A Writing Life
by Bernadette Brennan
Published April, 2017
With only brief respite since the Howard years in government, I haven’t recognised ‘Australia’ as my home in its unbecoming through the ideologies of neoliberalism characterised by the privileging of profit over justice, equality and the health of the biosphere. But a former student of mine, in a class development of the introduction to a student anthology with the theme of home, said: ‘Reading a book is like coming home’. This formed the final, febrile sentence of the introduction to that anthology. To read Bernadette Brennan’s A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work is to have the most-welcome, viscerally renewed sensation of recognising the country I live in as the making of me. Reading Brennan’s book is like coming home.
Brennan has chosen her title – A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work – with care. Barbara Brooks and Judith Clark entitled their biography of Eleanor Dark, Eleanor Dark: A Writer’s Life. The difference here is that Brennan’s book is not a full-on biography. It is a ‘literary portrait’, ‘neither a conventional biography nor a strict monograph’. The work of Garner’s writing, its processes and strategies, shares space with but takes precedence over her being or living. For example, alongside a nuanced discussion of the personal nature of Garner’s writing, there is also a laying-bare of that writing’s generative thinking, research and production time.
I also had the sensation of ‘growing up’ as a result of reading Brennan’s book. This statement expects no flabbergasted reaction. Many of us know that books have tracked our lives – and with Garner, it is from inner-city, communal living in Monkey Grip, to families in The Children’s Bach, to the enigma of the spiritual in Cosmo Cosmolino, to death in The Spare Room. Garner wrote a final note to Brennan before A Writing Life’s publication, about her own Bible reading group: ‘our immersion in a (mighty) text brings everyone to his (or her) best self’. Brennan places this as the final text in her book: in doing so, does she allude generously to the result of her immersion in Garner’s texts? To the potential for other readers’ immersion in Garner’s texts? Or to the result of my/other readers’ immersion in Brennan’s text?
I have come to frame my relationship to specific Australian writers as fandom. (I have a tendency for hero/ine worship: I blame my Catholic upbringing, with its panoply of gods, saints and blesseds.) There is a set of Australian authors, which includes Garner, whose books I buy on their release. What with book-signings, festivals, interviews, profiles and portraits, writers have joined the culture, or cult, of celebrity. But experiencing the mixed, media-dense response to The First Stone, Garner wrote that ‘there’s no simple link between the words “Helen Garner” and the person I feel myself to be’. And it is strange to see your name on things; you don’t fully recognise the person stepping out from behind the grouping of symbols. ‘Who bears that mantle?’ you might think. ‘What’s that woman like?’ you might ask yourself.
In the final chapter of A Writing Life, Brennan cites a lecture by Fay Zwicky who said that the ‘ambivalent’ personality of a writer is ‘awkward’ for themselves and ‘difficult for the reader to understand’. Of Garner as a person, Brennan points to Garner’s various self-admissions of ‘youthful narcissism’, of self-flagellation; of being an ‘obstreperous, destructive brat but obedient older sister’; of loneliness, dislocation, puritanical savageness, and defensive primness; and later, of being sturdy though battle-scarred.
Fandom is a conscious choice of words on my part. It is a choice that is ludic, irreverent and essentially benign (I’m not photographing or stalking the subjects-of-my-fandom, nor rummaging through their garbage). Fandom is a term freely used by writers of other writers. For example, Raymond Carver wrote to Peter Craven (probably when Craven was an editor of Scripsi) saying he was ‘a fan of [Garner’s] work’.
While I write about my fave Australian authors for my job, it is the narrative theory that I have to teach that highlights for me the odd concept of the author in its real and implied or ideal versions – the latter pretty much fictional. And how fuzzy and confused readers can get about ‘the author’, through their fandom. Brennan has made me see – and part of her work in writing this study is the disentanglement of the real and unknowable Garner from Garner as author. Garner’s self in her work is ‘constructed’, of course, but I have to be reminded. Readers contribute to the complex construction of an inevitably fictional subjectivity of the author, secretly, enthusiastically denying to themselves its doubtful facticity. Yet ironically, readers can be displeased with strategies that make overt the fictiveness of fiction – ‘Helen’ has appeared named in Garner’s fiction at least twice – because they are comforted by immersion and escape, which foregrounding of process shatters.
The navigation of foregrounded process can be convoluted. Brennan chides the reviewers who questioned the status of The Spare Room as a novel, or fiction. I am at fault here because I wrote of that book that it ‘may have been more “convincing” as a long essay’, by which I meant (creative) nonfiction. Yet what I want from Garner is more fiction: I miss her fiction.
The gap in Garner’s fiction writing has at least twice been considered as being a result of her marriage to Bail. In an interview with Susan Wyndham, Garner said so herself: ‘It took me a long time to have the guts to acknowledge … why I stopped writing fiction …. it’s very hard for two writers to keep on working side by side without rivalry, so I backed off and left the turf to him’. Brennan reports that before the above, Garner wondered why she was ‘no longer writing fiction’ and decided she was ‘paralysed by fear and self-consciousness’. But Garner had also told journalist Margaret Simons that she had ‘no desire to write novels – that reportage had her enthralled’. But by the time she was writing This House of Grief, Garner tells Brennan that she felt she was ‘tied to the leg-rope of nonfiction’, wondering how to break free. As I write this essay, we have yet to read this ‘breaking-free’, for her most recent book is the set of collected nonfiction, Everywhere I Look. Brennan says of this book that ‘it can be read as one possible biography of the writing persona that is Helen Garner’.
Garner’s work is intensely personal. There can be a slither of surprise, concern for the lack of caution, a sense of alarm, of aghast-ness at her openness, her exposure of herself and others. I see a cartoon-figure, pen in hand, staring out at me, with a too-knowing smile above the caption: ‘Remember many years ago when you trusted me with your innermost secrets? Big mistake!’ On reading Garner, I often think that I would never accept an interview request from her (not that I’d receive one to refuse it). Several participants in the events chronicled in The First Stone, Joe Cinque’s Consolation and This House of Grief – Garner’s‘three big tormentous non-fiction works’ – refused such requests.
Garner ‘has said repeatedly over the years that she does not have a strong sense of the boundaries between public and private’. But then one of the foremost teachings of feminism was that the personal is political. In an article in Meanjin, Garner’s response to the claim of self-obsession was robust: ‘As if there were no work involved in keeping a diary …’. She went on to enumerate what goes into writing such a document, including intelligently and artfully ‘ordering material’, capturing ‘the music of human speech’ and using language imaginatively.
Brennan makes clear that Garner has long been working across two axes: on the one she is not ‘confidently inventive’ and on the other she is at full throttle trying to understand everything around her. Of the former, I keep in mind Garner’s comment to journalist Kate Legge: ‘Nothing sets her teeth on edge so much as the “revving and grinding of someone’s imagination as they’re trying to make things up”’. Claims that Garner doesn’t ‘write about anything other than herself …. have marked Garner’s critical reception for nearly forty years’. Much of Brennan’s work in A Writing Life is responsibly steering a clear passage through this primal controversy-making aspect of Garner’s writing.
Brennan’s book is the second dedicated study of Garner’s work, the first being Kerryn Goldsworthy’s inestimable 1996 monograph from Oxford University Press, simply titled Helen Garner. Brennan has also written on Brian Castro for Cambria’s Australian Literature Series. In that book, she cites James Ley’s enduring essay, ‘The Tyranny of the Literal’, about hybridity. Hybrid works, Ley says, ‘explore the limits of expression and thus the boundaries of the self’. In her ‘Introduction’, Brennan points to the genre-bending nature of A Writing Life, a study that ‘crosses established critical boundaries’. This is more than appropriate; one should write a book on Garner that is genre-boundary crossing, for it is one of the many intriguing things that Brennan notes about Garner’s oeuvre (and her life).
I say intriguing, because, in an idiotically intractable way, I usually put Garner into the category of (traditional) realist, despite such books as Cosmo Cosmolino, with its three-part structure and its episodes of magic realism. This is despite direction to the contrary from both Goldsworthy and Brennan. Goldsworthy wrote that ‘Garner is a more experimental writer than many critics, focusing on her comparative realism, have noticed or allowed’. Brennan observes that Garner experiments with ‘form, genre, voice and style’. Perhaps I didn’t have the sense of Monkey Grip, for example, as being differentially experimental with its ‘bold and new’ narrative structure, because I was already reading feminist experimental writers such as Pam Brown, joanne burns and Anna Couani. These women were equally, if not more so in a rhizomic way, foundational and influential in the development of varying types experimental practice in Australian literature.
In another study for the Cambria series on Australian authors, Michael Ackland wrote The Experimental Fiction of Murray Bail. I cannot seem to escape a mild synaptic shock from the term in the title of this book. Bail is a high modernist (a ‘severe modernist’ is Garner’s description). Certainly, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein and James Joyce were all modernists and experimental. Yet when I think about the experimental in contemporary practice, I think of the more recent, the more ‘wacky’ as many of my students would think, lipogrammists, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E-ists and conceptualists (dated already as all of these movements might be). And I think of Marion May Campbell as an exemplary experimentalist in Australia, a very different writer to either Garner or Bail, much more radical in her experimentation, and a grander risk-taker. I associate Garner and Bail more or less with realism, but perhaps, now, with realism in its radical (or ‘new’, ‘Australian’) form, as, both Garner and Bail, and even Tim Winton, have done hyperrealism or magic realism, at the very least, or Australia’s version of these. And Bail has worked to Patrick White’s rubric of the absolute avoidance of ‘dun-coloured’ journalistic realism. But the explanation for this static-reverb mash-up of the experimental is that it is situated on a lengthy, rippling wave.
Biography has been undergoing a revolution of its own for some years, as have many other disciplines, such as history, and genres, such as criticism and the literary essay. While Brennan’s literary portrait emphasises analyses of Garner’s work, it also shares, generously, many enlightening details of Garner’s life. Garner, a feminist, gave up her family name on marriage; this was to remake herself outside of the antagonistic actions of her belligerent father: ‘I feel that Ford is my child name …. Garner is my grown-up name’.
Then there’s the moment when she said to Phillip Adams that ‘it is painful to be more educated than one’s parents’. I feel differently about this issue. My parents were white-collar-working-class: my mother fierce and my father an autodidactic cultural and political larrikin-intellectual who could have been a tertiary student if such education was free. Garner’s were ‘middle-class, respectable’ and her mother ‘timid and depressive’. But we were also, like Garner’s, a ‘pick-up-your-lip-before-you-trip-over-it’, a pull-your-socks-up family who foreswore tears, commiserations and other forms of open vulnerability and tenderness. (One unforgettable moment in my life: as a high-school teacher, I attended a morning assembly of the primary school on the same campus. The principal said the children needed to ‘pull their socks up’, at which command they all literally did. Yes, I was high-school teacher like Garner, but I left voluntarily, only serving two to her seven years before she was formally dismissed.) The explanation for Garner’s father’s intemperateness is his devastation, at the age of two, at the loss of his mother – so devastated, he had ‘severe convulsions’ that required hospitalisation. In Brennan’s final chapter, as she discusses Everywhere I Look and commences her summation and surmising, she reveals Garner’s regret about her attitude to her parents, now having ‘discovered the benefits and satisfactions of suburbia’, and thinking of them as modest but public-spirited, these latter qualities now sadly in short supply everywhere I look.
The rule of law, along with sex and power, is a subject of Garner’s consistent explorations. Garner has, Brennan observes, ‘complex responses to institutional power’. (I am sure – perhaps in a bitter-and-twisted way – that those who have simple responses are those who ‘get on’ in institutions. Anyone who worries about institutions is doomed.) Writing about Joe Cinque’s Consolation, Brennan notes that Garner’s strategies or processes for understanding institutional operations include ‘her gut reactions’, coupled with research. Garner ‘rails against the ragged holes that gape between ethics and the law’, and at least questions if the law is always the right place to look for answers, and that, alternatively, the justice of remembering and healing are the forms to provide such answers, or, more broadly, they are to be found in philosophy, religion or art. In the Farquharson case, Garner’s study of which became This House of Grief, Garner turned to literature for answers, such as Alice Munro’s short story ‘Dimension’ and Anne Enright’s novel The Gathering.
Just under a decade ago, Robert McGill observed the increase in biographies of living authors, noting too that the archives of living authors are a recent phenomenon. Brennan, enviably, gained access to Garner’s correspondence in the National Library of Australia. One of the gifts of Brennan’s book is reading letter and journal extracts. For example, in a letter to Hilary McPhee, Garner did acknowledge the possibility of her personal story as a problem in Joe Cinque’s Consolation, asking her editor what she thought of her approach.
The restriction notice on the Garner correspondence in the Library strikes me as a severe but blackly comedic warning. Its availability for research – what else would it be available for? – requires permission. (In Bail’s archive, access to Garner’s correspondence to him is restricted until 20 years after his death.) The restriction is also odd because, as Brennan notes, ‘Garner is famous for her letters’. (In ‘The Recording Angel’, the narrator burns her postcards to a friend when she finds them in the friend’s house, and a dispute arises over who owns them when she is discovered in that act of incinerating them. Ironically though, the friend’s partner says that they have long since been recorded in the friend’s memory, even though this friend is about to die from a brain tumour.) And then there are Garner’s diaries, which are also ‘legendary’ – precisely, as Brennan observes, because ‘no one has seen them’. Do we take ‘seen’ to be literal here? Garner has burned the diaries from her early adulthood. But she once told Kate Grenville and Sue Woolfe that she never went anywhere without her notebook. She learnt to either hide or make nonthreatening her observing-writer-with-notebook self.
Once upon a time, I came across a PhD student at the University of Adelaide, doing work on Gilles Deleuze and love, when love seemed to have gone out of fashion. Stephen Muecke has written of ‘authors’ as ‘moving towards the State and writers away from it’. In his account, the writer isn’t ‘institutionalised’, whereas the author is selling ‘imaginary real estate’. ‘The writer … creates transformations which are offered in love’. While ‘[w]riters cannot always predict or guarantee the readers’ pleasures’, nevertheless ‘they trace a path which the reader can follow into the space of the next creation’.
What I believe I encountered in Brennan’s book is love and rhetoric; what is palpable in A Writing Life is Brennan’s clearsighted passion for Garner’s work. Brennan has the intelligent grace to foreground her own process, paralleling, again, Garner’s approach. It is as if Brennan says openly: this is how I did it; it was hard won; it is not an automatic process; it is about my fallibility. She reflects that the ‘biographer – or literary portraitist – interprets a life through her own imaginative, cultural and political filters … [choosing] what to include, omit or emphasise’.
The structure of Brennan’s study is book-by-book, enclosed by an ‘Introduction’ and a chapter on the formation of Garner’s writerly subjectivity, and an ‘Epilogue’. She thinks of her chapters of primarily ‘literary analysis’ as rooms in ‘Garner’s house of writing’. I don’t quite get this. Each chapter is more like a total building either bursting at its braces in near collapse or holding together in curtained intimacy. What is more user-friendly for me is Brennan’s metaphor for Garner’s work and life as being a ‘complex, sometimes discordant, always modulating musical score’. (Dedicated Garner readers will recognise the role of music in her work.) The grounding for Brennan’s discussions and analysis is, like Goldsworthy’s, that ‘Garner’s life and writing inform and shape each other to such a degree that it is not possible to understand one without the other’. ‘[H]er life and work whisper, worry, laugh and sing to each other’. Is that not the richest of assessments?
The cover photo of Brennan’s book is one of the most memorable I have seen of Garner, despite Brennan’s praise of Jenny Sages’ portrait. The photo first appeared in a magazine of a weekend newspaper. It has an elegant French aesthetic. Behind Garner are filmy curtains, like the ‘pale flags’ that twisted and rippled in the Buchanans’ lounge room when Nick Carraway, in Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, first enters and sees Daisy and Jordan, the ethereal-looking socialites, languidly seated on a couch. But Garner, dressed in black linen, looks neither fey, wan, nor ethereal. She has an inquisitive, challenging expression and, standing, her hands are functionally, instrumentally placed on her hips. Her lips are closed in both the photo and the painting. Brennan spends some time on the visual images of Garner, insisting on their demonstration of Garner’s inherent and abiding vulnerability and fragility.
While Garner is one of the best-loved writers in Australia, she also generates, as referred to above, polar opinions. For example, some of my students question her legitimacy as a writer of crime and court drama in Joe Cinque’s Consolation because of her personal passages. But it is precisely these – say her description of the crisp, icy cold of Canberra – that I love. My students are also taken with Dominique Hecq’s 2011 critique of Garner who, according to Hecq, ‘ridiculed and obliterated’ the ‘otherness inherent in [Singh’s mental] illness’. Garner’s journal entry is important: ‘I don’t have to write a book like any other book. I can invent the sort of book that suits the material and my interaction with the material’. Further, Garner shakes uncontrollably as Singh goes down to the cells. Garner, despite the ‘pull-your-lip-up’ background, is a very tearful human being.
Brennan’s discussion of The Spare Room made me look at that book again. I got it wrong. I had little sympathy for the narrator who spent three weeks (I said one in my review) in caring, while others, in reality, spend years. But the foreshortened caring time was because of the anger one feels towards the person one is caring for. When Nicola dies in the text, Garner said she lay on the floor and wept. She had to force herself to write the death because ‘I had to acknowledge the fact that I also have to die’.
I now see, through Brennan’s work of tracking the research, writing and fall-out process of Garner’s three nonfiction books that they do sit as opera serie. I haven’t had this exact, telescopic or spyglass view because I am enraptured with her fiction and smaller works of nonfiction. Brennan’s charting of the development and aftermath of The First Stone makes the creation of that book and its fate read like a Wagner opera; I see it this way partly because I remember the reference the narrator uses in ‘The Recording Angel’ about her Aunty Dot’s hairdos, describing them as Wagnerian. Brennan’s orchestrated account of The First Stone’s controversy is fairhanded: she shuffles back and forth between the passionate arguments like a keen, ethical umpire.
Sometimes I dislike very much a book’s opacity in term of its production. It’s easy to forget how difficult the creation of work can be. Joe Cinque’s Consolation and This House of Grief took Garner years for which she paid in subsequent poor health. One is sure never to find the sentimental or sensational in Garner’s writing; she sees the former as a ‘kind of numbness’ or ‘frozenness’, used as a protection against ‘the pain of real feeling’. It is what I see in my student’s writing, but I interpret it more as a kind of laziness (perhaps quite savagely wrong-headed), an unwillingness to labour at wording their experiences. I try to pin students to Carver’s warning, as if on a prominent notice-board: ‘If … words are heavy with the writer’s own unbridled emotions … the reader’s eyes will slide right over them …’.
I left the chapter on This House of Grief to read last. I was reluctant to attempt to stay afloat in the torrid waters of the crime. Forgive this imagistic pun, but I thought my problem was with another trial book. But I realised on reading this chapter that I was averse to thinking about another inexplicable, violent crime, or considering any negative reactions to the book, what in fact Garner herself feared might be ‘a third maimed book’. I have a long-remembered sense of an unbearable scene in the Russian director Elem Kilmov’s 1985 film Come and See in which Floryan and Glafira trudge through deep, thick mud. That I couldn’t face. A sure indicator of Garner’s own emotional dishevelment during the Farquharson case is when, in the facilities of the Victorian Supreme Court, she spent some time unclogging the courtyard bubbler and then scrubbing it clean. (This is a different state to be in than, say, Pam Brown’s 1970 dexedrine-induced polishing of brass taps ‘for a few hours’, recorded in her poem ‘I Remember Dexedrine’.)
It’s time now, as this essay comes to a close, to say, again, how blood-ful this hybrid of critical appraisal and life writing is. Rita Felski, in her 2015 book The Limits of Critique, declared that ‘[t]he language of attachment, passion, and inspiration is no longer taboo’. Emphatically,
a fuller engagement with such experience does not require a surrender of thoughtfulness or intellectual rigor: that, in spite of warnings to the contrary, the alternative to critique does not have to take the form of ‘belle-lettris’ or mindless effusion ….
Talking about the force and the lure of art works need not commit us to breathless effusions or antipolitical sentiments. It can open the way to a renewed engagement with art and its entanglement with social life ….
And Brennan performs a kind of call to arms for literature, its criticism as well as creation. Her last chapter opens up the possibilities for Garner, the 75-year-old writer. Is seventy the new sixty, or fifty? I don’t know. My students, weighed down by HECS debt and receding full-time employment and home-buying options, think they are old at twenty-five. Through her trip to Antarctica and a gift of a recording of Bach’s Sonata No. 3 in D minor, both giving her ‘air’, Garner comes to an understanding that her ‘chest had been cramped half-shut for all [her] adult life’. In her seventy-fifth year as I write, she sees her age as an ‘opening out’, a ‘taking-off’ (not a collapse), and Brennan pictures her ‘in full creative flight’. Throughout their book, Brooks and Clark spoke always of ‘Eleanor’. In her opening chapter, Brennan calls Garner by her first name. After using her surname for the length of the book, Brennan, in her epilogue, returns to the first: ‘Helen’.
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