Shirley Hazzard and FSG

Jeff Seroy

Shirley Hazzard

Shirley Hazzard, who died on December 12 at the age of 85, wrote two collections of short stories, four novels, and three works of nonfiction. FSG published her last two works: in 2000, a memoir about Graham Greene, Greene on Capri, and, in 2003, her National Book Award-winning novel, The Great Fire. Her early books were brought out by Alfred A. Knopf, publisher of the novels of William Maxwell, the New Yorker fiction editor who in 1961 ran the story “Harold” she had mailed from Italy, not keeping a copy for herself, which started her on her way as a writer.

It was something of a miracle that Shirley came to FSG at all. Farrar, Straus had published two books by the man whom Shirley married in 1963, Francis Steegmuller. The first was a biography of a French aristocrat, The Grand Mademoiselle, followed by Apollinaire: Poet Among the Painters. Steegmuller was then invited by Atlantic–Little, Brown to produce a biography of Jean Cocteau. As is done, Roger Straus agreed to release him for that book. Then something happened that is not so typically done. Roger, in Shirley’s telling, signed up “his own” work on Cocteau. Drawn from Cocteau’s writing, compiled by Robert Phelps (one of the original founders of Grove Press), and translated by poet Richard Howard, Professional Secrets: An Autobiography of Jean Cocteau was published by FSG in 1970, the same year as Francis Steegmuller’s Cocteau: A Biography, which went on to win the National Book Award.

Whether Roger acted out of sour grapes or serendipity we’ll never know. But as one can imagine, this going toe-to-toe was not exactly welcomed by Steegmuller, who never returned to FSG, nor by his wife, who vowed never to be published here. Fast forward a few years. A warm bond of friendship, based on their mutual interest in Eugenio Montale, began to grow between Shirley and FSG Publisher Jonathan Galassi after they met in the home of Natalia Murray, the representative of Rizzoli in America and companion of the New Yorker’s estimable Paris correspondent, Janet Flanner. Jonathan eventually convinced Shirley to let us publish her, which we did with joy and to great acclaim. Unsurprisingly, however, she and Roger never reconciled. I recall Roger saying that he didn’t really believe Shirley remembered the last line of the Browning poem with which, in the pages excerpted below, she effects her introduction to Graham Greene in Capri’s Gran Caffè. The jibe was classic Roger. But anyone who spent time around Shirley knew the story must have been true. She could and did quote poetry by heart and at length, and would at the drop of a hat. Here, in Shirley’s inimitable voice, is her charming account of that first encounter with Greene, from a book which Jonathan Yardley, in The Washington Post, called “a model not merely of memoir but of the writer’s craft.”


An Excerpt from Greene on Capri

ON A DECEMBER MORNING of the late 1960s, I was sitting by the windows of the Gran Caffè in the piazzetta of Capri, doing the crossword in The Times. The weather was wet, as it had been for days, and the looming rock face of the Monte Solaro dark with rain. High seas, and some consequent suspension of the Naples ferry, had interrupted deliveries from the mainland; and the newspaper freshly arrived from London was several days old. In the café, the few other tables were unoccupied. An occasional waterlogged Caprese—workman or shopkeeper—came to take coffee at the counter. There was steam from wet wool and espresso; a clink and clatter of small cups and spoons; an exchange of words in dialect. It was near noon.

Two tall figures under umbrellas appeared in the empty square and loped across to the café: a pair of Englishmen wearing raincoats, and one—the elder—with a black beret. The man with the beret was Graham Greene. I recognised him—as one would; and also because I had seen him in the past on Capri, at the restaurant Gemma near the piazza, where he dined at a corner table with his companion, and great love of the postwar decade, Catherine Walston. That was in the late 1950s, when I used to visit Naples and Capri from Siena, where I then spent part of the year. One knew that Greene had a house in the town of Anacapri, in the upper portion of the island, which he had visited faithfully if sporadically for many years.

On that damp December morning, Greene and his dark-haired friend came into the Gran Caffè, hung their coats, and sat down at the next tiny table to mine. I went on with my puzzle; but it was impossible not to overhear the conversation of my neighbours—or, at any rate, not to hear one side of it. Graham Greene certainly did not have a loud voice, but his speech was incisive, with distinctive inflections, and his voice was lowered only in asides or to make confidences. It was an individual voice, developed before the great British flattening, when one’s manner of speaking might, beyond any affectation of class, become personal speech: one’s own expressive instrument casting its spell in conversation. I would in any case have noticed what he was saying, because he began to quote from a poem by Robert Browning called “The Lost Mistress.” The poem opens:

All’s over then: does truth sound bitter. . .

but the passage that especially interested Greene comes later:

Tomorrow we meet the same, then, dearest?
May I take your hand in mine?
Mere friends are we—well, friends the merest
Keep much that I resign. . .

He went on to quote the poem’s concluding verse, but could not recall the last line. The lines he recited, and repeated, are

Yet I will but say what mere friends say,
Or only a thought stronger;
I will hold your hand but as long as all may—

And then he could not remember the very end. He recurred to this several times, trying to draw it up from his memory, but did not manage it.

When I had finished my coffee and my puzzle, and had paid, and had taken my raincoat and umbrella from the dank stand, I said, “The line is

“Or so very little longer,”

I went away at once, back under the rain to the Hotel San Felice—where we used to stay on visits to Capri until, soon after that December trip, we rented, in an old house, a simple flat that became our Capri perch for the next quarter-century. Francis—my husband, Francis Steegmuller—was waiting for me. And of course I told the story, which had already become a story. Francis had met Greene years earlier, in New York, when Graham, with his wife Vivien, was on a postwar trip to America of which he retained few good impressions. Later, Francis and Graham had briefly corresponded. The morning’s encounter on Capri seemed to me, and seems still, like an incident from a novel: from a real novel, a good novel, an old novel. And I imagine that it appeared so to Graham also.

That evening, as we arrived at our fireside table in the inner room at Gemma’s restaurant, Graham, with his friend Michael Richey, stood up to greet us. We dined together. And so began our years of seeing Greene on Capri.

A day or so later, Graham asked us to lunch at his house in Anacapri. In rather better weather we took the bus up the vertiginous road of the Monte Solaro, the island’s presiding dolomitic mountain. Getting out in Piazza Caprile—a farthermost enclave of the little town of Anacapri, which runs along a ridge of the Solaro slope—we walked the couple of hundred yards to Graham’s gate. II Rosaio, as the house is called, sharing its name with an adjacent property, dates in present form from about 1922. It belongs to a period when the ancient rustic architecture of Capri, compact, domed, and curved, was taken up by certain of the island’s more worldly residents—and in particular by an entrepreneurial mentor of Capri, Edwin Cerio—as a basis for constructing charming houses: white, but not starkly so; well made but never massive; not luxurious, but comfortable, and appropriate to climate and surroundings. A score or more of these houses, each different but linked in style, are scattered through the island, most of them still in private hands. The danger of such emulative architecture—that it may seem coy, or toy—has long since been exorcised by the Capri climate, which, through seasonal alternations of scorching and soaking, weathers any tactful, durable structure into authenticity. The island’s prolific growth of flowering plants, shrubs, and vines does the rest.

The wrought-iron gate of the Rosaio is set into the arch of a high white wall and provided with a bell and bellpull. You walk into a secluded garden reminiscent of Greece or North Africa, and characteristic, even today, of many Capri dwellings where the island’s history of “Saracen” assaults by sea, and its once imperative climatic needs, linger in structural patterns common to all the Mediterranean. Intersecting paths paved with old rosy bricks lead, as in a childhood dream, to the obscure front door. The slight suggestion of a maze would have attracted the author of Ways of Escape. The house is small, its ground floor having four rooms and the upper storey consisting only of a single ledge-like space. (At a later time, Graham had a portion of the roof fitted up as a sheltered terrace that looks down the island’s long western slope to the sea and over to the cone of Ischia on the horizon, providing vermilion views of extravagant sunsets.) The entire space of the property—imaginatively expanded, by censorious writers on Greene, into a site of sybaritic luxury—is that of a suburban English cottage with its pleasant plot of ground. The core of that particular criticism may be that the Rosaio is not suburban: it is on Capri.

Pine cones and short logs were burning in the convex fireplace of the little living room where we had drinks with Graham and his houseguest, Michael Richey. Richey, a writer, sculptor, graphic artist, lone long-distance sailor, and, for many years, Director of the Royal Institute of Navigation, had met Graham in London in 1940. With a hiatus for war service, the friendship had been maintained ever since. Talk started up at once, favoured by the intimacy and simplicity of the setting. There were books, a few small pictures (“That one is by a former girlfriend”), a Neapolitan eighteenth-century crèche figure of the Madonna under its bell jar; the whole—easy, agreeable, cosy without clutter.

The room’s high ceiling culminates in a miniature dome, or lantern, of paned glass giving extra light on dark days. The floor is of old white tiles set with tiled borders of green leaves and yellow flowers. Tiles of such quality and durability, with a depth of as much as two inches, have been a feature of Neapolitan pavements and decoration for centuries—overflowing, in the eighteenth century, into entire polychrome scenes in churches, cloisters, and palaces of the region. Locally known as le riggiole, they are individually fired, and can be reproduced, and laid, these days, only at high expense. Their beauty is enhanced by the tactile purity of a glaze luminous yet livable that—as in the case of Graham’s white floors—suggests, by some fugitive tinge of rose, the underlying terracotta.

In a dining room, where winter light came through a set of small, high windows, our lunch of pasta and a fowl was served by Carmelina, who, with her husband, Aniello, and their family, cared for Graham on his visits and attended throughout the year to the house and garden. Short and staunch, with a coloured kerchief knotted over her coiled grey hair and an ample apron on her dark dress, Carmelina was a picture of the hardworking, good-humoured Caprese massaia of her day: firm women, not without irony, who lived close to the land and the seasons, to weather, crops, and vines; to the daily narrative of the parish and the community; and, most deeply, to the ties of blood.

Many such women seldom left the island, even for a day’s trip to Naples, twenty miles away. Theirs was the last generation of which that would be true.

Our hours went quickly, in talk and laughter. We drank a good amount of Anacapri’s genuine light red wine, already becoming rare. There was pleasure, self-evidently shared, and some mild excitement in the oddity of that winter meeting on a Mediterranean rock: a brief adventure quickened by what Graham valued most, the unexpected.

Graham then was in his mid-sixties; Francis, two years younger; Michael Richey, late forties. I was in my thirties. Graham and Michael were both Catholics, Graham having converted at the time of his youthful marriage. (Years later, after Graham’s death, Michael wrote to me: “One bond—if it’s not too high-falutin’ a concept—was Catholicism; it would not have been the same without that.”) Francis, raised in a Catholic family, had withdrawn from the Church in early youth. I had grown up a perfunctory Anglican. We were, all four, writers and readers in a world where the expressive word, spoken or written, still seemed paramount—beneficiaries of what John Bayley once called “the inevitable solace that right language brings.” We were all, in varying degrees, sociable yet solitary.

Greene on Capri

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Shirley Hazzard (1931-2016) was born in Australia, and in early years traveled the world with her parents due to their diplomatic postings. At sixteen, living in Hong Kong, she was engaged by British Intelligence, where, in 1947-48, she was involved in monitoring the civil war in China. Thereafter, she lived in New Zealand and in Europe; in the United States, where she worked for the United Nations Secretariat in New York; and in Italy. In 1963, she married the writer Francis Steegmuller, who died in 1994. Ms. Hazzard’s novels are The Evening of the Holiday (1966), The Bay of Noon (1970), The Transit of Venus (1981), and The Great Fire (2003). She is also the author of two collections of short fiction, Cliffs of Fall and Other Stories (1963) and People in Glass Houses (1967). Her nonfiction works include Defeat of an Ideal (1973), Countenance of Truth (1990), and the memoir Greene on Capri (2000).

Jeff Seroy is Senior Vice President, Publicity and Marketing, at FSG.

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