On the Diaries of Helen Garner and the Quagmire of the Fictionalized Self

Madeleine Watts Navigates the Borderlands of Autofiction

The Australian writer Helen Garner published her debut novel, Monkey Grip, in 1977. It was an immediate sensation. The novel follows a doomed love affair between the protagonist Nora and a heroin addict named Javo, amid the countercultural milieu of Melbourne’s inner north. Reviews were positive, but many were dismayed at what they considered Garner’s shameless use of autobiographical material. The crime writer Peter Corris was scathing: “Helen Garner has published her private journal rather than written a novel,” he said. “The “I” of the book, Nora, is indisputably the author herself and the other characters are identifiable members of the… Pram Factory set in Melbourne.” Never mind that novelists have been using autobiographical material since the birth of the novel itself (Dickens, Tolstoy, Joyce, Proust, Henry Miller, Hemingway, on and on it goes). The fact is that Corris wasn’t wrong: Monkey Grip was based on Garner’s life, and the people she knew. She has been open about it. The notable thing about the criticism aimed at Garner is that it was framed with a set of subtly gendered assumptions, not only accusing her of narcissism and indecorousness, but also a lack of artistry.

Writing things down can be compulsive for those of us who’ve formed the habit. These are people who have notebooks always tucked in a shirt pocket or a grubby tote bag, who have scraps of paper they do not throw away, who type homilies into the Notes app on their phones. We write things down because we want to remember, and to save things. In her essay “Woman in a Green Mantle,” Garner references poet Philip Larkin, who once said, “the urge to preserve is the basis of all art. Garner writes that she has “had it up to here with rhetoric about art, but the urge to preserve—I understand that. I’ve been a captive of it for most of my adult life.”

Garner’s diaries have shaped her career, and prompted debates around the use of the “real” in her work, about where fiction ends and nonfiction begins, and about what constitutes artistry, and who gets to define it. In the last five years there has been a small Garner renaissance in the English-speaking world, with profiles in The New Yorker and London Review of Books around her receipt of the prestigious Windham Campbell Prize, and republication of her novels The Children’s Bach and Monkey Grip, as well as her collected essays and stories. Now approaching 80, Garner has published her first volume of diaries, The Yellow Notebook. The book takes us from 1978, immediately after the publication of her debut novel, to 1987, when Garner is emerging from the wreckage of her second marriage, and about to enter her third. In some ways, the diaries are the apotheosis of her entire career, and the most exciting thing she has ever published.

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Helen Garner was born in Geelong, Victoria in 1942, the eldest girl in a working-class family. She attended the University of Melbourne, where she studied English and French. She married young, had a daughter, and then quickly divorced. For most of the 1970s, she lived in the communal counterculture of Melbourne’s Carlton and Fitzroy North, in a milieu which had strong ties to the influential performance collective La Mama, based at the Pram Factory, and to the feminist consciousness-raising groups that proliferated early in that decade.

In 1972, Garner was sacked from the education department after she taught an impromptu sex education lesson to a class of thirteen-year-olds at Fitzroy High School. “Getting the sack was the best thing that could have happened to me. It forced me to start writing for a living,” she wrote in her essay “The Art of the Dumb Question.” For the next few years Garner scraped by on the Supporting Mother’s Benefit. This was the golden age of the Whitlam government, when Australian society opened up culturally and politically, and established a strong social safety net, ideal for emerging writers. With her daughter at school, Garner began to write. She spent mornings in the reading room of the State Library of Victoria, poring over her old diaries and working on what she thought might be a novel. The novel was Monkey Grip, and it launched her career as a writer. It also launched the debate, which has never ended, about how much of her self was in her work, and whether it was somehow unseemly, or inappropriate.

So Monkey Grip did emerge from Garner’s diaries. It was in the diary that she found a shape and a story. But Bernadette Brennan, Garner’s biographer (and, in all transparency, my former professor at the University of Sydney), notes in her book A Writing Life that “Reading Monkey Grip as poorly disguised reality not only dismisses the creative process of shaping the story, it also ignores how and why the diarised basis for this novel contributes to its meaning.”

“Getting the sack was the best thing that could have happened to me. It forced me to start writing for a living.”

“Why the sneer in ‘All she’s done is publish her diaries’?,” Garner asks in her essay “I.” “It’s as if this were cheating. As if it were lazy. As if there were no work involved in keeping a diary in the first place: no thinking, no discipline, no creative energy, no focusing or directing of creative energy; no intelligent or artful ordering of material; no choosing of material, for God’s sake; no shaping of narrative… It’s as if a diary wrote itself, as if it poured out in a sludgy, involuntary, self-indulgent stream—and also, even more annoyingly, as if the writer of a diary were so entirely narcissistic, and in some absurd and untenable fashion believed herself to be so entirely unique, so hermetically enclosed in a bubble of self, that a rigorous account of her own experience could have no possible relevance to, or usefulness for, or offer any pleasure to, any other living person on the planet.”

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Diaries are personal and detail the private lives of their keepers, and for those reasons they are often associated with women and girls. Teenagers, Marie Bashkirteff and Mary MacLane foremost among them, authored some of the most “sensational” diaries of the 20th century. And while it’s true that many of the most famous literary diarists were men—Samuel Pepys, Franz Kafka—the form of the diary itself is frequently construed as something more suitable to emotionally florid young women—loose and unstructured, not rigorous, not literature. Many published diaries are not intended to be literature per se—those by Virginia Woolf and Susan Sontag, for instance, were published posthumously. It is a different thing altogether to write diaries, to edit them, give them shape, and publish them when one is still alive. Derek Jarman and Max Frisch did so in the late 20th century, and more recently writers like Heidi Julavits and Sarah Manguso have experimented with the form. These are diaries not as primary sources, but works that make use of this most intimate of forms to create a kind of hybrid genre. They are, in short, basking in the grey zone where fiction ends and nonfiction begins

From Monkey Grip, and throughout Garner’s career as a novelist, a screenwriter, an essayist, and a journalist, she has always angered those who accuse her of a terrible egomania, and her refusal to stay firmly within the lanes of fiction and nonfiction. The Spare Room, her most recent novel, about a three-week visit from a dying friend, was published in 2008 to the same old questions. At the time, Garner told the critic Caroline Burns: “It is morally a novel, even though it’s very closely based on my real experience of those three terrible weeks in my life. By calling it a novel I’m saying: this is not a memoir, this is not nonfiction, this is a novel and there will be things in here that are invented, that didn’t really happen, and I’m going to take… every sort of liberty I need to take in order to turn it into the sort of book I want it to be.”

In the last decade there has been an explosion in “life-writing” and “autofiction.” Limitless thought-pieces have been published on the trend, and the litany of names is nearly always the same—Karl Ove Knausgaard, Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner, Elena Ferrante. These books are novels—in that they are shelved in the fiction sections of bookstores—but they are novels that play with nonfiction and draw directly from the authors’ lives. The genre saw a flourishing in the 2010s, and analysis tended to pin its cause to what David Shields termed “reality hunger”—the ways in which truth has become distorted, our connection with others erased, our need for intimacy and something “real” more powerful than our need for narrative (which television gives us plenty of, besides).

Literature can do one thing that no other art form can do: It can let you experience what it is like to be inside the consciousness of another human being.

But this type of novel has been on a downward drift towards unfashionability in the last four years. Autofiction has always been saddled with the accusation that it was narcissistic, or even immoral, but in recent years it been represented in some circles as politically naïve. As though the Obama years were a period of international optimism, in which we could all feel free to navel gaze, but with the eruption of economic, social and ecological catastrophe, combined with rising inequality, populism, and authoritarian sentiment the world over, writing about the self might in fact be politically irresponsible. As though the critique were being phrased like so: “Imagine looking around at the world as it tends towards collapse, and thinking that the appropriate response was writing about yourself.”

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In her essay collection The Feel of Steel, Garner published her first diary fragments. When she began writing her column for The Monthly in 2005, she published more. Two of those diary entries were reprinted in the 2016 essay collection Everywhere I Look, and they honed Garner’s mastery of the form. The previously published diaries were presented as a collection of fragments, without the date or place markers that are ubiquitous to published diaries. The diaries were polished and spare, like the poetry of Mary Ruefle and Etel Adnan, or the very short stories of Diane Williams and Lydia Davis. The diaries related Garner’s life and her writing practice, but they also touched on politics, news stories that had attracted her attention, details about Melbourne and the people she encountered, and the quality of the weather on any one day. They were beautiful and riveting and felt to me, as a young writer first encountering them, formally electrifying.

It is this form that The Yellow Notebook takes. The book is divided into ten chapters, one for each year between 1978 and 1987. Aside from the year, Garner gives us no dates, no locations, no times. The diaries begin when Garner is living in Paris with her daughter after receiving a travel grant, with the phrase: “Maybe it’d be a good idea to start another diary, just to cream it off.” From the first page the diary fragments sketch a broad range of material. She notes that a man in the metro plays an “exquisite” rock and roll guitar. Monkey Grip has won the National Book Council Award. A quotation from a letter. A statement of bare emotion: “I miss, I miss. I feel crazy and weepy.” An anecdote about F, who will become her second husband: “He says if you don’t turn a mattress it starts to smell bad. He sings to himself as he works. If he looks over my shoulder at this I’ll start screaming.”

In a 2019 conversation with Michael Williams at Sydney’s City Recital Hall, Garner said that it had been her publishers, Text, who suggested she compile a volume of her diaries. She went home and took a look at the old volumes (she famously burned all her journals written before the late 1970s). Garner started transcribing the bits that she felt she could put on the page “without wanting to die of shame.” But what she was looking for was a common thread: “I was taking out everything that didn’t feel like muscle.” When reading the diaries, I assumed Garner must have spent considerable time editing her prose—I know how messy and unpublishable my own first sentences read. But Garner’s diary is rigorous. She told Williams that she did not need to polish the prose, because the prose was measured when it was originally written. “The point,” she told Williams, “is to articulate coherently something about what I’m going through, or what I’ve experienced that day, or something that’s scared me or angered me or moved me… It wasn’t sloppily written, it was about things that were being sloppily felt.” In some ways, The Yellow Notebook is one volume in the singular book she has been writing continuously her entire adult life.

Brennan points out that the diary fragments are a narrative technique Garner has been honing and refining since the 1970s: prose delivered in short shards, with little explanation. These short shards, while they may not have been re-written, are carefully selected and placed. One of the main arcs of The Yellow Notebook is the inevitable disintegration of Garner’s second marriage. Much of the emotional drama comes from Garner’s decision to portray the years-long frustrations her husband had with her decision to learn the piano. The annoyances and fights that come from Garner’s bad piano playing typify the gradual wearing away of affection, like sandpaper on soft wood. In 1984 she writes, “this is what will happen to me: He will leave me and go off with someone younger.” This is, in fact, what happens. When the marriage finally ends, we learn about it through snatches of conversation reported without commentary. And then, in 1985, at last, we are given this fragment: “M’s father, F and me walking in the cemetery with the dog. Now I have two ex-husbands.”

“The importance of Garner’s use of the fragment as a narrative device cannot be overstated,” writes Brennan. “Garner crafts a series of intense moments or reflections and separates them. Meaning is generated and resonates across the space and time of the blank page.” This technique is especially suited to the task of depicting the entire arc of writing one novel, in this case, The Children’s Bach. “I’ve started to write,” Garner says, “without thought of form: it keeps coming, I am happy and no longer straining after effect, but each morning I set out for my office weak with fear. I will never be a great writer.” Several pages later Garner is buying system cards, writing each character’s name on a card, and pinning them to the wall. We hear about her rewriting and drafting: “I worry that I ought to pour out a whole draft and then go back and rewrite. What I do is write a page, then fix it up straight away and go back to the beginning to see if everything fits. So my progress is slow. But the work is solid.” Days when everything works: “Today I worked in a trance for nearly four hours…I cobbled together that scene out of elements so disparate that only a compulsive note-taker like me could have had raw material at her disposal. Whacko! I could have gone on all day but didn’t want to push my luck.” After writing one long sentence she is so happy that she “ran downstairs and bought myself a pastie from the San Remo bakery.”

The common denominator across all Garner’s writing has been the “I,” a meticulously constructed portrait of a self, sometimes, but not always, named Helen.

All the people in Garner’s life are given identifying initials, which don’t correspond with their actual names (Garner’s daughter’s name is Alice, but is identified as M). There is also some intertextuality at work. Garner plays with the critics who have complained that her novels borrow too heavily from her diaries. At one point, an acquaintance asks Garner what speed is, worried about his own smacked-out son. He shows her a photograph of the son. “Thank God for Javo,” Garner writes. “My girl sees no romance in that.” Javo is the name of the love interest in Monkey Grip.

The common denominator across all Garner’s writing has been the “I,” a meticulously constructed portrait of a self, sometimes, but not always, named Helen. According to Brennan “the ‘I’ in her journalism and nonfiction is, as Janet Malcolm has argued about her own work, ‘almost pure invention,’ a functionary connected tenuously to the actual writer.” In The Yellow Notebook the character of “Helen” seems to emerge in full force, fictional and nonfictional all at once.

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If you sense a note of frustration when I write about Garner’s critics who, like Peter Corris, can’t get over her depiction of real life, it is because I find these questions incredibly boring. Fiction and nonfiction have always been imperfect categories, and autobiographical elements have shown up to a greater or lesser extent in fiction from the birth of literature itself.

“The personal is political” ran one of the rallying cries of second wave feminism, one of the milieus that profoundly shaped Garner’s early life. This was a radical proposition, one that has fundamentally affected how we think, practice politics, and make art. The issue, as with second-wave feminism itself, is that “the personal is political” largely amplified one set of voices, without making room for the voices of people of color, of the working classes, and those marginalized by sexuality, gender, or disability. It is this structuring of privilege that I think undergirds the frustrations people often have with “autofiction,” particularly in times of political upheaval.

When somebody writes about herself, the fear is that the “self” is insufficient to exploring the vast and complicated world around us. Many of those voices are the same white, upper-middle-class English speakers whose voices have been loudest for a long time, but this does not seem to me to be an argument against writing about the self at all. If we write things down because we want to remember, to save things, to preserve, then it is important to know and remember what it is like to live in the mind and body of another. Meena Kandasamy, Ocean Vuong, Teju Cole, and Edouard Louis are examples of writers who have used writing about the self to extend the bounds of autofiction beyond the white, upper-middle classes. These writers are all using the self to look outwards.

Writing about the self is not necessarily a narcissistic enterprise. It has always seemed to me that literature can do one thing that no other art form can do: It can let you experience what it is like to be inside the consciousness of another human being. And I do not think telling personal stories can fix any of the political or social problems the world is beset by, but I do believe that an autofictional response to structural inequality, ecological crisis and political turmoil might be, in fact, a totally appropriate response. It is the self, after all, that experiences all of these things at the same time, amongst the day to day of personal relationships, and domestic hardships, and the weather.

The structural possibilities of writing about the self are part and parcel of Helen Garner’s long writing career. It is what excited me most about her work when I first read her essays and novels when I was 18, and her work was a touchstone for what I wanted my own to be before I ever encountered anyone else working in the same ambiguous space. In “Woman In A Green Mantle,” Garner refers to her own growing awareness of a new form, which has something “honourable” to offer in place of the dull distinctions between tired old forms: “I mean the dangerous and exciting breakdown of the old boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, and the ethical and technical problems which are exploding out of the resulting gap.” It is that gap that Garner has been writing towards her whole life, and it is for that reason that the unclassifiable Yellow Notebook might be her greatest achievement.

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Madeleine Watts’s novel, The Inland Sea, is forthcoming in the US from Catapult, January 2021.

Madeleine Watts
Madeleine Watts
Madeleine Watts is a writer of fiction, essays and journalism. Her writing has been published in The Believer, The White Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Griffith Review, Meanjin and The Lifted Brow, amongst others. She is the winner of the 2015 Griffith Review Novella Competition. Madeleine grew up in Sydney, and sometimes Melbourne, but she has been based in New York since 2013. She has an MFA in Writing from Columbia University in New York, and graduated from the University of Sydney with a B.A. in English Literature. Her debut novel, The Inland Sea, from Pushkin Press, is forthcoming in the US from Catapult.





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