Helen Garner, Everywhere I Look (Text 2016)
I’ve recently been surprised to hear a number of people refer to Helen Garner as ‘one of our great writers’. My surprise doesn’t come from disagreement. It’s just that hers isn’t writing that invites one to bow down in the presence of greatness. She’s less a Great Dane (or Grande Dame) making magisterial pronouncements than a terrier who keeps on at her subject until it yields some truth, her truth. She passes judgement often enough, and definitely enough, but not dogmatically, and not looking for a stoush either, but ready in case one comes along. A striking feature of Sotiris Dounoukos’ movie of Joe Cinque’s Consolation is the absence of the book’s persistent questioning – so when the end titles announce that, against the strongly implied judgement of the previous 90 minutes, one of the real-world characters was exonerated by a real-world jury, one tends to simply distrust the movie. When the book calls that verdict into question, you can disagree, but you can’t honestly dismiss it out of hand: the judgement has been honestly, and I would say humbly, worked for. (Perhaps its relevant that some of the harshest critics of Garner’s The First Stone refused to read it, or so I’ve been told.)
One of the pieces in this collection is titled ‘While Not Writing a Book’. That could have been a working title for the collection as a whole. It and a couple of others, including ‘Before Whatever Else Happens’, are presented as excerpts from the writer’s diaries/notebooks: overheard snippets, chance encounters, family moments, brief reflections. Another writer might have called them flash fictions or prose poems. Other pieces are more sustained: the product of a week locked away with CDs of Russell Crowe movies; reviews; sketches from the courts; wonderful pieces on her friendships with Jacob Rosenberg, Tim Winton and Elizabeth Jolly; glimpses of family life with grandchildren and, once, a dog; a revisit to her relationship with her mother; reflections on the ukulele, the ballet, suburban life; and more, enough to keep her readers interested between This House of Grief and whatever big thing may happen next.
Everywhere she looks and listens, from conversations about farting with small children to a teenager who has bashed her newborn baby to death, Garner finds stuff for her mind to grapple with, and she knows how to communicate the grappling with grace and vigour.
And now, because it’s November, a versification of one of the diary entries (see page 85 for the original):
Verse 3: At a conference
Supreme Court Judge and Helen Garner
chatted over tea and dip.
‘My home,’ the judge said to the yarner,
‘was once the scene of Monkey Grip,
your novel, and we’re renovating.’
‘My novel, and some devastating
and elating life. But how
do those old rooms look to you now.’
He listed them: ‘… and one so dinky
my daughter’s desk was there before.
It’s soon a bathroom, nothing more.’
‘The one with wooden shutters?’ Inky
flash from hippie days divine:
‘That tiny room was [humbly] mine.’
Everywhere I Look is the twelfth book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.
Haha, Jonathan, love the poem and its allusion to a story in her book.
I guess I’m one who praises Helen Garner’s writing. I do call her a grande dame of Aussie lit. It’s not because she’s the most inventive or experimental writer but because she can write beautiful sentences and she nails our times, sometimes controversially (I don’t always agree with her – such as The first stone, which I did read, and such as, too, Joe Cinque’s consolation.) I guess it’s the “grace and vigour” I like and her willingness to put herself on the line.
Oh Sue. I’m a huge fan, including of The First Stone and Joe Cinque. I think what I was struggling to say is that ‘great’ implies something like reverence, but for me HG remains that teacher who tried to answer the students’ questions honestly and hang the consequences. What’s not to love and admire? But not to be put in a cabinet labeled ‘great’.
Oh, I misunderstood a little. And yes, she was that teacher wasn’t she. But still “great”. I’ll have to think about that a little more. It’s all about definitions isn’t it? Reminds me of my debating days: Is Helen Garner a great writer?