Am in the process of reading everything I can find by Shirley Hazzard; which has meant ransacking various libraries for copies of the earlier fictions and the non-fiction books too. Her memoir Greene on Capri was in the Glebe library, which is the easiest of the Sydney City library branches for me to get to, so that was also where I asked for The Evening of the Holiday and People in Glass Houses to be sent. Ordered in Friday (from two separate branches), there yesterday. I had just finished the Capri book and was idling, wondering what to read next, when the text messages (two, separate) came in mid-afternoon, so jumped straight in the car and drove off to collect them. Leaving the library I ran into a Chinese couple, with poor English, who wanted directions to the light rail station – almost impossible to give but I tried. Then, having failed to find anything else of interest in Glebe, I was walking back down Wigram Road to the car when a flash of colour on the pavement caught my eye. Stopped, looked: it was a large, bright, red-orange wasp of a kind I have not seen before, engaged in the task of dragging a grey-brown orb spider, apparently dead but more likely paralysed, across the footpath towards a low stone wall that enclosed somebody’s garden. There seemed to be some coupling mechanism that allowed the wasp to lock on to the spider’s mandibles and thus connected, drag it backwards using all six feet as propulsion; I put my glasses on and came as close as possible but no, would have needed a magnifying glass properly to see. Anyway my presence alarmed the wasp, which disengaged and buzzed briefly in my direction. Was it a wasp at all? I could see no sting; and in some respects it looked more like a beetle. Now it returned to the spider, bigger and certainly heavier than it was, and began frantically to groom its own forelegs and mouth parts, as if to cleanse them of venom or perhaps spider saliva – who knew? Leaped and danced about its prey in a manner at once comical and frenetic. Dragged it a few centimetres more towards the wall then stopped, disengaged, agitated, cleaned. First one small lizard, then another, came skinking along the wall, curious as I was about the unfolding drama; with, perhaps, an ulterior motive. The wasp made dashes in the direction of one lizard, then the other; both backed off but not very far. Wasp coupled itself once more to spider and dragged it a little further, into the elongated shade of a telegraph pole that stood behind me. The lizards lurking, one each side, of a frond of a ladder fern growing out of a crack in the wall: what did they want? The spider? The wasp? Or, like me, some entertainment . . . impossible to say. The wasp dashed at them, one by one, as before, as before they retreated marginally then came back. Wasp made another sally in my direction, I realised it saw me as much a threat as the skinks. A hiatus in the drama; the hot street quiet and still, no cars, no pedestrians . . . I walked away, remembering that time on the Goulburn River when the air was thick with great red wasps carrying dangled from their mouths gargantuan grasshoppers to their lairs in the grey crumbling cliffs; while all about the cicada’d air shrieked. The wasp, which was not the kind illustrated above, though similar, would have laid an egg in the drugged spider’s body (different spider too) then left it; the larva would in time hatch then eat its way out of the spider-larder; but not, perhaps, in this case, with those patient lizards (= fence skinks) waiting for their turn. What has this to do with Shirley Hazzard? Well, nothing, really; except this: you cannot write with her meticulous grasp of circumstance, event, character, place and language, her grace of style, without first learning to observe. 

Nature Focus


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3 responses to “

  1. Hello, I’m a new visitor to this blog (directed here by fellow writer and friend Margaret Barbalet)

    I agree with everything you say about Shirley Hazzard, and have long been a fan of hers. I regularly used to put Hazzard’s books on reading lists for the groups I used to run through ACT’s public libraries, and was dismayed by the frequent negative responses.

  2. me

    Hey Dom,

    I have the UN book here but haven’t read it yet – it’s rather different in style from the novels I think, which are pretty good IMO. SH worked for the UN in the 1950s & early 1960s and wrote a couple of pretty scathing non-ficto books about the Org. Anyway, I can recommend, eg, Greene on Capri as a good swift read. She is the magician of sentences!


  3. You can’t tell with lizards. Wasps more so. Shirley Hazzard must have been big before 1970 because I read her from my parents’ bookshelf in Port Moresby, ‘People in Glass Houses’, a nice paperback with a silvery picture of skyscrapers on the cover. As I recall, they were short pieces about some giant bureaucracy which I later figured out must have been the UN ? I completely forget the stories. But I remembered about that book for some reason when watching a truly crap movie just a couple years ago starring Nicole Kidman, ‘The Interpreter’, also about the UN. Anyway at that tender age Ms Hazzard struck me as a decent writer but somewhat … tight-arsed ?

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