In publishing her diaries, Yellow Notebook, Helen Garner gives us a glimpse into the process of her painstaking craft

Australian author Helen Garner. Picture: Darren James

Australian author Helen Garner. Picture: Darren James

While jotting down notes for this review, I came across a quote from Zinky Boys, Svetlana Alexievich's grassroots account of Russia's tragic invasion of Afghanistan. In it, the Nobel Prize winner quotes Pushkin: "To write or tell the whole truth about oneself is a physical impossibility".

What an apt coincidence, to consider notions of truth and the self when reading Helen Garner's diaries. For Garner has always been concerned with truth-telling. She is ever-vigilant, watching herself and others, the sharpest of observers capturing with nuance and detail the most telling interactions between friends, siblings, lovers and society, as gathered in a court room, for example.

The entries in this book, which span the decade between 1978 and 1987, allow the reader to re-examine Garner in a new light. I found myself mining this volume almost as if searching for clues to earlier Garner works which have stayed with me. Even the production of this volume - the thick and creamy pages of the hardcover, the restrained dust jacket design, the generous font and spacing on the page - encourage one to meander through it, flipping back and forth, rather than bolting it down in one go like one might with a plot-driven work.

Those familiar with Garner's work will know that she was married three times. In this book, the breakdown of her relationship with her second husband F is chronicled in heartrending entries. This is the cloud that hangs over the middle years of the book. There are rages, bitter fights, the smashing of plates and the diarist castigating herself for being a bad and flawed individual. Garner has often been described as unflinching. Bruising might be a more apt description for these entries. One feels, almost physically, the misery, recriminations and sadness that comes at the end of a relationship

This is not to say that Yellow Notebook is dreary, dark or self-indulgent. It is a wonderful and often hilarious read. The fortunes of love and art come and go almost like dramatic episodes of personal weather. For example: "Grief is not too strong a word for what one feels before one's own weakness and mediocrity." Then they pass, and she delivers observations of the most clear-eyed and perfectly turned writing. This from 1984 - and the entries for this year alone would be worth the admission price. "It's raining silver and the sky to the east is blazing with a vivid double rainbow, a fatly arched one. Mad spring." In the following chapter: "He'll be like the Russians: he'll retreat and retreat and retreat until I freeze to death."

There are familiar Garner preoccupations: friends and friendship, but stripped of all sentimentality, siblings, her father, partners. Brides, beauty, men. Shoes, fashion and how she would like to dress. Melbourne and its cafes and streets and public baths. Garner has always written sharply about not looking sharp. Here too she laments being plain and enduring the humiliation of a female diplomat offering to fix Garner up with the diplomat's hairdresser. She examines beauty and style with a writer's forensic curiosity. The most instinctive of writers, she describes so pleasingly the discomfort that comes from knowing one's own instinct for style is under-developed.

There are entries about Bobby Sands death, Azaria Chamberlain's matinee jacket, the people's revolution in the Philippines, the assassination of Indira Ghandi, local murders and crimes of great brutality. There is surprisingly little about Australian politics though. She admires Giuseppe Bertolucci's film Segreti Segreti, lamenting that Australian cinema never reaches such density because Australian society is "so porous". Perhaps Australian politics struck her as similarly leaky.

There is a liberal sprinkling of the vernacular but never showy or folksy: "dead-heads" in a boring union meeting; her disappointment that her father tells stories "not in the juicy way one longs for". (Juicy! I had almost forgotten that the word existed.) The bliss of the public baths, available "to any moron with the money to get past the turnstile." She tussles with newspaper editors and contemplates telling the National Times to "cram it".

The only surprise in the book was to read how often Garner struggled with an impulse towards Christianity. She speaks of recognizing a great force, and the "oneness of things", then declares (her emphasis): "I dread having to become a Christian." She talks and corresponds about Christianity with the West Australian writer J - surely Tim Winton. There is a shyness in her descriptions of this friendship, as though the nature of the questions they discussed - how to live and how to live with faith - require a different tone to the fast and furious banter she has with female friends. Perhaps too, even with the humble J, she is holding herself "lightly in check". Elsewhere in the book, she recognises that she does this with another male friend. (I've always admired Garner's scrupulous observations of herself and other women, and how they relate to and with men.)

There are funny anecdotes about Elizabeth Jolley and Frank Moorhouse, and a wrenching description of Italian-Australian writer Rosa Cappiello. Raymond Carver calls collect from the US, but her housemate, "the law student", gets confused and doesn't accept the call. She reads Nadine Gordimer, Les Murray, Virginia Woolf, DH Lawrence, Jane Austen and Peter Handke. And she writes about writing, often and as wonderfully as she does about anything else: the grit and interiority it demands, the silent battles, the thrill of being on the right track and the private, sensual pleasure of having something stored up to write: "I lie in bed thinking voluptuously of the stories I am going to write."

If there is a thread which we follow in this book, it is observing the writer at her task of winnowing, of creating form from chaos. For writers and students of writing, this is as useful a writing manual as any I have read. Reflecting on an old notebook she used when she was drafting The Children's Bach, she realises: "Out of chaos comes the fine thing; out of chaos comes form." Further on: "Two typed pages and the tremendous sense of having hit a vein - that sensation of recognition - as if it were all formal. I mean as if all one were seeking was form and the rest came after." She likes reviewing plays because it forces her to "formalise, what I really felt or thought in the theatre".

While there is little she won't comment on - eating, sore Fallopian tubes, sex, washing up, herself and others at their worst - she often uses the pronoun "one". Even here there is the considered application of form to disparate subjects and observations.

Garner has always has been good on both the "hilarious sweetness" of boys and young men, and the foibles of older men. With women, she is by turns convivial and unsparing, but never condescending. It's almost as if there are one set of observations she applies to men, and a parallel and equally sharp set of observations for women, with different rules of engagement for each sex. In the later years in the book there is more travel, more recognition, a surer hand and a slight change of tone. It's not that she doubts herself or her work less, but perhaps the interrogation of herself as a writer has developed.

This book is sub-titled Diaries Volume I. I would happily continue reading where it leaves off, if and when Volume II is released.

  • Christine Kearney is a Canberra based writer.
  • Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume I 1978-1987, by Helen Garner. Text, $29.99.
This story A writer in search of the fine thing first appeared on The Canberra Times.