It’s hard to think of an Australian writer who puts the cat among the pigeons quite like Helen Garner. From Monkey Grip (1977) to The First Stone (1995), to The Spare Room (2008) and later works, her fiction and non-fiction titles have landed with a bang. They’ve been the kind of works that get people talking, arguing, and buying books. The First Stone, for example, pilloried by some for its approach to a sexual harassment case in 1992 at Ormond College in Victoria, sold 70,000 copies in its first few months, and more than 100,000 copies overall. Monkey Grip was also an overnight success.
In A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work Bernadette Brennan brings a calm eye and an easy grace to her descriptions of Garner’s life, literature and impact on Australia’s cultural and socio-political landscape. She outlines the controversies that have surrounded Garner without weighing in on them. She gives the biographical context for each of Garner’s major works and analyses their themes, style and social relevance. She draws a more complex picture of one of our best known and most skilled writers than we’ve enjoyed in a full-length volume before.
Brennan probes the notion that Garner the person and Garner the work continue to be conflated by readers and reviewers—and that Garner herself finds it difficult to know what’s come from where in her writing.
In a chapter called ‘The Art of the Dumb Question’, she quotes Garner: ‘You may stand apart from the “real”—but in fiction you soon forget which bits are ‘true’ and which bits you made up. You get so engaged with the technical problems of making a story work that the connection between its characters and what exists outside the book becomes less and less visible to you, and of less interest.’
Garner also says creating a novel is ‘like trying to make a patchwork quilt look seamless. A novel is made up of scraps of our own lives and bits of other people’s, and things we think in the middle of the night and whole notebooks of randomly collected details.’
Plundering her personal life for material
While Garner has been criticised for not knowing where to draw the line in exposing the private lives of her friends and family in her work, Brennan urges readers to recognise that ‘Garner is one writer among many—Updike, Knausgaard, Toibin, Didion, Kureishi, Tsiolkas—prepared to plunder her personal life for material.’
Perhaps it is Garner’s propensity for plundering that makes Brennan’s book seem more of a consolidation than a revelation. This is not a criticism. In fact, I enjoyed the book’s balanced approach and reflective tone. Its elegant sentences spooled smoothly to share facts and observations. The quotes featured from friends and critics, and from Garner and her stories, were deliciously piquant.
Brennan accessed Garner’s archive in the National Library of Australia, including her diaries and letters. At some point in the future, when the letters and diaries are finally published, readers will know more (and perhaps even some kiss-and-tell details).
I have (mostly) enjoyed Garner’s fiction and admired its distinctive style. This quote from Garner’s short story ‘Honour’ (from Honour & Other People’s Children), included in Brennan’s book, reminded me why: ‘With a force of will she kept the other woman’s hand, studied with a peculiar flux of love her sun-wrinkled eyes, the marks of her shrewd expressions. They could even smell each other: flower, oil, coffee, soap; and under these, warmed flesh, dotted tongue, glass of eye, glossy membrane, rope of hair, rail roughly clipped … Perhaps they would never dare again. They stepped out of each other, frightened.’
Brennan gives space to Garner’s admirers. These include:
- Don Anderson: ‘There are four perfect short novels in the English language. They are, in chronological order, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Helen Garner’s The Children’s Bach.’
- David Malouf: ‘If you want to ask what she stands for you have only to look at the writing itself—its cleanness, its strictness, the distinctions it makes, her unwillingness to create easy effects, the savagery with which she cuts away everything that is not absolutely essential.’
- Tim Winton: ‘Cosmo Cosmolino was like a big sunny shack with all the windows and doors open to the light and breeze … I love its raggedness, its waywardness, its openness.’
‘Fragility fed by self doubt’
Other quotes filled gaps for me in Garner’s personal and literary trajectory. For example, this neat paragraph summarises her earliest fiction with insight and economy:
‘In Monkey Grip Garner stressed how the new patterns of communal living offered, particularly for women, a sense of liberating possibility beyond marriage and childrearing. In Honour & Other People’s Children she explored how those hard-won freedoms were coupled with compromise and painful loss. In The Children’s Bach, she shifts her focus to a married couple, and the burdens and benefits of responsibility and commitment.’
Brennan also says, ‘Monkey Grip introduces a theme that runs throughout Garner’s life and work: how should one balance the desire for personal freedom with ethical responsibility.’
Brennan quotes the poet Fay Zwicky on the struggle for writers between ‘the need for privacy and the need for recognition’. And says, ‘The central ambivalence in Garner’s personality is the way that her powerful self belief is married to a fragility fed by self doubt.’ She also quotes Garner as saying that for a long time she, like Simone de Beauvoir before her, wrote ‘in order to be loved’.
Things I learned or remembered about Garner after reading Brennan’s book include:
- Her family name was Ford, and she was married three times.
- She has won a swathe of significant literary prizes but has sometimes felt inadequate about her lack of academic learning.
- After the turmoil of The First Stone she took comfort in being a member of the congregation at St John’s Anglican Church in Darlinghurst when Bill Lawton was the minister there.
- She is still troubled by the hurts she caused in the ‘open, experimental years’ through her ‘thoughtless and cruel egotism’.
- She turned to journalism to circumvent further trouble with friends and family over her fiction and also because she was not ‘confidently inventive’.
- She sought Manning Clark’s advice: When she complained to Clark that she was sick of her writing style, he said her style would only change when she did!
- She rates music as ‘probably the greatest pleasure and interest of [her] life, apart from books and people’.
Here are a few other thoughts I had about Garner’s work while reading Brennan’s book (or soon after):
- Garner writes of regret and contrition, which are not popular words these days. She also asks questions about the dimensions of forgiveness: Why we need it, when it’s useful, and when it’s unfitting.
- Did she really write in The First Stone: ‘He touched her breast and she went to the cops? My God—why didn’t she get her mother or her friends to help her sort him out later, if she couldn’t deal with it herself at the time?’ Really?
- David Gaunt, Co-owner of Gleebooks, says that ‘Brennan’s depiction of Garner’s fearless approach to the very difficult subjects of The First Stone, Joe Cinque’s Consolation and This House of Grief is beautifully modulated and a real triumph.’ I’m glad I read The First Stone, and Brennan’s ‘beautifully modulated’ depiction re Joe Cinque’s Consolation and This House of Grief, but I’m still not tempted to read the books themselves. However, I am racing through Garner’s latest book of essays Everywhere I Look buoyed by her punchy prose, sharp eye and astute descriptions.
Brennan’s comprehensive overview of Garner’s life and work should lure new readers to explore her impressive oeuvre. It might even convince people who boycotted her work after The First Stone to give it another try. Ultimately, it pays great respect to a writer who has given a significant gift to Australian life and literature over the last four decades—and I doubt Garner’s finished stirring the pot yet.