Helen Garner: Diaries from 1995-1998 paint a portrait of a writer in need of space and time

Helen Garner, covering familiar ground in surprising new ways. Picture: Darren James

Helen Garner, covering familiar ground in surprising new ways. Picture: Darren James

Sex, art, gender and ambition. The love problem. A room of one's own and how to preserve that room when you are married to a fellow writer, a domineering one at that. Volume three of Helen Garner's diaries covers familiar ground, though this is a wilder, bleaker ride than the two volumes which preceded it.

How to end a story is a plunge into the abyss as the artist and the woman desperately tries to keep her marriage, her sanity and her artistic vision alive.

It is set mostly in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, where Garner is living with her husband, V. While V writes his grand novel in their apartment, she must absent herself. All day, every day. The question of where and how and in what mental space the writer may write becomes a battleground.

She rents various offices but each is ultimately unsatisfactory. She longs for a warm and generous space in which to write, and let ideas rise or fall. Or to sometimes work from home, so she can put on a load of washing, cook, call people, gasbag and laugh.

In short, at home she wants to be able to do all the noisy, lively things which V find abhorrent when he is working.

The contrast between what each of them considers a good and rich life for a writer could not be more pronounced. She writes of being "in the classic position of a woman artist who in order to maintain a marriage is obliged to trim herself".

She goes into therapy and V rails against this too. Their struggle, moral, artistic and emotional, is the central drama of How to end a story: "We're engaged in a bitter struggle to define ourselves, each against the other."

Compelling and appalling as the disintegration of their marriage is, the margins of the story are still adorned with trademark Garneresque sketches, and peppered with her sharp little verbs which give her writing such pluck.

Whenever she can, she slips free of V's curmudgeonly disapproval to socialise, play Scrabble with her neighbour and let off stream: "[V] was hardly airborne before I'd smoked a joint with the neighbours and rushed off with two other friends to Sean's Panorama."

She ruminates on whether V is having an affair, talks herself out of her jealousy, and then finally gets him to admit to months of infidelity. Garner is synonymous with her hometown of Melbourne, and there is something off-kilter and painful about seeing her thrashing around Sydney, heartbroken and bewildered.

The very fact of keeping a diary is elemental for Garner: "writing about my life is the only thing that makes it possible to live it". Yet her diarising is also scrutinised by V, who's anxious about how she's recording their private life. She offers to do the unthinkable and only mention him in passing. Then he retreats and says she should continue to write about their lives as she wishes.

She notes too: "the only way I can go on keeping a diary... is to conceive of it as a record of soul. As it were in the presence of God who is never fooled." This volume is full of light and shade. Ruthless honesty and savagery are side-by-side with Garner's appreciation of the "the dearest freshness, deep down things" (from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, which she transcribes in her diary).

As the book opens, she is still weathering the storm from the publication of The First Stone, her account of sexual harassment at Melbourne University's prestigious Ormond College. Twenty-five years after its publication, it's hard to conjure up the extraordinary stir that the book caused. A cartoon from the time showed an embattled-looking Garner picking up the phone to Salman Rushdie. Hello? Salman? How's life under the fatwa?

But even when her work is dominating the headlines, V is dismissive, agreeing with an acquaintance that the debate over The First Stone is a storm in a tea cup.

After The First Stone, and in the shadow of V's rigid routine and pontificating on high art, she struggles to define her own territory - "Maybe my right place to work is down a fissure between fiction and whatever the other thing is. Down a crack." Later she puzzles over her crossover genre, "between fiction and an account of what happened".

At one point, V asks why anyone would be interested in reading her diaries. Plenty of us are, as it turns out. On seeing the title of this volume, I wondered if the author, now in her late 70s, was hinting that she's done with storytelling? Few Australian writers are as cherished as Helen Garner. Many of us have grown into adulthood reading her work, and watching that territory of hers fill out admirably.

So here's hoping we do see a fourth volume of her diaries around this time next year.

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This story Diary of a writer who wants space first appeared on The Canberra Times.