For some time now my research has afforded me the privilege and pleasure of being immersed in Helen Garner’s prose. Rarely a day goes by when I don’t pause over a particularly arresting image, sentence or paragraph. It is, therefore, a cause for celebration that Black Inc. has reproduced an early Garner essay, Regions of Thick-Ribbed Ice, as part of their new Short Blacks series. Hopefully, readers will pick up this small imprint and, if only for a short while, enjoy accompanying Garner on her voyage to Antarctica.
Publisher Morry Schwartz conceived the idea for the Short Blacks series; Julian Welch, managing editor at Black Inc., came up with the name. The individual, beautifully packaged volumes celebrate the strength and vibrancy of the Australian essay, now and over the past decade. This first round of offerings presents previously published work from an impressive and diverse range of writers: Richard Flanagan, Karen Hitchcock, Noel Pearson, John Birmingham, Anna Krien, David Malouf, Simon Leys, Robert Manne, Les Murray, Galarrwuy Yunupingu, Robyn Davidson and Helen Garner. Chris Feik, in consultation with colleagues at Black Inc., was responsible for the choice of writers and essays. The media alert about the series draws attention to the ‘fearlessness’, ‘intelligence’ and quality of voice that inform each work. It affirms that these very different pieces of writing share ‘the electricity of personal engagement’ and ‘the ability to make language dance and bear up to experience of every kind.’ These qualities are in abundance in Garner’s essay.
Back in 1996 Kerryn Goldsworthy argued correctly that Garner’s work, perhaps more than most writers, needed to be read in context
because of the close and immediate engagement in all her work with the circumstances of her own life, with the time and place in which the writing was produced, and with the representation of that time and place as manifested in the details of material culture and social practice.
Of course, as the Short Blacks volume demonstrates, Garner’s individual essays can be read productively in isolation. But to appreciate more fully the ways in which Garner makes ‘language dance’ to articulate the complexity of her Antarctic experience, Regions of Thick-Ribbed Ice benefits from being read as part of a larger narrative.
The essay first appeared in The Feel of Steel (2001), arguably the closest thing to a memoir that Garner is ever likely to publish. Garner says the she constructed the book as a collection of short, disconnected pieces of journalism and, as I have suggested, each discrete entry is, to an extent, self-contained. Throughout her oeuvre, however, Garner has always searched for the right form for her material. At the time of writing this piece she needed a form that kept emotions in check while charting her journey from deep humiliation and sadness through to a growing sense of strength, purpose and hope. Hence a collection of tightly structured, carefully crafted and precisely arranged stories. The Feel of Steel opens in the final years of Garner’s marriage to Murray Bail, then tracks through the devastating aftermath of its collapse and out the other side of depression and personal despair. In the course of the book, Garner relocates from Sydney to Melbourne, via Antarctica, and is returned to the bosom of family life where she bears witness to her mother’s crippling dementia and experiences the wondrous joy of becoming a ‘Nanna’. ‘Regions of Thick-Ribbed Ice’ is the third story in the book, sitting between ‘The Goddess of Weeping’ and ‘Woman in a Green Mantle.’
In ‘The Goddess of Weeping’, Garner heads to Tina’s flat to play Scrabble. She takes a bottle of champagne ‘to drown whatever private troubles each of us might have had.’ Before long the newly-arrived neighbour is heard to be sobbing majestically: ‘On and on went the invisible woman, letting out her dropping runs of lamentation, rhythmic and regular as musical scales.’ This kind of surrender to sadness is applauded:
She was not a woman in need of help. She was a woman in luxury. Shameless, unabashed. Facing sorrow and paying it full, slow, thorough attention. It was leisurely. It was impressive. It radiated the authority of a religious ritual whose origins are lost in time.
The two women begin to drink champagne and giggle, removalists and Tina’s cute new lodger arrive, and the story concludes with a seemingly generic observation about becoming hardened to the everyday violence of inner city living:
If I lived round here long enough, I would cease to be surprised. I would have to acknowledge something that I already knew in my heart was true: the fact that people, even the ones you trust, the ones you are closest to, are capable of anything. Anything at all.
Private troubles, weeping behind closed doors, betrayal: the underlying narrative is barely concealed.
Regions of Thick-Ribbed Ice opens with the suggestion that ‘tourist ships to Antarctica, even more than ordinary human conveyances, are loaded down with aching hearts.’ ‘Deceived wives’, ‘widowers’, and a raft of lonely, sad and sometimes ill characters, are said to travel to Antarctica in search of ‘solace’. ‘And then there are the married couples’, writes Garner, setting them apart from this motley wounded group, only to wonder at such a relationship: ‘but isn’t a couple the greatest mystery of all?’
Garner is aboard the Professor Molchanov, a ship out of Murmansk in the former Soviet Union. The crew is Russian. This voyage is not Garner’s first experience of sailing with Russians. In ‘Cruising’ published in 1995 and reprinted in True Stories (1996), she describes a three-day trip aboard the Mikhail Sholokov, up the east coast of Australia. The tone is vastly different. ‘Cruising’ is a humorous story that narrates, with barely suppressed laughter, a kind of awful comedy. A cast of disparate characters share their stories, flirt and disappoint each other, all the while being subjected to appalling food and unfriendly service. A much happier Garner seems to relish the experience. She forms a bond with Lorraine, Bev and Gwen. When the ship re-enters Sydney heads she hangs over the rail, ‘amateurishly angling [her] camera’ to record the drama of the pilot boat coming to lead them in.
The Professor Molchanov is not a cruise ship. This time Garner is on a voyage rather than a trip. There is something deeper, more pressing, at stake here. This ship comes from a place where ‘scores of ships lie at anchor, unused, unwanted, rusting – the detritus of empire.’ Within an hour of embarkation Garner’s fingers ‘have shrunk so thin that [her] wedding ring keeps slipping off.’ She is ‘too sad to be sociable with strangers.’ We are not treated to the passenger descriptions offered in the earlier cruising essay. But Garner is never one to wallow overtly in self-pity. ‘Stop whingeing’, she writes, and immediately wins her reader over. Painful emotions are expressed in this story but through perspective, metaphors and verbs.
When the ice arrives Garner admits to being simultaneously ‘seized by an urge to compare it with something’, and ‘irritated by this urge.’ The other passengers, free of her self-censorship, launch into comparisons. Similes abound. Garner is furious. She snobbishly offers a poetic description:
It gleams with a pearly purity. It’s faceted: creamy on the left, whiter on the right. It looks stable, like an island rather than something floating. Water riffles around its foot.
She wants desperately to see the iceberg ‘only in abstract terms’, but she too is driven to simile and metaphor. They flow thick and fast. Language, it appears, is not up to the task of capturing such mighty nature. It is important to appreciate that in the earlier story Garner insisted that her ‘only ambition in Scrabble is elegance of vocabulary.’
Garner wishes she did not have to write about what she is experiencing, yet she must, not only for financial reasons, but because writing is the way she makes sense of the world. She introduces ‘Woman in a Green Mantle’ with a series of rhetorical questions:
What if somebody’s heart has been broken one time too many? What if this person has become stupid with sadness? …If the part of her mind that used to grasp structure and form has suddenly lost its grip?
She cannot process, let alone remember, what she has read. Literature has lost its allure. She is a writer who now hates writing: ‘Writing is a sickness, a neurosis, a mania.’ She questions the worth of the diaries she has filled. Words, she laments, come between the self and lived experience. Words make it impossible to appreciate truly the beauty of nature and art.
So here she is in the middle of massive luminescent icebergs, somewhat thwarted. If words are so inadequate, how about photography? In her classic way, Garner turns the blowtorch on herself. No, she did not bring her Pentax because she is a ‘party-pooper.’ At the pre-voyage briefing people spoke ‘so fanatically’ of bringing multiple cameras that she ‘determined on the spot that I would go to the icy continent in a state of heroic lenslessness; that I would equip myself with only a notebook and a pen.’ Garner is laughing wryly at herself. In the cold, her gloved hands are ‘huge bulging paws.’ She shows off her linguistic prowess –
Penguins: ridiculous, helpless-looking creatures, always in a flap. A penguin looks like a person trying to walk in an inverted sack; it has to strain its feet apart to keep the neck of the bag open round its ankles. The clifftops are crenellated: you expect to see the feathered heads of Indian warriors peep over them, it’s like Arizona
– only to retort: ‘Oh, shut up, smart-arse.’
Rarely does Garner write something bereft of humour. On her first trip ashore, the grumpy non-photographer announces ‘Urk’, she doesn’t want to see the penguins, she is revolted by birds. When next ashore the ‘[c]amera mania flourishes… obliterating all social contact.’ She mooches about on her own, ‘crabby and left out’, but a lone penguin has other ideas. It ‘stumps’ along beside her on ‘damp pink feet.’ They cast ‘ill-tempered’ glances at each other. Garner writes: ‘It’s a companionship of sorts, I suppose. I’m just starting to appreciate the pearly sheen of its dress shirt when it loses interest and staggers away.’ We are meant to be laughing at her foul humour. Off she trudges, stumps, slogs and stabs forward on her solitary way. She tells herself: ‘Breathe it, Misery Guts, and let that be enough.’
Nearly two decades ago Moya Costello wrote a wonderful essay for Imago titled, ‘Head Girls and Helen Garner’s Women’. She was referring to Garner’s fictional ‘me’ characters, but just as those characters are constructed, so too the ‘I’ in Garner’s journalism is, as Janet Malcolm has argued for her own work, ‘almost pure invention’. The narrator of Regions of Thick-Ribbed Ice, shares some of the qualities Costello ascribes to Garner’s women:
Privately, they tell themselves to stop sulking. Publicly, they use the savagery as an affront. They back themselves into corners…Long ago they had coated themselves for protection with cynicism and anger. They leave themselves no room to retreat or recover, no possibility of saving their position with grace…They go about the world disgruntled, scornful of many things, in a state of anxious sadness.
In Antarctica, Garner harbours a deep anxiety. ‘Forgive me’, she states, ‘I’m not here for the wildlife.’ She has come on this journey in search of blankness, or at the very least a blank canvas on which to project her moods and emotions. She wants to gaze at ice. As she searches for some language for the ‘miraculous frozen forms’, she suggests poetry, maybe Hopkins, yet slips in disingenuously: ‘Doesn’t someone in Shakespeare wake from a dream about regions of thick-ribbed ice?’ Of course it is Claudio, in Measure for Measure, who when begging his sister to sacrifice her virtue in order to spare his life, likens death to rotting in ‘cold obstruction’ or ‘to reside/In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice.’ The individual is so thoroughly dwarfed by the Antarctic landscape that anxieties about death, guilt and insignificance cannot be repressed. The ‘awe’ of this landscape ‘without human meaning’, inspires ‘panic, or even, deep down, rage’ in Garner. Photography cannot save, itself being a form of momento mori. In Susan Sontag’s particularly apt words: ‘Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.’
Time is disrupted in Antarctica, not only because of the short nights and ‘foreign’ light but also because the vast ‘crumpled mystery of ice’ seems oblivious to its passing. The relationship between Antarctic time and writing seems to set up a paradox. As she continues to struggle for some effective description of the icebergs, Garner alludes to Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’: ‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.’ Perhaps despite all the bluster, she is affirming that majestic forms – even if they be created hubristically – may crumble, but words and storytelling survive the ruins of time.
It is interesting to read Garner’s essay in conversation with Jenny Diski’s memoir, Skating to Antarctica (1997). Diski travels to Antarctica seeking ‘oblivion’. She wants to write ‘white and shades of white’. Like Garner, Diski is thrilled by the spartan nature of her cabin. Where Garner falls in love with her narrow bunk because it is like the single bed of childhood, Diski is reminded of the clinical whiteness of her psychiatric hospital room. Diski interweaves the story of her journey to Antarctica with the story of her traumatic family history. The memoir length affords her more latitude than Garner finds in a single essay to narrate more obviously the inner and outer journeys she is undertaking. Where Garner trusts her reader to appreciate her metaphors, Diski has the luxury of writing: ‘Nine-tenths of each berg is indeed below the waterline, and melts faster than the bit you can see, so that eventually they become top-heavy and turn turtle in the sea.’
Of particular interest is Diski’s decision to jettison her Pentax, only to suffer a failure of nerve and buy a cheap camera at the airport. Like Garner, Diski is appalled by the way photography intrudes on the lived experience of Antarctica. Where Garner writes of ‘ravening lenses’, Diski likens photography to ‘a modern, miniature form of colonization’ which ‘deprives others of the right of access.’ Both writers are aware that travel writing, in keeping with convention, is supposed to describe sights and experiences for an audience back home. And they do provide those, but as women they do something more. Writing in the decade of the 1990s, when Antarctica became popular as the new frontier destination, both Diski and Garner construct a new narrative of interior exploration. No longer is Antarctica solely the domain of heroic masculine endeavour. Diski acknowledges Scott and Shackleton’s achievements, but for her, Antarctica remains a ‘place that is and always has been unseen’, a landscape of ‘endurance and indifference’. The perfect landscape for a depressed, female, ‘middle-aged Jewish Londoner.’ When Greg, Garner’s team leader, who has climbed Everest ‘mocks his own tendency to macho posturing’, Garner is jubilant.
Garner never resolves her anxiety about the need to record experience. She does admit to a terror of forgetting, a repeated theme in her writing and, in the context of The Feel of Steel, a fear related to her mother’s deteriorating condition. Greg suggests that the voyagers take their experiences home, plant them somewhere and see what grows. By the time Garner writes her story, she can appreciate that for all her supposed misery and rage, she was not so alone on her voyage after all. In a rare nod to sentimentality she writes of returning to the dock and joining with her fellow shipmates to bid an emotional farewell to that chapter of their lives.
Regions of Thick-Ribbed Ice will appeal to Garner’s established readership and to readers who know nothing of her work. It is interesting as a travel narrative. It is funny, and it is sad. Antarctica looms as a character and a canvas. This new Short Blacks series is a bold and innovative move for Black Inc. Hopefully, these small imprints with their large font and accessible price will do for the Australian essay what Text Publishing has been trying to do with their Classics series of Australian fiction: rejuvenate interest in, and a hunger for, diverse Australian voices.
Costello, Moya. ‘Head Girls and Helen Garner’s Women.’ Imago 9.3 (Summer 1997):3-12.
Diski, Jenny. Skating to Antarctica. London: Granta Books, 1977.
Garner, Helen. True Stories. Melbourne: Text Publishing, 1996.
–The Feel of Steel. Sydney: Picador, 2001.
Goldsworthy, Kerryn. Helen Garner. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977.