Enough of the filler posts for a while! It’s time for a review, and it’s a special one because it’s for a book about one of my favourite writers, Helen Garner. The book is Bernadette Brennan’s A writing life: Helen Garner and her work. Described as a “literary portrait” rather than as a biography, it carefully and thoroughly explores her work from multiple angles, the effect of which was to confirm my overall understanding of her work while also resolving some of the gaps or misconceptions in my reading of her.
This brings me straight to the book’s fundamental assumption that knowing a writer’s life is (or can be) relevant to understanding his or her work. Brennan writes in her Introduction that she did not want to write a biography, which was just as well, as Garner did not want her to either. However, Brennan “knew” that the intersection of Garner’s “life and art made discussion of the biographical essential to understanding her work.” There are those who argue that the text is the thing – and the only thing. However, others of us believe that our reading of a text can be enhanced by other factors, that, as editor and critic Adam Kirsch has said, it is valid “to use the life to clarify the factors that shape the work — to show how life and work were both shaped by the same set of problems and drives.” What I realised while reading this book is that this can be as true for non-fiction as for fiction.
“honest, authentic” (Brennan)
I have written about Helen Garner several times on this blog, and many of those times I’ve explained that I love her writing, even though I don’t always agree with her. I love her honesty I say. Well, so do others apparently. In her Introduction, Brennan writes that:
Garner is one of the best-known and, some would say, best-loved writers in Australia. That admiration is inspired by a sense that she is honest, authentic …
And then, working chronologically, she starts the book proper with Garner’s first novel, Monkey grip. Concluding this chapter, Brennan quotes the judges who awarded Garner the National Book Council Book of the Year Award in 1978. They described her as “utterly honest in facing the dilemmas of freedom, and particularly of social and sexual freedom for women”. That was just the beginning. Garner, as we now know, continued to confront difficult issues and, as a result, to face censure, again and again, throughout her career. Brennan, to use current jargon, unpicks all this, book by book, using the texts themselves, the responses of critics, Garner’s unpublished letters and diaries, the clippings she collected, and spoken and written conversations with Garner herself and with several who know (or knew) her. It’s comprehensive.
You may be wondering at this point whether you need to have read Garner’s books to gain value from this book. Not necessarily, I’d say. I have read eight of the listed fourteen books, and found the chapters on those I haven’t read engaging despite not knowing them. However, those on the books I have read were particularly engrossing, and frequently illuminating.
Take The first stone, for example. Subtitled “Some questions about sex and power” it explores a 1992 sexual harassment scandal at a Melbourne University college. The book was highly controversial at the time and Garner copped some ferocious criticism, particularly from feminists, for the stance she took. I was one who disagreed, strongly, with her. But, here is where my point regarding the value of knowing the author’s biography comes in. In a 50-page chapter, Brennan analyses the book in depth, exploring the circumstances of the case, Garner’s writing process, and the role played by the facts of her life in the approach she took. It was enlightening. I came away still not exactly agreeing with her, but understanding Garner’s position more. Brennan describes, among other things, Garner’s uncertainty regarding the young women, and how her own history and vulnerabilities affected her response.
Brennan starts this chapter with the statement that the “truth” surrounding the events “may never be fully known”, and follows this with the “facts” that are known. Of course, I loved this differentiation. Another significant point Brennan makes in the chapter concerns Garner’s positioning of herself in the story. The idea came from friend and publisher Hilary McPhee who, writes Brennan
suggested she insert herself as a character in into the narrative and write a book that charted the effects of each person’s statement on her own point of view. That strategy allowed her to explore the issues with which she was grappling, despite the absence of the complainant’s perspective, yet it late infuriated some commentators.
This approach would have come naturally to her, I’d say, given that all her writing has a strong autobiographical component, as she herself admits. This intrusion of her “self” has become a feature of her non-fiction writing and is part of a style of narrative non-fiction that she helped pioneer and that we now see used by younger Australian writers like Anna Krien and Chloe Hooper.
Brennan’s research into the writing of The first stone is meticulous, and is carefully documented in the end notes. Her subsequent analysis and the conclusions she draws are well-considered and make sense. She applies this technique to every chapter – to her discussions of Garner’s fiction like Monkey grip and Cosmo cosmolino, as well as to her other non-fiction works like Joe Cinque’s consolation and This house of grief. The book ends with last year’s essay collection, Everywhere I look.
“For me, particularly, it’s one book. The book of what I make of the world and my life as I have lived it.” (Garner)
Superficially, Garner’s work is diverse. She has written in almost every form you could imagine, including song lyrics, libretti, and plays as well as novels, short stories, essays and longform non-fiction. But the subject matter is much tighter – it tends to be domestic and relationship-based, but with a particular focus, because it grapples, says Brennan, with the problem of balancing “the desire for personal freedom with ethical responsibility”. Garner’s concerns are ethical and moral. She explores these values in the daily lives of ordinary people, in both her fiction and non-fiction, whether it’s a mother deserting her family (in The children’s Bach) or a father driving his car full of children into a lake (This house of grief), and she doesn’t separate herself from the issues. She shows her own failings, her own ugliness, with a breathtaking vulnerability, and brings, Brennan shows, much distress upon herself. She doesn’t, in other words, write what she writes lightly.
So, what picture does Brennan paint of Garner, the writer? It’s a complex one. It’s of a writer who has strong emotions, a fierce intellect and a commitment to seeking out the “truth”. It’s of a writer who can be hard on others, including those she knows, but who is equally hard on herself. It’s of a writer who isn’t scared to cross boundaries of form and defy expectations in order to tell the best story she can. Brennan’s approach to her topic is analytical, rather than critical. That is, she interrogates Garner’s work and mines her life for the aspects that will help us understand the work, but she doesn’t, herself, critique the work – which is probably to be expected, given the book’s title.
There is so much more that could be said about the book, so many angles from which it could be discussed, but I’ll close here by saying that this is, obviously, a book for those who want to understand Garner’s work more. But, it is also a book which makes clear the significant contribution Garner has made to Australian literature. And, in doing that, it is itself a significant book.