April 2016

Arts & Letters

Felled by grace

By Anna Goldsworthy

Helen Garner, 2002. © Liam Driver / Fairfax

Helen Garner’s work collected in ‘Everywhere I Look’

In one of the shorter pieces in her new nonfiction collection, Everywhere I Look (Text Publishing; $29.99), Helen Garner celebrates the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould: “JS Bach is God, as far as I’m concerned, and the pianist Glenn Gould was one of his major prophets.” She recalls the “jolt” she felt when a friend revealed the level of engineering that went into Gould’s recordings: “But – but – isn’t that a swiz?”

Gould was one of the most original musical voices of last century. His playing married great clarity to exuberance; despite its rigorous control, it always sounded more alive than anyone else’s. He spawned a generation of imitators, but nobody could match him.

Helen Garner occupies a similar position in Australian letters. Her voice is highly individual, and yet strikes with such rightness that its influence is hard to resist.

Everywhere I Look is a selection of Garner’s writing over the past 15 years, beginning with four pieces about belonging. Their titles amount to a declaration of an aesthetic position: ‘Whisper and Hum’, ‘Some Furniture’, ‘White Paint and Calico’ and ‘Suburbia’. These small pieces celebrate the humble, but there is a quiet defiance within them that sometimes becomes overt:

I was living in Sydney with a severe modernist to whom the presence of a ukulele in the house would have been an outrage. With him it was Wagner or nothing. Even a string quartet or a solo piano was too minor. I had to put headphones on to listen to my funk tapes. It wasn’t a dancing kind of marriage.

In ‘Suburbia’, Garner recalls sharing a car ride in Melbourne with the English poet Christopher Logue in which they passed a sign to Moonee Ponds:

From the front passenger seat rose a drawling, highly educated Pommy voice: “I say … what’s a Moonee Pond?” He had probably never heard of Edna Everage, and had no attitude towards the name of my erstwhile suburb, but the way he picked up the word in ironic tweezers made me want to seize him from my seat in the back and garrotte him.

Garner has no patience for the high-flown. In a tribute to a friend, the late writer Jacob Rosenberg, she charts the parallel direction of their thinking:

When our conversation moved in a direction he was not comfortable with – if I indulged in idle psychologising, or made a crack aimed at provoking light laughter – he gently drew me back on to his turf by offering a philosophical generalisation, a piece of wisdom about life or literature. I had known other male writers, particularly ones who worshipped at European cultural shrines, who had this habit.

It is easy to forget how radical Garner is. Decades before Knausgaard rehabilitated the quotidian for literature, she produced Monkey Grip. She wields her ukulele not only against European cultural shrines but also against a particular brand of artistic ambition.

One of the many delights of this compilation is its inclusion of Garner’s critical work, which spells out the aesthetic position implicit in all her sentences. She admires Barbara Baynton, but notes that “you can feel her sometimes putting on side, striking writerly poses, indulging in misty poeticisms”. Similarly, her first meeting with Tim Winton is coloured by a review she had written, in which “from the lofty eminence of a minimalist who’d published fully two books, I’d drawn attention to what I saw as his overworked metaphors”. Neither overworked metaphors nor misty poeticisms are to be found on Garner’s pages. Instead, her high style is hewed from the vernacular, from the building blocks of blokes and ukes and utes. She sets her verbs to work, and tunes her sentences so that they jump off the page and lodge directly in your brain, where they get stuck for life. There is no effort in reading them, and yet they come at the author’s cost:

Every day I work on the edit of my book. I slog away, shifting chunks of material and moving them back, eating my salad in a daze, wondering if the linking passages I’ve written are leading me up a garden path, or are sentimental, or violate some unarticulated moral and technical code I’ve signed up to and feel trapped in or obliged to. The sheer bloody labour of writing.

As in Gould’s playing, Garner’s simplicity is rigorously engineered. This moral and technical code governs every line she writes, and marks it with her fingerprint, as do her familiar tropes: the analysis of handwriting, the description of dreams, the vulnerability of photographed faces. “I longed to mimic in my own work the brutal simplicity of the police photographs,” she explains. A shameless eavesdropper, she collects snippets of conversation from trains and tram stops and bars, presenting them to the reader as a found music. She has a fierce bullshit detector, and will mercilessly evoke types: “one of those hulking young men with unblinking eyes who seem to become personal trainers”. At the same time, she is consistently felled by grace, whether it be the dancers of the Australian Ballet or a young boy on a swing: “Francis, at three, has loose blond curls and a face of such louche, wry, heavy-lidded Irishness that I can hardly look at him without laughing.” Sometimes she flashes her virtuosity, like the vivid underside of a wing: “The quality of enchanted light that a martini emits in a lamplit room: icy, misty, strangely and coldly white – she might have been receiving a star, or an atomic particle, and raising it to her lips.”

In her tribute to Elizabeth Jolley, she disarms the reader with an opening sally:

Last week I had my hair cut. I was pleased, in the limited way one dares to be at this age. The next day my five-year-old granddaughter came home from kinder. She studied me up and down, and said with a crooked smile, “I don’t like your haircut, Nanna. You look like Luke Skywalker. It’s dumb at the sides.”

Garner maintains that “the complex emotions provoked in a woman by this kind of remark have been recorded in literature by only one writer I know”, but Garner has made this art her own, not least in the collection’s funniest piece, ‘The Insults of Age’.

Insults towards Garner flow freely throughout this collection, from friends, strangers and grandchildren, but particularly from herself. There is a type of self-deprecation used by those who clearly know they can afford it, for whom it is a masked form of self-aggrandisement. Garner’s is not of this type. Her shortcomings appear to pain rather than charm her, but much of the book’s comedy stems from her own wounded amour-propre. A friend comments on a shirt Garner had thought “rather becoming”: “I’m sorry to tell you this, Hel, but that colour doesn’t suit you. It makes your face look flushed. It makes you look older.” More expensively, she admits to jealousy towards Tim Winton, “because everybody loved his book and nobody loved mine. I managed to pick a couple of squabbles.”

Merciless self-disclosure is part of Garner’s moral code but it is also one of her most reliable tools. Her prose appears so open, so unguarded, that the reader relinquishes any defences. This is the source of her danger. Even as she appears to bumble through social interactions, her recording machine is always on, and it is preternaturally acute. “There is something reptilian in the sheen of his alertness,” she writes of a character in a film; her own alertness has a similar quality. Not only can she see further than anyone else but she also has little compunction about reporting what she sees. She is like the loose-cannon friend at the dinner table, thrilling and terrifying with her disclosures; what she reveals about human beings will likely have serious implications for you, the reader.

Hers is such a formidable and original voice that it is difficult to trace its roots. In Garner’s appreciation of American journalist Janet Malcolm, she could be describing herself:

Her work is always challenging, intellectually and morally complex, but it never hangs heavy. It is airy, racy, and mercilessly cut back, so that it surges along with what one critic has called “breathtaking rhetorical velocity”. It sparkles with deft character sketches. It bounds back and forth between straight-ahead reportage and subtle readings of documents and diaries, of photographs and paintings.

Garner and Malcolm share a clear-eyed forensic approach, a pleasure in language and an interest in human subtext, but Garner is less cerebral and more subjective. In The First Stone, she was famously chastised by an interlocutor: “You must realise, Helen, that this story is not being played out for the benefit of your finer feelings.” But Garner’s feelings – fine or otherwise – are part of her subject, and she reports on them as she would anything else. Throughout this book, she succumbs to “peculiar” and “disproportionate” rages; “stupid tears run off” her cheeks and “absolutely pop out” of her eyes. There is something uncensored about such reactions, like the emotions of a child. They further disarm the reader, but they also stake a claim for a sensibility. In Garner’s upbringing, “expressions of emotion were frowned upon”. It is these expressions of emotion that, when married to her stylistic restraint, lend Garner’s writing its particular tension.

Her finest pieces hit you in the gut, with the eviscerating power of Alice Munro. (Invoking the body, I am aware of Garner’s influence.) In ‘Dear Mrs Dunkley’, Garner gives credit to the teacher who “laid the groundwork”: “You showed me the glory and the power of an English sentence and the skills I would need to build one. You put into my hands the tools for the job.” It is a tender and moving piece, enunciating key moments in the quickening of a young mind: “You looked at me for a long moment – a slow, careful, serious look. You looked at me, and, for the first time, I knew that you had seen me.” Only in later life does Garner discover her teacher was an alcoholic. “Dear Mrs Dunkley. You’re long gone, and I’m nearly 70. But, oh, I wish you weren’t dead. I’ve got some things here that I wouldn’t be ashamed to show you.”

One such thing, surely, would be her elegy to her mother, ‘Dreams of Her Real Self’. There are certain subjects that are too complex to be approached linearly, and so Garner constructs a mosaic: “To write about her at length, coherently, is almost beyond me. [My father] blocked my view of her, as he blocked her horizon. I can think about her only at oblique angles and in brief bursts, in no particular order.” Through an accumulation of detail, she charts the inarticulate love of a mother for a daughter who has outgrown her.

When, in the street, I see a mother walking with her grown-up daughter, I can hardly bear to witness the mother’s pride, the softening of her face, her incredulous joy at being granted her daughter’s company; and the iron discipline she imposes on herself, to muffle and conceal this joy.

It is an extraordinary piece of writing, packed with love and regret. In one of her journal entries, Garner quotes the writer Joan Acocella on the dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov: “If there is a point in classical art where aesthetics meets morals – where beauty, by appearing plain and natural, gives us hope that we, too, can be beautiful …”, and notes that “I resolve to spend the rest of my life searching for that point.”

If anyone in this country has found this point, it is surely Helen Garner. Her writing expresses a hard-won grace. It brings you closer to the world, and shows you how to love it. I wondered whether I found ‘Dear Mrs Dunkley’ so moving because of my own gratitude towards Garner. She has laid the groundwork for a generation of writers; she has repeatedly shown us the glory and the power of an English sentence. But even this admission is Garneresque. I see her everywhere I look.

Anna Goldsworthy

Anna Goldsworthy is a writer and a pianist. Her most recent book is Melting Moments, and her most recent album is Trio Through Time.

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