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)


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.

Tegan Bennett Daylight
“A big sunny shack: Cosmo cosmolino by Helen Garner”
in Belinda Castles (ed), Reading like an Australian writer
Sydney: NewSouth, 2021
pp. 26-41
ISBN: 9781742236704

Helen Garner, One day I’ll remember this: Diaries, Volume 2, 1987-1995 (#BookReview)

Helen Garner, One day I'll remember this, book cover

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?

Challenge logo

Helen Garner
One day I’ll remember this: Diaries, Volume 2, 1997-1995
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2020
ISBN: 9781922330277

(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)

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?

Living under COVID-19 (4)

It’s some months since I wrote a “living under COVID-19” post, as things have been pretty much pottering along here in the Australian Capital Territory, but I’ve decided it’s time to do an update (for posterity if for no other reason.)


There’s been much talk about living under COVID-normal, though what that means is, I suspect, a movable feast depending on where your jurisdiction is at.

Lamsheds Restaurant, Yarralumla
Spaced tables, Lamsheds, Yarralumla

Here in the ACT, where we’ve had fewer than 10 cases since May (and only one since mid-July), COVID-normal means, primarily:

  • sanitising, everywhere
  • cleaning, particularly in cafes and restaurants after each client
  • checking-in, via QR-code apps, QR-code websites using phone cameras, or good old pencil and paper. Privacy? What privacy!
  • social distancing: public venues – shops, restaurants, etc – are currently restricted to one person per four square metres of “usable indoor space” and one person per two square metres of outdoor space rule, but larger gatherings in larger spaces are allowed (thought still with some upper limits).
  • no masks, except by personal choice or for certain health workers

We have no limits on household visits, so my reading group has been meeting in person (woo hoo) for some months. Cinemas have been open since July with strict social distancing, which the cinemas have been handling very well through allocated seating with enforced separation, and spaced scheduling creating quiet foyers.

I can visit my father in Aged Care, as long as I meet certain requirements. Visits have some limitations, but the constraints, though a little irritating, are minor. We certainly can’t complain, and our older people feel safe.

Online eventing – book launches, musical events

As I’ve written in previous posts – and something you all know – the main plus out of this pandemic has been the ability to attend remote events that we wouldn’t otherwise have been able to attend. I haven’t got to as many as I’d like because the timing frequently conflicts with other commitments. (How does that happen?) Anyhow, events I’ve “attended” since my last COVID-19 post are (in case you are interested):

Book cover

More consolation than plus – though we’ll take it – are the streamed live performances. We’ve not attended many of these, once again due to timing and commitments, but we have enjoyed some Discover Musica Viva Concerts with accordionist James Crabb and cellist Julian Smiles, and then classical guitarist Karin Schaupp. These were short concerts, but delightful with the performers introducing their pieces. I always enjoy hearing musicians talk about the pieces they play. I was devastated to have missed my beloved Griffyn Ensemble’s event (though we paid for it).

Spring has sprung – big

As if the universe knew we needed it – as if! – we have had a beautiful spring down under with enough blossoms (and flowering weeds) to cheer the saddest heart (I hope).

Need I say more? (From our garden, except the tulips, which are from Moss Vale)

Helen Garner’s lockdown diaries

Book cover

You all know how much I love Helen Garner, and how much I enjoyed the publications of volume 1 of her diaries in 2018 (my review), so I was excited to see her “lockdown diaries” in The Monthly, October xx, 2020. One of the things I enjoyed about reading this piece, besides the writing, was that I could track the trajectory from COVID-19’s earlier days in Australia to around August/September. Garner, for those who don’t know, lives in Melbourne, so her diaries include the only significant second wave lockdown we’ve had here in Australia.

We’re supposed to observe physical distancing. Everyone is to have an area of 4 square metres. “These are not suggestions,” says the chief medical officer. “These are civic duties.” The phrase “civic duty” thrills me.

I love the idea that ‘the phrase “civic duty”‘ thrills her!

Stage 3 lockdown. People over 70 are ordered to stay home for three months. A stab of stir-craziness, then, again, the stoical feeling.

This immediately brought to mind Julia Baird’s Phosphorescence (my review), and her discussion of stoicism, using the extreme example of Jim Stockdale (a POW in “Hanoi Hilton” for over 7 years).

Cadavers encased in white plastic are trolleyed out of New York hospitals and trucked in refrigerated vans to mass graves. Are they old people? Rash people who kept going to clubs? People with delivery jobs or “co-morbidities”? Who are the unlucky ones? Why are they dead, and we’re not? Is there a reason? Will we ever understand what’s happening to us?

Good questions, Ms Garner!

The old professor calls. He talks for a good 20 minutes, he can’t stop, he is flustered, agitated, distressed, veering among the wrecked shards of his mind. His sentences have no content but they are so perfectly jointed and polished that they make me dizzy with admiration. When at last he begins to peter out (…) I produce from behind my back the syringe of praise and give him a huge shot: “Your English is admirable and beautiful. Your syntax is faultless.” He becomes relaxed and sunny, like someone who’s had a hit of Valium: “I am a man. I am vain. You have entered my soul.”

This pure Garner – the interaction (with her old German neighbour, recently moved to aged care), the tone, the language. I love her description of producing from behind her back “the syringe of praise” to “give him a huge shot”.

Numbers of new cases rise and rise. Hotspots here and there. The big flats shut down. Quarantine hotels. A new lockdown, from midnight. People are refusing to be tested. How can people refuse? The world I’ve spent my life in is coming to an end. I keep myself half turned away, my eyes narrowed. On some deep level I’m terrified.

Do you feel as Helen does? And, overall, how are you faring?

Helen Garner, Yellow notebook: Diaries, Volume 1, 1978-1987 (#BookReview)

Book coverThe opening session of last November’s inaugural Broadside Festival featured Helen Garner in conversation with Sarah Krasnostein about her recently published Yellow notebook, the first volume of her edited diaries. It was an excellent, intelligent conversation. Garner came across as the forthright writer she is, one who fearlessly exposes difficult and unpleasant things, alongside joys and triumphs.

The epigraph she chose for her diaries is therefore not surprising:

We are here for this–to make mistakes and to correct ourselves, to stand the blows and hand them out. (Primo Levi, The periodic table)

Certainly, in Yellow notebook, Garner both stands some blows and hands a few out. She admits to many mistakes. She allows herself to be vulnerable. She may have cut a lot, as she told Krasnostein, but she clearly didn’t sanitise. Her aim was to select what others might find interesting. She didn’t rewrite, only changing (or adding) something if it would otherwise have been meaningless. A diary, she said, “has no voiceover, unlike a memoir”. That is, a diary contains what you did/felt at the time without the benefit of later reflection; she had to accept herself – both hurting others and being hurt – as she was at the time of writing. This gave her “fellow-feeling” with others.

She also decided not to identify people. She uses initials, such as M for her daughter, F for her husband at the time. Some of these people are, of course, easily identifiable for anyone who knows her biography, but I think there is still value in taking this approach. In this spirit, I decided not to investigate beyond what I already knew about her life.

The yellow notebook has a lot to offer Garner lovers. For what is quite a short book, its content is wide-ranging. It includes observations from life around her (as you’d expect from a writer), snippets of conversations (both overheard and her own), the occasional news item, stories from her life, thoughts about other writers, and of course reflections on her own writing. We are introduced to her love of music, and her interest in religion. We hear about her marriage break-up and her all-encompassing love of her daughter. All this reveals a messy person – someone who can be wise at times, and immature at others, who can be confident but also excruciatingly insecure, who can be unkind but also warm and generous, a person, in other words, like most of us, except most of us don’t lay the worst of ourselves quite so bare.

I could give examples of all of the above – and I should, because there’s glorious sentence after glorious sentence – but I want to focus on her writing life. For the rest, do read the book yourself.

“thinking voluptuously of the stories I’m going to write”

Part of understanding a writer is knowing who they read and admire. The writer Garner mentions most in this volume is Elizabeth Jolley. While Jolley and Garner are, in some ways, quite different writers, they have a lot in common. Both don’t shy away from some of the darker aspects of human behaviour. Sometimes Garner simply quotes Jolley – as we do when a writer reminds us of something we’re experiencing. Sometimes she shares little anecdotes about Jolley, but other times she comments on Jolley’s writing, even when referring to another writer!

‘Cod seemed a suitable dish for a rejected one and I ate it humbly without any kind of sauce or relish.’ –Barbara Pymm, Excellent women. This is Elizabeth Jolley’s tone and it made me laugh out loud.

Elizabeth Jolley makes me laugh out loud too. Garner also loves Jane Austen. She writes:

Mansfield Park. She never tells you anything about the appearance of her characters. As if they were moral forces. I love it.

You can see why I love Garner. She, Jolley and Austen all get to the heart of humans, incisively – and with wit. Garner writes about being rejected:

My short story was rejected by the Bulletin because it contained four-letter words. A letter from Geoffrey Dutton: ‘It pains me to have to knock this back … it’s you at your best.’ Thanks a lot. I suppose he’s a skilled writer of rejection letters.

Other writers Garner mentions include, randomly, Frank Moorhouse, Janet Malcolm, Joan Didion, Tim Winton, Virginia Woolf, Patrick White, DH Lawrence (who “uses the same word over and over till he makes it mean what he needs it to”), EM Forster, Katherine Mansfield, Henry James, James Joyce, Doris Lessing, Christina Stead (whom, she discovers, is “a visonary”), Randolph Stow, Rosa Capiello, and Les Murray:

The infuriating accuracy and simplicity of his images – birds that ‘trickle down through’ foliage. Of course, I think, this is what they do – why didn’t I know how to say it?

Four of Garner’s own books are published during the ten years covered by these diaries, the novels Moving out (1983) and The children’s Bach (1984) (my review), and short story collections, Honour; and Other people’s children (1980) and Postcards from Surfers (1985) (my review).

She shares many of her struggles and challenges in writing The children’s Bach, in particular:

… each morning I set out for my office weak with fear. I will never be a great writer. The best I can do is write books that are small but oblique enough to stick in people’s gullets.


This flaming book is jammed again. I feel my ignorance and fear like a vast black hole.


I’m scared to go into my office in case I can’t make things up.


Went to work and fiddled around for half an hour, then began to properly feel it come … Delirious I ran downstairs and bought myself a pastie …

She shares her thoughts about writing, such as

About writing: meaning is in the smallest event. It doesn’t have to be put there: only revealed.

This is so Austen, too.

More broadly, she also speaks of critics, awards, and readers. It’s engaging and heart-rending all at once – and probably applicable to many writers.

Finally, she reflects on the value of art and on the creation process. Describing the experience of a painter finishing a portrait, Garner writes:

The miracle of making something that wasn’t there before. Pulling something out of thin air.

It’s that capacity that impresses someone like me. I’m sorry for the pain writers (and other creators) endure, but I’m so glad they are prepared to do it. I look forward to Volume 2, and beyond.

Challenge logoHelen Garner
Yellow notebook: Diaries, Volume 1, 1978-1987
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2019
ISBN: 9781922268143

(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)

Helen Garner in conversation with Sarah Krasnostein

Garner and Krasnostein on stage

Krasnostein (L) and Garner (R), & Auslan interpreter

To say I was thrilled when Son Gums’ partner offered to buy tickets for us to see Helen Garner in conversation (last Saturday) would be an understatement. I have never seen Garner live before so that would be one bucket-list item ticked had I a bucket list! The fact that the conversation was to be conducted by Sarah Krasnostein (author of The trauma cleaner) was the icing on the proverbial cake.

This conversation was, in fact, the opening event of the Wheeler Centre’s inaugural Broadside Festival, promoted as “two days of an unapologetically feminist agenda”.

The Festival was opened by the Governor of Victoria, Linda Dessau, who referenced Barack Obama’s recent statement that “tweeting and hashtagging isn’t activism”. Festival Director Tam Zimet then started proceedings, explaining that the Festival’s purpose was “to bring conversations that are too hard or too much to Melbourne Town Hall”. She quoted Zadie Smith who was also in Melbourne for at the Festival, and who described writing as “taking the temperature of the moment”. This, of course, beautifully describes Helen Garner’s writing.

The Conversation

The conversation centred around the recent release of Garner’s Yellow notebook: Diaries, Volume 1, 1978-1987, so the conversation began by discussing both diary writing and the process of preparing them for publication. Krasnostein, who asked rather long but always thoughtful questions, talked about the role and function of diaries, suggesting they exist for their own sake but are also works in themselves. Garner’s diaries, she said, contain harvested and preserved details from the world, but also show Garner’s “fearless self-scrutiny”, plus “the things one can think but not say”. Garner said that she has always loved notebooks and pens, and how as a child she loved the peace and solitude she got from writing her diaries.

Several times through the conversation, Garner described her diary-writing as being partly about practising writing. She writes everyday, agreeing that you can’t wait “for ideal conditions”. For her, it’s all about “mother discipline”, by which she meant using the time given to you. She also commented on how much work you do when you are asleep, and referred to lessons from Marion Milner’s book, An experiment in leisure which taught her to sit quietly, with a sense of “nothingness”, to let ideas sort themselves out. This is not the same as waiting for inspiration, though. Garner, being her plainspoken self, said that “inspiration is bullshit”. Instead, “you do things little by little”. Writing, said Krasnostein a little later, is not the hard part. It’s getting to the desk.

Later in the conversation, we returned to diary-writing as stacking up the practice hours. Garner said she knows “how to put a sentence together”. (If you love Garner, like I do, you love her sentences.) But, said Garner, writers also need to know grammar. Without it, you can’t criticise your own work. The lack of grammar teaching is a “terrible loss”. Writers also need to read a lot to see how other writers do it. She bemoaned the fact that some books look like no editor has been near them. You see their “life-force leaking out of every joint”.

Krasnostein quoted Joan Didion’s statement that “style is character”, which somehow led to Virginia Woolf’s statement that you tell the truth about yourself first before you can do so about others. Krasnostein wondered whether being clear-eyed about yourself – one of Garner’s strengths, for me – was training for how to write in public. Garner took this to suggest that being honest about yourself gave you permission to write about others, but she didn’t think that would “stand up in court”! Garner suggested that memoirs can sometimes play fast and loose with other people!

Around here, Krasnostein asked whether revisiting earlier diaries – for any of us I think – shows that we are unreliable narrators of ourselves! Garner essentially agreed, saying that “memory is a creative act”. Reading one’s own diary “can be bracing” because it shows how over time you change stories, often showing yourself in a better light. There’s no way out of this, Garner believes, you just do the best you can. “Everything is fleeting, fleeting, fleeting”, she said. Writers write down stuff because they are terrified of forgetting. (I know the feeling!) “Writers are afraid of losing things”. This returned us to an idea that recurred through the conversation, that of writers preserving. Krasnostein quoted Philip Larkin’s statement that “the urge to preserve is the basis of all art”.

Of course, the process of making private diaries public was also discussed. Garner said she cut a lot. Her challenge was to decide what others might find interesting. She established certain criteria, such as she would not rewrite, and would only change (or add) something if it would otherwise be meaningless. A diary, she said, “has no voice over, unlike a memoir”, meaning that you can’t say “I did that then, but no way would I do that now, because now I’m a nicer person”. Accepting herself as she was at the time of her writing brought her to understand that she wasn’t unique, which made her feel more “comradely” with others. “We all hurt and are hurt,” she said. Krasnostein offered the idea that “the more vulnerable you are, the more you connect” to which Garner replied that this is what she hopes!

Another point Garner made was that tone is important, that “tone is character”, to which she then gave a feminist twist by saying that women have felt they’ve had to tone themselves down. She writes short books, she said, because she feels she has only a limited amount of reader’s attention.

I loved Krasnostein’s summation of the diaries as offering a new expansive view of Garner, but retaining her familiar voice, her “forensic eye for detail”, and her “lean lyricism”. I can’t wait to read my copy.


There were several questions, but I’ll just share a couple:

  • on her daily writing practice: She rents an office, which stops her getting caught up housework! (In other words, she has “a room of her own”!) I particularly liked her point that she makes her notes about the details, say, of the court cases she attends, but, separately, she also documents her engagement with what she’s seen/heard, what she thought and felt. This material is “brightly alive … a treasure trove of information”. It doesn’t fit into the other boxes but it’s the richest when she comes to write. This is what I think is often missing from my reports of literary events. I need to do more of it.
  • on whether her views on Feminism had changed since the me-too movement: Not really seemed to be the answer. Garner, like many of us I believe, simply knows that when she discovered Feminism it changed her life: “It was like I’d been underwater and I finally put my head up and took a breath.” The me-too movement, like most movements, has been mixed, but “these things keep developing”.

Kate (booksaremyfavoaiteandbest) also wrote this up – including Garner’s comment about age freeing her to talk to random people on trams.

Helen Garner in conversation with Sarah Krasnostein
Broadside Festival 2019
Melbourne Town Hall
9 November 2019

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.

Helen Garner, The last days of chez nous, and Two friends (#BookReview)

Helen Garner, Last days of chez house & Two friendsHelen Garner must have loved prize-winning book designer WH Chong’s cheeky cypress-dominated cover for the Text Classics edition of her two screenplays, The last days of chez nous and Two friends. You’d only realise this, though, after reading her Preface, in which she explains that she had incorporated cypresses into her screenplay for their “freight of meaning”, but that, because an appropriate location could not be found, they were replaced by a spire! For the published screenplay, however, Garner says she’d taken “the liberty of removing the spire and putting the cypress trees back in.” Love it.

I enjoyed reading this book much more than I expected. I’ve seen and enjoyed both films – a long time ago, as they were made in 1992 and 1986, respectively – but reading screenplays didn’t seem very appealing. How wrong I was. I’m glad, therefore, that Text decided to republish this volume in its Text Classics series. As always, they’ve value-added by commissioning an expert to write a commentary, which, in this case, given there was already an author’s Preface from the original 1992 edition, they appended an Afterword. It’s by well-regarded Australian scriptwriter, Laura Jones (who, coincidentally, is the daughter of the late Australian writer, Jessica Anderson.)

Both the Preface and the Afterword are informative and engaging, but I’ll start by discussing the plays. They are presented in the book in reverse chronological order of their writing, which means The last days of chez nous comes first. Both stories chronicle relationship breakdowns. This is common fare for Garner, but here as in all her work I’ve read, it’s not boring. Her skill lies in the intelligent, clear-sighted way she explores these situations, and in her ability to inject both humour and warmth. She’s never maudlin, and she never judges.

So, in The last days of chez nous, the breakdown is the marriage of Beth and her French husband JP, while in Two friends it’s the friendship between two 14-year-old girls, Louise and Kelly. Both, as is Garner’s wont, draw from her life. She was married to a Frenchman, the marriage did break up, and her husband did fall in love with and eventually marry her sister, most of which happens in the play. In Two friendsBernadette Brennan reports, she drew on a friendship her daughter had had, but, when she saw the film, she realised that it was “really, in a funny sort of way, about me.” And the “me” character was not the sensible daughter, based on her own daughter, but the friend from the troubled background.

In her Preface, Garner tells how the impetus to write her first play, Two friends, was money. She needed it at the time, so when the idea was put to her:

I rushed home and rummaged in my folder of unexamined ideas. Out of it stepped Kelly and Louise, the young girls who became Two friends.

She continues that, although money had been the initial driver, she found, as she got down to it, the writing was “powered by the same drives as fiction” – curiosity, technical fascination, and “the same old need to shape life’s mess into a seizable story.”

This latter point is important, not only because it confirms her lifelong subject matter, “life’s mess” aka relationships, but because it answers those criticisms that she “just” presents her journals. She doesn’t, she “shapes” what she’s experienced (and seen) into “a seizable story”. She also shares in the Preface some of the things she learnt from film writing, including the challenge of working collaboratively which is something writers don’t usually have to do, the “priceless art of the apparently dumb question”, and that she was “forced to learn and relearn the stern law of structure.” She explains, using Last days of chez nous, how her “perfectly smooth narrative curve” was turned into “a little Himalaya of mini-climaxes”.

This is a good place, though, to talk about the structure of Two friends which chronicles the girls’ relationship breakdown in reverse. That is, we start at the point where it appears to have broken down and move back through the months to the peak of their togetherness. Experienced scriptwriter Laura Jones discusses this in her Afterword:

The story … is daringly told in the present tense, backwards, although each of the five parts is told in the present tense, forwards. We hold these two storytelling modes in our minds at once, the forwards momentum and the backwards knowledge […] Such deft playing with time–elegant, formal and musical–offers great storytelling pleasure, as we move from dark to light, from the painful separation of two adolescent girls to the rapturous closeness of ten months earlier.

She’s right, it’s clever because the end is bittersweet – we love the close friendship but we know what’s coming.

Now I want to share some of the experience of reading these plays. Here is an example from early in Two friends when Matthew, Louise’s wannabe boyfriend, tells her he’s seen Kelly:

LOUISE: What did she look like?
MATTHEW: All right.

He shrugs; like many boys he is not good at the kind of detail Louise is after.

These instructions to the actor about his character also enliven the reading. It’s the sort of sentiment you’d find in a Garner novel, though perhaps expressed a little more creatively.

And here’s some scene-setting in the next part, where Louise, Matthew and Kelly are together:

Kelly plays up to Matthew–almost as if she can’t help it. (Kelly will become one of those women who, when there’s a man in the room, unconsciously channel all their attention towards him.)

Similarly, in Last days of chez nous. Here is a scene where Beth has eaten some French cheese that JP has been storing carefully until it reaches maturation. He’s very upset, and eventually Beth senses the importance to him:

Beth is silent. They stand looking at each other. She has not quite succumbed, but for once he has her full attention–and this is so rare that he does not know what to do with it …

All this is probably what always happens in scripts, but Garner’s way of describing the situations and characters certainly made the screenplays more than just readable. They were engrossing.

Of course, I read Shakespeare’s (and other) plays at school – but that was school and, although I enjoyed them, I haven’t really gravitated to reading plays/scripts since. I won’t be quite so cautious in future.

Do you read them?

AWW Badge 2018Helen Garner
The last days of chez nous and Two friends
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2016
ISBN: 9781925355635

(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)

Bernadette Brennan, A writing life: Helen Garner and her work (#BookReview)

Bernadette Brennan, A writing life Helen Garner and her workEnough 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.

Helen Garner, The first stoneTake 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.

aww2017 badgeBernadette Brennan
A writing life: Helen Garner and her work
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2017
ISBN: 9781925498035

Helen Garner, Why she broke: The woman, her children and the lake (#Review)

Three years ago I reviewed Helen Garner’s This house of grief about Robert Farquharson who drove his car into a dam in Victoria, resulting in the deaths of his three sons. It’s a grim grim story, so you might wonder why I am now writing about her essay “Why she broke: The woman, her children and the lake” about Akon Guode who, in 2015, drove her car into a lake in Victoria resulting in the deaths of three of the four children inside.

There are two reasons, the main one being that this essay was, last week, awarded the Walkley Award (about which I’ve written before) for Feature Writing Long (over 4000 words). I hadn’t read the article when it was published in June this year, and probably wouldn’t have read it now, except for this award. What, I wondered, when I heard the news, made this essay, on a topic so seemingly similar to her recent book, worthy of the Walkley Award? The other reason is that although there are similarities – both parents drove their cars into water resulting in the deaths of children – there is a big difference. One parent was a father, and the other a mother. I wanted to know what, if anything, Garner would make of that in her analysis.

I’ll start two-thirds through the essay, where Garner quotes Guode’s defence counsel using a statement made to the Victorian Law Commission in 2004:

While men kill to control or punish their children or partner, women kill children because they cannot cope with the extreme difficulties that they encounter in trying to care for their children.

Given the current political climate – Harvey Weinstein, Don Bourke, et al – this statement must surely be read as part of that bigger picture concerning women’s powerlessness.

In the first part of the essay, Garner describes Guode’s life. She was a Sudanese refugee to Australia who had been married as a teenager but had then lost her husband in the civil war there. In that culture women cannot remarry, but remain a possession of their husband’s family. Guode’s third child was fathered by a brother-in-law. Eventually, after more trauma in Africa, she was sponsored to come to Australia by another of her late husband’s brothers, Manyang. Her life here became difficult in a different way, with her bearing four children to this already married man. At the time of the incident she had seven children.

Garner details the difficulties of Guode’s life, including the traumatic birth of her seventh child, and her struggle to care for her family while also sending money back to family in Africa. To her, this was an obligation, but at the committal hearing, Garner writes, a local community leader said that “It is not an obligation. I would call it a moral duty”! Not surprisingly Garner’s reaction to this is that “under the circumstances this seems like a very fine distinction”! This sort of word play – “obligation” versus “moral duty” – can make such a mockery of the law (or of its practitioners), can’t it?

There was of course discussion during the hearing of Guode’s mental state, with the judge suggesting that “something dramatic” must have triggered her action. The psychiatrist, however, argued that “it can just be the ebb and flow of human suffering, and the person reaching the threshold at which they can … no longer go on.”

But Garner also proposes a possible “trigger event” that went back 16 months to the last traumatic birth. Postnatal haemorrhaging was so bad she was close to needing a hysterectomy. Guode initially refused treatment. Garner writes that she was

prepared to risk bleeding to death on a hospital gurney rather than consent to the surgical removal of the sole symbol of her worth, the site of her only dignity and power: her womb?

Surely, a woman whose life had lost all meaning apart from her motherhood would kill her children only in a fit of madness.

Garner also discusses the technicalities of infanticide versus murder in Victorian law, and Guode’s counsel’s argument that all three deaths should be viewed through “the prism of infanticide”, which would result in a lesser sentence, even though only one of the children met the age criterion. Her eventual sentence makes clear that he didn’t win his argument.

What makes this essay so good, besides the analysis, is Garner’s writing. Here she is on a jury trial versus a plea hearing (which this was):

If a full-bore jury trial is a symphony, a plea hearing is a string quartet. Its purpose seems to be to clear a space in which the quality of mercy might at least be contemplated. There is something moving in its quiet thoughtfulness, the intensity of its focus, the murmuring voices of judge and counsel, the absence of melodrama or posturing. It’s the law in action, working to fit the dry, clean planes of reason to the jagged edges of human wildness and suffering.

That last sentence! Breathtaking. It reminds me once again what an excellent essayist Garner is, and it’s not just for her style. She has the ability to take us on a journey, leading us logically, and empathically, to consider values and ethics, without ever being didactic.

In this essay, it’s her concluding comments and final question regarding mercy which gets to the nub of it. It concerns the idea of “mother”, which she calls “this great thundering archetype with the power to stop the intellect in its tracks”. Read Garner’s essay, and/or this report in The Age, and see what you think. I don’t envy Justice Lasry’s job, but I know, based on what I’ve read, where my intellect goes.

aww2017 badgeHelen Garner
“Why she broke: The woman, her children and the lake”
The Monthly, June 2017
Available online