Oblique por­trait in search of Garner’s ‘I’

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Edges are magic, writes Ali Smith in her gen­re­cross­ing 2012 book Art­ful. ‘‘[T]here’s a kind of for­bid­den magic on the bor­ders of things, al­ways a cer­e­mony of cross­ing over, even if we ig­nore it or are un­aware of it.’’ Aus­tralia’s He­len Garner ‘‘has al­ways been a bound­ary-crosser’’, ar­gues aca­demic and re­searcher Ber­nadette Bren­nan.

Fit­tingly, Bren­nan’s book A Writ­ing Life reimag­ines the in­ter­sec­tion be­tween life writ­ing and lit­er­ary crit­i­cism. It con­trib­utes to a vi­tal con­ver­sa­tion across and about Garner’s work, where ques­tions of bor­ders, trans­gres­sion and ethics re­cur.

Bren­nan is the au­thor of a mono­graph, Brian Cas­tro’s Fic­tion (2008), and ed­i­tor of two col­lec­tions of es­says. Just Words? Aus­tralian Au­thors Writ­ing for Jus­tice (2008) ex­plores writ­ing and jus­tice, while Eth­i­cal In­ves­ti­ga­tions: Es­says on Aus­tralian Lit­er­a­ture and Poet­ics (2008) brings to­gether 12 es­says by poet and aca­demic Noel Rowe.

This cross-dis­ci­plinary and work sug­gests the ap­pli­ca­bil­ity col­lab­o­ra­tive of Bren­nan’s com­ment on Garner’s work to her own: ‘‘[re­fus­ing] the constraints of lit­er­ary genre, she has sought to write across and craft her own ver­sions of them.”

Nei­ther ‘‘con­ven­tional bi­og­ra­phy nor a strict mono­graph”, A Writ­ing Life com­bines metic­u­lous schol­arly re­search with tex­tual anal­y­sis, in­ter­views with Garner’s friends, col­leagues and Garner her­self, and archival ma­te­rial.

Bren­nan’s style is un­der­stated and un­fussy, beau­ti­fully pitched, bal­anc­ing rich com­plex­ity with nar­ra­tive en­ergy. The work en­twines an oblique por­trait with con­sid­er­a­tion of por­trai­ture it­self, ex­am­ines the pur­pose and nature of the ‘‘I” that crosses Garner’s fic­tive and non­fic­tional work, and ex­plores Garner’s body of work as an en­tity.

This re­flects Garner’s com­ment that her work is ‘‘one book. The book of what I make of the world and my life as I have lived it.” If A Writ­ing Life is a bi­og­ra­phy, it is a bi­og­ra­phy of Garner’s oeu­vre, gener­i­cally rem­i­nis­cent of Sid­dhartha Mukherjee’s Pulitzer prize-win­ning The Em­peror of All Mal­adies: a Bi­og­ra­phy of Can­cer (2010) and in­spired by Janet Mal­colm’s frag­mented por­trait of artist David Salle, FortyOne False Starts, each of which drama­tises the pro­vi­sional and mo­bile nature of the form.

Each chap­ter, writes Bren­nan, “can be read as a room de­scrib­ing Garner’s house of writ­ing”. This is be­cause do­mes­tic spa­ces are cru­cial to Garner’s work, and partly as a means of re-imag­in­ing form to blend life writ­ing with lit­er­ary crit­i­cism. It’s an open-plan space, chap­ters open­ing into one an­other so that con­ver­sa­tions reach from one room to the next.

Like Garner her­self, Bren­nan con­sid­ers writ­ers’ — es­pe­cially fe­male writ­ers’ — lives, and the ques­tion of what re­spon­si­bil­ity or ex­pec­ta­tion there may be for an artist to dis­close the facts of her life, as well as ideas of in­va­sion, pri­vacy and in­jury.

A Writ­ing Life be­gins with two anec­dotes sug­gest­ing the book’s ter­rain. One in­volves Garner’s ir­ri­tated re­sponse to the sug­ges­tion by Amer­i­can writer David Shields dur­ing a con­fer­ence that “be­cause we ex­pe­ri­ence al­most no re­al­ity in our ac­tual lives, we crave the real” in our read­ing. In re­sponse “Garner said that, liv­ing next door to her three young grand­chil­dren, she did ex­pe­ri­ence real things”.

The se­cond quotes Garner’s com­ment in an in­ter­view with Jen­nifer El­li­son 30 years ago that she “would never be so fa­mous as to be recog­nised when she walked into a room”. Bren­nan shapes her study around ques­tions of the def­i­ni­tion and dy­nam­ics of the real and imag­ined and the ways “Garner’s life and work in­form and shape each other”.

Bren­nan ar­gues the “I” in Garner’s non­fic­tional work is, as Mal­colm has said of her own work, “al­most pure in­ven­tion”. For me, re-read- ing Mal­colm’s Paris Re­view in­ter­view, her anal­ogy leaps out: “the ‘I’ of jour­nal­ism is con­nected to the writer only in a ten­u­ous way — the way, say, that Su­per­man is con­nected to Clark Kent”. Not so ten­u­ously at all, ar­guably, and the fur­ther com­pli­ca­tion, for both Mal­colm and Garner, is the meld­ing of the jour­nal­ist’s “I” with the au­to­bi­og­ra­pher’s. For Mal­colm, the au­to­bi­og­ra­pher op­er­ates “in a treach­er­ous ter­rain”.

Ted Hughes once said of Sylvia Plath that she “went straight for the cen­tral, un­ac­cept­able things”. Garner writes about what she calls “the ex­cru­ci­at­ing realms of hu­man be­hav­iour”. Writ­ing about the pub­lic pil­lo­ry­ing of Mal­colm, and tak­ing his cue from her book on Plath, The Silent Woman, Craig Selig­man com­ments that, “like Sylvia Plath, whose not-nice­ness she has laid open with sur­gi­cal skill, she dis­cov­ered her vo­ca­tion in not-nice­ness … Mal­colm’s blade gleams with a ra­zor edge”.

Mal­colm was born in 1934, two years af­ter Plath. Garner was born a decade later, in 1942. Gen­dered pro­scrip­tions about what might con­sti­tute “nice” sub­ject mat­ter, or what a “nice” woman might write about may have shifted, but they per­sist. In the sense of Selig­man’s sur­gi­cal metaphors, Garner’s writ­ing, like Mal­colm’s, is very nice in­deed. For all this acute­ness, Bren­nan notes that Garner has avoided “prob­ing her past too deeply”:

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