The notes, like her work, say a lot about Garner. One, that she is generous and encouraging to other writers, including journalists. Two, that she knows the power of being Helen Garner and uses it for good. Three, that she likes to be liked. Four – and this is based more on her books than her notes – she can live with not being liked. She’s not even sure how much she likes herself at times, or ought to.
I think that’s why she’s so willing to lay herself out on the page like a lab rat ready for dissection. She’s as curious to poke around her own dark and messy guts, with lacerating frankness, as she is to untangle her subject’s. Insecurities; sneaking vanities; prejudices; humiliations by husbands and lovers; small, mean moments; shameful thoughts; jealousies…all float to the surface as the scalpel works away relentlessly. She doesn’t dwell on them. They’re just noted in passing. Her. Us.
It’s why we feel we know more about Helen Garner – our slight, bicycle-wheeling grande dame of literature – than we know about most writers. She is so present in all her books, fiction and non-fiction. She doesn’t so much stride about – like a male author of equal standing might, the noble hero – as ferret about: sharp-eyed, purse-lipped, sardonic, very Melbourne, “a small grim figure with a notebook and a cold”, hunting down meaning for us in pain, grief, love, friendship, laughter, betrayal, frailty, or just shoes.
With a novelist’s privilege to be a player in the story, she doesn’t claim to be an objective observer. She sets out her stall early on. In The First Stone, she let readers know she’d sent a sympathetic letter to the college master accused of sexual harassment. In Joe Cinque’s Consolation, we knew she had a close relationship with Joe Cinque’s family and was seeking justice for Joe. In The Spare Room, she admitted to being angry and impatient with her dying female friend. In This House of Grief, she hoped to find an exoneration for the man who had driven into a dam and drowned his children – an accident, not revenge? – even though in the end she couldn’t, and admitted as much. She’s usually on the side of the blokes, yet for all that ready forgiveness, her lasting fascination, I think, is with the nature of womanhood. She hasn’t always been kind to women – caught, now and again, in a love-hate tussle with her own sex– but she has honoured their complexity.
She’s as curious to poke around her own dark and messy guts, with lacerating frankness, as she is to untangle her subject’s.
How does she do what she does, bravely and so consistently well? Novels, short stories, essays, journalism, diaries, non-fiction. It’s low of me, I know, but I do hope that at least sometimes she sits at her desk and hums and haws and furiously crosses things out. Stares into space. Hurls things into the bin. Plunges into crises of confidence. Hunches over in gloomy despair as the right set of words refuses to appear. Distracts herself by reading Google alerts for ‘The Five Foods that Cause Belly Fat’. It’s unbearable to think anyone could write as lucidly as she does, or think as sharply, as freshly, about the human condition, without struggle. But how would we know? Like all great writers, she tucks away the seams, hides the struts, makes it look effortless on the page.
As the editor of Good Weekend, back in the early 2000s, I occasionally commissioned Helen to write for the magazine. I say ‘occasionally’ because she often turned me down. Annoyingly, she won’t write just anything you ask her to. That’s another thing about Helen. She’s hilariously good company but she’s no pushover. She did agree to go on a trip to Antarctica. Her story began: “They say that tourist ships to Antarctica, even more than ordinary human conveyances, are loaded down with aching hearts.”
She also wrote about a suburban Melbourne bridal salon: “Although I have been married three times, I have never been a bride. What – me, in a big white dress? In a veil? The closest I ever got to the fantasy was back in the eighties, when I used to admire the white gypsophila crowns that Susan Renouf wore to parties: I drew a curious satisfaction from their ethereal, circular, brow-pressing beauty. Twenty years later all that’s left is the frisson I get from the coronet shape that salad leaves briefly take when I tip them out of the whizzer on to a tea towel.”
It seems astonishing that for so long, early on, Garner didn’t win more of the big literary prizes. All that has changed, of course, in recent years, and there’s international respect. She still has her enemies – I’d say Jenna Mead won’t be calling any time soon – but also legions of admirers, especially among young women. She has given us much to admire, after all, and much to wrestle with.
Signed, a Grateful Reader.
Helen Garner is this year’s recipient of the Lloyd O’Neil Hall of Fame Award, which will be presented as the part of the Australian Book Industry Awards on Wednesday night. Fenella Souter is a Sydney journalist and editor.