This is not quite what one expects from a celebrated man of letters. What to make of it? Is it a description of a parasomnia or an act of violence? Is it darkly humorous or just dark? Why would a writer record this moment? It is intriguing but does not explain itself. Before long, The Assassins Cloak has moved along to entries by Evelyn Waugh in 1926 (“On Sunday I was bored”) and Katherine Mansfield in 1922 (“The snow is thicker, it clings to the branches like white new-born puppies.”)
There are countless similar glimpses of a mind trying to make a home in the world in Helen Garner’s compelling Yellow Notebook. This is a vulnerable book but also elusive, perhaps by intention. While each of the years it covers, from 1978 to 1987, are separately identified, there are no dates to indicate what month we might be in, although there are many mediations upon the weather and, more broadly, the natural world. Some characters, such as Frank Moorhouse or Noah Taylor, are named. Most, such as “the biographer” or “my old teacher”, are not.
Indeed, the majority are identified by a single initial and on occasions you itch for something like the guide that you used to find inside the lid of a box of Quality Street telling you what all the different chocolates might be. Yellow Notebook bears witness to a beautiful relationship between Garner and her daughter, Alice. We see Alice enjoying her first day in year 7, a speech night much later and many moments of gratitude and wonder in between. Yet Alice is simply M. So the initials don’t give much away and there’s not much point trying to figure out who all these people are. That is not the gift this book offers. It has something much more significant in store. Yellow Notebook is as replete as it is spare. It is brimful of a life that needs to be taken a sip at a time to enjoy all its flavours.
The masking of true identities is one of the clues Yellow Notebook gives about how it might be read. There is no introduction to suggest how this selection was made from Garner’s diaries and no comment on any editorial changes there may have been. It is a bare and exposed work with nothing between the reader and the vulnerabilities of a fine writer working hard at a craft.
There are times when the wide world makes its presence felt: the election of Bob Hawke and the death of Bobby Sands are examples. But mostly this is a self-portrait of a person struggling with relationships, letting go of a marriage, sharing a house, feeling anxious about the value of her writing, contemplating sex, endlessly reading, trying to balance the demands of her work with those of her emotions and wondering deeply about faith and God.
There are mundanities such as bowel movements, insomnia, booze, periods and orgasms. There are equally many moments inebriated by a vision of something greater than self, greater even than time. Through it all, we see such fine works as The Children’s Bach slowly, tentatively, find their shape. We see Garner living with her characters. Sometimes she is exultant in her ability as a writer (“I write and become lord of all I survey”) but more often wary of it (“I’m just a middle level craftswoman.”)
Once you start it is hard to back out. Many entries are extremely brief, as short as four words (“I’m starved. Of love”) or five (“my problems are never syntactic.”). One only has two (“I’m scared.”).
Often the juxtaposition of pieces creates an uncanny effect. In 1981, for example, Garner records the details of a gruesome court case, by no means the last in which she will take an interest, in which a five-year-old was stabbed to death, having offered a dollar to the killer to spare his life. Immediately afterwards, she journals about hearing Jessye Norman at the Town Hall (“big as a haystack … her voice I cannot describe”.)
Beauty and its opposite constantly elbow each other for attention. A rekindled passion for Graham Greene sits alongside a week of abstinence from coffee, tea or alcohol (“I am not full of mad haste to go nowhere”.) An account of a man “clubbed to death with a hammer” that Garner sees on TV sits beside a moment of self-doubt: “I can’t write any more. I’m clumsy. Outside my window a fine rain is falling, perfectly vertical.”
Some longer pieces work superbly on their own. In 1986, Garner is having dinner with a man called L. The coffee order gets mixed up and she suddenly meets a different person because “his whole ego was bound up in it”. She notes “anger spread into the air around him. A grille clanged down between him and the world.” Garner does so much in these 15 lines that they need to be read over and over. Likewise, this confronting moment of truth:
Dreamt I was to be ordained and to give the sacrament. Anxious because I hadn’t studied the liturgy. I woke thinking that if I were ordained I would be qualified to bury the dead. And the part I want to lay to rest is the girl I was in the 1960s. Who thought she was free but was in fact chained. Who had two abortions but was not loved or respected by the men she slept with, although she believed she was, through inability to see the facts and insufficient imagination about what went on in men’s minds and hearts. Cruel to herself without realising it.
Some readers may be disarmed by the persistence of theological reflection and spiritual curiosity that are among the most important sources of life and energy in Yellow Notebook. Late in the book, she quotes Monica Furlong on a need people experience “to make some sense of the ‘God-feeling’ within them”.
There is a lot of God feeling in these pages. In 1984, there is an encounter with J who seems, for all the world, like Tim Winton. He speaks of going to the Bible for “enlightenment … or entertainment” and wanting to live a life of submission and humility like Christ. This brings Garner to an idea that her “puny ego” is “straining at holding back a mighty force”.
She returns many times to the idea of a “mighty force” trying to connect with her. She goes to Tarrawarra Abbey. She reads Merton. Her hunger for this force becomes almost unbearable for her.
“I dread having to become a Christian” she writes, but at the same time she is dismissive of those who are dismissive of this idea. Her search is exquisitely wrought. “But I can’t go to church. It would be like going back to Dad, to being an angry daughter.” She mulls over the Lord’s Prayer slowly at night in bed.
Alan Bennett is renowned for his annual diaries in The London Review of Books and, at times, Garner’s journals are reminiscent of Bennett’s. Both writers are emotional omnivores. They can both drive their wit through concrete. In 2000, when Gielgud died, Bennett refused to join the flotilla of media commentary. He wrote “reluctant to join the bandwagon, especially when the bandwagon is a hearse”. Garner’s wit gives more of herself. Yellow Notebook is by no means short of humour. That is because the central craft to which it bears witness is that of becoming a human being, honest and struggling to love oneself. There is so much wisdom in this book that we can be grateful that Garner has decided to share it around.
Michael McGirr is the dean of faith at St Kevin’s in Melbourne and author of Books That Saved My Life (Text)