'I have the impression that you judge the whole tenor of your life by whether or not you're laughing enough.'
'You could say that.'
'I don’t know if that's a good criterion.'
'Know any better ones?'
'Why is it so important, laughing?'
'Look, I've got this sign stuck on my bedroom wall. It's by Cocteau. It says, what would become of me without laughter? It purges me of my disgust.'
'What disgusts you?'
'Oh, my whole life, sometimes. Things I've done. Things I haven't done. My big mouth, My tone of voice. The gap between theory and practice. The fact that I can't stand to read the paper.'
Helen Garner, 'Honour' in My Hard Heart (Ringwood: Penguin Books Australia, 1998) pp. 79-80.
I've had that quote written where I can easily find it for years now. I originally read it in Honour and Other People's Children, but I've never owned that incarnation of book, only borrowed it from the library. I've always thought borrowing books from the local library is a very Helen thing to do. I was delighted to find it inside My Hard Heart when I happened upon it at a book fair.
If I sound like a fan, it's because I am. Helen Garner has provided personal and literary milestone markers on my journey through life since I discovered Monkey Grip in high school. I don't own a lot of her books, and I don't actively seek them out, because I come across them at pertinent times, and they always make me sit, and think, and rediscover the whats and whys of where I am at that particular time. If I see her name in a magazine or paper, I'll buy it just to read what she has to say, and she never fails me.
I'm thinking about her a lot today because Laura today posted her account of a panel at Mildura involving HG; Kerryn told us more about her in the comments (number 3 comment in L's post), and I came home today and found my August issue of The Monthly in the mailbox, with Helen's name splashed on the cover (and Kerryn's!). It seemed like the right time to share the love. I'm particularly happy about The Monthly. I'd heard that HG had given up writing film reviews for The Monthly, which I'd thought a shame because she always picks films that engage with her own interests, and writes about them in a way that sets her apart from other film reviewers. Maybe she's only going to write reviews when there's a film worthy of writing about. Fine by me.
Today's review (which I read, rapt, on the doorstep before I opened the front door, while my son busied himself with the cats in the garden) was on United 93, a film I had no intention of seeing, but now probably will, on the strength of Helen’s words:
I have a rule of thumb for judging the value of a piece of art. Does it give me energy, or take energy away? When I staggered out of United 93 this rule had lost traction . . . an excruciating pity for all material things overwhelmed me. This flayed sensation lasted about two days, then gradually dissipated.
That's the sort of quote that gives my relatively inarticulate heart a voice. We all walk through the world feeling, but few can articulate the sensation. Helen often writes words that connect with me and my experience of the world, and quite often she'll shape my response. I trust her to do that, because it feels right. The Feel of Steel was a book that made me feel brave about ageing. Joe Cinque’s Consolation and The First Stone (I’ve put them in that order because that's the order they came into my life) made me angry, indignant and made me look at society – and, with JCC, my own city -- with fresh eyes. No one else writes about the junkies in Civic. Truth and honesty (two very different things) seem to underpin so much of her work.
There seems to be a recognition in Australian literature that Helen is one of our major voices, but she doesn't get that recognition cheaply. Her very personal writing voice makes any criticism seem to fall directly upon her, rather than on her actual writing. But it's that involvement of the self that works so well for me. Her body of writing has been almost a proto-blog in that everything she engages with is passed through her own emotional sensibility, and then laid out for the reader to relate to or reject, rather than filtered and distanced into 'characters'.
I'm not trying to write a critical response to her writing -- I haven't had that capability for years now, since I stopped devoting my head to literary theory and starting filling it with more three-dimensional concerns -- but she is one writer whom I feel very strongly about in a personal way. Because of the way she writes, I think about her as a character in her own right, in a series that continues for years. Maybe, again, I can compare her to a blog. I want to read all her posts.
In a sense I have more contact with her than just through her writing. Helen and the AP have written to each other for many years, and sometimes I am told snippets of her 'other' life. Every now and again I am asked to sort out AP's piles of letters into boxes, one for each correspondent. I don't read HG's letters – I would never presume – but I am always thrilled to hold her bold handwriting in my hand. At times she has made her own postcards, tearing images out of newspapers and magazines and gluing them to index cards, and I fantasize about making a book (Postcards from Helen!) of these often poignant and always considered images, with quotes from her letters or writings to accompany them. Maybe one day. It would make a nice artist's book, but of course the artist would be Helen herself.
I would like to write my own letters to Helen, but I find myself too shy. And I don't know what I'd be able to say to her that hasn't probably been gushed at her at every writers' festival she's ever been to. This post is probably the closest I'll ever get to doing it. And so here it is.