Helen Garner and a woman’s voice

I am re-thinking and re-reading Helen Garner. All week her books and their image have surrounded me. In photos she does not smile for the camera but looks to one side. The photographer has caught her during a thoughtful moment, perhaps during a conversation, maybe mid sentence and in one photo she holds the tip of her fingers together as if she is disseminating a closely woven thought. Her hair is short, neat and brown. I can only guess that her eyes are brown. I have seen them close up but I cannot remember whether they were blue or brown or shades between, though I imagine them as brown to match her autumn temperament. To me Garner has an autumn temperament, ‘the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness…the maturing sun.’

I’ve read somewhere her daughter talking about Garner’s amazing legs and I remember my desire several years ago after one of the Mietta’s writing events at Federation Square when I scoured the shops trying to find a pair of purple stockings just like Garner’s.

I want to write to Helen Garner again and tell her how sorry I am. In my last letter to her I think I was trying to show off, trying to show her how clever I was under the guise of trying to get her to take me seriously in relation to my thesis topic. But now I suspect she will only experience my writing as pompous and peacock.

I am ashamed of my desire to impress Garner, my desire to seduce her, to make her my friend, to want her to rely on me for something, anything however small, just as I rely on her. I have to remind myself that I am a reader, one of many, an admiring reader perhaps but like everyone else, especially those who try to write themselves, I am prone to fits of jealousy.

I have never been able to, or even wanted to dismiss Garner’s writing. I have wondered about her interpretation of Anu Singh in Joe Cinque’s Consolation and of Joe himself. Garner says she’s one sided in her appreciation of Joe’s parents. She has come to love his mother and that might account for some of it. After all Anu Singh murdered Joe. But Garner in the book seems to see Anu Singh as the representation of evil in Singh’s failure to recognise the horror of what she had done. Garner pays lip service to the notion that Anu Singh is mentally unsound but she does not seem to understand the blatant disregard for others that someone like Anu Singh might manifest.

Anu Singh from what I have read in Joe Cinque’s Consolation, and from news reports elsewhere suffers some sort of personality disorder, to use the horrible psychiatric jargon. She’s ‘borderline’, destructively narcissistic. She can’t see past her own nose, herself as the wounded and traumatised infant who must be immediately given whatever she wants, who must be cosseted and who can become overwhelmingly vengeful when things do not go her way. This to a pathological extreme. She’s not your average young woman caught up in the madness of disappointment in a loved one, in a relationship. She’s probably not even capable of loving someone in the first place.

So what was Joe C doing with her in the first place, I asked myself continuously in reading his consolation? What was he doing smitten by such a woman, drawn to her, living with her, putting up with her? There were rumours as I recall that he was thinking of leaving her and that in part may have inspired her wish to do away with him. Anu Singh could not bear to be abandoned, but all of that was towards the end. They’d been living together for some time.

If there ever exists such a couple where one is the innocent victim and the other a cruel ogre I tend to see it as a function of the two. Of course there are some situations where young women are forced unwillingly into alliances not of their choosing, maybe sometimes even young men so forced, though I cannot think of any off hand. Joe C presumably chose consciously to be with Singh. Why was he so naïve, so blind, so innocent? Or was he, too, like Singh’s friend Madhavi Rao, caught up in the siren’s song?

What is this siren’s song? Have I been lured by it in Garner’s writing, but her writing is not a siren’s song. It does not lead the reader onto the rocks of destruction, broken and battered, though maybe that’s how some people find it.

I write about these people as though they are characters in a novel. But these people exist in reality and I am troubled by the ease with which I dissect them here as if they are fictions.

To this extent people are challenged by Garner’s writing. It seems either they love it or they hate it. Even her last and third failed husband apparently discredited her writing as not worthy of attention because it was not fiction. Is that why she wrote this latest one, The Spare Room as a novel?

Back to the old chestnut, fact versus fiction and the highest praise reserved for fiction while the readers keep clamouring for the truth. We want to know that this really happened? We want to know about real lives, real events. We don’t want fantasy.

It’s a non-fiction moment HG said to me in 2004, a non-fiction moment, so make the most of it. I’ve been trying to do so ever since, with varying success.

Gsrmer talks in an interview about resonating with Virginia Woolf’s feelings when the writer first opened one of Katharine Mansfield’s new books: ‘If she’s good, then I’m not’. This ‘infantile’ comparison that we can all get into from time to time. The concrete, unprocessed thought that my mother has only so much love to give, as if it’s all held inside a bottle, a bottle of sand and every time she pours out a little for one child, there’s only so much left for the others and for me. In time even if she gives me a little, soon there will be none left and there’s no way known she’ll ever be able to re-fill the bottle. The bottle once empty is useless.

Reading her interviews about Garner’s experience with male writers and publishers in the 1970s resonates for me, too. No wonder I gave up English literature after two years at Melbourne University. I who had once imagined myself a writer dropped the idea cold and turned instead to being a good social worker in the first instance and later a good therapist because according to the mores of the time women’s writing was all about ‘shelling peas and pain’. The only ones who could write were the great classicists from the 18th and 19th century literary canon, men mostly. Even Jane Austen has come into vogue in more recent years. There is not a single woman recognised as a Shakespeare or a Wordsworth, a TS Eliot or a James Joyce. There are women who receive praise: the Brontes and Jane, Christina Rosetti and little Emily Dickinson. These are the female names I grew up with, but they are all secondary to the great men.

I too once feared showing my writing to a man, a man would find me wanting. Which leads me to my other thought about Garner: her father, her so-called negative relationship with her father, her life long battle to win his esteem. And supposedly she has never really felt she has, any more than many of us women feel we have.
Somewhere Garner quotes someone else’s comment that we are always laying tributes at our parents’ feet.

I feel so vapourish alongside Garner, who spends hours perfecting each sentence, every word. Her sentences she says in one interview used to be short and clunky but now she goes to trouble to fill them out. She collects good adjectives, splendid nouns and images from her daily life, snippets of conversation over heard.

I rely purely on my memory and what rolls into my mind, and it’s so limited.

6 thoughts on “Helen Garner and a woman’s voice”

  1. Would you have been as puzzled if a man had killed a woman? When we cannot bear the randomness of trauma, we want to make sense of it by making the victim someone different to ourselves. If we look for some fault, some blame, then we can say "Ah, but I wouldn't have been there. That cannot happen to me."

    As to your question about what Joe was doing there; well perhaps he had the vulnerability of the second generation migrant. Or perhaps he just believed she loved him. Yes, it does seem that he was wanting out toward the end and that she could not bear being abanoned.

    Re: you guessing that men might get into alliances unwittingly or without conscious choice, I have just read two books where men die at the hands of women. 'The Reader' has young Michael lose his soul through sexual abuse and Bruno in 'Lovesong' loses his life after being exploited by the main character. It is funny how it fails to register much when it is a man being abused. The reviews I have seen do not even mention Michael's damage. These examples are fictional but they might prompt some real life examples. They certainly do for me.

  2. Thanks Jane for your thoughtful comment. I agree that se tend to look for justifications by way of dffernce from us whe something dreadful happens to let ourselves off the hook. And you're right, we do tend to think twice when it's the woman who commits murder. We're so used to it being a man's deed.

    I've read and loved 'The Reader' and I agree too that I did not think too long on the degree of Michael's trauma for his premature sexual experience, and even here I find I hesitate to call it 'abuse'. Were he a female I would have no doubt about it.

    Do you have a blog, or email address at least? Your profile suggests not but I'd love to discuss this further with you. You seem to have considered the issues in depth and I'm still mulling them over.


  3. Elisabeth,I failed to add that Songlines was written by Alex Miller.
    Most people would agree that it is abuse when it is the man with the girl but not vice versa as per The Reader. I have been stunned at my inability to come up with a review that even mentions the "death" of Michael. When I heard Schmidt interviewed, he didn't even mention it. I thought he might have said it was a metaphor for the half life that many surviviors were left with or….. something.

    You have said in your blog that you still think, in many ways, it is a man's world. I would vehemently argue with this. And yes, it would probably be a long arguement but this failure to recognise men's abuse is just one example of our failing as a society toward men. As a society, we fail many people, of course, but I think it is perilous to continue this man beating that we are into (I certainly am not addressing this to you) Do we blink as we pass the newsagent and see the "All Men are Bastards" diaries for sale? How often are men even referred to as men? Usually now, they are "blokes" which like "mate" as come to be a hostile or negative term.
    I also watched the film of The Reader and I could barely watch the seduction of young Michael. It was heart breaking. I knew he had just lost his adolescence and perhaps his life. The story proved that correct. It was the most detailed example of sexual abuse I have come across and the author got all the symptoms right. They are there in the book but because it was a boy – there seems to be this ignorant assumption (bit like the one we used to have about infants not feeling pain) about boys being happy to get as much sex as they can. You even referred to it as a sexual experience (fair enough) but it was much more than that to him. You also said today "We are so used to it (murder) being a man's deed." There are many ways to skin a cat. Many ways to commit 'soul murder'. Many ways to kill people. I would argue that women do it just as often. Neither sex has the high ground. We are all good and bad.
    I digress Elisabeth. I have never been on a blog before, is rambling what it is for?
    Is it alright to have our discussion on the blog for the time being? This makes me want to re-visit the Summer of '49 and also Mrs Robinson. Thanks for your blog and your reply.
    PS Who is more mature at 15? A boy or a girl? Generally a girl and yet people don't see it as sexual abuse of the boy. Are boys seen as stupid, lack in sensitivity, thinking only with the penis? Yes. That is how they are often seen. If you know aby 15 yo boys, The Reader will break your heart. Boys and men are having an horrendous time out there. They are more vulnerable because they do not have that last resort or that ace up their sleeve i.e the miraculous ability to carry the future of the race in their bodies or to rock the cradle. We have at least always had that power. Women certainly needed emancipation but now it seems like revenge and we are admonishing boys for being boys wherever you look. This is a long discussion and sorry for hogging your blog. I am not a nutter, just someone who feels strongly about things. One more quick thought. I think HG does acknowledge that the girl is a nutter and perhaps that extreme narcissism is equal to evil?

  4. For some time now I've sensed there is a crisis going on in the world for boys and men, at least in the so-called western world. I've wondered whether it is perhaps one of the outcomes of feminism.

    I have four daughters and I've noticed as the girls bring their respective boyfriends home, these lovely boys often times seem intimidated by my daughters who are all very articulate.

    My husband, too, sometimes has a hard time of it. The girls are so vocal, so emotional, so out there with their experience and the boys then seem to be quiet and obliging.

    My husband draws on his experience growing up with a bullying father and that doesn't work, so he tries humour and that often doesn't work either. It's as if he's meant to be more of a mother than a father and yet at the same time there is a real crying out for some sort of father figure here as well.

    My daughters range in age from late twenties to sixteen so I've seen a fair range of boys. The girls seems so bossy, so in control. I know I am generalising from my own personal experience and from within a narrow social milieu but still I can't help but think it perhaps[s applies more broadly. If you look at the education results for final school leavers here in Melbourne you see a handful of boys from elite schools do brilliantly, in the top ten or so, and then the girls trump with highest marks, while so many boys dip in the lower rankings.

    Steve Biddulph alludes to this crisis. It's not just the boys it also among the older generation. Years ago Drusilla Modjeska wrote an article in the Australian think about her trip through the centre of Australia. She observed all these so called grey nomadic couples astride caravans in camping grounds. The men she observed seemed to be stuck to their camp chairs reluctant to move beyond the safety of their cars and caravan's while the women looked as if they were pulling on invisible leashes wanting to move out into the world to explore.

    More recently at a conference I met this lovely man who is doing a PhD that's roughly based on his son's disability. This man told me that he had observed that men who reach their fifties and sixties seem to be suddenly lost, while women he’s known at a similar age seem to be taking off.

    The men had spent their lives lost in their careers as breadwinners and now suddenly faced with retirement it seems many feel lost. The women who have spent years as mothers mostly and working maybe with less drive and intensity in paid jobs suddenly are ready to start a new career as students, travellers, business women, you name it. The women were desperate to be free.

    I observed something similar with my own parents. When I was little I thought my father ran the roost. The story is complex, but suddenly in her early fifties my mother started to move out of home, she started to do work she loved. My father did not want her to learn to drive a car because as he said then, she'd be forever out driving. He preferred to keep her in his care by being her driver. He died at sixty five. She's stulll alive at ninety.

    Sorry to go back to the autobiographical again but what else can I draw on, other than what I read and see around me.

    I've written this long blurb basically to say I agree with you. I think there is a crisis in our society for boys and I too would like the business of blaming them for everything to stop.

    Someone must be doing research into this.

  5. There is plenty of research being done. Peter West in Sydney re: education plus new Uni stats are showing boys are in trouble.
    Sue Palmer has a new book that is very good called Boys in the 21st century: How modern life is driving them off the rails and how we can get them back on track.
    Look at how many boys schools became co-ed and how many girls schools became co-ed (hardly any) Scouts now is co-ed, so slowly the boys drop out. Girl Guides is still active. So girls are allowed places just for them but boys are not. There was that crappy theory by Dale Spender (feather brain) that boys being inferior needed the civilising influence of girls. Boys need space to be boys just as girls need space for themselves. There are times when boys push away from girls as they need to work out what it is to be a man. Anyway, I could go on.
    Your point about the grey nomads perhaps points to a sort of depression among men. All that they are and have been good at, has been spurned, denegrated and made worthless. I hope this is not the case for long. We need men! For a start, I find men are much better at geography!

  6. I couldn't agree more, Jane, about men being better than women at geography that is, and other things you say here as well.

    If only things were not so instantly polarised, while not totally subsumed one with the other.

    As you say we need both: men and women, boys and girls, male and female, yin and yang, anima and animus etc etc. The list goes on.

    Thanks for your ongoing thoughts.

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