Helen Garner has just published the third volume of excerpts from her diaries from the years 1995 to 1998. Previously there was Yellow Notebook: Diaries 1978 – 1987 and One Day I’ll Remember This: Diaries1987 – 1995. She is nearing eighty now, and her writing has concerned itself with many aspects of Australian life. She has written novels, short stories, non-fiction books about high-profile court cases and always at the back of this she has written journals and observations of her day-to-day life. She is concerned with the sun on leaves, a bird chirping in the back garden, the thrill of riding her bike fast down a bill on the way to the swimming pool, and above all, the life of her emotions. Her loves, her yearning for love and her failures. She is ruthlessly honest in her self-exploration, but in a way that encourages one to reflect on one’s own life.
I read her first novel Monkey Grip, published in 1977, soon after it came out. It was a paean to the halcyon days of the mid 1970’s in Australia. The days of the Whitlam government when University was free, a woman could live and write on the supporting mother’s benefit, share houses were cheap and friends could live together. But there was a dark side. It was also an account of a woman having a passionate love for a young man addicted to drugs. This reflected society at the time. In Melbourne where this story takes place, the police clamped down heavily on marijuana use in the 1970’s and somehow this allowed heroin to flow into the empty space, and Javo, the character in Monkey Grip, and many young people like him, could buy it cheap.
Monkey Grip was a great success. It won the National Book Council Award, it was made into a film, everybody was talking about it. Helen Garner took some flak from (male) critics who said, ‘she’s just regurgitating her diary’, but her book spoke to many, and the quality of her writing was beyond question.
In the next twenty years she wrote some prize-winning novellas and short stories but in 1995 she moved into journalism with her book The First Stone. This is where I and many other women lost any idea of Garner as a kindred spirit. In this well-known case, where some young female undergraduates made a complaint about inappropriate behaviour by the Master of their college, she castigated the young women for being middle-class weaklings and wrote a letter of unqualified support for the Master.
In the light of many years of ongoing women’s struggles in all kinds of institutions Garner can be seen to have backed the wrong horse here. But she was adamant; woman should be able to look after themselves, and not go bleating and tale-telling. I always felt she didn’t take into account the different power dynamic between a senior male academic and two girls just out of secondary school. The book caused a great deal of debate and animosity between friends and families. After this Helen Garner wrote several controversial non-fiction books based on current court cases, where, it seemed to many readers, she allowed her own personal responses to people to override her impartiality.
But the diaries, oh the diaries. I probably wouldn’t have read them if my daughter hadn’t given me the first one and I fell in love with Helen Garner’s observing eye and clear elegant prose. The light she can shine on the most mundane of events, her friendships and love of the bush, walking, swimming, and most of all her relentless self-scrutiny; her honesty and her doubts about her abilities, ‘I will never probably write anything large, lasting, solid, or influential’, ‘I’m not and never will be a real intellectual.’
Now in this, the third volume of the diaries, we see her marriage to someone she considers ‘a real intellectual’ coming apart, despite her efforts.
For the sake of the marriage, she has moved to Sydney away from her beloved daughter at the time when she is getting married. She is required to leave their shared apartment every day and work in a rented space so that the husband, who she refers to as V, can work in silence. She cannot have music or friends visiting. This conservative misogynistic man somehow has her in his thrall. She makes list of her faults, of his good points, and slowly, slowly she arrives at the point where she can leave. It helps that he is lying about having an affair with a mutual friend.
It is hard to read about someone struggling so hard, but, as in the other dairies, the writing is poetic and engaging. Quotes from Proust and Virginia Wolff, dreams, glimpses of the sky, events of daily life. A few random examples
Fresh morning, water satiny, cloud cover still low but breaking up along the horizon into cauliflower clouds through which light soaks in long beams.
My sister’s in town. We went for a swim at Boy Charlton. A perfect high summer day. Dripping swimmers lined up along the pool’s chin-high wall to watch two grey naval ships reverse out of Wooloomooloo Bay, attended by tugs; a bosun’s pipe shrieked.
In an art shop I heard a girl say to her friend, ‘Life’s too short to spend it with a wanker.’ I let out a snort of laughter. They looked at me and we all cracked up.
I am beginning to see that you can’t blast yourself out of a marriage. You can’t just pack stuff and walk out the door. There is no door. You have to dynamite your way out. Blast, burrow, crawl- and you have to let yourself keep on feeling it, every inch of the way.
Helen Garner’s account of that struggle is honest. She tries so hard to see both sides of the story to her own detriment. But in the end her life just becomes too lonely and empty; and boring.
I think these three diaries are her finest work.