Oblique portrait in search of Garner’s ‘I’
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”: