Monday, December 19, 2022

Shirley Hazzard in Italy

Humpty and Shirley and Italy

I read a couple of Shirley Hazzard books I got from the library recently. I started with:

Greene on Capri

This is a memoir of her and her husband's (Francis Steegmuller) friendship with Graham Greene which came out in 2000. She met Greene on Capri in the late 60s. If you've read any Shirley Hazzard, you will be unsurprised by how she met him.  She and Graham Greene were sitting at nearby tables in a café on Capri. She knew who Greene was by sight, but didn't introduce herself. Greene was discussing a poem of Robert Browning's with a friend, but neither Greene nor his friend could remember the last line, until she supplied it as she was walking out the door. Later that evening she and her husband were dining at the same restaurant as Graham Greene--Capri is a small place--and Greene introduced himself.  It was the beginning of a twenty-years' friendship that lasted until Greene died.

They mostly met on Capri--Greene had a house on the island and shortly afterwards the Steegmullers rented a place (for $70 a month! I learned here. Not anymore, I'm afraid.) where they spent six months of the year.

The memoir is a delight. It doesn't whitewash Greene, who could, it seems, be difficult, and whose best writing was mostly behind him by that point. She was pleased, she writes, that she could genuinely tell Greene she liked The Honorary Counsel, (which is one of the better late Greene books) and is sensible on the strengths and weaknesses in Greene's writing. Greene was helpful in getting one of Steegmuller's Flaubert translations published by The Bodley Head.

The memoir is also a reminiscence of the Capri of that era. Capri has long been a bit glamorous, popular with foreigners, but not yet what it was to become. One amusing story, though, involves Steegmuller trading Russian phrases with an aged woman whom Lenin had tried to teach Russian when she was a girl; her father had been the gardener at the villa where Lenin stayed with Gorky in 1908. The Steegmullers, Greene, and Greene's partner at the time, Yvonne Cloetta, walk up to the Villa Jovis, the fortress from which Tiberius ruled the Roman empire in his later years. (I've been there!)

Both Greene himself and her husband Francis Steegmuller are dead by the time she writes this. It has a melancholic tinge. But she remembers those times fondly and well.

And it ends, as it began, with that missing bit of Robert Browning: 'Or so very little longer.' (from The Lost Mistress.)

The Bay of Noon

Then I read her short novel of 1970. The main events take place a few years after the end of World War II. Jenny, running away from her family, takes a job as a secretary for a commission studying the NATO base in Naples. (Primarily, then as now, the home of the US Sixth Fleet.) She knows no one there, but comes with a letter of recommendation to Gioconda. Gioconda is the author of a novel Del Tempo Felice, that was made into an Italian neo-realist movie. (It gets compared to Open City and The Bicycle Thieves.) Gioconda's lover is Gianni, the director of Del Tempo Felice. Various people around the office feature, her boss, the Colonel, but most particularly Justin Tulloch, a Scottish marine biologist to whom she's detailed for a while. She and Justin trade lines from Sir Walter Scott's Lochinvar at one point.

The novel mostly takes place in Naples, though, of course, they do make it to Capri. It's very good on place:
"An open-air nightclub, wedged into the tufa near my building, lay in wait for its season; and a bedraggled restaurant or two commanded, from scruffy terraces, the incomparable, lake-like prospect of the bay."

I won't say much about the plot. There is a twist, although I have to say I felt like I saw it coming. Still, a good read, even if it's not The Transit of Venus

And are my trip to Italy this year for the Rose City Reader European Reading Challenge.

There would have been several good reasons to have read these books last month, but I didn't... I'm reading them now because I just got my copy of the new Shirley Hazzard biography from the library on Friday.

I knew I would want to read it in any case, but I was pleased to see that Steve Donoghue listed it as his best biography of the year. His are really the only end-of-year lists I read, funny, cantankerous, and with (for me at least) more hits than misses.


  1. It's always fascinating to read a writer's encounter with another writer - whose books we have read - it feels like we are being introduced to the said writer. I have not explored more of Greene's beyond The End of the Affair - which I didn't particularly like..

    1. I liked The End of the Affair, but the Power and the Glory is probably my favourite by Greene. It is interesting, isn't it, to see one writer react to another?

  2. Brilliant reviews. Reese. You make me want to pick up the books (esp the memoir) immediately and I do not even know who the writer is! First time hearing her name. Could you also share a link to the lists of Steve Donoghue? I am a sucker for end-of-the-year lists.

    1. Thanks! The Transit of Venus is definitely her masterpiece, though.

      Here's the last of Steve Donoghue's lists, on nonfiction:

      You can scroll back through to get to other interesting ones, such as fiction or mysteries. The worst of lists are the really funny ones, although he was amusing in his Sci Fi list, too.

    2. The other lists are linked down at the bottom.

  3. Greene on Capri does sound like a delightful memoir. I've sadly never read any of her books. Do you have a favorite by her?

    1. The Transit of Venus is really a great novel.