Most readers of Helen Garner will be able to pinpoint a first personal encounter with her work: a book, or even a sentence, that cut through like sharp light; a local landmark suddenly immortalised on the page; an unsayable bodily experience transformed into the unabashedly said.
Reading Garner, it’s as though doors and windows have been flung open and there, over the cups and dishes and fruit bowls, is the stuff of life – frankly, tenderly, impeccably revealed. Garner’s clarity is such that it almost aches.
Review: Writers on Writers – Sean O’Beirne on Helen Garner – Sean O'Beirne (Black Inc. in association with the University of Melbourne and the State Library Victoria)
My first encounter came in Christmas 1984, when an aunt gave me a slender novel called The Children’s Bach. Chosen probably on account of its brevity – I’d just turned 14 – this tensile little book was, for me, bewildering in its adult complexity, disorienting in its fragmentary narrative style, indecipherable if I applied the principles of storytelling I was accustomed to. It refused to fill me in, to explain itself, to tell me. It was an initiation of sorts: my first foray into the exciting work that goes with adult literary reading.
Personal confession and concealment
Sean O’Beirne is the same age as me and has followed the “phases” of Garner – my word, not his – much as I have. In his book-length essay on Garner, he doesn’t organise her works into phases, so much as entwine them into a single unfurling ribbon of the self: in different permutations, across time and intents and, of course, books.
Every phase, every work, gets attention. There is the “close to self I” of Nora in Monkey Grip; the “Not-I” of her early and mid-career fiction (The Children’s Bach, Postcards from Surfers, Honour and Other People’s Children, Cosmo Cosmolino); and the “collective I” of her later non-fiction – which he explains as a sort of personal “I” nested within society.
In puzzling these selves in Garner, O’Beirne examines the impulse towards self in his own work. What results is an essay that examines personal confession and concealment in his own writing as scrupulously as it traces these in Garner’s.
O’Beirne’s is one of a series of book-length essays by writers on writers published by Black Inc., in association with the University of Melbourne and the State Library of Victoria. None of the subjects in the series needs introduction.
Shirley Hazzard, David Malouf, Patrick White, Beverley Farmer: these are the literary cartographers of 20th-century Australia. Some of the essay writers occupy this same rarefied plane – Christos Tsiolkas, Michelle De Kretser – but other highly accomplished contributors (Josephine Rowe, Richard Cooke), like O’Beirne, will be new to many readers. There is clearly a generational impetus to the selections Black Inc. has made in commissioning this series – a desire to trace influences, connections and continuities across time and writers.
Impersonal, efficient vulnerability
O’Beirne, for his part, approaches Garner from what he calls a “place in the junior writing position”. He is the author, so far, of one well-received book: the 2020 short-story collection A Couple of Things Before the End (also Black Inc.). A consistently intelligent humility runs throughout his essay, but O’Beirne is no less probing for his preparedness to defer to Garner’s art. He “carefully, respectfully” adjudicates Cosmo Cosmolino as a “bad book”, for instance, describing it as a sliding-doors moment in Garner’s career in which she might’ve fallen prey to a magical realism that is less cogent, less compelling than her signature crisp realism – yet he remains open to the novel’s innovations.
There is a persistent sense that O’Beirne is reaching for something in himself through Garner; something that may well be unreachable, but is worth reaching for all the same. Partly, this is Garner’s receptiveness to self and other, her preparedness to commandeer her vulnerability and plant it, with “brisk impersonal efficiency”, on the page. O’Beirne writes, at one point, that he wishes to “do the good work of less impersonation” in his own writing, to stop disguising himself in fictional personae, to cast off his reticence and put himself frankly there.
His tendency to “hide” is partially explained in the spare details he gives of his traditional Australian boyhood in outer-suburban Melbourne where, in order to survive, an impersonation of “manhood” was crucial. You couldn’t be a soft-thinking, sports-averse, self-doubting “boy” who didn’t even know how to have an orgasm. You had to be pretend that you were part of a “bunch of blokes”, swiftly disguising any weakness if it threatened to spill over into the performance. O'Beirne’s habit of disguise is a habit of self-preservation, and Garner thrilled him by showing that being imprisoned in the ashamed not-quite-right self might be a blessing; that “it was contradictorily interesting and delicious and bad and lonely to be so steeped in, waterlogged with the problem of me”.
But, as he is first to admit, the “real man” behind the essayist does not fully materialise here. O’Beirne remains conceptual, not visceral – he wonders why he feels comfortable giving such bodily experiences as a first sexual encounter to a character, but retreats from owning it on the page as himself. He may, like Garner, be prepared to wriggle on the end of his own hook, but he retreats where Garner boldly goes forth.
In elucidating his ideas, O’Beirne employs an idiosyncratic prose style that determinedly avoids the administrative, structural, institutional literary – the world of “Them”, which, he says, Garner also eschews. Often this enables him to say things for which there are no existing words, or no sufficiently illuminating words.
Sometimes, though, in preserving his prose from the already-said, O’Beirne’s choices confound rather than illuminate. His tendency to noun phrases (“my not-as-socially-approved awareness”, “a starting amount of more open confession”, “a trying to be with someone else”) occasionally ruptured my sense of being a co-traveller on his thought journey. Similarly, his choice of the Australian vernacular (“bloke” and “I reckon”) made aesthetic or even ideological sense but nevertheless grated.
When they work, however, his hyphenated compounds, rammed together like a string of mismatched train carriages, led me on new journeys, or even jumped the rails entirely and deposited me in completely fresh territory. Sometimes I couldn’t go there with him, but I was elated when I could.
“I will not hide” is Garner’s gift, O’Beirne says. It remains a radical gift, even in the face of other recent acts of radical literary self-revelation – in the work, for instance, of Maggie Nelson and Sheila Heti, which O’Beirne cites. Yet, for any shock value in Heti’s Motherhood or Nelson’s bone-crackingly good The Argonauts, the primal, bodily shock of Garner (a forgotten tampon, a slow fuck, a shit sucked back up into the body) has always been the shock of plain-speaking, not of sensation or transgression.
O’Beirne doesn’t seek transgression either: just honesty and bravery, the things he admires in his subject. He wants to be like Garner; he cannot be like Garner; the best he can do is be O’Beirne. Ultimately – for me and for him – that’s enough. In this essay, O’Beirne’s honesty may not be of Garner’s register, but it’s honesty all the same.
Edwina Preston has received funding from The Australia Council for her latest and previous novels, as well as funding from Creative Victoria and the Felix Meyer scholarship