I loved volume 1 of Helen Garner’s diaries, Yellow notebook (my review), last year, and equally enjoyed this second volume, One day I’ll remember this. As with my first volume post, I plan to focus on a couple of threads that particularly interested me.
First though, it’s worth situating these diaries in terms of Garner’s biography. The nine years encompass the writing of her screenplay The last days of chez nous (my review), her novel Cosmo cosmolino (my review), and her non-fiction work, The first stone (read before blogging). This time also covers the beginnings of her relationship with novelist Murray Bail (“V”) and the early years of their marriage. The trajectory of this fraught relationship gave the volume a strong narrative arc, though the volume concludes not on this relationship but her hysterectomy. Read into that what you will.
Like Yellow notebook, volume 2 offers much for Garner fans. It covers similar ground to the first: observations from life around her, snippets of conversations, occasional news items (like the fall of the Berlin Wall), thoughts about other writers, and of course reflections on her own writing. We watch the tortuous development of her relationship with Bail, and the ups and downs of some close friendships. Music and religion feature again. And, there’s a search for home, for a place of her own.
“the little scenes” and “she never invents anything” (1987)
In her preface to The last days of chez nous and Two friends, Garner characterised her writing as “the same old need to shape life’s mess into a seizable story.” Those who know Garner’s writing will know that she was, on the publication of her debut novel Monkey grip (1977), criticised for not writing fiction but just publishing her diaries. This issue of what sort of writer she is, and what sort of writer she wants to be, continues to occupy her in this volume. “My work is very minor”, she worries in 1990. She is not helped by Bail who clearly thinks that her subject matter is not worthy of her writing skills:
I asked V what he ‘really thought’ of my work. He said he thought it was very good but that I should get beyond the subject matter that limited me, ‘those households, what are they called? That you always write about?’ (1992)
So it seems did Z (who, I think, is David Malouf):
V reports Z’s ‘outburst’ against ‘women’s writing’ with its ‘domestic nuances’ which he dislikes and it not interested in. V tries to get me to pick up my upper lip but without success since he doesn’t hide the fact that he agrees with Z. (1989)
It’s not surprising that among the writers whom Garner admires is Canadian Nobel Prize for Literature Winner, Alice Munro, about whom Garner writes, immediately before the above outburst:
Alice Munro is deceptively naturalistic. All that present tense, detail of clothes, household matters, then two or three pages in there’s a gear change and everything gets deeper, more wildly resonant. She doesn’t answer the questions she makes you ask. She wants you to walk away anxious. (1989)
Bail and Malouf, like many, misread Garner if they think her writing is about unimportant stuff. Garner is interested in the sorts of things she admires in writers like Jolley and John McGahern, for example. She says of McGahern that “he goes in very deep, broaching a vast reservoir of sadness, passivity, hopelessness and despair” (1993). She is not at all interested in domesticity for domesticity’s sake but in understanding the darkness in human beings, and “what people do to each other”.
As well as content, Garner talks again about the process of writing, of the frustration when it feels “false and stiff”, “ugly, clumsy”, or exhibits “anxious perfectness”, and of the exhilaration when it all goes right:
Hours passed in big bursts and I ended up with seven pages of stuff I could never have foreseen or invented … This must be how it’s done–take your foot off the brake, unpurse the lips and see where it takes you. (1990)
These volumes offer wonderful insights into the insecurities, challenges, despair and triumphs of being a writer – and for Garner, specifically, of the struggle to find “her” mode:
I need to free myself from the hierarchy with the novel on top. I need to devise a from that is flexible and open enough to contain all my details, all my small things. If only I could blow out realism while at the same time sinking deeply into what is most real. (1989)
By the end of this volume Garner has moved from “those households” into The first stone – and from there, as we know, she took on narrative non-fiction, and produced books on her own terms in her own form. In these, she finally found a way to not only explore the “darkness” and the things “people do to each other”, but to do it with an openness that is not always pretty but that I admire immensely.
“This is what life is. It’s not for saying no” (1987)
So writes Garner about her newly developing relationship with “V”. This relationship provides the diary’s backbone. It drives, mostly, where she lives, who she sees, and how and where she works. As they move from place to place – in his Sydney and her Melbourne – Virginia Woolf’s A room of one’s own comes frequently to mind, because, wherever they are, he gets to work at home while she must find somewhere else. Even when she tries to put her foot down, she ultimately backs off and, yes, finds somewhere else. This, in many ways, epitomises their relationship – he confident in the rightness of his working where he wishes, and she uncertain about whether to compromise (again), he sure that he is “blameless”, and she, self-deprecatingly, wondering if she’s “a monster”. It’s a typical man-woman story in so many ways, and for women readers the gender issues are both illuminating and infuriating.
However, it’s not all bad. There are moments of generosity and tenderness, even of fun. There are conversations about books and reading, convivial times with friends, and trips away. But, it also seems clear from the beginning that they are the proverbial chalk and cheese. Garner is emotional – “hypersensitive, says friend R – and sociable. She loves nature, music and dancing. V, on the other hand, is reserved, austere, elitist, really. He is furious when someone criticises art that he believes (knows!) is good, while Garner is interested in the discussion.
It made for painful reading at times, but fortunately, there was always this sense, this thing she says early in the volume:
Nothing can touch me. The power of work. Art and the huge, quiet power it brings. (1987)
Amen to that, eh?
One day I’ll remember this: Diaries, Volume 2, 1997-1995
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2020
(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)