Helen Garner: Everywhere I look I find words chiselled in gold

Preface: It’s been a while since I’ve written a blog post: various reasons, including judging a journalism award; the birth of my fourth grandchild, a boy named Max (you can see him in a photo on my Facebook page); a brief hospital visit; keeping an eye on my team, the Sydney Swans, now with three wins and seven losses (sometimes it’s hard to write after a defeat); and waiting for a story I can really get my teeth into. I found one, it’s on racism, and I am starting to write that today. But in the meantime, I will publish my review of a book I finished reading a while ago. It’s been sitting here as a draft. Now that it’s subbed it’s about time I posted it. It’s by one of my favourite writers: Helen Garner.
Everywhere I Look (Cover photo above, Text Publishing) is a wonderfully written book by a great Australian author. In her delicious collection of essays, diary entries and stories, Helen Garner chooses her words carefully and teaches them how to sing.
I took notes and found myself writing “lovely story” at least ten times. The first note came after reading “Dear Mrs Dunkley,” a terrific yarn about Helen’s fifth grade teacher, a hard taskmaster who terrified her but showed her how to take a sentence apart and put it back together. Helen Garner wrote about her in an introduction to an earlier collection of her essays, describing a dream in which she wore “instead of your grim black 1940s wool suit, you were dressed in a jacket made of some wondrously tender and flexible material, like suede and buckskin, in soft, unstable colours that streamed off you into the air in wavy ribbons and garlands, so that as you walked you drew along behind you a thick, smudged rainbow trail.” The introduction prompted a reply from Mrs Dunkley’s daughter, who said she enjoyed her book and the introduction and sent her a photo of her and her mother. In this photo (in about 1960), Mrs Dunkley was dressed in black, and her daughter said in her letter: “My mother was an alcoholic.” It made Helen see her teacher as she really was: “… an intense, damaged, dreadfully unhappy woman, only just holding on, fronting up to the school each morning, buttoned into your black clothes, savagely impatient, craving, suffering: a lost soul.” Garner writes: “Dear Mrs Dunkley, You’re long gone, and I’m nearly seventy. But, oh, I wish you weren’t dead. I’ve got some things here that I wouldn’t be ashamed to show you … I would like to thank you. It’s probably what you would have called hyperbole, but, Mrs Dunkley, you taught me everything I know…” Mrs Dunkley made fun of Helen for being weak on arithmetic, and she would say: “Stand up, you great MOON CALF.” In her last paragraph, Garner says goodbye: “Dear Mrs Dunkley. I know your first name was Grace; I hope you found some, in the end. Please accept, in whatever afterlife you earned or were vouchsafed, the enduring love, the sincere respect, and the eternal gratitude of your Great Moon Calf, Helen.” Wow. “Dear Mrs Dunkley” is only four pages long, but every word is a gem, chiselled in gold.

Another yarn that earned my “lovely story” tag was “Notes from a Brief Friendship” about the writer Jacob Rosenberg (photo above: The Age, Simon Schluter). Invited by the publisher to write an endorsement for his book of memoirs about the Holocaust, Sunrise West, Garner sends a “humbled sentence” for the cover. Jacob writes back to thank her and suggests lunch. The first one doesn’t go too well, but he does ask her to launch Sunrise West. This leads to several more lunches and a brief friendship between a man in his eighties and a woman at least 20 years younger. Both wonderful writers. There was a gulf between them, Helen writes, but “when the chips were down, when his storytelling voice breathed freely and I heard it without defence, my respect and affection for him were unconstrained.” After the launch, Helen hardly saw Jacob again, but she did go to his funeral, a Jewish service, “deeply satisfying in its formality, tender in the beauty of its readings and tributes.” The “brevity and shyness of our friendship made me feel suddenly weak with sadness,” Garner writes. Soon after his death, she hears an old interview with Jacob on Radio National in which he says: “Suffering is so singular an art … I believe that nothing is lost in the universe somehow.” Reading his memoirs again, she remembers a dream she had many years before she met Jacob. It’s about a bush that grew on the lip of an abyss. I’ll let Helen finish the dream: “The bush grew right on the very edge of nothingness, and yet somehow its roots were holding. It had a grip that no wind could disturb; it thrived there, all on its own, this modest little plant, and while the abyss yawned beside it, it went on bravely, doggedly flowering.”
In her diary section, “Dreams of Her Real Self,” Helen tells fond, moving and sometimes painful stories of her mother and finds a letter in which her nine-year-old niece pays a wonderful tribute to her grandmother just before she died: ” But what I liked was often we would go into her room … and see all theese speicial (sic) things of hers some belonging to her six children one of which is my mum. I love all six of them and give them my best dreams of Grandma, dreams of her real self, the self with no evil diaseases (sic), the strongest part of her body and everyone should know it’s still here.” Helen Garner paints poignant portraits: the author Elizabeth Jolley, who wrote “flesh-and-blood letters, dipping an old fountain pen into a bottle of ink ..” adding “how much her books mean to me, the spasms of laughter they provoke, the quiet tears of recognition and relief.” (“My Dear Lift-Rat”); Australian of the Year and advocate for victims of domestic violence, Rosie Batty, whose son Luke was killed by his mentally ill father (“The Singular Rosie”); and a lively portrait of a company of Australian ballet dancers (“In the Wings”). Garner spends five days in the studios watching the dancers in scenes from Swan Lake and becomes a convert to ballet. The last sentence leaves you gasping with delight and wanting more. In any review of her books, Helen should have the last words; these are about the dancers: “They manifest the tremendous onwardrushingness of life, which has only one destination, and yet constantly renews itself, full of a joy that transcends words.”
PS If you’d like to know more about Helen Garner, read this excellent profile by the highly respected literary critic of The New Yorker, James Wood, published in the December 12 edition last year.

4 thoughts on “Helen Garner: Everywhere I look I find words chiselled in gold

  1. Wonderful tribute to Garner’s extraordinary powers of observation. I see her more as a journalist than a writer, reporting the way we would all like to write – with accuracy and empathy.

    From: gonzomeetsthepress To: chriscastellari@yahoo.com.au Sent: Wednesday, 31 May 2017, 13:17 Subject: [New post] Helen Garner: Everywhere I look I find words chiselled in gold #yiv3183701732 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv3183701732 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv3183701732 a.yiv3183701732primaryactionlink:link, #yiv3183701732 a.yiv3183701732primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv3183701732 a.yiv3183701732primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv3183701732 a.yiv3183701732primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv3183701732 WordPress.com | gonzomeetsthepress posted: “Preface: It’s been a while since I’ve written a blog post: various reasons, including judging a journalism award; the birth of my fourth grandchild, a boy named Max (you can see him in a photo on my Facebook page); a brief hospital visit; keeping an eye o” | | Respond to this post by replying above this line |

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    | | | | Helen Garner: Everywhere I look I find words chiselled in gold by gonzomeetsthepress |

    Preface: It’s been a while since I’ve written a blog post: various reasons, including judging a journalism award; the birth of my fourth grandchild, a boy named Max (you can see him in a photo on my Facebook page); a brief hospital visit; keeping an eye on my team, the Sydney Swans, now with three wins and seven losses (sometimes it’s hard to write after a defeat); and waiting for a story I can really get my teeth into. I found one, it’s on racism, and I am starting to write that today. But in the meantime, I will publish my review of a book I finished reading a while ago. It’s been sitting here as a draft. Now that it’s subbed it’s about time I posted it. It’s by one of my favourite writers: Helen Garner. Everywhere I Look (Cover photo above, Text Publishing) is a wonderfully written book by a great Australian author. In her delicious collection of essays, diary entries and stories, Helen Garner chooses her words carefully and teaches them how to sing. I took notes and found myself writing “lovely story”

  2. Congratulations on the newest family member, MAX; best wishes for a happy and long life.

    What caused you to be in the hospital?

    You know I worry. We recently went to a “Guild House Reunion” of over 50 years. Many widows and widowers. Not a comfortable reminder of our mortality.

    Love to all, Betty

    Elizabeth K Keech 610 291 4984

    ________________________________ From: gonzomeetsthepress Sent: Tuesday, May 30, 2017 11:17 PM To: Elizabeth Keech Subject: [New post] Helen Garner: Everywhere I look I find words chiselled in gold

    gonzomeetsthepress posted: “Preface: It’s been a while since I’ve written a blog post: various reasons, including judging a journalism award; the birth of my fourth grandchild, a boy named Max (you can see him in a photo on my Facebook page); a brief hospital visit; keeping an eye o” Respond to this post by replying above this line

    New post on gonzomeetsthepress [http://s0.wp.com/i/emails/blavatar.png] [http://0.gravatar.com/avatar/61269e109e23ef13e29d2dcbdde5c511?s=50&d=identicon&r=G] Helen Garner: Everywhere I look I find words chiselled in gold by gonzomeetsthepress

    Preface: It’s been a while since I’ve written a blog post: various reasons, including judging a journalism award; the birth of my fourth grandchild, a boy named Max (you can see him in a photo on my Facebook page); a brief hospital visit; keeping an eye on my team, the Sydney Swans, now with three wins and seven losses (sometimes it’s hard to write after a defeat); and waiting for a story I can really get my teeth into. I found one, it’s on racism, and I am starting to write that today. But in the meantime, I will publish my review of a book I finished reading a while ago. It’s been sitting here as a draft. Now that it’s subbed it’s about time I posted it. It’s by one of my favourite writers: Helen Garner. Everywhere I Look (Cover photo above, Text Publishing) is a wonderfully written book by a great Australian author. In her delicious collection of essays, diary entries and stories, Helen Garner chooses her words carefully and teaches them how to sing. I took notes and found myself writing “lovely story”

    • Hi Betty, Thanks your comment. Great to hear from you and thanks your best wishes for Max. I’m alive and well and hope it stays that way for as long as possible. Yes, I have had many friends shuffling off the mortal coil. Love to all from Down Under. Tom x

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