Reviewed by Peter Hayes

A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work By Bernadette Brennan,

  • Publisher: Text 2017
  • ISBN: 9781925498035
  • RRP pb $32.99In a society as small and isolated as Australia’s it doesn’t take many people to form a received opinion, and once an idea gains a foothold it can be impossible to dislodge, especially when it’s a wrong one. Dr Bernadette Brennan’s new book A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work (Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2017) is by far the longest study of Garner published to date and the culmination to date, so far as Garner is concerned, of this entropic process.  There were a few things working against it in advance, however, even beyond the second law of thermodynamics: primarily that it’s an authorised study of a living author, to whom Brennan was psychologically indebted for the access granted to embargoed papers, and published by the subject’s own publisher, a commercial enterprise, not an academic press.Brennan had all sorts of figurative eyes looking over her shoulder as she wrote and was evidently a one-eyed Garner fan herself to begin with.  It is hard to imagine such a process producing anything higher than hagiography and it hasn’t here.  A Writing Life stands somewhere between publicity material and advertising copy and personally I think Text should be giving it away for free.  I shouldn’t have had to pay for a 300-page advertisement for one of Text’s own writers.  But that’s what I did and that’s what I got, because the keynote of this book is gush.Brennan gushes from start to finish.  On her second page she tells us that “Garner is one of the best-known and, some would say, best-loved writers in Australia.” [2]  Monkey Grip managed in 1977 “to explode notions of literary decorum” [34] and “is now recognised as a modern classic”. [48]  Garner’s novella The Children’s Bach has an “extraordinary opening paragraph”. [70]  “Three important stories written in 1987 and 1988 signalled a major shift in Garner’s work”. [99]  In The First Stone Garner “was asking important and difficult questions” [172] and so on.

     

    Brennan considers it noteworthy that Garner wrote The Spare Room “in six months” and that Garner remarked “it seemed to ‘burst out’ of her” [236] but fails to note that it only runs to around 36,500 words.  200 words a day for six months is unremarkable by professional standards and history records any number of novels written at speeds that make that burst look positively glacial.  Evelyn Waugh wrote Brideshead Revisited (three times The Spare Room’s length) in five months.  Dr Johnson wrote Rasselas (37,000 words) according to Boswell “in the evenings of one week”.

     

    On and on Brennan gushes, concluding with the claim that Garner is “a writer still in full creative flight.” [296]  Garner is 74 years old with no known book in preparation – Brennan mentions none – and her last full-scale work, This House of Grief, took her seven years to research.  A reasonable observer might have thought her writing career was at least beginning to wind down, and Brennan would appear to be writing here more on the basis of hope than a rational assessment of the facts.

     

    Brennan’s final chapter contains a welter of assertions in one paragraph (including, inevitably, that Garner “should be remembered as a brilliant stylist” [293]) that 290 pages have done little or nothing to justify.  Brennan also assures us in this final chapter that Garner’s works “are far more carefully crafted and connected than they may appear.” [296]  They’d want to be, but that sort of claim – saying that things are deceptively simple and the like – is a standard item in the newspaper reviewer’s repertoire of clichés; we would have once hoped for better from a PhD.

     

    Brennan’s appeals to authority are even more naïve.  She cites favourable reviews and prizes, for example, as though such things meant anything.  When she quotes Don Anderson saying “There are four perfect short novels in the English language.  They are, in chronological order, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Helen Garner’s The Children’s Bach” [77] she demonstrates that Anderson in his heyday was able to gush with the best of them, but nothing about The Children’s Bach – an obvious artistic failure and a manifestly flawed book – as a work of literature.  And Brennan makes a big mistake here in saying Anderson said this in “concluding” his review of The Children’s Bach for The National Times.  Brennan gives sufficient indication otherwise of having read that review (The National Times, 30/11/84, p 35), [76-77] but Anderson made the quoted remarks in a different place entirely, an article nominally reviewing The Ford Madox Ford Reader (The National Times, 20/6/86, p 34), which he began with this claim, virtually as a throwaway line – certainly not as the conclusion of any argument – and Brennan gives a citation to this second item as her only source for these two conflated articles.

     

    To Bernadette Brennan any positive review is a point in Garner’s favour and any negative review a point against the reviewer.  And her account of the reviews of Monkey Grip is inaccurate to the point of being offensive.  I have not checked all of her sources here, but I have checked enough of them to have acquired more examples of misrepresentation than I can use; misrepresentation of those reviews is the rule, not the exception, if indeed there is an exception.

     

    Nowhere in her review (Nation Review, 3/11/77, p 17), for example, does Irina Dunn call Monkey Grip “perverse”, [35] as Brennan claims.  Dunn refers in fact to “the narrator’s perverse love for a junkie ten years younger than herself”, obviously in the sense of its being irrational.

     

    Jan McGuinness’s early profile of Garner for the Melbourne Herald (27/12/1977) is bizarrely caricatured as a hatchet job; it would require more space than the matter deserves to show how false this is.  Peter Pierce’s considered objection to Monkey Grip in Meanjin (1/1981) is misrepresented in a gratuitous sideswipe that implies the objection to have been mere prudery, which it wasn’t.

     

    Brennan actually sniffs at one reviewer for calling Monkey Grip “not a book for the prudish” [35] – which is absurd in itself; does Brennan think it is a book for the prudish? – and when one looks up this review one finds Brennan’s six-word quotation from it embedded thus:

     

    Helen Garner writes with a sense of the real guts of life.  The language and the scene are overpoweringly real.  It is not a book for the prudish, but it is overwhelmingly filled with love and understanding. (Australian Book Review, June 1978, p 18)

     

    This is scandalous on Brennan’s part.

     

    Janet Malcolm’s New Yorker review of The First Stone (7/7/97) Brennan misrepresents most radically of all.  Brennan notes some of Malcolm’s criticisms of Garner fairly, but questionably attributes to Malcolm the view that Garner was depicting herself “as an ‘unbalanced person’ trying to write a calm and balanced book” [179] and that according to Malcolm it was this self-depiction that

     

    made The First Stone ‘an extraordinary book, a book unlike any other study of sexual harassment’. [179]

     

    That’s where Brennan stops the quotation, like a Hollywood publicist cutting a negative review down to something that can be printed on a movie poster as praise, because what Malcolm actually wrote was:

     

    What makes “The First Stone” such an extraordinary book, a book unlike any other study of sexual harassment, is Garner’s enactment—in her obsessive pursuit of Nicole Stewart and Elizabeth Rosen—of the very misdemeanor she has set out to investigate.  (The New Yorker 7/7/97 pp 74-75)

     

    It’s breathtaking to see Brennan turn into a positive review an accusation (from Garner’s own role model) that Garner herself was an obsessive harasser, but there it is.

     

    The fact that someone as sympathetic to Garner as Robert Dessaix raises objections to calling Monkey Grip and (inter alia) The Spare Room novels ought to have given Brennan at least a moment’s pause before dismissing that point of view. [244-245]  But Brennan doesn’t even try to understand such objections.  Monkey Grip was not, as she claims, attacked for being “heavily autobiographical” [36-37] but for being too heavily autobiographical – and insufficiently novelistic.  She says Dessaix “insisted” Garner’s books are not novels where he in fact presented reasons for that conclusion.  You won’t find Dessaix’s observation that “A novel is primarily a work of fiction with an architectonic quality to it that transcribed diaries just don’t have” quoted by Brennan.

     

    Brennan’s own literary analysis runs to saying things like “These stories revolve around emotion, implied most often by Garner’s manipulation of detail” [82] and waffle generally.  If Monkey Grip “stressed how the new patterns of communal living offered, particularly for women, a sense of liberating possibility beyond marriage and childrearing”, [69] that’s all it needs to have done; it doesn’t matter whether it’s a good book or a bad one; to Brennan intention and content are everything, with execution barely a consideration, if a consideration at all.

     

    Brennan’s Garner never writes a bad novel, novella, short story, essay, film review or screenplay.  The closest Brennan comes to giving anything at all by Garner a thumbs-down is to say of one uncollected article, “It was not her finest piece of journalism.” [28]

     

    One would never know from reading Brennan’s book how boring and forgettable a book Monkey Grip, for example, is to read.  Its narrator tells us, for instance (this is unedited):

     

    I sat on his knee and we hugged each other.  We went to the city and ate a meal.  He borrowed ten dollars from me and bought himself a blue cardigan.  We walked back to the tower with our arms round each other, companionable and cheerful.  [MG86]

     

    This is synopsis, not narrative, and typical of too much of the book, which runs to 245 pages.  A novelist tells you more than “we ate a meal”.

     

    Reading A Writing Life I feel as though I’m reading an official history produced by the Ministry of Truth, because Brennan is so uncritical of Garner she can excuse her practically anything and can ignore obvious counter-evidence as though it never existed.

     

    Brennan discusses Garner’s 1972 sacking from the Victorian Education Department without expressing any opinion on whether Garner was in the right or wrong to have talked about sex and a wide range of sexual matters and practices, including her own, with form-one pupils over two separate sessions in four-letter terms.  In a serious study of Garner such questions do need to be addressed.

     

    “Garner insisted that she did not realise speaking in this manner was a political act.  She was simply being honest”, Brennan writes before adding “Maybe.  Or maybe not”, [28] and running through a series of incidents involving censorship and obscenity from that era that Garner might have known about.  “Maybe.  Or maybe not” is relatively strong from Brennan, but it still lets Garner off the hook, because the fact is that Garner herself told the children “that I’ll get the sack if it gets round that I’ve been saying fuck and cunt in the classroom.”  (I am quoting the original Digger text here [4/11/72, p 3]; but with some added quotation marks it can be found identically worded for all to see in True Stories on page 34; it’s hardly a secret.)  That warning to the children shows Garner did know what she was doing in speaking as she did, on the second occasion at least, with no “maybe” about it.  Brennan fails to mention it.

     

    Brennan fails to mention a lot of things, including the fact that Garner wrote two newspaper articles in response to her sacking.  In one of these (Neos Kosmos, 22/3/73, p 19) she went on the counter-attack by saying, for example, “We know now that people at Fitzroy High School snoop and pry and make secret reports.”  In the other article (The Digger, 13/1/73, p 6) – which Brennan certainly knows of: she cites it in a note to her own page 28 – Garner says of herself (as I read it), against those who complained about her, “when you tell the truth you make yourself vulnerable to liars”.  Brennan’s claim later in the book that in 1972 Garner “swallowed her rage and went quietly” [141] is utterly false.

     

    It actually came as a mild shock to me halfway through the book when, after so much gush, Brennan makes a real criticism of Garner in saying that The First Stone’s final sentence makes a “harsh and unfounded” allegation against the Ormond College complainants (as it does) that “undermines much of the moral authority she had sought to establish”. [153]  But Brennan softens even that a few pages later by saying that with that final sentence “she too succumbed to judgmentalism”, [157] implying that it was out of character.

     

    If Garner gives multiple false names in The First Stone to a single real person, Jenna Mead, that’s fine by Brennan.  She fails to acknowledge this as a breach of professional ethics, although if actual journalists did something like that they would be sacked for it.  Brennan shifts the blame on to others and absolves Garner by saying “Garner had little choice.  Reluctantly she capitulated.”  [158]  The hard fact dodged here is that, reluctantly or not, and whoever thought of it originally, Garner went along with it.  Her name alone appears on The First Stone’s title page, cover and spine; it was her book and her responsibility.

     

    The “Author’s Note” at the start of The First Stone is equally fine by Brennan.  She writes that in a draft of that note Garner “stated […] that Australian defamation laws had led to a device that ‘distorted core truths of the story’.” [158]  Brennan then goes on to talk her way through the Author’s Note that actually prefaces The First Stone – which makes no admission of having distorted any truth of anything and is largely gibberish.  Garner says there that research obstacles “obliged me to raise the story on to a level where […] its archetypal features have become visible.”  What that meant in 1995 was anyone’s guess, but in hindsight it was just so much smoke blown in our eyes: Garner simply didn’t want us to know how much of the book was directed against one person.  Brennan not only fails to acknowledge or condemn this, she describes it as Garner “explaining obliquely about legal compliance”, [159] which it patently isn’t.

     

    In her latest collection of writings, Everywhere I Look, Garner tells a story about physically assaulting a schoolgirl in the street, and even that’s sort of fine by Brennan: certainly fine enough for Garner to be let off this hook too.  This is the assault in Garner’s own words:

     

    I reached up, seized her ponytail at the roots and gave it a sharp downward yank.  Her head snapped back.  In a voice I didn’t recognise I snarled, ‘Give it a rest, darling.’ [EL213-214]

     

    The girl and her two schoolchums who had not been doing anything wrong – only Garner’s primary victim had been misbehaving herself – all run away (in fright, I’m presuming) and Garner proceeds to make light of the incident in the essay and in a postcard to Brennan herself. [288]

     

    Discussing this essay and incident Brennan says that Garner “wasn’t backing away from her actions one little bit” and then immediately that “[a]t the same time, she knew she had crossed a dubious line”. [287]  (Which smacks of doublethink to me, but let’s keep moving.)  Brennan then quotes an extract from the essay to support the second of those claims:

     

    Everyone to whom I described the incident became convulsed with laughter, even lawyers, once they’d pointed out that technically I had assaulted the girl.  Only my fourteen-year-old granddaughter was disapproving.  ‘Don’t you think you should have spoken to her?  Explained why what she was doing was wrong?’ [287-288]

     

    That’s where Brennan’s blockquote ends.  Garner knew she had crossed a line, Brennan is saying, because the granddaughter told her so.

     

    But Brennan is again truncating the evidence.  Brennan gives the granddaughter the last word; Garner herself did not.  Garner immediately continued: “As if.  My only regret is that I couldn’t see the Asian woman’s face at the moment the schoolgirl’s head jerked back”.  [EL214]  Garner demonstrates no acceptance of having crossed a dubious line: Brennan simply makes that up.

     

    *

     

    To me Helen Garner is, among other things, someone who talks about journalistic ethics highmindedly while breaching them practically in the same breath and certainly in a single book, the ironically-titled True Stories.  (Because I have written about this elsewhere in a piece entitled “The Incredible Helen Garner” for The Sydney Institute Quarterly, July 2010, I will confine myself to the bare minimum here and direct readers to that essay for further details.)

     

    The biggest ethical breach in True Stories is that the items in it – ostensibly Garner’s “selected non-fiction” “spanning twenty-five years of work” – appear there revised for publication without the reader being told of it.  In particular Garner rewrites the 1972 account of talking about sex at Fitzroy High that was directly instrumental in getting her sacked from the Education Department.  Brennan calls this “an extremely important piece” [29] historically and for other reasons, and I agree with her; but its importance as a document is precisely what makes the surreptitious rewriting of it historical falsification.

     

    The changes that Garner makes to the article consistently tone it down.  Where the original referred to “my form one kids” Garner in 1996 writes “my form-one class of thirteen-year-olds”.  There are contemporary sources that state the children “ranged in age from eleven to thirteen years.”  (The Minister of Education in State Parliament on 4 April 1973, for one.)  Garner herself in her 1973 Neos Kosmos article implies they were aged “12 or 13”, which is what one would expect “form one kids” to be.

     

    It obviously looks marginally better for Garner if the children were all thirteen, rather than the twelve and thirteen that we might work them out to have been for ourselves.  And so in True Stories “thirteen-year-olds” are what they all become.  Having begun True Stories with a declaration that in journalism she doesn’t make things up [TS7] Garner rewrites the record of history as it suits her, and then appends a postscript to the doctored version in which she says, “It was hard for me to read this story again, let alone to decide to republish it here” [TS37] – without a word about rewriting it.

     

    Bernadette Brennan doesn’t mention any of this and simply repeats the revised history as though it were established fact and no revision ever took place.  Brennan herself refers to those form-one kids as “thirteen-year-olds” [26] and goes on to quote a block of rewritten text without any apparent awareness that it’s a substitution, not the original. [27]

     

    She has little excuse for this.  I read the original article a few years before True Stories appeared, and when I read the True Stories version immediately saw that it had been altered.  If Brennan was incapable of that, she was at least capable of reading my essay on the alterations and the dangers more generally of believing everything Garner says: it is included in the Informit database and a thorough review of the Garner literature would have turned it up.  PhDs should be able to conduct a literature review if nothing else, and Brennan ought to have been capable of spotting the changes for herself anyway.

     

    ****

     

    The book contains numerous other misstatements and errors of varying degrees of gravity.

     

    p 2  “Thirty years ago Garner told Jennifer Ellison that she would never be so famous as to be recognised when she walked into a room.”

     

    In fact what Garner said was “It’s fairly clear that I’m not going to be so famous that when I walk into a room everyone will know who I am.” (Ellison, Rooms of Their Own, p 146)

     

    p 3  “most blatantly in ‘Little Helen’s Sunday Afternoon’, ‘Habe Dank’ and The Spare Room.”

    *

     

    By “Habe Dank” Brennan obviously means the Garner short story “A Happy Story”, which ends with the words “Habe Dank!”  If A Writing Life were a doctoral thesis I would be tempted to fail it on the spot.

     

    pp 24–25  “It played to packed houses for seven weeks in November and December 1971.”

    *

     

    I count that as three mistakes in a single sentence.  Betty Can Jump in fact ran for six weeks from 26 January 1972 to 5 March 1972.  (See the weekly Saturday advertisements in The Age “Amusements” pages for the Australian Performing Group from 22/1/72 to 11/3/72 inclusive.)

     

    p 30  “She also made her one and only acting debut […] in Bert Deling’s film Pure Shit.”

     

    *

    Garner made her acting debut (you can only make one) in the play Betty Can Jump three years earlier, in her own account of which, in the magazine Dissent (Winter, 1972), she says “I was the only member of the cast who had never performed before”.  Brennan mentions this article herself for other reasons on page 25.

     

    p 35  “at a recommended retail price of $7.75.”

     

    *

     

    Monkey Grip’s original price was $7.95; see, for example, The Age, 22/10/1977, p 24.

     

    p 74  “Shattered, he returns to Melbourne alone and at the end of a drunken evening makes love to Vicki, only to wake up in a blaze of self-disgust.”

     

    *

     

    “He” is the middle-aged family-man character Dexter Fox in Garner’s The Children’s Bach.  Vicki is his family’s extended-stay seventeen-year-old houseguest.  Brennan makes it sound here as though Dexter spent the evening drinking, when it was Vicki who spent the evening getting drunk with her sister.  Dexter stayed sober throughout.  Brennan is rewriting the story here to explain away the contradiction between the character and his actions and have the novella make more sense psychologically than it actually does.

     

    p 156 “She chose the New Jerusalem; it was gender neutral and did not speak of guilt or sin.  ‘Let the one among you who has done no wrong cast the first stone.’”

     

    *

     

    That is indeed one of the two epigraphs to The First Stone, but you won’t find it in the New Jerusalem version of the Bible, nor in the King James or the Revised Standard versions, which Brennan says Garner chose it over.  The New Jerusalem version of John 8:7 reads in relevant part: “Let the one among you who is guiltless be the first to throw a stone at her.”  (And thus does speak of guilt if not sin.)  I have been unable to find Garner’s epigraph in any published translation of the gospels.  I listed in my earlier essay seven of those that I have consulted, including every version I thought Garner conceivably likely to have used – which turns out to have proleptically included all three of those mentioned by Brennan – and have looked at others, online and off, all to the same result.  There is a question here to be answered but Brennan was too credulous even to think of asking it.

     

    p 158 “Wallace Shawn, the late editor of the New Yorker”.

     

    ****

     

    Wallace Shawn is the actor and playwright, of course, and still alive.  It was his father, William Shawn, who edited The New Yorker.  In fairness to Brennan, although she is speaking in her own voice and making the claim her own without quotation marks, she does so in reference to a newspaper article that made the mistake first, relying on the article itself without making that clear.  (See Peter Huck, “Treachery in Type”, The Australian, 8/6/93, p 9.)  But no one working in the field of literature has much excuse for repeating such a howler.

     

    *

     

    Brennan writes throughout in a bland academic style devoid of wit or humour or a single memorably good phrase in 300 pages.  At her worst she writes things like “Having thought about the existence of evil for most of her adult life, Garner is not sure she believes in evil.” [218]  She obviously doesn’t know what the word “sanguine” means – I have no idea what she thinks it means when she says Axel Clark’s wife “was less sanguine” [76] than her husband about having their marriage and family fictionalised by Garner in The Children’s Bach.  Brennan doesn’t know the meaning of “fortuitous” (“It was a fortuitous marketing venture because Garner was in no state to be writing new work.” [183]) or “despoiling”, either: “despoiling her beautiful clothes with wine”. [191]  Such pretentious catachresis puts her in a poor position to judge Garner as a stylist, if nothing else.

     

    At the start of this review I called A Writing Life an advertisement.  But it’s a very bad advertisement for Garner, it turns out, if this is the best that Garner fans can do – which it may well be; I’ve seen enough of their work by now to think it a typical example – because writers get the fans that they deserve.  This is C S Lewis’s thesis in An Experiment in Criticism: that one can judge writers better by the readers they attract, by what those readers do in response to the work – how fanatically knowledgable about it they are in practice – than by the enthusiasm professed for writers at cocktail parties and the like.  A Writing Life will impress uncritical readers who don’t know much about Garner themselves; it hasn’t impressed me.