Everywhere I Look
Collected nonfiction makes for a strange kind of book with a high risk of filler and miscellany. The enjoyment of even very good essays can be qualified and provisional, so peculiar are the circumstances under which most magazine assignments are written.
But why pretend for a minute that we aren’t talking about Helen Garner? This collection of 33 essays is indeed a miscellany; as if to foreground this, it begins with one about learning to play the ukulele. The next is about buying a table.
But what an essay about the ukulele! And what an essay about a table! Perhaps it’s that everything in a Garner essay is an opportunity for self-scrutiny (she buys the table as a means to avoid one possible fate of a woman living alone, “standing at the open fridge door and dining on a cold boiled potato. I was determined to be elegant in my solitude.”). Perhaps it’s her ability to say complex things simply, even as she makes clear that nothing is simple.
Her essay on the insults of ageing, published in The Monthly last year, is as terrific as you remember it: “Really, it is astonishing how much shit a woman will cop in the interests of civic and domestic order.” Its themes (grace, insults, bodies, ageing) are echoed in an upsetting remembrance of Elizabeth Jolley. There are very rich profiles of everyone from Rosie Batty to Russell Crowe.
For a few long stretches the published work is broken by extracts from the author’s diaries. Even this is not filler. It’s often a record of the quietly uncanny. When Garner visits a fashionable cafe as the world economy goes into freefall, she sees five men in shirts and ties whom she first thinks are having a business meeting. “Then I realise they are praying.” Writers fall in love with Garner, I think, because her topic is often, in some way, writing; even when it isn’t, she is always offering a model for working and thinking. In parts of the diary, you see that her plans for triumphs of routine and productivity are as wild as anyone’s; they are just as quickly arrived at and just as easily thwarted.
In one entry, she quotes Joan Acocella, the great critic, on finding “a point … where aesthetics meets morals”. It’s not a bad description of the place Garner writes from, and of course, she’d be the first to cite it. CR
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 26, 2016 as "Helen Garner, Everywhere I Look". Subscribe here.