There are some books you slip through like water. They have a weightlessness to them, an otherworldly lack of friction. Reading such books feels like swimming: you glide along (or maybe you power down, having dived from a great height) until the end of the lane or the bottom of the pool appears and you must, begrudgingly, stop. In this instance, that concrete hardness is the back cover.
This was my experience of reading Helen Garner’s diaries. I was surprised by how immersive it was, that experience, how easy to lose my sense of time. To be honest, I don’t usually pay attention to diaries or letters or the various marginalia of famous writers that gets scooped up and published at the zenith of a great career. I feel a skepticism about them, something along the lines of ‘is this really necessary?’ I suppose I am not that enamored with ‘process’. Even interviews – written or recorded – don’t particularly excite me. I just want the thing itself. As a bookseller, with so much to keep on top of, I often feel there’s no time for this secondary material. But, somehow, Helen Garner’s diaries are different. To a fellow cynic, I would describe them as ‘novelistic,’ in the sense that they read to me like a novel in fragments. There is a narrative arc and distinct characters who leap from the page, vivid and lively and real (quite literally real). Each short entry bursts with energy, insight, curiosity… the intellectual equivalent of a pomegranate seed on the tongue. Although ‘intellectual’ isn’t quite right here: Garner is a very sensual, instinctive writer. She feels her way through moments, days, and years, and documents those feelings as they roll and toss. She is against over-intellectualising life, and there are many humorous scenes of her and other bored women listening politely to the puffy, self-important speeches of men, enjoying a covert and collective eye-roll.
There are now two volumes of Helen Garner’s diaries for readers to gorge themselves on. The first, Yellow Notebook, was published in November 2019, and the second, One Day I’ll Remember This, exactly a year later. Both volumes are filled with snippets of dialogue between friends and lovers; short scenes detailing this or that event, this or that tryst; dreams; quotes from other thinkers, and thoughts on life and writing. Readers should come armed with a pen, because you will probably want to underline things, such as this passage from page 171 of One Day I’ll Remember This: ‘What I love on my desk is the notebooks I’ve typed up, their freshness, their un-public tone, their glancing quality and high sensuous awareness. Nothing ‘serious’ I write can ever match these – exactly as my accounts of dreams, scribbled before I’m completely awake, contain more blunt truth of feeling or observation than I can ever produce when I’m sitting up at my desk telling myself I am ‘writing a novel’.’
After writing the first two thirds of this review, I thought I should look up what others have said about the diaries, just to confirm I am not alone in my opinions. And I was struck by the fact that the very first article I read – a review in the Sydney Morning Herald – also invokes water when describing the books. ‘We see Garner creating the script for the film The Last Days of Chez Nous,’ writes Michael McGirr, ‘struggling with what was to become (in my view) her finest work of fiction, Cosmo Cosmolino, and pursuing the cause of The First Stone with quiet but steely determination. At the same time, the world laps at her door.’ The world laps at her door like waves on the shoreline. The diaries have a watery quality: they are refreshing, cool. They ripple; they change the quality of the sound and the light.
The question I anticipate being asked by customers is: ‘do you have to have read Garner’s previous books in order to enjoy her diaries?’ I don’t think so. They are extraordinary all on their own. Garner devotees are the obvious intended readers, but I believe they will suit anyone who is interested in the craft of writing, in fragmentary narratives, or in books that can be enjoyed like a bowl of buttery popcorn (“another piece, and another piece, and another – oh my god I ate the whole bowl!”).
Reviewed by Charlotte.