Monday musings on Australian literature: My reading group does Garner

You are never too old to try something new – and so it was that my 30-year-old reading group tried something new for our April meeting. The idea was that we would all read Garner, but our individual choice of Garner. We’ve discussed five Garners over the years, and many had read other Garners besides those, so we thought it might be fun for us to all read what we like – from her large oeuvre of novels, short stories, screenplays, essays and other short non-fiction, and longform non-fiction – and then see what conclusions we might draw.

It worked well – I think. At least, the discussion was lively and engaged.

So, what did we read?

(Listed in publication order, with links to my reviews where I’ve reviewed them here.)

  • Monkey grip (1977) (x2)
  • The children’s Bach (1984) (x2) (my review)
  • The last days of chez nous and Two friends (1992) (my review)
  • The feel of steel (2001)
  • Everywhere I look (2016) (x2) (my review)
  • True stories (2017)
  • A writing life: Helen Garner and her work, by Bernadette Brennan (2017) (my review)

A good spread in some senses but not in others. It includes two of her five novels, her two screenplays, three collections of her short non-fiction (essays and the like), and the not-a-biography-literary-portrait. It does not include any of her short fiction (like Postcards from Surfers) (my review) or her longform non-fiction (like This house of grief) (my review). It was pretty clear, I’d say, that most didn’t want to confront the unpleasantness of books like Joe Cinque’s consolation and This house of grief, though we did discuss Joe when it came out.

Helen Garner, The children BachThe reasons we chose our books were diverse. Some of us, including me who did the screenplays, chose books we already owned. Some chose books they’d read and wanted to reassess (like Monkey Grip), while another chose Monkey Grip because she hadn’t read it and felt it was now “part of our culture.” One music-lover chose The children’s Bach because it was short and referenced music, while another chose The feel of steel because there were only two options at her secondhand books source and she didn’t want to read the other (Joe Cinque’s consolation.) One chose the 2017 compilation True stories because it represents 50 years of Garner’s short non-fiction writing. And one chose the literary portrait because she’d read a lot of Garner, and wanted to find out more about her.

What common threads did we find?

It wasn’t hard to find common threads in Garner – which is not to suggest that we think reading her is boring!

The overriding thread was that she draws heavily from her life, even for works that aren’t autobiographical. We agreed that she’s present, one way or another, in most of her writing, including her longform non-fiction works, such as Joe Cinque’s consolation.

Another thread was that she is “searingly honest”, “will have a go at everything”, “is not afraid of looking an idiot”.  This honesty, we felt, applies both to the topics she chooses and to her way of exploring them. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll know that I’ve regularly made this “honest” comment about Garner.

The third main thread that most of us commented on was her writing. We agreed that she’s a wonderful stylist, but beautifully spare too. Spare, though, doesn’t mean plain. One put it perfectly when she praised Garner’s “word pictures”.

Over the course of the evening, excerpts were read – to show her writing skill and/or her ability to capture life (not to mention her sense of humour).

Helen Garner, Everywhere I lookHere are some that were shared:

The waiter had a face like an unchipped statue. (The children’s Bach)

He waltzed the car from lane to lane with big flourishes of the steering wheel. (The children’s Bach)

Everyone looks at her, surprised. She has quietly dropped her bundle. (The last days of chez nous)

I knew I couldn’t be the only person in the world who’s capable of forgetting the contents of a novel only minutes after having closed it. (from The feel of steel)

And long live the Lydias of this world, the slack molls who provide the grit in the engine of the marriage plot; for without them it would run so smoothly that the rest of us would fall into despair. (referencing Pride and prejudice, in “How to marry your daughters”, from Everywhere I look)

Our conclusion

Our discussion ranged rather widely, but we did try to draw it all together at the end, particularly regarding her relevance and longevity.
Questions we considered included: Is she too Melbourne-focused? Does she only appeal to people around our age? Will she still be relevant for future readers? One member reported that her daughter, who’s a keen reader, couldn’t get into Everywhere I look. The Melbournites loved her ability to describe Melbourne, but wondered if that limited her appeal.
We concluded that Garner has carved out a niche that’s unlike anyone else, and that despite her focused setting, her subject matter is universal. And, overlaying this is her writing. It’s worth reading for itself.
So, it wasn’t a contentious meeting, as sometimes discussions of Garner can be … instead it was full of delight and discovery. We’ll probably all read more Garner as we follow in her tracks, a decade or so behind her.

24 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: My reading group does Garner

  1. Hi again Sue. A few disparate comments…

    I have the original nineteen-ninety-something version of “True Stories”, which is a wonderful collection. I still occasionally re-tell Garner’s anecdote in her introduction about sub-editors massacring your newspaper copy without telling you: “Have you seen what they did to my piece? I’ve just smashed the toaster with a hammer…” The piece about her relationship with her sisters, all with their anonymous Numbers allocated according to their age, is utterly fascinating.

    Garner’s “Melbournity” (a linguistically inverted kind of “urbanity”, I’ve just decided) appealed to me for somewhat unorthodox reasons…I am the Sandgroper only-child of rural Victorians, and in my earlier years Melbourne seemed like the most wonderfully gritty and cultural city in the Southern Hemisphere. Particularly given that all of my relations were either indifferent to it, non-plussed with it, or positively hated it. Years later, I tapped into the romance of Sydney and the Harbour via the life and novels Patrick White, but I’m still yet to spend any real time in that place. Given my attraction to “other places”, if only vicariously, perhaps it’s not surprising that I’ve never really got into Tim Winton’s work beyond his short stories…we’re of different generations, but we grew up on the same sunny, sandy WA coastal plain, both in clear sight of the sea, within five miles and eighteen years of each other.

    I’ve generally loved Garner’s work up to the mid-nineties. I haven’t ventured farther (chronologically speaking) than “The First Stone.” I tried “Cosmo Cosmolino” a few years ago, but somehow couldn’t finish it. I read “The Children’s Bach” only fairly recently. I’m lucky enough to have first editions of “Bach”, “Honour and Other People’s Children”, and “Postcards from Surfers.”

    The story “The Life of Art” from “Postcards” is one of the most memorable stories in my experience. Particularly the ending. Oh, and as for devastating sentences (devastating FIRST sentences) I can’t remember which story this comes from, but I’ve always remembered this:
    “My husband met me at the airport, and there he told me some things that wiped the smile right off my face.”

    • Wow thanks Glen for this. I can’t possibly respond to it all, but I’m fascinated by your comment about preferring to read about “other places”. I love that too, but I also love seeing places I know well evoked by great writers.

      Love that first line, Glen, but I don’t know it. Maybe it’s from Honor which I haven’t read? I’ve just looked quickly at The life of art again. Great ending as you say. So much packed into the last couple of lines too.

      • I’d half forgotten this, but I did once read the script of “Chez Nous,” long before I ever managed to see the film. I’d forgotten about that stage direction about “quietly dropping her bundle,” but I remember it now that you mention it. Such expressions are so indicative of the personality and culture of both the writer and the character.

  2. In the Feel of Steel Garner gets back to Melbourne and drinks water from the garden tap, something every Melbournian would identify with (tap water in Adelaide and Perth is undrinkable). But Monkey Grip is a classic of Oz Lit – we have surprisingly few books out of that sub-culture let alone brilliantly written ones.

    • I want to read The feel of steel one day as I love her essays and sketches. I love that they cover such seemingly disparate topics but are so wonderfully observed – in ways that can make you laugh, start, grimace or cry.

    • Maybe I have no class or taste, but I’ve definitely drunk Perth water out of garden hoses and garden taps! It’s hardly ideal, though, and Adelaide water is even worse. I was in a pub here in Perth the other day watching the staff de-scaling their water carafes with uncooked rice and glass cleaner. Do Melbournians have to do this? The first time I tasted Ballarat/Melbourne water, I thought it was so good that people shouldn’t be allowed to do anything with it except drink it! One of the bar-staff was from Liverpool, and she mentioned how badly her towels come out of the wash in Perth compared with back home.

      • Wow, I had no idea about these different reputations of water – except I do recollect how hard the water was in LA and the mineral build up we’d get if we didn’t keep faucets (oops) taps, clean. I think Canberra water’s ok. I drink it.

  3. I agree with your second thread. I love Garner for her honesty and her fearlessness as she tackles challenging subjects. For me her best book is ‘The Spare Room’ (not on your list) which is so honest about her true feelings about her terminally ill guest. It is probably a situation most of us have been in where we don’t want to hurt or upset someone dear but we so disagree with the choices they are making and we try so hard to be tactful. The book is labelled fiction but Garner admits that it is partly autobiographical, and quite frankly I don’t see anything wrong with that. I think most powerful fiction writing is based on the author’s life experiences in some way or other and they don’t have to apologize for it.

    I believe that the setting in Garner’s books – be it Melbourne or Sydney or wherever – is unimportant because she doesn’t write about the places for themselves. She writes about people and universal people issues. I also think it is unimportant whether her books mostly appeal to a certain (older) generation if that is so because us oldies are entitled to our likes and if young people expect us to read what they write with an open mind, they should be prepared to do the same for us. The longevity test will come with later generations.

    I love her writing especially for its creative use of words ‘a huge wave of fatigue rinsed me from head to foot’ p88

    Need I say it but I just hope there is another Garner novel in the making because I just can’t get enough of her.

    • Thanks Nawnim. Glad to meet another passionate Garner fan. It was interesting that no-one chose that book, but most people didn’t choose books that the group had read and The spare room was one. (We’ve done The Children’s Bach, which two members who weren’t there at the time chose; The spare room; Cosmo cosmolino; The first stone; and Joe Cinque’s consolation. SO, as you can see, The children’s Bach is the only one chosen that we’ve done before.)

      I agree with everything you say about the quality of her writing and the issue of the autobiographical nature of her fiction). And, for the record, I thought The spare room was immensely brave and honest.

    • Ah, Lisa, thanks. I wasn’t sure you’d comment on this one (and I wouldn’t have been insulted!) Do you mean The spare room? I’m not sure what other novels were contentious except Monkey grip, which two did choose?

      I think for most of us the choice was driven by books we individually hadn’t read before and many of us have read a lot of Garner. I know mine was, and several others were too. One or two, though, did re-read/re-visit books (one of those choosing Monkey grip which she hadn’t liked first time around but was impressed by this time.)

      For the record, we’ve already done as a group: The Children’s Bach; The spare room; Cosmo cosmolino; The first stone; and Joe Cinque’s consolation. The children’s Bach is the only one people chose for this night that we’ve done before, and neither of those people were in the group when we did it.

      There were some references during the discussion to Joe Cinque’s consolation – which people had found painful but we didn’t spend long on it because it hadn’t been specifically chosen.

      • I would say that her contentious novels start with The First Stone, and then Joe Cinque and The Spare Room (all of which I’ve read) and then the last one (the name escapes me) which I do not want to read at all. All these four have been criticised for trespassing on the lives of real people while others have praised her honesty.

        • Ah, I wondered if that’s what you meant, but three of those aren’t novels, of course, though I suppose with Garner the line between novels and non-novels can be fine! I certainly agree that The first stone, Joe, and The house of grief were contentious.

          She’s not the only writer, as I know you know, to use real people’s lives in fiction or non-fiction. It’s a tricky ethical issue, i do appreciate, but not one I think we can lay solely at Garner’s feet?

        • I wonder if people made similar comments about Henry Handel Richardson’s ‘The Fortunes of Richard Mahony’ and ‘The Getting of Wisdom’.

        • You would have to think they did wouldn’t you Nawnim. So many writers have done this, in fiction and non-fiction. I’m not sure why Garner attracts such ire, really.

  4. I have not read Garner. The approach of everyone reading different works and then discussing them sounds different but fruitful. It sounds like it was a great idea.

    At least in theory, I do not think that there is anything wrong with an author who centers thier work on a particular place. In the end, worthwhile writing is universal.

  5. Hi Sue, I love Helen Garner’s writings and always look forward to reading her novels. I know where I am with Garner, and it also helps that I live in Melbourne. However, in my book group there are some who dislike her for being so honest. I have been to a few of her interviews. I do remember in one interview she regretted at times she had used friends lives in her fiction.

    • Thanks Meg. I’m with you as I know.

      She probably polarises people more than many writers. Peter Carey is another I think, though for different reasons. Must in my group love her, and don’t really comment on that issue in her novels. We read them as fiction, regardless of the bases. Some recoil a bit from the confronting non-fiction though I think, particularly Joe and Grief.

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