Farewell to novelist Shirley Hazzard

People in Glass Houses, Shirley HazzardEarlier this month, Australian author (later turned American citizen) Shirley Hazzard (1931 – 2016) died at the age of 85.

Hazzard was probably best known for her novel, The Transit of Venus, which won the National Book Critics circle Award in 1980.

But for me, the book I most closely associate with Hazzard is the brilliant send-up on the United Nations in a series of connected short stories entitled People in Glass Houses.

Hazzard, who worked in the UN in its early years – in the 1950s – and later became a vociferous critic, creates a brilliant satire of what she calls ‘The Organization’, replete with official-sounding UN acronyms such as ” ‘DALTO – the Department of Aid to the Less Technically Oriented’, working to induce backwards nations to come forwards.”

This biting satire is subtle, depicting enthusiastic, idealistic young people entering a system they believe can truly make a difference, only to be slowly grounded down by mind-boggling bureaucracy and incompetent management. Speaking about the career rise of one character, it’s noted with pride that “he worked at Interim Reports, before being upgrade to Annual Reports.”

One of the characters in the story is described as such: “Svoboda was not a brilliant man. He was a man of what used to be knows as average and is now known as above-average intelligence.”

Here’s a telling passage about bureaucratic management within ‘The Organization’:

“Although exalted in Organizational rank, they were not remarkable men. First-class minds, being interested in the truth, tend to select other first-class minds as companions. Second-class minds, on the other hand, being interested in themselves, will select third-class comrades in order to maintain the illusion of superiority.”

But it isn’t only political-appointee management Hazzard pokes fun at. One of her best pieces in the collection is about a bitter, insecure and increasingly unstable secretary, Sadie Graine,  who viciously wields her power over those around her. She takes twisted pride in controlling access to her boss and thwarting the careers of those who don’t provide her with the respect she believes she deserves. It’s a brilliant story with a satisfying end.  I was pleased to read an interview with Hazzard in which she recalls this little gem as probably her most perfect short story.

Farewell to author Shirley Hazzard. While I must read more of her work, I truly enjoyed People In Glass Houses and greatly appreciate her fine eye for satire.

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