The myth of Helen Garner’s diaries is immense. When she published Monkey Grip 40-odd years ago, with its riveting depiction of emotional and drug squalors in inner-urban Melbourne, she evoked a world that had never been written about before. But the novel’s heartbreaks and contentments, with its central portrait of Javo the junkie, were accused of being just diaries rehashed as fiction. The alternative view of the Garner diaries is that they constitute her major life’s work: that when they saw the light of day – presumably, people thought, after her death – they would be acknowledged as one of the great journals of lived experience, up there with Pepys and Gide.
Well, Michael Heyward of Text, with his quasi-magical powers of persuasion and self-interest, has succeeded in getting Garner to publish a selection now. They are, in fact, everything one had hoped for: dramatic, dark, introspective, full of instant re-creations of despair and disillusion, animations of human entanglement and consolation, the shadows and the substance of fathers and lovers, men and women and children in lightning epiphany.
You wonder at first if you’re getting too little, if there is an anthologising skimpiness to the earlier selections, where the whole can seem a bit less than the sum of its parts – as if these are occasional elegancies dropped from heaven. Any hint of this disappears, however, as the central crises come into focus and we get the fullest registration of Garner’s preoccupations with the fear and trembling of writing, her pride in her art and her terror of how its black magic can corrode the soul, her deep pull towards the emotional authority of men and her ability to see, if not through, then at least into these creatures who couldn’t possibly cook, who don’t want children, who live for art and ideas and still have their gentle charm and lameness.
As these diaries progress, we feel the inevitable pull of the master economist behind The Children’s Bach; worlds of incident and feeling are clipped into a shape of entrancing implication. This is a book full of inflection and innuendo: it refers rather than presents, contradicting every Leavisite stricture, but its reference becomes a ravishing soliloquy of reaching out and searching deep. Yellow Notebook reveals the bewildered quest, the stubborn orneriness and vanity of a soul forever journeying it knows not where. It has the power of great fiction that the finest poetry has.
Text, 272pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 2, 2019 as "Helen Garner, Yellow Notebook". Subscribe here.