Thursday, March 3, 2011

must be counted

I'm horrified to see that Hazel Rowley has died -- author of Christina Stead: a Biography, which was published in 1993 and is surely the most well-known book about Stead, pipping Chris Williams' 1989 Christina Stead: a Life in Letters and various other works of essay and theory, books by Anne Pender and Teresa Peterson, books by Diana Brydon, and by that devout knight and champion, R.G. Geering.

The Age website, usually not a great source for literary news, had, initially, the most useful obituary, followed by The Australian, with the ABC trailing far away in the rear. The Bendigo Weekly was short but sweet. John Scheckter was shorter and sweeter: "I met her only once, but she impressed me as someone who was intensely and completely happy." Lisa at ANZLitLovers said Vale and linked to the writer's Wikipedia article. Angela Meyer at LiteraryMinded was sad. Adrian Leeds remembered her. The Salonniere told us she was "a friend of mine ... brilliant, blunt, generous and fearless." Another friend, John Trumpbour, said that "She became fascinated with biography after reading Jane Eyre." Russell Blackford used to know her. Chandlee Bryan lived next door. Radio National talked about her.*

Victoria's Central Highlands Regional Library reckoned we should read her articles. Helen R. Gunnarsson directed us to one particular article "on French publishing law and how it affected the publication of her biography of Sartre and Beauvoir in France." Bookseller and Publisher quoted Louise Adler, the editor of Melbourne University Press: "Rowley's great talent has been to celebrate the life of the mind." Perth Now had a small article and a large picture. The International Business Times borrowed everything from the Australian.

The Washington Post praised her books and the L.A. Times pointed out that her latest biography had "reached No. 18 on the L.A. Times bestseller list." The New York Times said that she had "a taste for the singular."

The Sydney Morning Herald cooled its heels for seven days and then unleashed a longer obituary than any of 'm. She had courage, says Peter Craven.

She always went her own way, against the grain. It was fortunate, though, that the comparative approach had allowed the woman with languages to get her teeth into Christina Stead.

Doris Lessing praised the fineness and balance of the Stead biography and Helen Garner described it as ''a marvellous book, a grand portrait''. When I reviewed it for The Age in 1993 I said that it was ''biography of the highest order, as finely organised as anything by Ellmann'' (the great biographer of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde) and with a ''command of tempo'' that made it ''one of the finest biographies ever written about an Australian''.

I can still remember the excitement when Joan Kirner launched Rowley's Christina Stead at Mietta's restaurant

On February 28th Stephen Romei reported that she was "gravely ill." "It is understood that Rowley, 55, suffered a massive stroke at the weekend." By the time of her death on March 1st she had aged four years and was 59. (This was March 1st US time. She had been living in New York. The news hit Australia's newspapers on the 3rd, Australian time. She died in the evening.) She had a website.

The Village Voice Bookshop in Paris is planning a memorial: "The date is to be confirmed soon. If you wish to express your recollections of Hazel, you may send an e-mail to the usual address which shall be read during the memorial."

* The memorial runs for ten minutes and most of it is taken up with two old interviews. In the first interview Ramona Koval starts off talking to Rowley about her childhood, then they segue into Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, the subjects of Rowley's Tête-à-Tête, then it's on to Richard Wright and, briefly, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Rowley's Richard Wright: the Life and Times came out in 2001, and she was about to embark on promotional tour for Franklin and Eleanor when she died.

The second interview is all Christina Stead and The Man Who Loved Children.


  1. It's very awful. From my point of view, me being interested in Stead, it was satisfying to know there was someone out there, more or less well-known in the literary world, who could be trusted to give some informed commentary on her whenever asked. From a different angle: everyone who knew Rowley is saying what a generous and intelligent person she was, and who wants generous and intelligent people to die? (They seem sincere, too, not: "Well, we're going to say something nice about her because she's dead, but really, secretly, just between ourselves, ouch." None of that.)

  2. My husband spoke to her for the Stead biography, as he spent some time with Stead towards the end of her life, and he also came away with a v good impression. I don't think there's any doubt she was a very decent soul.

  3. You mentioned that once on Whispering Gums, I remember. He came somewhere in the last or second-last chapter.

  4. Their encounters were poignant. He was concerned that she was lonely - which I think she probably was.

  5. It looks as if Rowley came to that conclusion too. I finished the book thinking that Stead had been very adrift at the end, and very sad. Crabby too, but I'd be crabby if you asked me to trail around the place sharing bathrooms and houses and dormitories with people I hardly knew.

    ("Damn," I keep thinking, "he met Christina Stead.")

    Has your husband thought of sending something in to that Rowley memorial at the Village Voice? "If you wish to express your recollections of Hazel ..." etc.

  6. It's funny that he met her, because, although he did write a thesis about Dostoevsky, he is not engaged by literature so much as by history and politics. But maybe that made him ideal for Christina Stead because, while respectful, he wasn't an acolyte. He just saw her as an obviously very intelligent but rather lonely person - she was living at University House at the ANU at the time, which is a very pleasant place, but 'adrift' I think might be exactly what she was, from what he's said. As so often, you have chosen precisely the right word. You have a gift for that.

  7. Thank you. Now all the rejected words are sitting there feeling suicidal. "What's wrong with us?" etc. The last part of that biography seemed especially poignant compared to the first part, her earlier years, her determination to get away and have her "voyage to Cythera," freedom, love, languages, Salzburg, and Paris. (And thank you for describing her.)