Saturday, December 1, 2012

Helen Garner

December, 2012:  At a Christmas gathering, a friend described meeting her long-time hero Helen Garner, and when I came home I found my eyes lighting upon The Children's Bach (1984).  I haven't read much of Helen Garner's work: Joe Cinque's Consolation, some short stories, and articles in journals.  I found Joe interesting - in fact, a 'page-turner' - but felt as though I had to crane my head around Helen Garner to see what was happening - she writes so much about herself and how she feels about the unfolding events.  Perhaps Garner considers it important regularly to remind readers that 'objective reportage' is a romantic fancy, and an impossibility.  Readers are not so stupid; we know that every writer is influenced by his or her individual slants, prejudices and partialities, but we have the capacity for filtering out the writer and picking out the truths.  And writers are capable of attempting objectivity, and getting close to it, if not achieving it.  Earlier this year, I met a man who was a personal friend of the woman made out, in Joe, to be a cold-blooded murderess; this man said Anu Singh was not guilty, and Garner's book was inaccurate and biased.  Garner's arguments in Joe were very convincing: if she got it wrong about Anu Singh, her book is a travesty in its own way.  I'm glad, as a writer of fiction, I don't have to take such risks.

So I picked up The Children's Bach, somewhat slanted and prejudiced against it.  If I find her reportage too personal, I find her fiction too cold and harsh.  I just don't think Garner and I will ever click.  I remember one short story I read, pulling off a book from my friend's impressive Australian-fiction shelf while babysitting: two friends are talking; one sighs, "I just want a man to look after me," the other says, "Women like us don't get men like that."  This comment both stung and enraged me, with its implication that independent feminist-type women (like me) disqualify themselves from supportive, loving relationships with manly men.  But perhaps it was true in Garner's generation - the women's independence might have been too fragile, too recently-won, to yield some of it back to love.

I found the reading of The Children's Bach to be on the unpleasant side.  My father complains that Patrick White is "too ugly".  I find Garner too ugly, even though her prose is elegant and clean.  It makes me think of the Picasso exhibition I saw some months ago, which showed his trajectory from beautiful to brutish and ugly; beauty was so easy for him, he seemed to despised it.  Beautiful prose is seductive and pleasant; Garner doesn't want her readers to relax, but squirm.  I was feeling a bit queasy as I read it, and when I think of it now, the queasiness returns.  I'll open three pages at random, to show you what I mean:

Arthur skipped around, squint-eyed with laughter.  The photos were of a naked baby boy lying on his back like a frog, flashing the enormous, raw genitals of the new-born.

At dawn Dexter stumbles in and stands looking at her.  She thinks, I can't be bothered fucking if it's going to be obscure.  But she does, they do, and the familiarity of his breathing by her ear brings up a rush of violence in her like vomiting...

The two mothers looked at her with their calm smiles.  She felt as jerky as a puppet.
'Last time I had my hair cut short back home,' Vicki chattered on, rushing to the round mirror in the corner, 'I looked so ugly that I cried all night.  And when I woke up in the morning my eyes were so swollen that I looked like a cane toad!'

Self-loathing seems to be a theme; the characters that aren't self-loathing are innocent, ignorant, lacking in self-awareness.  Is the Garner 'tree of knowledge' one that reveals you to be loathsome?  If you believe yourself to be lovable, that's only because you haven't bitten the apple yet.

However, taking a step back from the experience of reading it, I enjoyed and respected it for its structure.  The idea behind Children's Bach seems to be "let's take two family groups with different moral codes and send them colliding into each other."  I like it.  And the execution is very skillful - somehow the realism of the characters, what they do and how they talk, decoys the reader's eye away from this underlying idea; while I was reading it, I thought it was a vivid portrait of a culture; once I'd finished, I realised it was a scientific experiment.  A book such as Kate Grenville's The Secret River is too redolent of the author's intent for my liking - the author hangs over the stage, jerking the characters' strings and making them fulfill the author's requirements.  In Children's Bach, the author's intent is kept secret, until it's all over.  Then the reader can have a satisfying communion with the author, "Hm, very interesting!  I like the way the innocent, stable, loving family-group-#1 was blown apart by the worldly, individualistic, independent family-group-#2, and this resulted in both family groups being better off than when they started, despite the disastrous climax!"  My only gripe was the last two pages.  Writers feel they have to put on some sort of lyrical fireworks display for the ending, and despite Garner's stylishness, she also succumbed to this with a sort of arty wrap-up of the future:

and the clothes on the line will dry into stiff shapes which loosen when touched,

and someone will put the kettle on,
and from one day to the next Poppy will stop holding Philip's hand: he will drop his right hand to her left so she can take it, but nothing will happen, and when he looks down she will be standing there beside him, watching for a gap in the traffic, and she will not hold his hand any more, and she never will again,

and Dexter will sit on the edge of the bed to do up his sandals, and Athena will creep over to him and put her head on his knee, and he will take her head in his hands and stroke it with a firm touch,

And so on.  It's a daggy, unnecessary ending for a neat, ruthless novella.  In my reissue, I'd cut off the last two pages and end it with Athena sitting at the table, waiting for her family to come home.