In the short story “In One’s Own House,” one of 28 in Shirley Hazzard’s new “Collected Stories,” a character tries to explain to her son why his brother is in a foul mood. “He’s just dreadfully depressed, dear,” she says. “He feels we’re all doomed — which is, after all, no more than the truth, though one can’t afford to give it undivided attention.”
It’s a sentiment fitting of Hazzard, the Australian American author who died in 2016. Best known for her novel “The Great Fire,” Hazzard was a stubborn realist — she wrote about pain, loss, and disappointment with a clear-eyed matter-of-factness that never quite descended into full-blown pessimism, and she leavened her natural gloom with a bone-dry sense of humor.
That sensibility is on display in this new collection, which is composed of her books “Cliffs of Fall” and “People in Glass Houses” along with 10 uncollected or previously unpublished stories. Admirers of Hazzard’s novels will find much to love here, but it also proves to be a fine introduction to the late author’s work.
The second story in the collection, “A Place in the Country,” is Hazzard at her best. It follows Nettie, a young woman who’s fallen in love with Clem, her cousin May’s husband. The two begin an affair, but Nettie soon realizes she’s more committed to the illicit relationship than Clem is.
When Nettie suspects Clem is about to break up with her, she thinks, “What is to happen to me? What am I to suffer? Calamity has a generalizing effect, and as yet she could foresee her suffering only in a monumental way and not in its inexorable, annihilating detail.”
It’s a moment that showcases one of Hazzard’s greatest strengths: her ability to explore and explain, sensitively, the emotional states of people at their most vulnerable. She does the same thing in the remarkable “The Cliffs of Fall,” which tells the story of Elizabeth, a young woman visiting her friends shortly after the sudden death of her husband.
Elizabeth, in a way, might welcome some suffering. She’s been prescribed medicine to deal with her grief, but is disconcerted that she doesn’t need it, that her numb response to the tragedy is somehow insufficient. “Will I ever feel anything again, she wondered,” Hazzard writes. “Unfeeling, she felt strangely imperiled, as though she might now perpetrate any crime, commit any indiscriminate act, say any unspeakable thing, unless she consciously applied a restraint that had formerly been instinctive — as people who have lost the sense of heat and cold will touch fire and burn themselves, uninhibited by pain.”
It’s a gorgeous story with a stark ending that suggests how impossible it can feel to try to move on from loss. The collection has quite a few stories like this, but it also features ones that showcase Hazzard’s sardonic sense of humor.
The middle section of the book features stories from “People in Glass Houses,” Hazzard’s collection of tales that take place at “the Organization,” a bureaucratic nightmare group that Hazzard based on the United Nations (where Hazzard used to work, and of which she held a dim view).
Unlike the other stories in the collection, the Organization stories are satirical, and at times quite funny. In one, Hazzard writes that a character “was a man of what used to be known as average and is now known as above-average intelligence”; another has managed to overcome “a natural indolence that would have crushed other men.”
The strongest of the Glass Houses stories is “The Story of Miss Sadie Graine,” which follows the rise and fall of an ambitious and officious Organization secretary in the group’s “Department of Aid to the Less Technically Oriented,” or “DALTO.” It’s here that Hazzard mocks office bureaucracy to the greatest effect, having obvious fun with the department’s name: “The interim titles that had been used — ‘Economic Relief of Under-Privileged Territories’ and ‘Mission for Under-Developed Lands’ — were well enough in their way, but they combined a note of condescension with initials which, when contracted, proved somewhat unfortunate.”
The stories in the final section of the collection are all quite beautiful, with “Comfort” perhaps the most accomplished. It’s a gorgeous snapshot of a story, taking place over a brief conversation between a woman in an unhappy relationship and her friend, a man who’s in love with her.
While Hazzard’s prose is finely structured — she writes in compound-complex sentences, with no words out of place — “Comfort” showcases her gift for dialogue that rings true, and highlights what’s not being said as well as what is. “Well,” says the man, “one should not worry about what one cannot change.” (“He intended this injunction for himself,” Hazzard notes.) “Isn’t that exactly why one worries, though?” responds the woman." Because one can’t change it?"
It’s a smart, telling moment: Hazzard manages to convey that there’s much more beyond the platitudes we tell ourselves, that human emotions — love, pain, jealousy, grief — are never as neat and manageable as we tell ourselves.
It’s a stunning story, like so many of the others in the collection. Hazzard understood the human condition in all its contradiction, all its messiness, like few others. “Collected Stories” is certainly essential for admirers of the author, but it’s also a wonderful read for anyone who loves fiction that delights and enlightens, challenges and rewards.
By Shirley Hazzard, Edited by Brigitta Olubas
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 368 pages, $28
Michael Schaub is a Texas-based journalist and a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle.