In 1976, Sigrid Nunez moved into an apartment on Riverside Drive in New York with her then boyfriend, David Reiff, and his mother, Susan Sontag. Nunez is a person who cherishes solitude. In Sempre Susan, her tribute to Sontag, she describes the strain of living with extroverts when her dream, from her teenage years, had been: ‘A single room. A chair, a table, a bed. Windows on a garden. Music. Books. A cat to teach me how to be alone with dignity.’ Sontag never wanted to be alone. Nunez was drawn into constant dinners, movies, and mountainous correspondence interrupted by telephone calls and visits, often from Joseph Brodsky, the Russian poet, who sometimes meowed like a cat instead of saying hello. (Although Nunez liked him, Brodsky was clearly not the cat of her dreams.) Sontag, objecting to a routine interview, grumbled that ‘Beckett wouldn’t do it’, which became a private refrain for Nunez, oppressed by the relentless activity of the household and the pressure for her to join in.
When Shirley Hazzard was invited to give the 1984 Boyer Lectures, it was an astonishing break in tradition. Her twenty-three predecessors included only one woman, Dame Roma Mitchell, a supreme court justice who was later governor of South Australia. Except for architect and writer Robin Boyd, and poet and Bulletin editor Douglas Stewart, Hazzard was the only creative artist on the list. All her predecessors were well known for their public contributions to Australian life.
London seen through a haze of smoke and fire in J.M.W. Turner’s famous painting, The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, is the evocative cover image for Shirley Hazzard’s long-awaited novel. The Great Fire comes twenty-three years after Hazzard’s brilliantly composed, witty, and ultimately tragic work ...
Why I’m gripped by this book I don’t know. Well, I do know. When I was in Vietnam late last year, on a gourmet tour, I purchased a pirated copy of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, my first Greene novel. (Why I hadn’t read Greene before I also don’t know, though I’d loved his wonderfully bizarre script for The Third Man.) In Saigon I took green tea in the Hotel Continental, imagining I was sitting where Greene might have sat in the early 1950s. At last, I thought, I’m doing a bit of cultural geography. When I returned to Canberra, I read it, and immediately decided it was a great novel, extraordinarily prescient of the Vietnam War. What also impressed me was the sensibility of Fowler, the English narrator, resigned to knowing himself undignified, unkempt, duplicitous, lying, opium-enveloped, absurdly deluded in love; an active accomplice in murder, of Pyle the appalling American intelligence agent come to do good in Southeast Asia, and always innocent in his own eyes, whatever he disastrously does.
These two very different novels by women provide a wealth of suggestive information about the women’s history being reclaimed and re-established by Australian feminists. They also happen to be intrinsically good novels, accomplished and charming in contrasting ways. Add Cambridge’s The Three Miss Kings, reprinted in the Virago Modem Classics series, was first serialised in 1883 in The Australasian, published in novel form in 1891, and soon became one of Cambridge’s most popular novels. It draws upon the familiar form of the romance, but it also, in its translation into an Australian setting, illuminates an idiosyncratic colonial grafting onto that form.