Monday musings on Australian literature: Writers’ notebooks

If you’ve attended writers festivals, you are sure to have heard writers talk of using notebooks to jot down ideas on the run, to record conversations overheard on public transport, cafes, etc, to capture the thoughts of the writers they read, and so on. These notebooks are not works of art in themselves, but part of a writer’s toolbox for creating their art – except, of course, writers being writers can turn anything into art, if they set their minds to it.

Some time ago, an article appeared in The Guardian on writers’ notebooks. It starts by discussing:

the way notebooks seem to offer access to hidden origins, and to the creative processes by which works we value come into being. Notebooks record early versions and impulses, and though sometimes the writer has an eye to posterity, the privacy of self-communing allows things that can’t be shared with others to be said, within what Coleridge, one of the great notebook-keepers, called in 1808 a “Dear Book! Sole Confidant of a breaking Heart”. For Virginia Woolf, her notebook helped to “discover real things beneath the show”; flashes of perception, phrases, half-formed and potential ideas …

The article was written by American Professor Philip Horne, who commissioned ten authors to write new stories based on “germs” left behind by Henry James in his notebooks. That book has been published, Tales from a master’s notebook: Stories Henry James never wrote. (Anyone read it?) Apparently, Horne is also editing an edition of James’ notebooks.

I’ve digressed a little – into American writers, and third-party-edited notebooks – when I really want to focus on Australian writers. But, sorry, I’m going to digress again, this time to staff writer, Dustin Illingworth:

Few literary artifacts remain as consistently enigmatic as the author’s journal. … The very names we employ—the aforementioned “journal,” the stuffy “diary,” the tepid “notebook”—are failures of imagination, if not outright misreadings. Staid synopses and ossified lives these are not. Rather, what we find within their pages are wild, shapeless, violent things; elegant confessions and intricate codes; portraits of anguish; topographies of mind. Prayers, experiments, lists, rivalries, and rages are all at home here, interbred, inextricable from one another. A piece of petty gossip sits astride a transcendent realization. A proclamation of self-loathing becomes a paean to literary art. News of publication shares the page with the most banal errands imaginable.

Perfect, including his reference to nomenclature – journal, diary, notebook. Writing courses specifically recommend keeping a “writers notebook”, but writers themselves – if they do it at all – keep diaries, journals, notebooks, even loose pieces of paper like backs of envelopes. Many of these eventually find their way into libraries and archives.

Here, though, my focus is those that are published – by the writers themselves, not posthumously by academics or other editors. These works are clearly part of a writer’s oeuvre – and I’m calling them “notebooks”. They tend to be highly edited and somewhat different from traditional diaries, which, of course, can also be carefully edited. But, these “notebooks” have minimal diary framework, in terms of day-by-day dear-diary accounting.

Selected Aussie writers’ notebooks

I don’t know how many writers have published the sort of “notebooks” I’m talking about, but I have three on my shelves, to get the discussion going.

The first one, chronologically in terms of publication, is the most unusual, Beverley Farmer’s A body of water (1990). I’ve had it on my TBR since it came out. How embarrassing. Luckily for you, though, Lisa has reviewed it, so do go there if you are interested. Meanwhile, I’ll just make a few comments. I bought it because I loved Farmer’s writing, and looking at it again – as I have many times over the years – I feel the urge to dive in, but, no, on with this post.

Farmer’s book takes place over a year from February 1987 to the next February. The thirteen journal chapters are named for the month, but what makes this notebook a little different is that interspersed between the months are five short stories. The content of the journal chapters, however, is very much as described in the quotes above. There are references to her life (particularly her relationship angst), to books she is reading, to her own writing, to her environment. I am, cheekily, going to quote from Lisa’s review, because – well, you’ll see why later:

Farmer reads Alice Munro, and makes notes about the structure of her stories; she goes to the Spoleto Festival (forerunner of the Melbourne Festival) and brings home the books of A.S. Byatt from which to learn.  She wishes she had the insouciance of Olga Masters, she admires the ‘spirals within spirals’ in V.S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival (p192) and she reads and re-reads cherished authors, to ‘rebuild and restore’ (p169) finding a ‘fearful symmetry and sureness of touch’ in Jessica Anderson’s Tirra Lirra by the River (p219).

My second book is actually called a notebook – Notebooks 1970-2003 (2005) – and it’s by Murray Bail. I bought it because I like Bail and was intrigued by this notebook form, but I haven’t read it yet, either. It has just two parts: London June 1970-November 1974 and Sydney September 1988-November 2003.

It is more spare than Farmer’s and Garner’s books, but that in itself provides insight into him, as well as its content sharing what he’s observing, reading, thinking about. Here’s something quite random:

Strolling from one picture to another in art galleries, even commercial ones, I am assailed by literary ideas which beg to be resolved.

Book cover

And finally, the book – or books – that inspired this post, Helen Garner’s first two volumes of her diaries, Yellow notebook: Diaries Volume I 1978–1986 (my review) and One day I’ll remember this: Diaries Volume II 1987–1995. Interestingly, the first one is called “notebook” and “diaries” while the second one is just “diaries”. I am including them here because the content, though arranged by year, looks like a collection of snippets, rather than a traditional diary.

In my review of volume 1, I focused on Garner’s writing about other writers, such as Elizabeth Jolley. In volume 2, she mentions other writers again, of course. One of these is – yes – Alice Munro, whom Lisa says Farmer also mentions. Here’s Garner:

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 and more wildly resonant. She doesn’t answer the questions she makes you ask. She wants you to walk away anxious.

Anyone who knows Garner and/or Bail will know that they were married (1992-2000) during the periods covered by their “notebooks”, and Bail certainly appears in Garner’s. But, more on that when I review it.

Why read these notebooks?

For me it’s because although, fundamentally, the text is the thing, I do think that understanding something about the writer can enhance what we get out of our reading.

Garner’s notebooks are a perfect example, because she writes much about what she thinks it worth writing about and what sort of writing she strives for. She wants, for example, to understand “what people do to each other”, and she writes of striving to let “the language tell the story”, and of “trying to trim adjectives without losing the sensuous detail they afford”. Of V/Bail, she admires “the bright freshness of his writing, its muscle, its dazzling turns. Carved free of cliché. Scrubbed till it hurts.”

There are many reasons for reading these notebooks, but another big one is discovering what our favourite writers read and what they think about what they are reading, as Lisa shares from Farmer. Here is Bail, being his spare self:

Emerson’s ‘Self reliance’: line by line, blow by blow.

I remained seated and immediately read through it again.

There is also just the joy of reading their writing. These notebooks are full of insights and descriptions that make you stop, but if I start sharing them, I’ll never stop. Instead, I’ll end with Farmer from near the beginning of her book. She’s writing about her “new phase of writing”:

This new writing: I want it to be an interweaving of visual images–more open, loose and rich, and free of angst. And if I keep a notebook this time …

Have you read any writer’s notebooks?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Writers from Victoria

Coat of Arms of Victoria (Australia)

Victoria's Coat of Arms (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Over the course of these Monday musings have been occasional posts on writers from specific geographic locations in Australia – but I have not done our two most populous regions, the states of Victoria and New South Wales. The time has come to confront there two – and so, today, I present you Victoria.

Now Victoria is a special state – not only does Mr Gums Jr live there, but its capital Melbourne was the second city to be designated as a UNESCO City of Literature! That’s a pretty impressive achievement. I have written some literary road posts on Victoria, which have mostly focused on writers and works from the past, so in this post I will, as I have done in other regional posts, list (in no particular order) five of my favourite current writers from Victoria – some were born there, some migrated there.

Helen Garner

Garner is one of our most controversial writers – and has been, really, since the publication of her first novel, Monkey Grip, which some critics argued was simply her writing her own life. They meant by this that it had no creative merit, no literary value. This didn’t deter our Helen though, and she has gone on to become one of our significant writers – of both fiction and non-fiction. She has also written some successful screenplays. She writes about relationships and the things that cause disconnects between people, no matter how much they wish it might not be so. As regular readers of this blog will know, I don’t always agree with Garner, but I am always happy to read her because the woman has style. I’ve read too many of hers to list here, but if you’d like a recommendation, please ask!

Elliot Perlman

You may not have heard of Perlman, particularly if you are not Australian, because he is not particularly prolific. The first novel of his that I read was the multiple point of view Seven types of ambiguity (which makes a sly reference to literary theorist William Empson‘s book of the same name). It’s a good, thoughtful book about love and obsession, and the ambiguities therein! I then read Three dollars which explores the question of what happens “when bad things happen to good people” and how consumerism challenges (compromises) our values. It was adapted for film, starring the gorgeous David Wenham (aka Diver Dan if you are a Sea Change fan). Both these novels are set in Melbourne. According to Wikipedia he has a third novel out this year.

Arnold Zable

If you have been reading this blog recently, Arnold Zable will need no introduction. His focus is human rights, with a particular interest in the migrant experience. I’ve read two of his novels – Cafe Scheherazade and The sea of many returns – and will happily read more. His prose is lovely, his attitude warm and generous. I’m looking forward to reading his new novel, Violin lessons.

Beverley Farmer

I’m going to throw in a somewhat forgotten, I think, writer here. Way back in 1988 when my reading group started, we focussed on Australian writers, particularly Australian women writers. One of those was Beverley Farmer. We read her collection of short stories Milk and not long after I also read her second collection of short stories, Home time. Both these were published in the 1980s. She has also written novels, and one of those writers’ notebooks, A body of water, in which she documented her ideas and thoughts over a year, the books she was reading, the people she met. I was drawn to her because of the evocative way she conveyed her experience of being a young Australian wife in a Greek village. Like Perlman, she’s not prolific, but in 2009 she was awarded the Patrick White Award (for writers who “have made a substantial contribution to Australian literature but … may not have received adequate recognition for their work”) which says something about the quality of her work.

Peter Carey

I’ll conclude on another controversial writer. People, it seems, either love him or hate him – and I fall more in the first camp. He is one of only two writers to have won the Booker Prize twice. I have by no means read all of his books but I like the fact that he takes risks in his writing. I think his Oscar and Lucinda is a worthy contender for the Great Australian Novel (should we take that notion seriously). His True history of the Kelly Gang makes a significant contribution to the Ned Kelly myth by attempting to tell the story in Kelly’s voice. It is not all “true” in the factual sense, but it contains a “truth” that Carey thought worth exploring. His most recent novel, Parrot and Olivier in Americatook more risks – in voice and subject matter. Carey, as many of you will know, now lives in New York, but he was born in Victoria – and that’s good enough for this post!

So there you are, five Victorian writers. Now’s your chance to tell me what Victorian writers you like – or simply whether the writers I’ve listed here interest you.