Dr Brigitta Olubas, Professor of English at UNSW’s Faculty of Arts, Design & Architecture and author of Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life first came across Hazzard 32 years ago, in 1981, when her sister sent her The Transit of Venus in paperback. “She wrote inside the cover, ‘I think this book was written for you,’” recalls Olubas, a few days before her appearance at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

“It was,” says Olubas. “I was gripped with this profound pleasure that any Australian could aspire to write a novel like this. I found it galavanising to think that the world that I lived in could be represented as if it mattered in the ways that Henry James’s world’s mattered, or Jane Austen’s.’ And that is what makes Hazzard’s work iconic.

The Transit of Venus is about Grace and Caroline, two Australian sisters growing during the depression in Sydney in the 1930s going out into the world. “The idea that those kinds of lives could matter was brought home to me very strongly by that book. And that to me is the great message of literature and of art, that it reminds you how ordinary lives matter and can be made to matter.”

A New York Times review of The Transit of Venus captures something of the novel’s power. At first it seems to offer a simple coming of age tale, says the reviewer. “Nothing unduly challenging — except, perhaps, that the book is precisely about the misapprehensions of youth, of missing the point and those late-in-life revelations that return us to elemental questions — ‘Who are the weak?’ Caroline wonders. ‘Who are the strong?’ It’s a novel about being wrong about this question and so many others, about our gorgeous and distressing human confidence, the way we march around, plucky protagonists in our minds, armed with horrifyingly partial knowledge of the motivations of those around us. To say nothing of the forces we cannot see.” 

Olubas describes reading The Transit of Venus as transformative. She could see its themes reflected in her own journey, as she set off as a young woman from Tasmania to study at university in Sydney. And her intellectual engagement soon followed as Olubas wrote her first thesis on Hazzard.

Many years later, in 2003, Hazzard published The Great Fire. “It was a huge literary event,” recalls Olubas. “This magnificent writer has been forgotten about for 23 years, and blasts back with a novel that immediately wins the National Book Award just months after it was published in the US. I read it and admired it enormously. It was so exciting to go back into that very particular prose of hers.”

Reengaging with an author who didn’t fit the mould

“Hazzard was not a writer of her own time. She didn't write like other people, and so readers didn't necessarily know what to do with her,” says Olubas.

And nor did academics. Soon after the publication of The Great Fire, Olubas realised that there were no scholars writing on Hazzard’s work, perhaps because she didn’t fit into a simple category of Australian author, or American author. So Olubas started writing papers about Hazzard, and looking into her archives and then, she says, “I kind of fell into being ‘her’ critic.” Olubas went on to edit Hazzard’s nonfiction essays, We Need Silence To Know What We Think, and then her short stories, Shirley Hazzard's Collected Stories.

At first Olubas resisted the call to be Hazzard’s biographer, “I thought I’m a literary scholar, I want to sit here with poetry and deep novels and unpack them and marvel at them.” But after Hazzard died Olubas felt she needed to do it. “I had done all this other work,” she says. “In fact, I had been leaning towards this without being conscious of it. I was the only person who had read as much of her writing. I was very familiar with the archives. I'd been visiting her and had been given access to her papers. And when they were still in the apartment and this crazy unsorted state, I became close to her executors.”

From literary criticism to biography

In the end, writing Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life was a “deeply joyous experience” for Olubas. And that’s despite the fact that it was a very difficult period in her own life. Two of the four years spent writing were during the COVID-19 lockdowns, and the project was bookended by the deaths of her two sisters. There was something very affecting about reading diary entry after diary entry during that time. “Hazzard was just writing very poetically, very movingly, of unwanted solitude, of the loss of love (after the death of her husband), of wanting to go back into the past,” says Olubas.

In fact, there is a kind of melancholy imbued throughout all Hazzard’s work explains Olubas. She came from an unhappy and what she saw as an uncultured family, and then worked her way into a life where she could devote herself to writing and to reading. “I find that fascinating,” says Olubas, “that at one level, a writer is creating in her fiction and in her imaginative life something that will allow her to bear the story of her own life, of her own melancholy, of her own kind of misery. There is terrible loss sitting at the heart of every one of her stories and novels.”

Olubas’s work as a professor of English deeply informed her work on the biography. “I feel that as a literary critic, I bring a particular expertise to biography that I learned through the great privilege of a life devoted to reading literature and analysing literature. And in writing the biography, I used all the skills that I've developed as a literary critic. Sitting still with a piece of text and thinking about what it's saying, but also what it’s not saying. How it's concealing things as well as revealing them. How the meanings are layered into it. And if you go to letters and diaries and notes in that spirit, to ask what do they open up for me? What are they concealing? It allows you to bring as truthful and full an account of a life and of an experience as possible.”

“The other gripping thing about biography is that it lies precisely between lived life and the intellectual or imagined life. You are dealing with a real person in their public and their private selves. You were dealing with their imaginative life. It added this lived dimension to the literary kind of experience, and that was exciting for me.”

Bringing Hazzard back in the public eye

The reviews Olubas received after Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life was published affirm that her approach was a great success.

This from The Boston Globe: “Immersive, exacting, glittering: scholar Brigitta Olubas’s Shirley Hazard: A Writing Life, the first authorised biography of the late, iconic author, deserves accolades. From letters, diaries, notebooks, and friends’ memories, Olubas has built a dense, powerful narrative with real momentum – as freighted with incident and portent as a work of Dickens.”

Olubas’s goal was to share Hazzard with people who would otherwise never come across her. To explain in an accessible way how unique Hazzard’s published works, and own life story, are. “To me,” says Olubas, “Hazzard’s story is a really fascinating story of a young woman making a life for herself. And through extraordinary good fortune, she’s able to do that through the period of the long mid-century, post-World War Two, which was a world of literary flourishing. And she created this gilded life for herself by writing beautiful stories. She was an insignificant person who went out into the world and met everybody and found a career that we can’t even really imagine any more.”

Olubas’s biography has sparked a renewed interest in Hazzard’s work: The Transit of Venus was republished by Penguin Viking in 2022, and Olubas is currently working on two volumes of Hazzard’s correspondence.

UNSW Sydney is the exclusive university sponsor and proud Premier Partner of the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Featuring UNSW academics and researchers on Sydney Writers’ Festival stages, and events at the UNSW Kensington Campus, this partnership brings together a shared vision of creativity, curiosity and thought leadership. 

Brigitta Olubas