Tuesday, 1 May 2018

A Helen Garner Festival (of sorts)

We tried something we've never done before for our April meeting, which was that we could all choose our own book to read, with one proviso - it had to be by (or about) Helen Garner. This is not something you could do with many authors, but with the longevity of Garner's career, and the spread of her writing over novels, short stories, screenplays, essays, and longform non-fiction, we felt it could work - and it did. We did something else new, too, suggesting that attendees write a brief comment on their choice for the blog. Those contributions are included in this post.

So, what did we read?

  • Monkey grip (1977) (x2)
  • The children’s Bach (1984) (x2)
  • The last days of Chez Nous and Two friends (1992)
  • The feel of steel (2001)
  • Everywhere I look (2016) (x2)
  • True stories (2017)
  • A writing life: Helen Garner and her work, by Bernadette Brennan (2017)
We chose these for various reasons. One chose Monkey grip because it's "in our culture" and she hadn't read it, while the other read it because she'd read it before and hadn't liked it, so wanted to reassess it from her later years! One found two at Lifeline, and didn't want to read Joe Cinque's consolation, so read the other, The feel of steel. A few of us chose our books because we had them on our shelves, just waiting to be read (or re-read.) One chose The children's Bach because the title suggested there'd be references to music in it, while another read True stories because it's a compilation of 50 years of her writing. And one chose the literary portrait because she'd read many of Garner's books and wanted to find out more about her.

What common threads did we find?

The overriding thread was that she draws heavily from her life, even for works that aren't strongly autobiographical. She is present in most of her writing, one way or another, including her long non-fiction works, such as Joe Cinque's consolation.

Another thread was that she is "searingly honest", "will have a go at everything", "is not afraid of looking an idiot".  This can apply both to the topics she chooses and her way of exploring them.

The third main thread that most of us commented on was her writing. She's a wonderful stylist, and a spare writer. But spare, we agreed, doesn't mean plain. One put it beautifully by praising Garner's "word pictures".

Our personal comments

Monkey Grip (Sylvia)

This is a story about drugs and the effects on young lives, not only of the people taking them but also their inner Melbourne community. We see the story through Nora’s eyes, who is a woman in her early thirties living in a shared house with a young child and she is in love with a drug addicted fellow called Javo. Javo comes and goes with her and with the drugs. He doesn’t like what the drugs do to him, neither does Nora like him on drugs, but he can’t seem to stay clean. He treats her badly by loving her sometimes and then going on to other relationships. As the blurb on the back of the book says "they are unable to let go – the harder they pull away from each other, the tighter the monkey grip."

They do very little work but seem to have money to spend on drugs and meals. It is a pretty difficult way to live and I found it hard to appreciate their inner conflicts. The struggle to love Javo concludes with Nora realising that she can’t change him and she needs to make her own life away from him.

It is a very well written book with very convincing characters. It is a book which is applicable to today’s young people who live in a similar state of lack of self worth and depression. Overall it is a very sad book.

I lay awake beside him through the nights full of groaning and half-sleep. Once he saved me some coke, and brought it round. I snorted it and it got me through his worst night: I lay there serenely, observing dispassionately his contortions as he came down. I would have done anything I could to help him, but nothing could be done, so I lay next to him while he sweated and heaved, and the night passed. (Penguin edition, p. 19).

Monkey grip (Denise)

I re-read Monkey Grip which I read 40 years ago and thought at the time it was a much hyped novel about people I disliked and who really annoyed me. I could not remember the details of the novel, just lots of hippies moving between share houses, behaving irresponsibly and I remembered the negative response it left in me.

Re-reading it, I enjoyed it much more because I could appreciate the good writing and character development, even as it does portray self centred people overdoing the drug and free and easy sex. As a more mature reader I can now reflect how easily otherwise bright people get enmeshed in a dope scene wit hopeless partners.

Helen's detail in describing conversations, interiors, outings to the beach, playing with her daughter takes the reader right into the heart of the characters life. She builds a tension in you, and you turn the page wanting to read the next disaster

The children's Bach (Judith)

I read “The Children’s Bach”, a novella. One of the appeal factors was its potential connection to music. It did not disappoint. Music references in various forms – classical, popular, dancing, playing piano, guitar, piano lessons and practice – were sprinkled throughout the writing, linked to many of the characters. However, I have to admit that these became more obvious as I reflected on the book as a whole, and weren’t especially prominent during my initial reading.

Early on, the reader finds that in Athena’s kitchen in the house at Merri Creek was a piano – curiously, the writing did not explain why it was in the kitchen. Subsequent descriptions referred to her sporadic playing, the quality of it and how she felt about it. Our group noted how Garner herself learnt to play piano in her middle years.

I particularly loved the description (which brought back fond memories for me) of going into a music shop with rows of grand pianos on display. It presented yet another example of Garner’s wonderful ability to sketch and capture a scene.

‘Let’s go to Allans. I feel like playing the pianos.’ The house of music was lumbered with grands, a noble line of them, each fluttering a many-digited price tag. Their lids were propped open as if to catch a breath of air. Their perfect teeth, their glossy flanks, their sumptuous smell caused customers to tiptoe past them on their way to the secondhand uprights at the back ...

Then follows a delightful description of Poppy at one piano and a young sales assistant at another playing the same piece in snatches. 

‘Their game was clever: the man teased, the girl echoed him, they were flirting with each other, laughing; they played three slow chords in unison. People stopped and listened, pretending not to, because it was so intimate.’

More observations on Garner’s ability to effortlessly describe scenes and situations:

‘The waiter had a face like an unchipped statue.’ 
‘He waltzed the car from lane to lane with big flourishes of the steering wheel.’ (on Dexter)
“They lay wide awake…, restless, involved in their separate travellings, longing to slip off the edge into real sleep.
'Are you still awake?' said Athena.
'Yes.'
'Stop thinking. How can I drop off next to a head full of thoughts?'”

The last days of Chez Nous and Two friends (Sue T)

Helen Garner’s two screenplays, The last days of Chez Nous and Two friends, make for great reading, surprisingly (given they're meant to be seen not read.) They fit neatly within her oeuvre of novels and short stories about families and relationship breakdowns. She is highly skilled in her prose at identifying the little but important expressions and reactions that help illuminate what is happening on the surface. She does this in the screenplays, partly through descriptions which are presumably intended as directions to the actors.

This example is from Last days of Chez Nous, just before JP admits his betrayal to wife Beth, who has already intuited something is up:
Everyone looks at her, surprised. She has quietly dropped her bundle.

The feel of steel (Sue B)

This is a nonfiction collection of essays - more like fragments from a diary. All are typically deeply personal, keenly observed - honest, fearless and absorbing. Includes a trip among icebergs in Antarctica ("Always this urge to  anthropomorphise grips us as if the awe – or panic, or even deep down rage – provoked in us by a landscape without human meaning were too deep to bear"); on being a reader ("I knew I couldn't be the only person in the world who's capable of forgetting the contents of a novel only minutes after having closed it"); her experience of colonic irrigation at a Spa resort on Koh Samui – admitting that she enjoyed it; the divisive effect on the family as her mother slipped into Alzheimer's; and becoming a grandmother ("At my age you do not expect to be consumed by a passion so intense ... I could turn into a monster Nanna".)

I couldn't stop reading.

Everywhere I look (Janet)

I chose this book because it had been on my bedside table for about a year, having been lent to me by a friend when I was in hospital. What I liked about it is that Garner doesn’t mince words; I think she’s very direct and honest about herself. At the very least, she’s as hard on herself as she is on those she critiques. I’m sure I know her better for having read this book.

Although Garner is 14 years older than me which, now that I think about it, means she finished school before I started, I enjoyed her take on things I’ve experienced; living in inner Melbourne, going to Melbourne Uni and her spiel on suburbia (Moonie Ponds). Like Garner, I was born in Geelong. I grew up on the other side of Melbourne but it was similar (although it escaped directly, the mocking humour of Barry Humphries) and like her, I went to an exclusive girls’ high school. I liked it when she said “I wanted to speak up, now that it’s too late [It’s too late for me too.], for my parents and for my parents’ friends – those shy, modest, public spirited people……These people were kind to their neighbour’s children.” It made me remember my Mother having been the President of my primary school’s Mothers’ Club and how she ran the annual school fete and that my Father was a scout leader. I remembered Ernie next door, my friends’ Dad who was the station master at the local train station and rode his bike to work. Ernie taught me how to mend a puncture on the second hand bike I bought for $10, using several weeks of my earnings from working in the corner milk bar on Sunday afternoons. I don’t write so I’m grateful that Garner thought to write about small things in her life that made me remember and appreciate some of my own forgotten sweet small things.

As for the chapter called 'The Insults of Age', all I can say is “I know!” About 2 years ago, so before my 60th, I went to Hoyts Woden and was sold, unsolicited, a seniors ticket. I didn’t know whether to swat him or thank him for the saving, so I just walked off, pondering looking over 60, until I decided that the four-year-old who sold me the ticket was ill-qualified to presume to judge my age and so to focus on the money he saved me. This is confronting for we (tail-end in my case, I hasten to add) baby boomers who all think we’re ten years younger than our chronological ages.

As I shared at the meeting, I though the chapter 'How to Marry Your Daughters’ was an hilarious precis of our beloved Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The final sentence:

And long live the Lydias of this world, the slack molls who provide the grit in the engine of the marriage plot; for without them it would run so smoothly that the rest of us would fall into despair.

Love it.

True stories (Gerda)

I chose True stories as it covers 50 years of her non-fiction short pieces, covering a huge variety of topics. I enjoyed reading this - easy to dip into, hard to put down. I loved the way she observes and listens to what is going on around her.

I found her writing honest, compassionate, evocative, attentive to small details and the  pleasures/hardships of everyday life - joy, love, loss, fear, longing, grief. Some pieces are so funny, others heart-wrenching

Hard to pick any favourite pieces, though I particularly enjoyed "My child in the world", "Mr Tiarapu", "Regions of thick-ribbed Ice", "Labour Ward, Penrith", "On turning Fifty", and "Woman in a Green Mantle".

Our conclusion


Our discussion ranged rather widely - too widely to include it all here - but we did try to draw it all together at the end, particularly regarding her relevance and longevity. Is she too Melbourne-focused? Does she only appeal to people around our age? Will she still be relevant for future readers?

One member reported that her daughter, who's a keen reader, couldn't get into Everywhere I look. The Melbournites loved her ability to describe Melbourne, but wondered if that limited her appeal.

Our conclusion, though, was that she has carved out a niche that's unlike anyone else, and that despite her focused setting, her subject matter is universal. And, in addition to all this is her writing. It's worth reading for itself.

PRESENT: 9 members

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