At the beginning of Shirley Hazzard’s second novel, The Bay of Noon, a young, unmoored Englishwoman named Jenny is sent to work as a translator and secretary at a NATO outpost in Naples, Italy. Among pompous military men, washed-out secretaries and exiled foreigners, she waits “for the city, and its intervention, much in the way that those pale companions of mine awaited life itself.” Something akin to fate responds almost immediately, ushering in two potential love interests and an alluring new friend. Jenny, caught in an increasingly fraught web of erotic relationships, fails to remark on her job for more than half the book; her purpose in Naples is insignificant compared to the opportunities it affords.
Nearly a year into her adventure, Jenny finally refers to the report that she apparently had been working on the entire time. “The report is missing not for any reason that alarms or touches me, but because it is not interesting enough to mention,” she explains. Her recounting of the hours that she spent converting “sheaves and rolls and heavy piles of paper from a foreign language into a form of English that was in its way more alien to us” is mirrored by a shift in her vocabulary: only pointed, distant sentences can convey the monotony of her duties and her contempt for her superiors, who “reduced the most imperative matters to boredom.” These passages contrast with the lush, proximate language used to describe her walks along Neapolitan streets, her encounters with friends and locals and her complex interiority. For Jenny, the lexicon of bureaucracy, like the translated English of her documents, can never adequately capture one’s encounters with beauty, nuance and emotion.
Hazzard, in her fiction and in her conception of her own life, returns again and again to the transcendent, tragic power of romance and fate, both of which cannot be spoken of in the same language as the indignities of office life. This knowledge was borne from personal experience, for Hazzard—the Australian-American writer who came to be known as a doyenne of starched shirts, epigrammatic intelligence and emotional precision—was once like Jenny: trapped in a dead-end job, and in search of stimulation and escape. In her twenties, Hazzard worked as a secretary at the United Nations in New York, which she described in an interview with the Paris Review as “a deeply demoralized atmosphere,” where “the work itself was virtually meaningless, and cruelly underpaid.” Her salvation came in 1956, when she took a year-long assignment in Naples—“the first of a series of miraculous reprieves” that irrevocably changed the direction of her life. Before returning to headquarters, Hazzard spent time at the villa of a principled anti-fascist family, whose friendship she credits as her second miracle—for under their roof, she was “released into a larger life; restored to the measure of belief in myself that the United Nations had eroded.” This renewed sense of integrity blossomed into her first story, about an unlikely poet, called “Harold.”
The conclusive miracle came through William Maxwell, the New Yorker’s fiction editor, who accepted “Harold” on Hazzard’s first attempt at submission, in 1960. In short order, she gained confidence, connections and, crucially, liberation from the UN. Her desperate financial situation was immediately remedied by the New Yorker’s check, which was worth several months of her “negligible” UN salary. She resigned shortly thereafter to pursue a full-time writing career.
Yet Hazzard was never fully freed from the psychic hold of her former workplace. Two of her nonfiction books, Defeat of an Ideal (1973) and Countenance of Truth (1990), attempted to chart the scale of the corruption at the UN, but neither led to significant investigations or reforms at the time. Rather, she conveyed her most effective critique of the UN through fiction. In 1963, Hazzard published People in Glass Houses, a collection of eight linked satirical short stories set at a United Nations analogue called the Organization. (It’s sometimes marketed as a novel.) The book offers more than a damning look at the degradations of a single workplace; it also functions as a tragically hilarious testimony to life in a modern bureaucracy. Glass Houses follows a cast of urbane, diverse individuals who—in Hazzard’s image—are underappreciated and underutilized by their bosses, and systematically underpromoted and underpaid. Their attempts to maneuver into better positions are consistently foiled or fumbled by their superiors; their disappointments and disillusionments accumulate, and typically result in total resignation to their situation, rather than increased motivation to change it. In Hazzard’s conception of this flawed institution, many employees begin with noble intentions, yet over time are corrupted by Organizational norms: as in the case of one low-level bureaucrat who spreads gossip by traversing the emergency staircase, “Not naturally malicious, he had developed rapidly since entering bureaucracy.”
Idealists facing the stark realities of human relationships, people of deep feeling seeking emotional recourse—these themes are fertile ground for Hazzard in all of her books, and have helped propel her literary rebirth. Since her death, in 2016, a new generation of readers—perhaps seeking rich, dense prose, otherwise unfashionable in this antiseptic age, or her novels’ transporting romantic energy and acute psychological insight—have embraced her style and her preoccupations. Publishers have responded in kind: Hazzard’s Collected Stories (which includes those in Glass Houses) was published last year, and The Transit of Venus, widely considered to be her masterpiece, was rereleased as a Penguin Classic in March.
Yet, curiously, many of Hazzard’s admirers seem to pass over Glass Houses in favor of her other work. This relative lack of attention is all the odder because the book is a thematic precursor to a recent wave of millennial novels featuring a specific sort of workplace—elite in character, and imbued with a lofty cultural, educational or humanitarian mission—in which even relatively privileged employees are subjected to deadening routines, curtailed opportunities for advancement and endemic demoralization. Among this year’s releases alone, one thinks of the physical and financial mortifications experienced by Dorothy, an adjunct at a prestigious university in Christine Smallwood’s The Life of the Mind; of Eileen, one of the protagonists of Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You, who is paid “about twenty thousand a year” to mechanically check punctuation at a literary magazine; and of the nameless narrator of Katie Kitamura’s Intimacies, who finds the artistic and moral compromises of translating at an international war crimes court increasingly draining. Glass Houses shares with such books a concern with the political dimension of producing cultural and social goods in a workplace that contributes to, or even directly upholds, the liberal world order: the Organization, like its real-life counterpart, prides itself on its ostensibly admirable mission of promoting world peace and aiding poorer nations and people. Yet as Hazzard chronicles, the work underpinning these aims is not only often meaningless, wasteful and self-indulgent, but also permanently damaging—to the causes to which employees dedicate themselves, and ultimately to their own sense of ethics.
Hazzard distinguishes her perspective on office life by giving particular attention to the initial hopes of her characters—to make a difference in the world, to have a fulfilling career. Their optimism never lasts for long, but unlike in many contemporary workplace novels, Hazzard’s protagonists are not already completely inured to their situations when readers first encounter them. Instead, we follow along as their depressing professional experiences nudge them toward self-understanding and hard-won realism, which often does more to entrench them within the Organization than to excise them from it. Observing these transformations is akin to reading a bleak, adults-only version of a bildungsroman; the distinctly rendered moral educations of Hazzard’s characters affect us all the more because of our cultural familiarity with the mundane inner workings of office ecosystems. Even so, Hazzard’s writing remains dynamic, and full of detailed intimacy; rather than relying on ambient absurdity for humor, she employs precise, merciless descriptions—of inert, strangely sympathetic bosses; of colleagues who wield pettiness as the weapon of egotism; of love affairs and friendships compressed by the pressures of bureaucratic life.
Among modern office literature, Glass Houses is unique for being driven by targeted fury, rather than by cynical resignation about contemporary economic and social systems; even among Hazzard’s own oeuvre, the book’s perversely humorous tone and critical tenor set it apart. One senses that Hazzard was writing Glass Houses in a different emotional and stylistic register than her other novels, defined by her desire to reveal some sort of essential truth about the moral violence underlying the plush carpeting of elite workplaces, and by the clarity of justified anger.
Hazzard understood, as every modern office-worker does, that the trajectory of one’s career is all too frequently determined by an out-of-touch Human Resources representative. At the Organization, that person is often Mr. Bekkus, whose comical arrogance tends to have an outsized effect on employees’ lives. People in Glass Houses begins with the image of him dictating a treatise on the promotion of junior employees “with emphasis, as though he were directing a firing-squad.” His central task—to eliminate the Organization’s ranks of unremarkable civil servants, not unlike himself—is equally as overblown yet disturbing, and frequently takes the form of character assassination. Because the Organization’s “hope for survival lay, like that of all organizations, in the subordination of individual gifts to general procedures,” Bekkus continually appears in the book as an adversary to capable, creative workers, whose deviations from corporate norms mark them as undesirable.
Algie Wyatt, the accidental hero of the opening story, “Nothing in Excess,” is the first character to find himself at the end of Bekkus’s metaphorical gun. Algie’s incompatibility with the Organization is immediately obvious. He lives life with vigor and without structure: he takes pleasure in poetic quotations and identifying “contradictions in terms” (“competent authorities,” “enlightened self-interest”), and resolutely resists punctuality and subordination. Moreover, his varied pursuits prior to joining the Organization—in journalism, British intelligence and as the author of an archaeological study and an Arabic phrase book—mark him both as an interesting person who wished to stage “a dramatic escape from a possible career in the world of commerce,” and as an employee whose meandering career path demonstrates that he is deeply unsuitable for institutional life. (In today’s parlance, his CV would have notable “gaps.”)
After Algie learns that he faces compulsory retirement, he has lunch with Olaf Jaspersen, a longtime friend and colleague. Jaspersen is Algie’s foil, having joined the Organization out of idealism and ascended to a prominent position as the reward for having “fallen in love” with his work. (Later, in the story “Official Life,” he becomes depressed by the extent to which his personal and professional lives have become one and the same—adopting institutional ideology, it turns out, can be just as dangerous as resisting it.) Jaspersen, though puzzled when Algie announces that he will not appeal his retirement, acknowledges that his friend bears little similarity to what he considers to be the Organization’s dictum of “nothing in excess.” Surprising both Jaspersen and the reader, Algie responds by condemning the Organization:
But one has to understand the meaning of excess. Why should it be taken, as it seems to be these days, to refer simply to self-indulgence, or violence—or enjoyment? Wasn’t it intended, don’t you think, to refer to all excesses—excess of pettiness, of timorousness, of officiousness, of sententiousness, of censoriousness? Excess of stinginess or rancor? Excess of bores?
Declaring that “we should understand ourselves in order to be free,” Algie reveals himself to be more self-aware about his unsuitability for Organizational life than his critics believed him to be. For Algie, the loss of self is more threatening than the loss of a job; to think like his colleagues would be a grievous act of self-harm, akin to turning a firing squad on oneself. “You tell me to get inside their minds—but if I did that I might never find my way out again,” he tells Jaspersen. Algie’s ethical stance ennobles him, yet destines him for a tragic end. With his retirement payout, he purchases a house in Spain, where he dies a year later, forgotten by all but a few friendly colleagues.
The Organization’s mission to stamp out individuality is just one way in which it attempts to compel its ranks toward conformity. In “The Flowers of Sorrow,” Hazzard attacks the Organization’s rigid literalism, which corrupts employees’ ability to understand their feelings. In the story’s first scene, an allusive, off-script remark by the Director-General during his Staff Day speech throws the audience—more concerned with what he has to say about raises (none this year) and pension plans (under review)—into a tizzy.
Clelia Kingslake, a middle-aged Canadian with “a modest but unique reputation for submitting reports in advance of deadlines,” speculates on the matter in the cafeteria with Claude Willoughby, a married man who is leaving the next day for a long-term mission abroad. Clelia admits that she was “heartened to hear something said merely because it was felt. Something that—wasn’t even on the agenda.” But, referring to the Director-General’s comment that one ought “to conduct oneself so that one need never compromise one’s secret integrity,” she observes that “it would hardly be possible for most people to get through a working day without compromising their idea of themselves.” Clelia seems to comprehend, without saying so directly, that the Organization’s culture of alienation—from one’s work, from one’s colleagues and from oneself—prevents employees from flourishing, both professionally and, especially in her case, personally.
Clelia’s thesis is tested when she and Willoughby say an awkward goodbye in the elevator. Inspired by the Director-General’s off-the-cuff metaphors, Willoughby blurts out something very much not on the agenda—that once, on the way to the Advisory Commission on Administrative and Budgetary Questions, he wanted to kiss Clelia. (Who says that romance is dead?) Any spontaneity or passion on Clelia’s part has been preemptively tempered by the regimented resistance to true feeling the Organization has instilled in her: she is unable to respond, unable to touch Willoughby, leaving her integrity seemingly uncompromised. Yet Clelia preserves it not through any great moral objection, but through silence and avoidance—through a refusal, or an inability, to articulate her feelings.
Hazzard casts Clelia’s “secret integrity” in a more directly critical light in the penultimate story, “A Sense of Mission.” While on a peacekeeping mission in Rhodes, Clelia’s desire to be “the instrument of a great cause” descends into self-indulgence. Surveying the sunrise from her hotel window, she revels in her luck: “She had no right to expect that the fulfillment of her desires would take place in so much comfort.” That sense of ease dissipates as Clelia comes to know her colleagues, an uncongenial bunch obsessed with hierarchies: the mission’s sexist, egotistical leader; the racist, impulsive Military Observer, who is spoken of as a possible candidate for a senior Organization post; an Organization official who repeats public-relations phrases rather than gain insight into the missions he is meant to inspect.
As Clelia’s disillusionment grows, so does her cognitive dissonance: she allows herself to privately critique and make fun of her associates, but her attachment to the Organization and its mandate never wavers; her personal ethics have already been stymied by years of loyalty to the Organization. “If he does a good job,” she thinks about her boss, who is most certainly not doing a good job, “why should I be concerned about his personality?” (Had her colleagues in Rhodes been as well-mannered as those at HQ, one suspects that Clelia would have never doubted the worth of the mission to begin with.)
“Swoboda’s Tragedy” exemplifies how principled employees are often the most vulnerable to office politics. After years of neglect, Swoboda, a mild-mannered refugee, finally balks in the face of an interminable clerical task assigned to him by Bekkus, involving stacks of documents meant to be sent out in his nonexistent “spare time.” (Swoboda’s last name, which means “freedom” in several Slavic languages, is the antithesis of his reality.) Upon requesting a transfer, he ends up in DALTO, a department committed to the questionable mandate of inducing “backward nations to come forward.” Swoboda thrives in the more collegial atmosphere, but Bekkus and another vindictive coworker (whose precipitous fall from grace is later chronicled in “The Story of Miss Sadie Graine”) block his long-promised promotion; his new boss, otherwise sympathetic, quickly gives in to their pressure. The real tragedy, however, is Swoboda’s instinctive sympathy for his weak-willed bosses, which compels him to bury his anger and his desire for personal advancement. Swoboda pities them as if they were his equals—when, in fact, the Organization’s strict hierarchy and his managers’ egos insist upon the opposite, thus sealing his fate among the Organization’s junior tier.
In the final story in the collection, “The Separation of Dinah Delbanco,” Hazzard suggests that, for some, the only possible outcome of years of such treatment is to disappear entirely. In fact, the titular character, who is advocating for an overdue raise and promotion, never appears in her own story. By this point in the book, it isn’t necessary for her to do so; readers understand that the malicious gossip about Dinah and her newly acquired inheritance, in conjunction with the Organization’s incompetence, can only result in Dinah’s permanent “separation” from her workplace.
As is puckishly observed about DALTO’s senior officers, “in order to conserve their efforts the more completely for the far-flung needy of the world, they took the precaution of doing nothing for those close to them.” Yet as Hazzard repeatedly demonstrates, the senior officers’ commitment to their altruistic mandate is neocolonialist at worst, and half-hearted at best. (This is best captured by the story “The Meeting,” in which HQ bureaucrats greet with approval a video featuring impoverished inhabitants of foreign lands doing hard labor and felling healthy trees.) Theirs is an institution that cares more for the interests of the powerful than for improving the lives of others; whose employees’ good intentions and progressive values are easily corrupted by selfish, cynical aims. How, then, can one justify its existence?
For Hazzard, this question cannot be limited to one organization: the hypocrisies of bureaucratic culture cross national, institutional and personal boundaries. With such a vast sphere of influence, their ability to corrupt people, places and politics alike seems inevitable, unavoidable, almost fated.
In Hazzard’s more celebrated books, fate can push lovers together as easily as it can pull them apart; it can devastatingly alter human lives by bringing individuals into orbit with history. Although relayed with distinctly less romance, People in Glass Houses shares this belief in the tragic power of fate, which can trap junior and senior employees alike in bleak, bureaucratic destinies: the supposed agents of change are instead changed by the institution that they dedicate their lives to, and even those who begin to understand the flaws of their workplace are unlikely to leave what they consider the moral high ground. This pattern is likely familiar to many readers, if only from the resigned protagonists of contemporary office novels, who tend to treat disheartening workplaces as an inevitable symptom of late-capitalist society.
Rather than centering the perspective of a single weary worker, Glass Houses premises its portrait of working life in the collective—in an environment punctuated by a full cast of characters, in various stages of moral development, exchanging jokes, gossip and annoyances. This shading of quotidian detail does more than add amusing, realistic texture to Hazzard’s depiction of the Organization; it is also essential to establishing the degree to which its culture pushes employees away from their ideals, and from themselves. Hazzard understands something vital about elite workplaces: that many of those who enter them are in fact sincere optimists—people who truly hope to have a positive impact on the world, and who are willing to put up with a certain amount of humiliation to make that happen. She does not see the reluctance to leave a bad workplace as awful or amoral—indeed, she is immensely sympathetic to workers caught within the maze of bureaucracy, and to the abuses one must often endure in order to earn a living. But while a career in a field nominally committed to the arts, to the truth, to the betterment of the planet and its people may instinctively seem more worthwhile—and more ethical—than other professions, Hazzard asks us to pay attention to the passive and active forms of harm that a well-intentioned organization can perpetuate, both within and outside its walls.
It is no accident that many of the people who escape these toxic cycles in Glass Houses are writers. The most memorable is Ashmole-Brown, who is fired from the Organization because of his slow productivity, his inscrutability and the animosity of Miss Sadie Graine, only to spectacularly reemerge by writing an acclaimed book based on the sensitive research he did while at DALTO. Algie, too, is a writer; his book on Roman remains in Libya is reissued after his death. In their academic and artistic pursuits, both men espouse what the critic Michelle de Kretser has called Hazzard’s “ethics of noticing”—manifested in Glass Houses as an appreciation for human potential and creation in the face of the grinding politics of the corporate world.
Yet, as Hazzard herself knew, financial stability is essential for achieving a fulfilling life after the Organization. Like their creator, several characters in Glass Houses suddenly come into a significant amount of money: Dinah, through her inheritance; Ashmole-Brown, implicitly through his fabulous success; even Algie, through his pitiful lump sum. Their collective windfall represents not only freedom from office life, but also the opportunity to use their talents in service of a better world. Hazzard does not suggest that this journey toward renewed integrity will be straightforward, and we have little idea of how these characters use their newfound freedom. But an ambivalent, unknown future is still preferable to the perpetual misery of a workplace that fails both its lofty mission and its employees.
In political terms, the uncertain or fatalistic conclusions to the stories in Glass Houses are not especially instructive. What then are contemporary readers—especially those of us who have recently entered the aspirational, precarious ranks of the modern creative and altruistic classes—to take from Hazzard’s stories? Of course, they are too dismally realistic to be construed as a blueprint for an escape route from one’s own corporate miseries, or as a roadmap for worker solidarity. The resistance to romanticizing one’s work and one’s superiors, the ability to approach office life as a skeptical outsider, the discernment to know when the compromises become too great—these, rather, are the key elements of Hazzard’s office politics, and traits that many characters in Glass Houses sorely lack. Through their mistakes and misapprehensions, Hazzard communicates that only from a distance—be it physical or emotional—can uncomfortable, necessary truths about an employee’s “official life” emerge.
This idea is literalized in the story “Official Life.” Ismet, a mid-level bureaucrat, is shocked to see a face “looking back at him from the glass” of his window: it’s a window-washer, acting on “orders from above.” (No matter how high Ismet is in the Organization’s hierarchy, his superiors still work above him.) “The way I see it,” the window-washer tells him, “there’s more chiefs than Indians around here.” Ismet patiently explains that of course the window-washer sees things that way, since the “chiefs” are the ones with window offices. “Plenty of Indians in the dungeons, eh?” the window-washer laughs. “I’m better off on the outside, if you ask me.” He understands that glass houses provide managers and workers alike ample opportunities for reflection, and a long way to fall.
Photo credit: United Nations Photo, “Completion of UN Headquarters” (1952)