Books

Helen Garner
How to End a Story: Diaries 1995-1998

Helen Garner’s third and final volume of published diaries covers three years, from 1995 to 1998, during which her marriage to author Murray Bail finally broke down. As a diary – one, moreover, written by an author with an avid and democratic eye for telling detail – it is obedient to the unruliness of the form. This is a book assembled from perceptual flotsam and daily happenstance – gossip and anecdote, dreams and the weather, overheard dialogue and stray literary quotation.

Yet the title of this volume – How to End a Story – also speaks of a writer’s desire to impose pattern, shape and order on that raw influx of reality. How to End a Story pulls a double shift here. It stands for the creative crisis Garner undergoes when her ability to write fiction absents itself, just as her then partner is immersed in Eucalyptus, the novel that will become Bail’s best-known.

But it also, inevitably, speaks of their marital separation. Marriage being a kind of fiction, after all, composed by two unreliable narrators who, should the bond fail, often battle over who gets to determine its retrospective meaning.

Earlier this year, Bail published He., an oblique autobiography that covers the same period and the same events as How to End a Story, albeit in far more glancing terms. What gives form to this Diary is Garner’s determination to wrest back control of their marital narrative – though not to proclaim hers the definitive version. She only wants to reclaim a life and art smothered beneath another’s ambition.

The opening pages find Garner ambivalent to the point of illness in the aftermath of The First Stone’s publication. That most provocative of her books is a huge commercial success, but the scandal on which it is based threatens to overwhelm the work itself. The press, scenting blood, misrepresent Garner’s words, while many young women who grew up regarding Garner as an exemplary feminist now excoriate her.

Though the author squares up bravely – “I know,” she writes, “I have to keep examining this landscape of destruction, for my role in it … [accept] that I have enemies, and be robust about it” – there is a disquieting edge to Bail’s response (he is referred to as “V” throughout). He sides with some criticisms of the book and if he is not actually envious of Garner’s achievement, that is only because hers is a work of nonfiction: the novel is his bailiwick.

For the author of The Children’s Bach, such perimeter-guarding by her husband is galling. But Garner admits a creative drought when it comes to fiction. There are no stories, no novels, welling up from her imagination. “Maybe,” she asks, anticipating The Spare Room, “my right place to work is down a fissure between fiction and whatever the other thing is.”

But as the evidence mounts that her failure to write more than occasional journalism and criticism is about more than writer’s block, Garner wonders whether she hasn’t fallen into an old trap: “I think I am in the classic position of a woman artist who in order to maintain a marriage is obliged to trim herself so as not to make her husband feel – what? Something a man is not supposed to have to feel?”

Many of the subsequent diary entries are concerned with the slow displacement of that last question mark with an exclamation point. Garner goes into therapy to understand her situation; V condemns the banality of psychoanalysis. She reaches out to her family and friends for love and support; V either rails against these or poaches them for himself.

Only when a friendship between V and a glamorous artist of European descent living near their Elizabeth Bay apartment blossoms into something deeper does Garner acknowledge the true extent of the damage. From here, by poisonous increments – with tearful reconciliations and recurring infidelities – Garner narrates the end of one story in her life.

But it’s not only an ending. The car crash voyeurism that attends Garner’s marriage is the dark background of her life through these years: it’s the necessary obverse from which the light is reflected. The true gratifications of How to End a Story exist in a woman’s slow, tentative unfurling in the wake of a relationship’s collapse.

Pointillist accounts of birdlife at dusk or dawn. A dictionary of ways to describe Sydney’s light. The dignity of an ageing woman’s naked body. Ironing clothes as a domestic sacrament. Readers come to understand that it is the diarist’s porousness to experience that opens her to the hurt of her marriage. But it also gives access to simple pleasures – pleasures that can shade into something like ecstasy.

Here she is at her father’s wake, having discovered a baby in a car capsule, “revving up to cry”: “I strolled around the garden with the baby in my arms for an hour or so, murmuring away to her, pointing out trees with little hard green fruits clamped to their leaf-sprays. I chattered in every language that I knew, and she rested against my chest in her tiny snail-curve. The sky was grey, all the trees were in fresh leaf, the air was cold and clean. On the drive home one of the men said, ‘Let’s sing hymns.’ The old words came back to me, verse after verse.”

Reviewing Bail’s He. earlier this year, I claimed that while the book failed as autobiography, it succeeded as art. How to End a Story succeeds at both. It is a work that knows, as Flaubert did, that there is “not a particle of life which does not bear poetry within it”.

Geordie Williamson

Text Publishing, 256pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 30, 2021 as "How to End a Story: Diaries 1995-1998, Helen Garner".

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Reviewer: Geordie Williamson