THE EVANESCENT, ELUSIVE, DESIRED ETERNAL
HELEN GARNER: CARLTON, VICTORIA 1968 – NOW
… Is it spring? Could it possibly be spring? This morning I sidled over the low stone fence and looked for the blossoming tree. And there it was, a pittosporum. Tears rushed into my eyes. My sister teases me for loving this tree. She finds it gloomy, even ugly. But it’s so mysterious, so withholding. If you approach it directly, head on, even push your face into its foliage, it will not give its scent. It prefers to take you unawares, to exude an aura into which you step on your way past, hurrying, your mind on something else. Nor can you pick the blossoms and take them home. The sap is sticky, the twigs tough. The perfume (electric, lemony, head-clearingly sweet) doesn’t survive the plucking. The tree exists. Its blossoming is brief. You have to be ready for the moment and accept it as it’s given. (‘Tower Diary’ the feel of steel pp 57 – 8).
Helen Garner has been with us forever, through doomed love in communal houses, sibling rivalry, aging and dying parents, children, divorce(s), struggles to be authentic, to be healthy, to be decent, to understand, to judge.
With Frank Moorhouse, she is the voice of the War/Baby Boomers. She has made her predicaments, conflicts, griefs, resolutions theirs and the world’s. It is through them that she speaks to la condition humaine.
In prose which is her: restrained by reflection, elegant, musical, juste. She is a remarkable stylist; the voice is idiosyncratic, carefully uningratiating yet charming in its considered clarity. She is also a poet manqué.
Along with her great achievement and to some degree inseparable from it, are her promotional activities; she is the publishing dream. She has appeared everywhere, she has been consistently in the news for forty years; she is not too good - she’s had her problems and there have been the odd controversy - but there’s been no major public-repulsing scandal. She’s been good mannered and sinned against far more than sinning (she’s partial to sinners).
She could be us if only we were better than we were, especially if we had insight into our hypocrisies and other failures, could express our inconsistencies, anxieties and come to grips with our angst with the eloquence and grace she does. But let’s face it, we just don’t have her powers of perception or the command of a medium to express them.
There is a sense of comedy implicit in her vision but for the most part it is pretty grim.
‘And,’ said Maxine … ‘have you ever seen an angel?’
‘I’ve seen the devil,’ said Janet casually.
… ‘Where,’ said Ray.
‘In Brunswick,’ said Janet. ‘He ran out of a shop as I was walking up Sydney Road. He looked straight at me.’
‘How did you know it was the devil?’ murmured Maxine …
‘By his face. It was tight and smooth, and he had a kind of brutal expression. Brutal and vain.’
‘I can’t stand vain men,’ said Maxine …
‘When I say “the devil”,’ said Janet, ‘of course I don’t mean “The Devil” … He was probably some sort of crim. Full of bad vibes.’
‘Do you want to know, by the way, Janet,’ said Maxine, ‘what I see in your aura?’ She carved on with slow diligence. ‘I see that in a previous life you were tortured. If you don’t mind me saying so.’
‘Yes. For your religious beliefs.’ (‘Cosmo Cosmolino’ pp 97 – 8 Cosmo Cosmolino).
Garner’s work inclines to satire; she defends us (and herself?) from the brutal honesty of her observations, from the almost relentless scepticism of her gaze, with a careful irony. She not only records, as faithfully as she may, our customs and mores, our actions and manners, she assesses them finely and continuously. This mediation between the observed and recorded, whether its genre declares it reportage or imaginative, places Garner at a remove from Christina Stead in whose line she stands.
She does not surrender to fear. It is as if she actively seeks out the absurdities, the cruelties and worse (she won a Walkley Award in 1993 - Best Feature Article ‘Did Daniel Have to Die?’ for her investigation of the death of an abused child whose plight was neglected by the authorities).
… the day of the World Economic Forum. I hear hoarse shouting from inside my suburban railway station … Three young blokes come brawling backwards off the platform and crash, yelling and cursing, into the wall of the boarded-up ticket office.
They’re young, barely fifteen, ethnically various –
They are very drunk.
‘Let’s go poofter-bashing, hey? Poofter-bashing?’ The other boys, stumbling and grinning, ignore him. He shouts louder, ‘First junkie I see today I’m gunna bash roight?’
… ’Hey Meess! Meess!?’
No-one has called me Miss since 1972 at Fitzroy High …
‘’Scuse me Meess, I can control my drunkenness. But if you don’t like it I’ll shut them up. Those kids’ve drunk three bottles of Jim Beam.’
‘How come you’re all drunk at this early hour?’ I ask primly.
… ‘We’re goeen’ to the, uhm, protest, you know? Down at the casino?’
The brawling breaks out again. Foul words fly. ‘Have respect!’ he shouts over his shoulder. ‘We won’t get violent,’ he says to me, one hand out in a soothing gesture.
‘I’m not scared of you,’ I say. (‘Have Respect’ pp 168 – 171 the feel of steel).
She was perhaps in no great danger in this case though others might have been. The boys’ instincts were sure: Garner is rather school ma’amish. She was sacked by the Victorian Department of Education for, she says, ‘bad language’ and a sex lesson. This was in the days of the notoriously conservative (and worse) Bolte Government when class sizes were always well over thirty and there was no provision for English as a Second Language teaching in state high schools despite the fact they were accepting large numbers of recently arrived immigrant children. Garner taught at Fitzroy High School. It can’t have been easy. The papers reported the case, probably Garner’s first brush with publicity.
She was thus freed to pursue other interests. She was a denizen of La Mama Theatre in its headiest days when it was re-establishing Australian drama, she acted in the film Pure Shit (1975 – Garner was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress award) and wrote. Her first book Monkey Grip (1977) was also an outcome.
Monkey Grip was very successful and despite its limitations (relentless anecdotes, flatness of dialogue), has become a landmark in Australian literature – not only because it launched Garner as a writer. Monkey Grip was electrifying because Nora, (surely named with Nora of A Doll House in mind? also a pun on gnaw?) its voice, was in rebellion against the stultifying, the annihilating, the unjust culture of the times, perhaps best exemplified by the conservative Liberal/Country Party (now National Party) governments which had had, at state and federal levels, Australia in their seemingly unending grip until 1972 when Labor under Gough Whitlam at last came to power bringing with it a whole new way of life. The Seventies had arrived. We War Baby/Boomers carried our parents, traumatised (is it too strong a word?) by the effects of two world wars and the Great Depression, within us. They froze us. Monkey Grip details the struggles of a young (not so young actually, at one stage Nora announces she is thirty-three) woman to live in this new world that had at last arrived. Nora struggles to be, to love in ways feminism was suggesting were better – essential really, if you were ever to be authentic.
‘Don’t worry!’ she said, starting to grin. ‘You’re not the only one. The other night I went out with this guy – we were in my car, and he actually go me to let him drive.’
‘No! He just didn’t like to be in a situation where I was in control.’
‘What did you say?’
‘Well, I let him. I sort of wanted to see how far he would go. He started by making some casual remarks about Volkswagens, how he always forgot to put them into top gear, and then he drove off round the Boulevard, to show what a great driver he was.’ Paddy raised her disdainful eyebrows, still half-smiling. ‘He was driving at an immense speed in third gear, and I pointed out, quite politely really, that it might be a good idea to change into top. ‘Oh!’ he said, ‘fourth in a VW is really an overdrive.’ Well, he could be right, I suppose, but … he wanted to drive handsomely – you know – scarf flying. Even me buying the ice-creams later was not quite right. And yet the thing was – he was putting himself across as one of us – into politics, teaching at Preston and being radical about that, living in Fitzroy’ - she made an ironic grimace.
‘None of that means anything.’ I said gloomily.
‘Y-e-es … well … one wonders sometimes, doesn’t one …’
‘I wonder sometimes if we ought to be giving men a miss.’ She laughed, ‘Oh, I don’t know.’
‘But to be perfectly honest, I’ve got no plans to do that.’
‘Neither have I.’
On the contrary, two mornings later I was crawling round Gerald’s ankles outside the kitchen door, letting down his jeans.
‘If anyone from the women’s centre saw me doing this,’ I said, ‘my reputation would be shot to pieces.’
He clicked his tongue in pleased exasperation, ‘I don’t even think it’s necessary. They were all right before.’
‘They weren’t. You look a dag with your pants flapping round your calves. Don’t you want to be cool?’
‘What does it matter?’
‘Well,’ I mumbled out of the corner of my mouth past the row of pins, ‘ultimately, of course, it doesn’t, but the world being as it is, one may as well strive for a little elegance of line, don’t you think?’ (‘Too Ripped’ pp 153 – 4 Monkey Grip).
This is probably Garner’s most facile moment.
Overt feminism is to reappear only very occasionally in her future work. It always inclines to melodramatic vicitimhood.
Should I say ‘But violation is our destiny’? Or should I say ‘Nothing can be sole or whole / That has not been rent’? But before I can open my mouth, a worst moment came to me: the letter arrives from my best friend on the road in another country: ‘He was wearing mirror sunglasses which he did not take off, I tried to plead but I could not speak the language, he tore out handfuls of my hair, he kicked me and pushed me out of the car, I crawled to the river, I could smell the water, it was dirty but I washed myself, a farm girl found me, her family is looking after me, I think I will be all right, please answer, above all, don’t tell my father …
‘Violation,’ said Natalie, as if to gain time.
‘It would be necessary,’ I said, ‘to examine all of women’s writing, to see if the fear of violation is the major theme in it.’
‘Some feminist theoretician somewhere has probably already done it,’ said the stranger who had been surprised that Rigoletto could draw tears.
‘We don’ t have a tradition in the way you blokes do,’ I said.
‘It’s a shadow tradition,’ I said. ‘It’s there, but nobody knows what it is.’
‘We’ve been trained in your tradition,’ said Natalie. ‘We’re honorary men.’ (‘What we say’ in My hard heart Selected Fiction pp 19 – 20).
The nanna gets the vodka out of the freezer … well, what are they drinking to tonight, these two women from opposite sides of the baby’s family? Each other’s health, of course – but also to something else they have in common: problems with men …
To the nanna, recently divorced for the third time, the story unrolls against a complex backdrop of memories. In its difficult events the nanna recognises the pattern of each of her marriages. In the actions, non-actions of the man, she sees all the men she has ever loved. In the desperate self-abnegations of the woman, she hears her own history and that of virtually every woman she has ever known. There is nothing new here. It’s the story of men and women down the ages. And yet the auntie in her turn must live it out, suffer it as if it were freshly minted in the workshop of the gods. (‘Auntie’s Clean Bed’ in the feel of steel pp 164 -5).
Such moments jump out at us. In general ideology drifts into an informing background scree. This is a sensible move for a literary writer, (but not for a woman?).
Nora’s struggles are extreme: she has chosen (or has been chosen by?) ‘the life of art’ and is in love with a drug addict, also she is stupefyingly reflective and self-questioning. Nora embraces the possibilities of a whole new way of living with as much integrity as she can muster. Garner details her struggle almost unbearably but, and it is probably what marks her as a Real Writer, at just the moment when the reader feels they cannot endure another word of this ratiocination, can no longer remain immersed in this increasingly pointless squalor …
‘What have you been doing since I last saw you?’ she asked.
‘Oh – starving myself, and getting stoned, and fucking, and slugging it out with Javo – I’m exhausted, trying to work out how it all got blown.’ (‘Teach Me How to Feel Again’ p 127)
Garner opens the novel to a stream of vitality that refreshes her reader.
The novel was widely thought to be almost autobiographical; one could infer that it is based (too closely) on journal entries (Garner’s notebooking was notorious, much later she was to say it was a useless pursuit, she never used them).
I used to keep a diary. I still don’t go anywhere without my so-called writer’s notebook. I jot things down in it. I ‘save’ them from whatever their fate would be if I didn’t jot them down. (‘Woman in a Green Mantle’ the feel of steel pp 37 –8).
Despite its large success in critical and commercial terms in Australia (it won the Australian Book Council Award 1978), readers were not sure that Garner was a ‘real writer’ as we then understood them (Patrick White’s latest was widely and eagerly anticipated; Monkey Grip was published between The Eye of the Storm and The Twyborn Affair).
Honour & Other People’s Children (1980) put paid to those doubts. Garner had been wise not to rush into literary print again. Her second book was more accomplished than her first. The critic Don Anderson notably proclaimed the advance in her art. The two novellas that make up Honour & Other People‘s Children revealed something of her development as a writer. There was a remarkable advance in dialogue (now one of Garner’s strengths). She gives lives to the rough, vigorous, witty, figurative style supposed to be characteristic of Australian diction (far more likely to be encountered on the page than in the street). The book’s form suggested that she understood her limitations well; the novel as it was conventionally understood (three hundred or so pages) was not for her. Australian literary culture did not condemn her for this. In this period (the seventies through to the nineties) the short story flourished in Australian as nowhere else in the English-speaking world; the beneficiaries of Henry Lawson and Barbara Baynton appreciated the shorter forms of fiction. Don Anderson would not have been discomfited by Garner’s structures and styles nor with the ethos that she pictured; he was a friend and champion of Frank Moorhouse who had been depicting a comparable milieu in Sydney (‘Balmain’ as against Garner’s ‘Carlton’). Moorhouse was developing a structure based on ‘discontinuous narratives’ which, between their covers, looked somewhat like a ‘novel’ (or was the term a rationalisation for not writing a novel with flowing chapters?). These discontinuous narratives were not whole in the way the novel was at least purported to be but they did approach and/or deviate from the traditional form in exciting and satisfying ways. ‘Honour’ and ‘Other People’s Children’ resonate with one another through the similarity of their milieu and in the common theme of two women attempting to come to terms with one another. Children are vibrant and complicating factors in both novellas, men are more or less hapless. Garner’s male characters are not as distinct as her female, they tend to need strong women and are often enough repulsive in their manners and mode of address (though none is as unsympathetic as Ruth of ‘Other People’s Children’). The apogee of male haplessness is Joe Cinque. In 2004 Garner reported on his being killed by an overbearing and unstable girlfriend in Joe Cinque’s Consolation: A True Story of Death, Grief and the Law. After Monkey Grip her prose style became pared and wonderfully reflective. It presses towards the figurative and while she eschews the more obvious literary tropes, the symbolic lingers as a possibility around her descriptions of place. On the rare occasions when she uses symbolism, the reader regrets her lapse into the obvious device –
… The saw her leap up and grab the high end of the see-saw.
They got up and picked their way barefoot off the grass and the lumpy gravel.
… They separated and walked away from each other, one to each end. They swung their legs over and placed themselves gingerly, easing their weight this way and that on the meandering board.
‘Let go, Floss.’
The child stepped back. Jenny, who was nearer the ground, gave a firm shove with one foot to send the plank into motion. It responded. It rose without haste, sweetly, to the level, steadied, and stopped.
They hung in the dark, airily balancing, motionless. (the conclusion of ‘Honour’ p 56).
It might also be noted of Don Anderson’s early, strong support of Garner that he was appreciative of Raymond Carver, an American ‘minimalist’ whose style influenced hers and whose success she felt validated her own development. Perhaps it was in insecure support of this validation that Garner thus attacked the much more freighted and layered style of Thea Astley
Stylistically, however, the book is like a very handsome, strong and fit woman with too much make-up on … This kind of writing drives me berserk. (Garner on Astley’s An Item from the Late News).
The crudity is notable. Garner need not have had any doubt: style was not to be her problem (she does abuse italics, possibly out of a lack of confidence in her readers’ ability to read for tone or in a desperate reaching for intensity).
Anderson again heralded her achievement with the (again well-timed) publication of The Children’s Bach in 1984 –
There are four perfect short novels in the English language. They are, in chronological order, Ford Maddox Ford's The Good Soldier, Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises and Helen Garner's The Children's Bach.
The Children’s Bach was another considerable success, winning the South Australian Premier’s Festival Award.
Postcards from Surfers was published the next year. It won the NSW Premier’s Award. It is a remarkably various and original collection of ‘stories’. ‘All Those Bloody Young Catholics’, a monologue by a working class drunk who has been caught up amongst student types (as they moved into Carlton?) is the furthest reach of Garner’s empathic engagement and wonderfully dense writing. Her transposition into the mind and experiences of an Australian now-gay man living in Paris ‘La Chance Existe’ is more direct (closer to reportage) and therefore less intense and complex. There is insight into both characters who are the subject of this story but the now-gay man persona is too much a dummy voice, his commentary is too much the author’s (we note the characteristic homophobic anxiety about anal intercourse for example, it is expressed in this case in the dwelling on shit). Garner perhaps does not find the splitting off of personality into distinct personae so that they become Characters (the terrible gift of the true dramatist) comes easily to her. Perhaps also her keen ear for dialogue is not in synch with her lesser powers of characterisation. She does not have sufficient abandonment of self for that. ‘The Life of Art’ is a toccata and fugue revealing her wonderful control of prose rhythms. Garner is almost always a lyrical writer. Her severity affords her poignancy. Several stories in Postcards from Surfers do not seem to be fictions.
The dilemma Garner’s work and its reception posed was – is it fiction or ‘real’?
In the early stage of her career Garner seems to have wanted very much to investigate and to a lesser extent celebrate the life she chose and immersed herself in – the Carlton milieu of communal housing. Her imagination was much exercised also by extricating herself from it – the break-up of communal households is a theme she returned to. She also wanted to explore/explain women’s relationships with women – relationships in which the male characters seemed most important as catalysts for the emotional intimacies of women. Lesbians are nowhere to be found in this erotic flow; Garner gives us one glimpse of some, in the distance, dancing on the hard sand near the water’s edge at some St Kilda jaunt. A lesbian would have spoilt everything for her.
She offers a valediction for this Carlton seventies world in ‘A Happy Story’ in Postcards …
I turn forty-one. I buy the car. I drive it to the river-bank and park it under a tree --- I turn my back on the river and walk along the side of the Entertainment Centre … I am the only person at the counter ...
‘Two tickets to Talking Heads,’ I say.
‘I can’t wait,’ says my kid every morning … What will you wear?’ …
I’m too old. I won’t have the right clothes. It will start too late. The warm-up bands will be terrible. It’ll hurt my ears. I’ll get bored and spoil it for her. I’ll get bored. I’ll get bored. I’ll get bored.
I sell my ticket to my sister.
I do a U-turn … I shove in the first cassette my hand falls on. It is Elizabeth Schwarzkopf: she is singing a joyful song by Strauss. I do not understand the words but the chorus goes ‘Habe Dank!’ The light is weird … as I fly up the little rise beside Richmond football ground I say out loud, ‘This is it. I am finally on the far side of the line.’ Habe Dank! (pp 105 – 6 – Habe Dank means ‘have thanks’, the song is Richard Strauss’ ‘Dedication’ from his collection of eight songs Final Pages).
We might note in the above the evocation of divine intervention: the cassette coming to hand, the flying and the weird light. This ‘story’ is one of those which seems autobiographical.
God hovers closer.
Many readers these days declare a preference for non-fiction over fiction. Postmodernism has exacerbated (or created?) the doubts contemporary readers have about the imaginative by declaring that the boundaries between fact and fiction are more or less indeterminable because permeable. Postmodernist writers play on the tormenting distinction between the ‘real’ and the imagined, the ‘actual’ and its interpretations. Garner did not, one suspects, consciously engage in this process but she was inadvertently going to be caught up in its throes. The publication and success of Honour & Other Peoples’ Children saw her career as a publicist’s darling take off, this was to give some of her ‘readers’ (often enough those who had not actually read her but had opinions about her work anyhow) plenty to worry over. She began to offer up her life and her opinions, with some circumspection but always with a frankness that looked and sounded like radiant honesty, in service to the increasing demands of publishing houses for promotional activities by their authors. No doubt too her seeming openness was consonant with Garner’s sense of integrity, duty and decorum. Her self-presentation seemed consciously unostentatious but stylish, she was assured even when self-questioning. She always came across as sincere. In these publicity efforts Garner revealed autobiographical details which the listeners, observers and readers of these interviews, talks, participations … could then relate to her work. Her life evidently had a strong and quite direct bearing on what was presented as her fiction. To some she seemed to be crossing the (putative) boundary between fiction and life story with insufficient regard.
She is not an imaginative writer as say Thomas Keneally or Randolph Stow are. Her fiction, readers were coming to understand, was transformed little from her experience. Garner’s work is closer (as already suggested) to that of Christina Stead. Stead worked similarly, transcribing what she had observed but with even less inclination or ability to transfigure the observed (her recording has much greater density than Garner’s). When asked in a radio interview if the members of her family depicted in The Man Who Loved Children had been upset seeing themselves on the page, Stead dismissed the question thus - ‘No-one committed suicide, if that’s what you mean.’ The artist is obliged to her Truth. Garner’s imagination seems to take the form of presenting her direct experience and observation in the most elegant and telling way possible. She is, in this way and given her pellucid style, an excellent essayist and reviewer.
We might not be surprised then that reportage has always interested her – that’s what she does. She has opinions, ways of interpreting which she wants to convey. She is a keen observer, adventurous in her curiosity. She wants to share her adventures and what she makes of them with us. She seems to need to share her life with us. We might understand those ‘stories’ from Postcards … which seem to be fairly direct accounts of lived experience such as ‘A Happy Story’ quoted above, in this light. This apparent blurring of the actual and the fictitious was to become a fraught issue as she undertook major work in investigative journalism.
Garner has published two such books: as already mentioned, in 2004 Joe Cinque’s Consolation … and the earlier (1995) The First Stone. Both attracted criticism for their fancifulness and were attacked as betrayals of feminism. The latter account was particularly criticised for its journalistic methodology: apparently Garner split a single person into several in order to create a mind-set of rigid feminism; her depiction of the two young women who brought charges against the Principal of Ormond College on sexual grounds was seen in some ways to be irrelevant to the issues at hand (we are informed the college room of one required professional cleaning after she had vacated it, for example). A book of critical essays, bodyjamming, has been published in refutation of the suppositions Garner brought to bear and the methodology she employed in writing The First Stone. Whatever its methodological invalidities and ideological shortcomings, the work is an enthralling read and characteristically courageous. Garner ventured into the territory of notions of sexual harassment and appropriate responses to them where before only male dramatists had trod. Sexual harassment remains a hotly contested issue in Australian life as current cases based in corporate and commercial practice demonstrate. In The First Stone Garner offered a complex account of the emotional and intellectual responses provoked by the case (her own not least). She faced feminist anger publicly in a dignified and stalwart manner. Some of this anger was defensive. No publicity is bad publicity; The First Stone was another great sales success for Garner and her publisher.
Amongst the issues raised by The First Stone was the way Garner ‘used’ people from her life as characters in her fiction. It was known that some so employed had been deeply hurt. Some women refused to be interviewed by Garner for The First Stone on the grounds that they did not want to provide material for what were considered her ‘cruel’ portraits. In my experience almost no-one likes the way they come across in a written account, no matter how guarded the depiction. Also people are jealous of ‘their’ story; they ‘own’ them and are enraged when another tells the story; probably especially if they were never going to get around to telling it themselves. Garner was a victim of this kind of vanity and unreasonableness. The book is a process of its author sorting through the issues for herself as well as her readers; few of Garner’s outraged critics had the ability or courage to undertake this kind of self-interrogation, preferring righteous indignation based on comparably simplistic and unrealistic ideological grounds. Unfortunately human complexities are hard to come to terms with in the fora of public debate; the complexities lose out to ‘positions’.
It would seem Garner’s characters are likely to be based on recognisable people. Is the converse then true – are her ‘real’ people characters? Anu Singh, Joe Cinque’s killer, refused to be interviewed by Garner. She is a striking presence in Joe Cinque’s Consolation. Garner had plenty of opportunity to observe her at Singh’s second trial and to come to terms with her through extensive interviews with people who knew her. Garner persisted with the book despite doubts inspired by the criticism she had received for not interviewing the young women whose actions she investigated in The First Stone (actually they had refused to speak to her). Again she was taking her readers into territory others had not realised the great interest of or who had not had the courage and perseverance to enter – such as the nether world of deracinated young adults come to Canberra for work and the inexplicable motivations of Anu Singh and her pathetic social satellites. Garner etches the people involved so tellingly that we recognise their types and understand that they would indeed act in the bizarre ways they did. If she was again, as some critics suggested, venting her hostility towards young women (especially ‘attractive’ ones), Anu Singh was the most deserving of subjects. Singh, not surprisingly, claims that she was not fairly represented in the book; subsequent reports attest otherwise. Garner might have been a little more scrupulous in keeping a journalistic distance from Maria Cinque. Mrs Cinque’s inclination to melodrama (there is a hint of hypochondria too) goes some way towards explaining her late son’s attraction to the volatile and forever dubiously afflicted Anu Singh. Garner does not explore sufficiently what Joe Cinque was doing with Anu Singh, the nature of his seeming complicity in her astonishingly dreadful behaviour. The book was much shortlisted and shared the Ned Kelly Prize for Best True Crime 2005. Very few writers (Joan Didion?) could have presented the case and the many confusing issues it raised with the clarity and complexity Garner did. Despite the sympathy Garner reveals for Maria Cinque (to whom she grew close and who seems to be the ‘Rosalba’ of The spare room who rings Garner for, it would seem, a confirmation of family values) there appears to have been, despite the complexity and vividness, the drama, nothing fictitious in Garner’s representation of those who make up Joe Cinque’s tragic story.
Garner’s ‘characters’, drawn from life to whatever degree also return given new (thin) disguises in the differing contexts of her books. The roman à clef aspect of her work expands towards a sort of metatext which we suspect is her life. She appears worried about this in
In this version of Two Friends, Louise’s mother is called Jenny, while in the film itself her name is Janet. I have made this change here in order to avoid confusion with another Janet, a character in a later novel Cosmo Cosmolino (1992). My double use of the name was completely accidental, though no doubt it has a meaning. (The Last Days of Chez Nous & Two Friends p 120).
Garner is not in a good position to claim whatever immunities privacy may confer (defence of the ego?). She has written of her family, friends and acquaintances albeit with reasonable discretion over many years now in both fiction and essay. In the light of what we know of her techniques, how could she have done otherwise if she were to write at all? She is amongst the most directly personal of writers. We should not expect an autobiography from her because that is what her oeuvre amounts to. ‘Every time I write a book, I lose a husband’ (or some such) she quipped as publicity for The First Stone. She was referring to her third husband Murray Bail, author of the highly popular and deeply unreconstructed Eucalyptus. When things were better between them Garner had announced she was abandoning fiction - That’s his territory, she explained. It was her most pathetic or careless moment.
She gives us an account of the trauma of their separation in ‘Tower Diary’ (the feel of steel). And of her return to Melbourne (Sydney was always too much in some ways for her)
They were from somewhere else. They were not from here. They were from further north, from the sunny place, the blue and yellow place, the sparkling place, the water place (‘The Dark, The Light’ Postcards from Surfers p 19)
to her beloved soul country, its ‘famous’ water, its dry air. To her aging and dying parents and her daughter and her daughter’s daughter and her many sisters. She becomes aunty and ‘Nanna’, a role she embraces (I think we are supposed to sweetly indulge the mawkishness of the title ‘The Nanna-Mobile’ in the feel of steel; the invocation of the Pope-Mobile is unfortunate). This ‘story’ includes a relinquishing of the role of writer
Indeed, my name was mentioned among those writers whose first novel sells secondhand at insultingly low prices, even in paperback.
My reaction was a double-decker. At first I felt bleak. A bit forlorn. Ah well, I thought with a sigh, sic transit Gloria. One must bow the head, and be drearily splendid. But then into my mind flashed an image of startling clarity: a woman and a small girl walking away along a dirt road, hand in hand, talking pleasantly … They were my future.
I described the moment to a psychoanalyst friend. He called it a ‘collapse of ambition’. Collapse? It felt more like a flourishing, am opening out. Ambition may have collapsed, but not me. Not this nanna (pp 189 -90)
for that of ‘nanna’ – a role she gloats over in several other ‘stories’ in the collection. Even if the self-consciousness of the prose didn’t alert you, commonsense should be alarmed.
The Carlton Garner, determined on making a fair fist of new possibilities for living, has given way to ‘Nanna’, church going and Family (though she is still in some kind of proximate communal house: Garner tells us of her daughter living next door and the poppings through the fence). So Garner’s work continues to reveal a desire to describe and explain her life, particularly in terms of intimate female connection. What we might note of this development in her art is that the themes remain familiar but the background scree of ideology consists now of ‘conservative values’ instead of radical ideals. The desire to celebrate her life is more to the fore. The questing and struggles of Monkey Grip have given way to wonder and satisfaction that she has come to this – substantial ease.
Some of her readers might feel uncomfortable with the matriarch pose, no-one though could deny Garner her right to it. Despite it all, she’s done what a matriarch is supposed to do: keep the line going and provide comfort for it. Good for her. But don’t we require more of our artists?
It’s not that we object to complacency in this case. Garner has provided us with details of her angst about her future as a writer, particularly in the feel of steel (at the time of the break-up from the man she abandoned fiction for)
I hate writing. Writing is a sickness, a neurosis, a mania … I’ve been a captive of it for most of my adult life (‘Woman in a Green Mantel’ p 37).
I love the game, [i e ‘Ex Libris, the literary pastiche game’] handling words, trying to make a sentence that was direct and clear. How on earth did I write the way I used to? How did I write Postcards from Surfers? I had no plan for any of those stories. I wrote one sentence, then another. The intellectual approach, long-range planning, doesn’t suit me … ‘let the unconscious take precedence’. Later you think. At the start, you just write. If you have the nerve.
I have lost my nerve. (‘Tower Diary’ p 65).
And of the cost of her kind of writing
Because the one who records will never be forgiven. Endured, yes, tolerated, put up with, borne, and still loved; but not forgiven (‘A Scrapbook, An Album’ in Sisters p 79)
(this reads as rhetorical flourish).
And there is a charge, a very large charge
For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood (from ‘Lady Lazarus’ Sylvia Plath)
What we require from Garner is that she continue to be our travel guide through the hell of contemporary life. It’s not as if she’s ever been a good time girl; she’s always insisted on more gravitas for herself than that –
… I’d gone on holiday from Paris with some gay boys I knew, one Australia, one French, two Americans – four cheerful, affectionate hysterics. Privately I disapproved of their obsession with fun, with youthful beauty and clothes and sex and cruising and special cocktails. For some reason they seemed fond of me, and they were adorable – ingenious, kind, always laughing – but in my heart I thought of them as moral lightweights …
Twenty years later as far as I know only two are alive (‘moral lightweights’ as opposed I suppose to the moral heavyweight men Garner celebrates in Monkey Grip - and AIDS got the boys, you know it - ‘Das Bettelein’ in the feel of steel p 192 & p 194)
often in contrast to all who surround her – and she’s had some trouble having a good time. Indeed she’s sought out the tough trot, told us about it, explained it all to us. That is what we expect of her and that is, with her fine publishing instinct, what she provided us duly with.
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell (from ‘Lady Lazarus’ by Sylvia Plath).
The spare room was published in 2008. In this novel, ‘Helen’ accompanies her friend Nicola on her journey to death from cancer. The ‘Helen’ seems like a deliberate provocation to those who might think the book was not ‘fiction’. Much in it, as so much of Garner’s other fiction has been, is ‘realistic’: recognisable to those who were acquainted with the places, characters and circumstances upon which she seems to have drawn for this ‘novel’. It won the Barbara Jefferis Award for the best novel written by an Australian author that depicts women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of women and girls in society. Garner was the second recipient of this very lucrative ($35,000) prize. She accepted the award in a room in the old Education Department Building in Sydney but forgot to carry the cheque, placed on the lectern, back to her place with her after her speech. She had somewhat defensively proclaimed to an audience of her peers and the Runners-Up (it was an Australian Society of Authors event) that her book was a novel – ‘I’m telling you’. Not everyone in the room was convinced. There was a flounce in her return to the lectern to secure her cheque and her triumphant return to her seat. Garner does not flounce well. She dealt likewise somewhat awkwardly (‘Robert’s a friend of mine’) with Dessaix’s review of The spare room in The Monthly April 2008
Monkey Grip is called a novel, The Children’s Bach and Cosmo Cosmolino short novels, and now The Spare Room is declared “a perfect novel” by Peter Carey on the back cover. But they are not novels, they are all of them fine works of art and innovative explorations of literary approaches to non-fiction, every one of them an outstanding example of stylish reportage, but none of them is a novel. So why does Helen Garner at the very least collude in having them called novels? And why does it matter? …
Perhaps she believes with all that shaping, leaping, trimming and sharpening, her notebooks and diaries actually become novels. (‘Kitchen Table Candour’ p 58).
She defended The spare room qua novel in terms of the form, her declaration of it as fiction, giving her a freedom of expansiveness that, say, her investigative journalism had not. Oh, is that right?
Garner’s writing method has been remarkably homogeneous over a long career and many significant achievements. Her style has refined to great elegance; her moment of imaginative experimentation seems to have ceased with Cosmo Cosmolino.
Pedalling madly and dropping her head like a chopper, she plastered both arms along her side and unclenched her fists to let the seeping jonquils scatter down the rips of the wind. Janet! She yelled after them. Your knickers! I’ve still got them on! – but too late, too high – for I was over. I dropped off her like a split corset: there was no more I.
With a churning roll and a trample she picked up speed and rocketed, whistling-eared, dead vertical from the city’s paltry pencil-clump towards the meniscus of day. (p 215).
The metaphysical, the spiritual is to manifest Itself to Garner later, after, it would seem, Men have disappointed her yet again. The film The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992) for which she wrote the script has an oddly personal and significant and maybe even prescient moment. The main character, Beth, ‘betrayed’ by her husband and sister (thus echoing Garner’s life), wanders off in its final scene towards a consoling church spire, a spire which had seemed unobtainable to the character in her previous attempts to get there. Beth’s smile suggests she will get there this time. Garner had wanted a line of cypress trees (in the explanation below she also reveals why the film was not all that it might have been – it is a novelist’s film script; whatever its problems as a script though, Gillian Armstrong’s filming did not realise its potential)
In Chez Nous, for example, there are cypress trees.
From the main characters’ bedroom window I wanted a row of pencil cypress trees to be visible, growing in a distant and unidentifiable neighbourhood garden. These trees, to me, carry a heavy freight of meaning. They are Mediterranean, and connected with the origins of our culture. They are calm, sturdy, graceful. They are a reminder of darkness, of stillness, of death – and thus of the question of God, and the soul …
In this book you will read about the cypresses. But in the film of Chez Nous you will not see them. (‘Introduction’ p xi).
You will see the church spire. And this is pretty much the direction Garner was herself to go, eventually in her Nanna-Mobile.
She seeks advice from fellow novelist and Christian Tim Winton on the dark heaviness manifesting itself to her. He offers her an explanation: it is the Holy Spirit. And an account of the basis of his faith: the imaginative credibility of biblical stories (see ‘Sighs too Deep for Words’ the feel of steel p 82). Nothing more need be said about imaginative credibility.
Church itself seems to try Garner though she likes the service when well read and the music. Music is very important to her and in her work. Various members of the congregation interest her too. Communion, being blessed by a priest, is very, very important to her.
But none of that is where we will discover the basis of her faith. That lies in the numinous experience. Her work has been pursuing that since Monkey Grip. It can emerge as an abrupt apprehension of the poetic in the harsh reality she so successfully insists we pay attention to
‘What’s you favourite name of a metro station?’ she said.
‘What? I don’t know. Trocadéro.’
‘Mine’s Château d’Eau.’
‘Ever been on top of that station? You’d hate it. It’s not safe for women.’ (a Château d’Eau amongst the mundane irritations and frustrations of this account is astonishing ’La Chance Existe’ p 46).
She finds it in the desolation of separation, in the drive away from the Entertainment Centre as Elizabeth Schwarzkopf sings to her, it hovers as a beneficent aura around her accounts of crematorium practices and colonic irrigation, of, less surprisingly, a Barmitzvah, of red wine spilt on a Vanessa Lucas dress, of much less surprisingly, the coming of spring and, she astonishes, in the blossoming of a common ragged tree. Elusive and evanescent though it is, there it is for sure in Cosmo Cosmolino, her most imaginative work.
Books referred to
the feel of steel 2001Picador
Cosmo Cosmolino 1992 McPhee Gribble
Monkey Grip Penguin Books 1987 (originally published by McPhee Gribble 1977)
My hard heart Selected Fiction 1998 Viking Penguin Australia
Honour & Other People‘s Children two stories 1980 McPhee Gribble
Joe Cinque’s Consolation: A True Story of Death, Grief and the Law 2004 Pan MacMillan
The Children’s Bach 1984 McPhee Gribble
Postcards from Surfers stories 1985 McPhee Gribble in association with Penguin Books
The First Stone 1995 Pan MacMillan Australia
bodyjamming 1997 Mead Jenna (ed) Random House
The spare room The Text Publishing Company 2008 The Last Days of Chez Nous & Two Friends 1992 McPhee Gribble Penguin Books
Sisters 1994 (first published 1993) ed Modjeska Drusilla Angus and Robertson Garner’s contribution is ‘A Scrap Book, An Album’
Permissions for the Plath quotes applied for (Faber and Faber) 16/10/10