Helen Garner on writers and writing (in Everywhere I look)
As I promised in my main review of Helen Garner’s engaging book of essays and jottings, Everywhere I look, I am here doing a little follow-up post on her discussions of other writers. I enjoyed reading her thoughts about specific writers, but even more I liked that in talking about these writers she gave away her own writing preferences.
So, what did I know about Garner’s writing before this? One is that she tends to write from her own life and experience. This is why, I’m sure, she moves so comfortably between fiction and non-fiction, but it’s also something that has got her into trouble at times. Some critics argued that her first, generally applauded novel, Monkey grip, was just her diary; others suggested that The spare room is not really a novel either. Garner has retorted – and I take her point – that when she writes novels drawing from her life, she selects, orders and constructs a narrative and that that is art.
The other main thing I’ve noted is that her writing is on the sparer side of the spectrum. She can be highly evocative but she doesn’t go much for metaphorical flourishes. I’ve quoted her before as saying that Thea Astley’s writing “is like a very handsome, strong and fit woman with too much makeup on … This kind of writing drives me berserk”. I was reminded of this when I read her piece in this collection on Tim Winton. She says about first meeting him at a writers’ weekend in 1982. She had not long before written a review of his first novel:
Stabbed with panic, I scoured my memory for what I’d said in my review. I liked the novel and had said so; but from the lofty eminence of a minimalist who’d published fully two books, I’d drawn attention to what I saw as his overworked metaphors …
Fascinating, because as much as I love Winton, I clearly remember thinking something similar about his second novel, Shallows.
But now, with that introduction, I’ll get to what I really want to share. Her discussions about writers come mainly from two (“Notes from a brief friendship” and “The journey of the stamp animals”) of the book’s six sections. The writers she talks about include Australians Tim Winton (“Eight views of Tim Winton”), Elizabeth Jolley (“My dear lift-rat”), and Barbara Baynton (“Gall and bare-faced daring”), the American journalist Janet Malcolm (“The rapture of first-hand encounters”), and the English novelist who needs no introduction here Jane Austen (“How to marry your daughters”). Each of these gave me little insights into Garner, and I’m just going to tease you with a smattering because – well, you know why, because you should read the book yourself.
Although I’ve already mentioned Winton, I’ll share one more thing. It relates to Garner’s interest in (and reputation for) sentences, and is an exchange from their ongoing correspondence:
I sent him a jubilant letter: ‘Hey! I’ve just written a 200-word sentence which is syntactically perfect!’ ‘I couldn’t care less,’ he replied, ‘about that sort of shit.’
For all this, though, she likes Winton!
Garner loves Elizabeth Jolley for her ability “to strike a note of mortification and inject it with the tincture of the ridiculous that makes it bearable.” That’s Jolley alright, and I can see that both she and Garner, while very different writers, do both look at the world, at people’s relationships in particular, with a sort of self-deprecating sense of absurdity that can lighten darkness. Does that make the sense I think it does?
I was surprised by her piece on Barbara Baynton – about whom I have written frequently here – not because I was surprised to find she admires Baynton but because I didn’t know she did! Her piece starts:
I was well into my forties when I came upon Barbara Baynton’s story “The chosen vessel”, and I have never got over it.
Yep, I know what she means. I was late to Baynton too, and equally stunned. Garner is impressed, of course, with the power of Baynton’s stories, with their lack of romanticism, particularly about women’s lives. But what I want to share here is her comment on Baynton’s writing. She recognises that some of Baynton’s sentences can seem “clogged and heavyhanded” to modern ears, but, Garner writes
… my God, when she hits her straps, she can lay down a muscular story […]
At their height, her dry, sinewy sentences stride forward, powered by simple verbs.
You are probably getting a picture of the sort of writing Garner likes – direct, clear, fearless, like Jolley, like Baynton.
And then there’s the American journalist Janet Malcolm, of whom I’ve heard but not read (to the best of my knowledge). Malcolm, she says, has been her greatest teacher. I’ll just share a comment from her opening paragraph:
I have never met her, or heard her speak, but I would know her voice everywhere. It is a literary voice, composed and dry, articulate and free-striding, drawing on deep-learning, yet plain in its address, and above all fearless …
Need I say more?
And finally, Austen. She surprised me when, describing herself sitting down to read Pride and prejudice in 2013, she said that she wasn’t sure when, or even whether, she’d read it before! What? However, she writes,
I sharpened a pencil and sat down at the kitchen table.
Just how I like to read, with a pencil in hand. Garner goes on to describe her experience of reading Austen – providing wonderful writer’s commentary on the style, the narrative arc, the characters – and how she became hooked:
I lowered the blinds against the heat, unplugged the phone and moved operations to my sopha, where, dispos’d among charmingly group’d cushions, I settled in for the duration.
… as did I, to read more of her (first?) impressions! She continued, still with her writer’s eye:
In order to keep my eye on how Austen was actually doing things, I was having to work hard against the seduction of her endlessly modulating, psychologically piercing narrative voice, her striding mastery of the free indirect mode.
She describes how Austen “gives us five enthralling pages of Elizabeth thinking“, she provides commentary on how the story proceeds, but best is her perspective on that “piece of trash” Lydia and her role in ensuring that the loose ends aren’t quite so perfectly wrapped up as Garner feared they would be. It’s a delicious piece of writing – Garner’s I mean – about a delicious piece of writing. I laughed.
And now, I must get Garner’s previous collection of essays, The feel of steel …