Inside Story

A hard nut in the centre

Books | A writer’s complex life emerges in Helen Garner’s diaries

Susan Lever 18 December 2020 1517 words

“I wrote the guy a letter. Hope I won’t regret it”: writer Helen Garner. Darren James

Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume 1: 1978–1987
By Helen Garner | Text | $29.99 | 272 pages
One Day I’ll Remember This: Diaries 1987–1995
By Helen Garner | Text | $29.99 | 320 pages

There are people who would happily read Helen Garner’s laundry lists, as the saying goes — and others who, since the publication of The First Stone in 1995, recoil at the mere mention of her name. No other Australian writer produces such extreme and passionate responses, particularly among women.

Garner began as a novelist of small observations, a recorder of how women try to live out feminist principles in love relationships and domestic life. As she says several times in her diaries, she will never win the Miles Franklin award, yet she has become a major literary figure of her generation. She works close to life, crafting her own responses to the world around her. At this stage of her career, it appears logical for her to throw off all pretence and offer readers her notebooks as well.

There is pretence of a kind at work here, too, of course. This material from manuscript notebooks has been selected carefully to provide us with entertaining and revealing glimpses of the writer’s life.

Yellow Notebook records Garner’s self-doubt and struggle to establish herself as a fiction writer while trying to maintain family life in Melbourne. It is full of the kind of observations that appear in her stories, alongside a growing understanding of the nature of her own art. Amid frequent reflections on her own failings are sharp insights into her approach to art. As far back as 1981 she wrote that “meaning is in the smallest event. It doesn’t have to be put there: only revealed.”

Admirers of The Children’s Bach and Postcards from Surfers will enjoy Yellow Notebook’s account of the creation of those stories and notice the many elements of Garner’s life that would contribute to the screenplay for The Last Days of Chez Nous. The French husband, the father, the daughter and the student boarder, even some of the most memorable dialogue, are on display as Garner’s second marriage falls apart and she leaves the rented house to her daughter and her friends.

For those anxious to know, Garner answers a question she is frequently asked — “Where do you get your ideas for fiction?” — as generously as possible. We see her developing a clear-eyed understanding of her own strengths and limitations as an artist. On the one hand, there is the constant pressure to “make things up”; on the other, the joy when the stories come “pouring out.”

One Day I’ll Remember This reveals a more confident writer, defiant in the face of the condescension that both critics and casual acquaintances frequently offer her. She retains her optimistic commitment to sexual love and begins a new relationship with V, a married novelist from Sydney deeply interested in the visual arts. Despite all her misgivings, this develops into her third marriage to Murray Bail (an identification obvious to any curious reader). The joys and struggles of their relationship give this book a narrative arc that makes it read like a novel.

Together, the two writers struggle to work and maintain their individual confidence in what they do. Garner’s sociability and domestic instincts conflict with V’s need for solitude and resistance to the routine demands of housework. V, a creature of Sydney and its art world, takes Garner to meet famous artists and their put-upon wives. She realises that she belongs in Melbourne, in her own house with a garden, mixing with her wide circle of friends. While Sydney supports the visual art elite that V admires, Melbourne offers a more open and communal music scene where even amateurs like Garner can dance and play instruments. V obligingly moves to Melbourne, but their different perspectives continue to drive the marriage towards its inevitable end.

This relationship produces some significant arguments about art as the two writers engage in an almost parodic acting out of the traditional positions of men and women artists. As the Australian literary world, influenced by poststructuralist theory, moves against realism in the 1980s, Garner acknowledges that her own talent is low on the hierarchy: “I need to devise a form 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.”

Bail’s interest in mythic and modernist form fits a more respected artistic mode, and he would go on to win the Miles Franklin in 1999 for Eucalyptus, a novel he began while living with Garner. In their various homes, the argument about artistic hierarchy is symbolised by ongoing disagreements about the placing of V’s cherished painting by the New Zealand modernist, Colin McCahon. In one hilarious scene, Garner cleans the bathroom while V stands at the door advising her to stop writing about that “bullshit” period, the 1970s, and she responds that the portrayal of relations between men and women in his work feels like the 1950s rather than the “no place” and “no time” he believes it to be.

This pattern of self-criticism and mutual criticism, with casual, gratuitous criticism from friends and acquaintances, makes published literary criticism seem superfluous. With friends like these, who needs reviewers?

The publication of Cosmo Cosmolino causes an estrangement from her old friends in Sydney, O and R. It is not the fact that real people can be identified in the story, “The Recording Angel,” that causes the breach but its analysis of Garner’s relationship with O. No one seems to regard the story as fiction. In her defence, Garner insists that it is a loving picture of the complexity of a long friendship, though she also sees that it is “brutal.” She is distressed to have caused her friends pain but finds “a hard nut of something in the centre of my heart,” a kind of ruthless honesty. Eventually, they forgive her.

Garner’s declining interest in fiction may have hastened her movement towards journalism and the subjective non-fiction that has become her forte. The diary reveals the background to many of the essays that were collected in True Stories (1996), including her Walkley award-winning “Killing Daniel.” We learn that Garner’s first experience of a murder trial was to support a friend whose daughter was a victim. She finds the trial of Daniel’s killer harrowing, as indeed is the essay she wrote about it. In keeping with her interest in domestic relations, Garner chooses to write about how the courts handle the intimate crimes of sexual and domestic abuse that are increasingly the concern of public feminism. It is salutary that she rejected the possibility of writing about Ivan Milat’s random murders of strangers.

Garner’s “hard nut” arms her against the critics of The First Stone, soon to lead to her alienation from a generation of feminists. She includes a fateful note about her initial response to the charges against the master of Ormond College: “I wrote the guy a letter. Hope I won’t regret it.” The various legal injunctions before publication draw out what V calls her street-fighting quality, making her more determined to see the book through.

When the storm breaks, Garner receives a mass of letters, many from young women declaring she has betrayed feminism and they will never read her work. She is reviled in cafes and praised in supermarkets. Is any other Australian writer so recognisable? In the course of these diaries, the woman in the post office and the man at the bank declare themselves as her readers, and on one occasion she gets her hot water connected early because the supervisor has read all her books. When The Last Days of Chez Nous appears, she is grateful for the anonymity of the screenwriter.

These diaries reveal the social nature of literary life in Australia, especially in the heyday of publishing in the 1980s and 1990s. In a small community, writers can’t help but meet each other and their critics. Patrick White, Elizabeth Jolley, Thea Astley and Tim Winton (thinly disguised as J) all make appearances. Garner also takes some cheeky swipes at the big names — Saul Bellow is a windbag; Australia’s mighty poet attacks her in his column then insists on walking home with her from a festival reading. Some characters are designated simply as the great reader or the biographer.

Life is so much more complex than any written form can possibly encompass. These cleverly selected fragments gesture towards the many things that happen contemporaneously in every life — family irritations, spiritualism, operations and dental work, motels on the Hume Highway, Sydney’s mighty thunderstorms, the ownership of country cabins and dogs. They can be read as an autofiction of domestic life, as the background to admired books and films, as an account of the life of art at a certain period in Australia, or as an apologia for Garner’s work and a demonstration of it in action. Garner declares that she can only do what she does, asserting the value of her own subjectivity. She insists that one can be an artist and still love ironing. •