to arrive, for this safety, this perfection, would have passed…” Later the two take a meadow walk, scaling a slight grade, and Hazzard remarks, “Renoir painted such a scene and called it ‘The Upward Path’ — even though the figures in his painting are descending.” As fearless of beauty as of sentimentality, Hazzard sketches landscapes that are a seethe of the lush and the decadent, and steeped in loneliness, since one who chooses beauty is in “its inexorable servitude.”  Meanwhile, her characters are never free of the shuttle of arrivals and meetings, farewells and their attendant memories; they are consistently disoriented by the course their lives follow, endlessly suffering nostalgia for even the recent past. With her pen as sextant, Hazzard calibrates lines that emanate from her empathetic need to anchor souls in transit, to provide them a home.

    The couple’s essay collection, “The Ancient Shore: Dispatches from Naples,” follows the trajectory of a short journey, an excursion more than a pilgrimage, though the concept of pilgrimage is deeply examined. Naples, says Hazzard, “had been virtually erased from the modern travel itinerary as arcane and insalubrious.” What tourist would want to visit a city that had not only been bombed during World War II, blitzed down to rubble, but simultaneously suffered a devastating volcanic eruption? (From 1941 to 1945, 20,000 civilians died from unrelenting bombing raids carried out by both Allied and German forces, and damage from the 1944 Vesuvian eruption was sufficient for the radio propagandist Axis Sally to broadcast that Germany had Nature on its side.) Hazzard’s prefatory essays, loosely categorized under titles referring to the political, cultural, and historical faces of Naples, serve as contextualizing paeans to Naples and as the springboard for Steegmuller’s set piece. She writes, “there are those of us who forgive Naples much because of its long private lessons in living and dying.”

    Taking the baton, Steegmuller intones an eloquent pleated rhythm between past and present tenses, each like a distinct voice in a polyphonic score. “An Incident at Naples” is the only one of the dispatches that features a plot and characters, and these are orchestrated to yield the book’s emotional cargo. After its high pitch, the show winds down with Hazzard’s “Coda,” where, playing the moderator, she comments that in Naples “we are encouraged to stop defining life, and to live it.” This is the bittersweet farewell to the reader. We can almost see Hazzard arranging the snapshots in her photo album. The book is accompanied by evocative black-and-white photographs by Barbey, List and Cartier-Bresson.

    Once, visiting Capri’s abandoned Villa Fersen, positioned just below the island’s summit at Villa Jovis from which Tiberius would throw his enemies into the sea, Hazzard glimpses an “impasto of luminous flowers…. (Climbing up to gather them, I nearly slipped from the cliff: an instant of horror that stays vivid.)” The remark is set in parentheses as if to indicate those tragedies that don’t occur. Similarly, in “The Incident at Naples” Steegmuller recounts the medical consequences of the July evening he is hurled to the pavement by Neapolitan hoodlums, scippatori, when they snatch his bag (predictably filled with nothing more or less valuable than books) and tear off on a motorcycle, dragging the 77-year-old some distance, resulting in serious injuries. Not until months later at essay’s end when he returns to the scene of the crime does Steegmuller give us the equivalent of his wife’s parentheses, captured in the image of a crushed baby stroller from which a father had lifted his child only a moment before the same scippatori had made their getaway.

    After he has been admitted to Naples’s poorest, most squalid emergency room, is patched up a bit and wheeled for the night to rejoin the company of his pajama-clad fellow patients, they greet him, “How do I feel? Better? I already look better! All will be well, Professore, everything passes away. Such is life; such is fate, our destiny.” Music to his ears. Hazzard writes, “The puritan view that a sense of pleasure cannot be justified amid visible affliction is meaningless to Neapolitans — who know that pleasure cannot be deferred for ideal circumstances. For connoisseurs of survival, triumph and tragedy are indivisible.”

    “Incident at Naples” unwittingly serves as a comparison between the Italian health system, whose doctors and staff minister to Steegmuller with heart, soul, and skill amid the hospital’s “age-old interior filth,” and the American one, when the couple decide to brave through with their pre-arranged trip to New York, despite Steegmuller’s injuries, which include nose and shoulder fractures and a broken tooth; the Italian doctor recommended a recovery period in hospital of ten days. “Such muggings can be fatal,” he warned. In Naples there had been a delay as the patient awaited the specialist to respond to the call, arriving from far on the Vesuvian slopes, his very pregnant wife in tow.  (“There is no question of payment. We are not even permitted to make a donation.”) In New York, after the couple’s private specialist “amid an air of haste and condescension,” neglects to remove the nasal packing tape correctly, resulting in two nighttime visits to the Emergency Room, the patient is finally admitted for a week’s hospitalization.

    Keen to the import each word freights, Steegmuller’s decision to deploy “incident” rather than “accident” in his title is informed by his knowledge of Italian, where incidente connotes “accident,” while in English “incident” harbors the nuance of a minor occurrence resulting from something more important, the tragedy that didn’t materialize. Late in the night of the event, under a yellow, shadeless light suspended from the “antediluvian flaking and peeling ceiling,” Hazzard perches on her husband’s bed and summons from her prodigious memory these lines from Petrarch: “Our life that is so beautiful to view/how easily is lost in one morning/what took years of difficulty to acquire.This is a couple who celebrates a brush with death if only for the vital material it yields.


    Amy Bagan’s work appears in numerous poetry journals. Her manuscript, “Native to Now,” was selected as finalist for the Richard Wilbur Book Award 2021. She was formerly a teacher at Venice’s University Ca’ Foscari.

    Top image courtesy of the author.