Friday, October 09, 2009

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 na├»ve, 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.
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