Helen Garner, Cosmo cosmolino

When I returned to seriously reading Australian writers back in the 1980s, there were four women writers who caught my attention, and I have loved them ever since. They were Elizabeth Jolley (1923-2007), Thea Astley (1925-2004), Olga Masters (1919-1986) and Helen Garner (b. 1942). Garner, the youngest by a couple of decades, is the only one still here, still writing novels, short stories, non-fiction and journal articles. I say I love her, but I can’t say I always agree with her. In fact, sometimes she makes me mad – but I admire her honesty and love her writing.

Cosmo cosmolino is not her most recent work. It was published in 1992 and has been on my TBR pile since my brother gave it to me in 1995. How embarrassing! But it finally managed to scramble to the top and I’m glad it did. It’s an intriguing book: it looks like two short stories (“Recording angel” and “Vigil”) and a novella (“Cosmo cosmolino”), but nowhere on the cover or the title page does it say “a collection of short stories”. This means, I think, that we are meant to see it as a novel.

So, how does it work as a novel? Each story would, I’m sure, stand perfectly well alone, but the two short stories also work as back stories to the novella. The tricky thing though is that the connections between these three are only obvious if you are an attentive reader – or, if you re-read it. For me it was a bit of both. I got some of the connections first time around, and others when I flicked through it to prepare this review. This is not a big problem but there is more depth if you have “got” the back stories when you read the final story.

And so, what are the three stories?

  • “Recording angel”. A recently separated woman (who is clearly Janet in the final story) visits an old friend and his wife in Sydney. This friend is seriously ill with brain cancer. He has not only been an important support and rescuer for her but the one who has “recorded” her life. And, he is never backward about telling her his view of what that is. She doesn’t always like or agree with this view, but she nonetheless fears the possibility that in sickness he will “forget everything” and that she will thereby lose an important connection with herself. There is a brief mention in this story of Ursula, who is the mother of the girl in the second story.
  • “Vigil”. A young woman, who is clearly “out of it” and waiting for her father to rescue her, has a boyfriend Ray(mond), who appears to be there more for the “good times” than for a mutually supportive relationship. When things go wrong, he’s not there for the count. This, we discover in the final story, is something he’s been trying to rectify ever since.
  • “Cosmo Cosmolino”. Three rather lonely people – the aforementioned Janet and Ray plus the rather fey artist, Maxine – find themselves sharing Janet’s house. It’s an uneasy grouping.  Ray is waiting for his big brother Alby (who once lived in Janet’s house) to arrive and take him away; Maxine would like a baby but is running out of time; and Janet is recovering from a broken marriage and doesn’t really know what she wants.

These are not strongly plot-driven stories. However, quite a bit happens on the emotional front, and this is Garner’s real subject.

Which brings us to the themes

Taken together, these stories are about the muddles people get into, particularly regarding their relationships with each other. Poor decisions, missed opportunities and the never-ending seeking for meaningful connection are the stuff of her fiction. But there is a departure in this book: the introduction of a spiritual (and at times magical) element, often involving some sense of “visitation”.

Angel Wings

Angel wings(Courtesy: OCAL via clker.com)

In the first story, the distraught woman is visited at the end by “a small, serious, stone-eyed angel of mercy”. In the second story Ray is dragged into a rather ghoulish underworld-like scene, after which he is told “You’ll be right … Things’ll be different now”. And in the final story there are all sorts of hints of spiritual happenings, including the “dark column” that shadows Janet, and Maxine’s “magical realist” flight “into the blinding upper sky” where “nameless souls and sacraments outrageously disport themselves”.

It all feels very un-Garner-like. She is usually firmly grounded in the real world of messy relationships where people struggle to connect and find meaning. But I should have been prepared: the novel’s epigraph from Rilke reads “Every angel is terrible”. “Terrible”, of course, has two meanings, and I suspect Garner is playing on both here – on the fear angels engender and the awe. As this paradox implies, there is no suggestion here of easy answers but more of possibilities. Here is Janet at the end:

Our minds are not hopeful, thought Janet; but our nerves are made of optimistic stuff.

I was intrigued by the use of “nerves” rather than “souls” or “spirits” given what had gone before, but I rather like her use of that word. It’s effectively ambiguous.

Finally, the style

The thing that marks Garner out for me is her expressive language. Her books are rarely long. This isn’t because she doesn’t have much to say but because she doesn’t waste words. Read this:

… The heart of the house was broken. It ought to have been blown up and scraped off the surface of the earth.

But houses as well as their owners must soldier on …

and this:

… and the architraves had lost their grip on the walls, and slouched this way and that …

and, finally, this:

The room contracted around Ray again, fitting itself tightly to the shape of him, squeezing …

I love the atmosphere and emotion conveyed by language like this.  Garner uses a lot of imagery and symbolism – but never simply. Birds, for example, can augur wonder and hope, or, particularly when “the failure bird” appears, something completely different. There are also biblical allusions, such as when Ray denies three times that he knew his girlfriend. No wonder he’s dragged into the underworld for a bit of shock therapy! From beginning to tend, the language never sways from conveying a sense of things being awry because the characters’ lives are so.

Cosmo Cosmolino is one of those books that is both accessible and challenging – and that is just the sort of book I like to read.

Helen Garner
Cosmo cosmolino
Ringwood, Vic: McPhee Gribble, 1992
ISBN: 0869142844

20 thoughts on “Helen Garner, Cosmo cosmolino

  1. I haven’t read Cosmo Cosmolino for years. I will give it another go after reading this. What aspects of Garner’s non-fiction make you mad? Re Australian women writers, have you come across Jessica Anderson? Tirra Lirra by the River is v good. I’m not mad about most of Kate Grenville’s books, but I did think she captured a sense of country town life in The Idea of Perfection – have you read that one and did you enjoy it (sorry if all this is covered in your archive, I’ve only just come across your excellent blog.)

    • zmkc: Thanks so much for popping by. Welcome!

      Re Garner’s non-fiction, I totally disagreed with her take on The first stone. As I recollect, she felt the women should not have taken it as far as they did. I felt that they only took it as far as they did because the college did not take the issue seriously. As transgressions go it was minor enough – except that he was in a position of power (and that’s a big issue) AND the college did not take it seriously. Then, with Joe Cinque, I think she was again too one-sided. This was a difficult one because what happened to Joe was horrendous but she didn’t try to understand Anu. I feel uncomfortable saying this because there’s no excuse but there still may be understanding?

      Yes, I’ve read two Jessica Andersons (and you’ll find a review of her The commandant here – just look under the Authors page at the top of the blog) and like her a lot. I have another which has been languishing next to my bed (ie the high priority tbrs!) for about as long as Cosmo was!

      And, I’ve read a few Kate Grenvilles but all before this blog. My favourite is, I think, The idea of perfection. It’s funny, wry, human. I assume you like it?

      Anyhow, would love to hear your thoughts on any of the above!

      • They were one-sided — but I didn’t mind, because it seemed to me that she was making it clear why they were one-sided — she uses the ‘I’ a lot, “I thought …” “I felt …” “I was …” and so forth. It never seemed to me that she was saying, “This is absolutely the case,” but rather, “This is how the case appears to me.” So both of those books were self-questioning as well as event-questioning. I read them in that spirit.

  2. This sounds fascinating – I think it appeals to me more than some of her other works. I also like how your comment that you can like/love a writer even if you don’t always agree with what they do/say… kind of like what we were talking about this morning in regards to Isabel Allende. Or how we feel about friends and family, sometimes!

  3. Hi, whispering gums, thanks for responding.

    I began by being concerned about one-sidedness in Joe Cinque, until I heard a long interview Anu Singh(? is that her name, haven’t got the book with me) had with Philip Adams, during which it became clear that the most charitable thing 0ne could say about her is that she was suffering from narcissism. I don’t think that makes her actions forgiveable – I think with that case and with the First Stone, Garner was arguing for taking responsibility for your own life and behaviour and against women taking refuge in supposed helplessness.

    Yes, I think Idea of Perfection is funny and touching. Another Australian female writer I like is Madeleine St John. I read somewhere that Bruce Beresford is making a film of her book The Women in Black, which is, I think, set in David Jones or similar (funny, in light of the current harassment case).

    • Yes, I know what you mean and I find it difficult talking about Joe Cinque. But I’m not so much talking about her being forgivable as just wanting Garner to explore a little more what was going on. (I think I heard that Adams interview – really quite weird). I know someone whose husband employed Joe. They had to let him go because she kept calling him and it affected his ability to do his job. Now the thing is, what was he about? Was he weak? I’m certainly not into blaming the victim – NO-ONE should be treated (or die) like that – but Garner just didn’t discuss the issue at all really. And with The first stone, I agree with the idea of people taking responsibility BUT there is a power issue here and I think we shouldn’t ignore that. Again, I didn’t feel Garner teased that out enough. Both books make me feel uncomfortable – and perhaps that’s what Garner wanted! She wrote them both beautifully though.

      Madeleine St John rings a vague bell — I’ll look out for her.

  4. This sounds wonderful! I had of course never heard of Helen Garner. I know that might not seem like an occasion to say “of course” to you, but it seems I am quite uneducated when it comes to authors that I clearly should’ve known about.

    • Oh Iris, I understand the “of course”. SO few of our Aussie writers get known overseas. It would be nice for you to have known about her but I’m not surprised at all that you didn’t.

  5. You are right of course DKS. She did make it very clear that they were her opinions but I think I am a rational creature (which means I’m rather liking Kate Jennings whom I’m reading at present). do have feelings – make judgements even – but I can’t help seeing the other side and trying to understand it.

  6. I had no idea about this book. I’m only familiar with The Monkey Grip and the Children’s Bach along with her later, non-fiction work. I do like and admire her work but I always feel that one must always keep an eye open while reading her work because it sort of lulls you into believing everything that is written on the pages.

    I loved The First Stone but wasn’t sure what to make of it.

  7. I wonder whether Cosmo Cosmolino is actually the book Garner quite wants to repudiate – she mentioned in an interview with the ABC book club person (Jennifer something?) a few months ago that she is not happy with some of her fiction – I’ve forgotten her exact words, but she wasn’t talking about Children’s Bach, which I seem to remember she mentioned as the book she was most proud of, and I doubt she meant Monkey Grip, although, having loved that when it first came out, I now find that rather too particular to a time and place.

    • Yes. I saw that interview too earlier this year (Jennifer Byrne) and wished I could remember it. It was some sort of Arts show/Prog wasn’t it? Not the usual Book Club show. I remember her talking about liking to write from the basis of life/reality? Didn’t she? I could imagine this one might be the one … the language is lovely, the characters great but the mystical/spiritual aspect is perhaps a little of its time. That said, I thought she kept a pretty good handle on it as though she really couldn’t go wholeheartedly down that path. That interview may be on-line – should look for it.

  8. Helen Garner is a wonderful writer – I was 14 when The First Stone came out and saw a teacher I didn’t like reading it, so wanted to know instantly what it was about! I am a huge fan of all her work, but like you say while the writing is always excellent, I don’t always agree with her and there is a certain level of discomfort for me that comes with her work, if that makes sense. I really enjoyed The Spare Room. Joe Cinque less so, I tend to agree with the comments above. Her book of personal essays, The Feel of Steel (I think that’s the title), is also wonderfully written.

    I recently heard a radio interview with Garner and she said that because she is more known for her non fiction these days, when she published The Spare Room it was her first piece of fiction in 15 years and so it had to have “a novel” on the title page, so people would know it was a novel! This disappointed her because she said she just wanted people to read it for the story, and make up their own minds as to whether it was true or not. The book is, however, based on real events and a real friend of hers, she even calls the main character Helen, so once again she has blurred the lines there!

    Whenever I see something new out by her, I always know I will enjoy it. Maybe not agree with it, but certainly enjoy it. I love the way you described her as both accessible and challenging – I completely agree.

    I echo other reader’s comments about trying Madeleine St John (The Essence of the Thing is one of my favourite books!) and Jessica Anderson. I also thoroughly recommend a fellow Tasmanian, Heather Rose. The Butterfly Man is superb.

    Great blog, I will be back 🙂

    • Thanks greenink for commenting…I’m glad there’s someone else out there who loves her writing even when they don’t agree with her. I clearly must try Madeleine St John and Heather Rose (haven’t heard of her). I’ve read a couple of Jessica Andersons – Tirra Lirra by the rive, and The commandant (which I’ve reviewed on this blog). I have her One of the wattle birds next to my bed – just have to find time to read it! Are you in Tasmania? It was my Tasmanian based brother who gave me Cosmo Cosmolino.

      • I’m Tasmanian but don’t live there any more – left 5 years ago, have lived in Melbourne (2 years) and now in London (3 years and counting, still here). Do try Heather Rose – I’d love to hear your thoughts on The Butterfly Man! Her first novel, White Heart, is amazing too. Anything set in Tassie is still such a novelty for me 😀

  9. Thanks for replying greenink. I did pop over to your blog and realised your peripatetic history. Are you in London “for good” (more or less)? I will look out for Heather Rose. Will ask my brother about her too. Do you like Flanagan?

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