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Helen Garner: Diaries from 1995 to 1998 paint the portrait of a writer in need of space and time | Canberra time

By on November 26, 2021 0

lifestyle, books, How to End a Story: Diaries 1995-1998, helen garner, text editing, the foundation stone, melbourne writer, monkey grip

Sex, art, gender and ambition. The problem of love. A room of one’s own and how to preserve this room when you are married to another writer, an authoritarian in addition. The third volume of Helen Garner’s Diaries covers familiar ground, though it’s a wilder and darker adventure than the two volumes that preceded it. How to End a Story is a plunge into the abyss as the artist and wife desperately try to keep their marriage, sanity and artistic vision alive. It is mainly set in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, where Garner lives with her husband, V. While V is writing his big novel in their flat, she has to go away. All day, every day. The question of where, how and in what mental space the writer can write becomes a battlefield. She rents various offices but each is ultimately unsatisfactory. She aspires to a warm and generous space to write, to let ideas rise or fall. Or sometimes to work from home, so she can put in a load of laundry, cook, call people, gasbag and laugh. Anyway, at home, she wants to be able to do all the loud and busy things that V finds repulsive when he’s working. The contrast between what everyone considers a good and rich life for a writer couldn’t be more stark. She writes of being “in the classic position of a female artist who, in order to maintain a marriage, is forced to carve out”. She goes to therapy and V is against it as well. Their struggle, moral, artistic and emotional, is the central drama of How to end a story: “We are engaged in a bitter struggle to define ourselves, one against the other. As compelling and appalling as the disintegration of their marriage is, the margins of the story are still adorned with typical Garneresque sketches and peppered with his sharp little verbs that give him such writing courage. Whenever she can, she frees herself from V’s curious disapproval to socialize, play Scrabble with her neighbor, and let loose: “[V] was barely up in the air when I’d smoked a joint with the neighbors and rushed with two other friends to Sean’s Panorama.” She ruminates over whether V is having an affair, talks to herself about her jealousy, then eventually getting her to admit months of infidelity Garner is synonymous with her hometown of Melbourne, and there’s something quirky and painful about watching her thrash around Sydney, heartbroken and bewildered. Keeping a diary is elementary for Garner: “Writing about my life is the only thing that makes it possible to live it. Yet her diary is also scrutinized by V, who worries about the way she records their private life. She offers to do the unthinkable and only mentions it in passing. Then he steps back and says she should continue to write about their lives as she wishes. She also notes, “the only way I can continue to keep a diary …is to conceive of it as a recording of the soul. As if in the presence of God who is never fooled.” This volume is full of light and shadow. Ruthless honesty and savagery sit side by side with Garner’s appreciation of “dearest freshness, au deepest things” (from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, which she transcribed in her diary. As the book opens, she is still weathering the storm of the publication of The First Stone, her account of the harassment sex at the University of Melbourne’s prestigious Ormond College publication, it’s hard to evoke the extraordinary stir the book caused.A cartoon from the time showed a beleaguered-looking Garner taking Salman’s phone Rushdie. Hello? Salman? How’s life under the fatwa? But even when his work dominates the headlines, V is dismissive, agreeing with an acquaintance that the debate over The First Stone is a storm in a teacup. After The First Stone, and in the shadow of the rigid routine of V and bridge Building on great art, she struggles to challenge on her own turf – “Maybe my good place to work is in a crack between fiction and anything else. Later, she wonders about her crossed genre, “between fiction and the story of what happened”. At one point, V asks why anyone would be interested in reading his diaries. There are many of us, it turns out. Seeing the title of this volume, I wondered if the author, now in her late 70s, was implying that she was done with storytelling? Few Australian writers are as beloved as Helen Garner. Many of us grew up reading his work, and watching his territory fill out beautifully. So hopefully we’ll see a fourth volume of his diary around this time next year.

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