Consider Helen Garner’s Cosmo cosmolino

Helen Garner, Cosmo cosmolino

Commenting on my post on Helen Garner’s One day I’ll remember this, Bill (The Australian Legend) wrote that he’d hoped I’d mention Cosmo cosmolino (1992). It’s one of the novels Garner was writing during the period covered by these diaries, and Bill had struggled with it. I don’t blame him because, while I loved reading the novel, my own review written early in this blog is less than wonderful. Cosmo is a very different novel and I didn’t grapple at all well with its tricky themes.

Bill has, in fact, written twice about Cosmo cosmolino, his second drawing from Tegan Bennett Daylight’s essay in Reading like an Australian writer (edited by Belinda Castles). I have now read that essay too, so I am going to write a second post on Cosmo – too!

There are two main issues that are tricky with this novel, its form and its content. I’ll start with form, which derives from the fact that the book comprises three pieces/stories: “Recording angel”, “A vigil” and “Cosmo cosmolino”.

But, is it a novel?

I am forgiving (or, wishy-washy, if you prefer) when it comes to questions like this. I think form is and should be a loose thing, and that it should have room to move. Even Bill, who sometimes has strong views on things, said that “If an author, as Garner has done here, declares a collection of pieces to be a novel, then that is how I will read it. But these pieces don’t speak to each other at all. If this is a novel, then as far as I am concerned, it is a failed novel”.

So, Bill was happy, more or less, to accept it as a novel. I was certainly happy to do so because the first two pieces – “Recording angel” and “A vigil” – introduce two of the three main characters in the last story. They also introduce some of the ideas that she further develops, though I didn’t fully grasp them in my review. More on that later in this post. The point is that for me the pieces did speak to each other, albeit oddly, because, for example, the first piece is told first person in Janet’s voice, while the third is told third person with Janet as the protagonist.

Bennett Daylight discusses the form in her essay. She starts by suggesting that she would have broken down the last piece into smaller stories, and

seen the book as a whole as telling the central story through a kaleidoscope of scenes, points of view, small (and large) narratives. I’m thinking particularly of Alice Munro’s early short story collections … in which Munro builds a long narrative about her protagonists like you might a model train, adding stories like carriages until the narrative winds into the distance. The result, to my mind, can be more satisfying than the novel whose every scene is roped to a single central idea.

She then quotes Robert Dessaix who, while praising Garner as “one of our most gifted” writers, said that none of her fictional works were novels. They are “fine works of art and innovative explorations of literary approaches to nonfiction, every one of them an outstanding example of stylish reportage”. He then gets to one of the nubs, the pedestal on which novels are put. Garner writes in her diaries that she needs to free herself “from the hierarchy with the novel on top”. She needs “to devise a form that is flexible and open enough”, wants to “blow out realism while at the same time sinking deeply into what is most real”.

She also writes of “pointless struggles to work my stuff into the shape of a novel, and my determination to write only what it’s personally urgent for me to write” (p. 181). The two urges, it seems, fight each other. She says more but this gives you the gist. I love her engagement with form, though in one sense, it shouldn’t really matter – should it?

Meanwhile, Bennett Daylight is convinced that Cosmo cosmolino is a novel because “what makes a novel a novel is metaphor”, meaning that in a novel it’s “as though life looked in the mirror and saw, not just its reflection, but something behind it”.

“My strange experience”

What is this something? It’s certainly deeper than I was prepared to go in my review, because, to be honest, I was uncertain – and here is why. Bennett Daylight quotes an interview Garner had about the book with, in Garner’s words, “that hard-nosed leftie rationalist Craig McGregor”. In this interview, she was stupid enough “to blurt out my strange experience with the shadowy presence”. Afterwards, she panicked and asked him not to include that part, and while he reassured her he’d hardly mentioned it, this “mysterious visitor” is the backbone of his piece. The responses weren’t positive – “Garner’s got religion, etc”. It taught her, she told Bennett Daylight,

that in Australia you can’t write about experiences of ‘the numinous’ without opening yourself to sneering and cynical laughter. Back then, anyway.

This is the challenge I had with the book. What was the spiritual aspect about? I’ll flip to Bernadette Brennan’s book on Helen Garner, A writing life (my review). She says that the three interlinked stories all concern transformation, and are connected through recurring characters and the presence in each of various forms of angels:

The book’s structure mirrors that of a Christian pilgrimage: “Recording angel” confronts the physicality of a suffering body, “A vigil” enters the underworld to witness death head on, and “Cosmo Cosmolino” offers a sense of possible redemption, perhaps even resurrection. The structure can also be read as a meditation on the past, the present and the future.

Garner writes in her diaries that her main experience of religion is the Holy Spirit:

I don’t understand ‘God’ or even ‘Jesus’, but the Holy Spirit [the “shadowy presence”] has stood behind me on many different days, even though for a long time I was too frightened to acknowledge it or ‘call out to it’. It has visited me and comforted me and become part of me. (p. 160/161)

Bennett Daylight concludes her essay by talking about “the metaphor of belief” that underpins this novel:

Religion or belief is the attempt to impose order where there is none – and surely fiction is the same thing. In fact, from where I’m standing it’s exactly the same thing. I don’t believe in a god or gods, but I do believe in the power of fiction, the power of narrative, the power of metaphor to restore order. A great novel unsettles, then settles – it causes disorder, and then order. Order is restored in Cosmo cosmolino; the metaphor that effects this restoration is a metaphor of belief.

Let’s discuss this definition of “a great novel” another time, but it works here.

As for Garner, what does she say in the diaries? There’s quite a lot, but I’ll just choose these:

I want to write things that push down deeper roots into the archetypal. Things whose separate parts have multiple conections with their own structure. (p.140)

I got to the end of Cosmo. Where is this stuff coming from? The weird state I’m in. I have to apply my intellect but at the same time keep my instincts wide open. I need to hover between these levels. (p. 206)

and

I’m scared that with Cosmo I’ll come a cropper. (p. 217)

It would be 16 years before she wrote another novel.

For me, Cosmo cosmolino, now read so long ago, remains memorable. Janet and “Recording angel”, in particular, are still vivid. I’d willingly read it again.

21 thoughts on “Consider Helen Garner’s Cosmo cosmolino

  1. I’m afraid I just didn’t “get” this novel and therefore didn’t enjoy the experience of reading it, despite being a Garner fan. It’s nice to read your blog post as it does make it a little clearer. Funnily enough, I do remember some characters and themes…

  2. Yes, I think you are right. There are so many books that I “enjoyed” more but I’ve forgetten what they are about within a few months. Not this one!

  3. Interesting that she thought there was a hierarchy of writing with the novel at the top.
    I prefer reading novels to anything else, with novellas coming a close second, but I’ve never thought of them as being ‘at the top’.
    FWIW I think all writing is hard, sometimes even the humble book review.

    • I like that answer Lisa … but I can see what she was saying. I feel that even now, many writers really feel they’re a writer when they have a novel to their name. Not all, of course, but you do sense it. And yet, like you, I agree that all writing is hard.

  4. My favourite form of the novel is autofiction, and that is a form at which Garner is one of the great practitioners. If Garner is just rehashing her journals, as her critics say, then that is an experience I enjoy and which I am willing to accept as a ‘novel’. Two others who do it very well are Eve Langley and Gerald Murnane, though they probably tend to involve other people rather less than does Garner.

    Thanks for linking to my discussions of Cosmo. If that is my least favourite Garner novel it is not because she is writing from her own experience, but because she expects me to share the significance of the holy spirit in her life.

    • Thanks Bill. I can see why autofiction would be your favourite, given your theory of fiction writing. I like it too so would never criticise her novels the way they have been. But, she does get into trouble for the degree to which she involves others, and she does discuss that a bit in these diaries too. (“Recording angel” caused quite an issue for her with the friend it was based on – Axel Clark, I can say, given that’s out there in Brennan’s book. But, he forgave her in the end, I gather. She sent him the proof before publication.)

      Does she expect you to “share” the significance of the holy spirit, or to understand what she is trying to say and to think about it?

  5. “I want to write things that push down deeper roots into the archetypal. Things whose separate parts have multiple conections with their own structure.”
    Do all writers have minds that work like hers ?

    • Probably not, M-R! Many have creative minds, in different ways, if that makes sense, but she is fascinating in her ability to articulate what concerns her, what she is striving for, and she is so honest about her struggles. I love that you chose that quote … as I wrote it I wondered whether what I understand, or take from it, is what she meant.

      • I’ve been thinking the same thing lately. So many books one could be reading instead of this or that or the other or whatever. By now I think I know what I’m going to enjoy, what I’m unlikely to, and with the time I have left I’m going to steer towards the former rather than the latter. So, sorry, Sally Rooney, I’ll never know what I missed.

        • With the time I have left! Yep, know what you mean. I’m starting to think I need to be more strategic. (Coincidentally, Sally Rooney will pop up briefly in my Monday Musings tonight! But, I haven’t read her either.)

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