Cosmo Cosmolino revisited

Journal: 073

Helen Garner by Jenny Sage, National Portrait Gallery

Helen Garner’s Cosmo Cosmolino left me bemused when I read and reviewed it (here) six months ago, and we had quite a discussion afterwards about what Garner was trying to achieve/how the book should be read. I now have a better idea. You will have noticed that I had a big birthday recently. One of my gifts was a book voucher from my brother in law and his family to be spent at my local indie. Which I did yesterday. This is what I bought –

Larissa Behrendt, After Story
Belinda Castles ed., Reading Like an Australian Writer
Martha Wells, Network Effect (A Murderbot novel, SF)
Minae Mizumura, An I-Novel

Making my choices was surprisingly hard. In the shop, Crow Books, voucher burning a hole in my pocket, I stood for some time paralysed before New Releases. Some of them I knew of, like Amanda Lohrey’s Labyrinth, some were Australian, some not. None seemed to have that ‘zing’ that was going to grab me. Eventually I decided the Behrendt was the most promising, so that was No.1. Further along was a space epic, nearly No.2 but the Wells nearby seemed less I dunno, traditional, so I went with it. When in doubt, go round to the A-Z and pick up a Murakami. Always works, he has such interesting neighbours. For No. 3 I considered The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle but, sorry Haruki, Mizumura won out (Sayaka Murata, Earthlings last time, but before that was Wild Sheep Chase).

And finally, the Castles, which was down next to ‘Classics’ with books/periodicals like the Griffith Review. Why it caught my eye I do not know, but I’m glad it did. It’s a compendium of essays by twenty five Australian writers writing about reading and writing.

Today we’ll be looking at “A Big Sunny Shack: Cosmo Cosmolino by Helen Garner” by Tegan Bennett Daylight; but expect to see references in the future to “Fearless: On Christos Tsiolkas” by Nigel Featherstone; “Everywhen in Everything: Reading Carpentaria like an Aboriginal Writer”, Mykaela Saunders; “Postcards to Charlotte Wood: Revisiting The Natural Way of Things by Ashley Hay; and many, many more.

Nothing to do with Garner, but this is what Bennett Daylight (let’s go with TBD) has to say about teaching writing

Many writers will find themselves teaching creative writing at some point in their careers, because few of us can earn our living simply from our writing. We all grow our methods from our own practice … less is more. Too many instructions, too many fussy little exercises about point of view and tense and conflict and character are likely to break the heart of the real writer, who is writing from an urge she can’t quite name, a place she can’t quite locate. When real writing begins, decisions are not made about point of view and tense. These things are for the writer to notice later.

She always gets her students started, she says, by reading them the first two and a half pages of the story Cosmo Cosmolino in the novel Cosmo Cosmolino, “Helen Garner’s least loved, least praised novel”.

“Notice how active it is,” she says to them, “see all the Garneresque verbs: striking, spewing, bounding, slinging, slapping, laughing, blossoming. Severing, scorning, plugging on, singing, editing, chiaking.”

The first problem with Cosmo Cosmolino, which consists of two short stories and a long story, is is it even a novel. Apparently, for a long time prior to publication, it actually consisted of not three, but seven stories. My response is always if the author says its a novel then we must consider the stories connected, consider their relation to each other. TBD has a more classic response. She quote’s Tim Winton’s description, “a big sunny shack with all the windows and doors open”, and continues CC “is a book the reader can move around in. Its shape invites readerly freedom.”

Peter Corris, Robert Dessaix declare that none of Garner’s works are novels, just “transcribed diaries”. Novels, Dessaix declares, have an architectural (‘architectonic’) quality that Garner’s works lack.

Here’s what I [TBD] think: what makes a novel a novel is metaphor. Metaphor, central metaphor, when deployed in a novel, is as though life looked in the mirror and saw, not just its reflection, but something behind it… the novel is a collection of words shadowed by a larger meaning. Metaphor, just like faith or belief, is the sense of something larger underneath.

Tim Winton, says TBD, believes that ‘shadow’ in Cosmo Cosmolino is The Holy Spirit. Which says a lot about Winton and at least a little about my unease with Garner’s direction here.

Is it possible that in God, in belief or faith, Garner found the kind of metaphor her previous books had lacked? [.. big gap ..] We don’t condemn Toni Morrison or Marilynne Robinson or even Herman Melville for their use of biblical metaphor. Could we perhaps banish the sneering and cynical laughter for long enough to read this book as it deserves to be read?

TBD doesn’t address the ‘problem’ of the two ancillary stories other then to say that they were outbuildings which she personally would have knocked down while adding more ‘rooms’ to the big sunny shack. But she is firm that Cosmo Cosmolino is a novel and not just more Garner reportage (she is less firm, where I am not, about The Spare Room for instance). “I don’t believe in a god or gods, but I do believe in the power of fiction, the power of narrative, the power of metaphor to restore order. A great novel unsettles, then settles – it causes disorder, and then order. Order is restored in Cosmo Cosmolino; the metaphor that effects this restoration is a metaphor of belief.”

Yet another class I wish I could sit in on. Though interestingly she says most of her students – she is currently at CSU – don’t know Garner.

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Currently reading

Belinda Castles ed. (F, Aus), Reading Like an Australian Writer
Elizabeth Jolley (F, Aus/WA), Lovesong
Martha Wells (F, USA), Network Effect (SF)

Cosmo Cosmolino, Helen Garner

On Melbourne summer mornings the green trams go rolling in stately progress down tunnels thick with leaves: the bright air carries along the avenues their patient chime, the chattering of their wheels.

I might stop my review right there. How Melbourne is Helen Garner!

I should have stopped there. The much praised Cosmo Cosmolino, as far as I was concerned, was almost completely incomprehensible. Not the individual words and sentences, not of course Garner’s always perceptive accounts of Melbourne inner suburban share-house life, but where the hell was she going with it.

My Text edition (not the one pictured – the Text edition has a boring black cover with a few stars) has an Introduction by Melbourne biologist and radio presenter Ramona Koval, which I didn’t read, two short stories – Recording Angel (25pp) and A Vigil (27pp) – and then Cosmo Cosmolino (217pp).

Recording Angel

The narrator is unnamed. Let’s call her Helen. Helen’s friend Patrick lives in Sydney with his wife and son. On a visit Patrick tells Helen he has brain cancer. Helen is devastated.

.. Patrick recited my life like a poem he had learnt by heart; and over the years of our friendship I had come to endure his version without open rebellion ..

They discuss Helen’s friend Ursula who Patrick had filed under ‘Became an Alcoholic and a Prostitute’ and who threw herself under a tram after the death of her daughter. A visit or two later and Helen is at Patrick’s to support Natalie while Patrick undergoes an operation. The night before, they talk and talk. After Patrick comes out of the operation the two women gape “with shock and fear at the foot of the bed” then rush out of the hospital.

A Vigil

Kim was hanging on by a thread, taking pills, waiting endless months for her father to come down from Queensland, pay her uni fees, take her away. Raymond, living with her, or in the same house anyway, uses her

The nightdress was twisted up round her waist and her skin was loose, like old sacking. She had about as much life in her as a half-deflated dummy, but without complaint she opened her legs, and he kept his face turned away, to avoid her breath.

Raymond stays away for four days, at his brother’s in a rooming house in another part of the city. When he comes back he passes Kim’s mother in the street, a man tagging along. Ursula. Kim is dead. He finds her, still in bed, her face flyblown, and rushes back to his brother’s, where Ursula finds him a few days later to drag him to the funeral. And then to be punished.

Cosmo Cosmolino

Janet has an old two storey terrace house that used to be a vibrant share-house. Those years are long gone. She’s been married. The stain is still on the wall from the saucepan of beetroot soup she flung at him as she told him to get out. Now she works from home with a battered typewriter, making a living knocking out short pieces for magazines, the decaying house an albatross around her neck. Over the years she had ..

retreated before chaos, closing doors as she went, leaving timber half-stripped and plaster unpainted, until only in the kitchen was any kind of order maintained.

Maxine “lived in a shed and called herself a carpenter”. For money she did cleaning, ironing, mowing. But the property she lives on is sold, and she is homeless. She ends up at Janet’s, in the shed at the end of the garden.

And there’s a guy, Ray, who is taken in the same day, down from the North where his brother, Alby, has fed him stories of communal living, half naked women, food always on the table in vast quantities. He takes Alby’s old room, upstairs at the back. Is disappointed to discover they buy their food separately, and eat at different times, hurriedly, “in a kitchen corner, or bowed over a newspaper at the white table”.

So far, so Helen Garner. But the story develops a fanastical element. Where did that come from?

Something tells Maxine that she will have a baby. Fathered by Ray.

Janet swallowed. ‘And – Ray does know about this, I suppose?’
‘Perhaps not with his conscious mind, yet,’ said Maxine. ‘That depends on the number of his incarnations.’
‘Sorry?’ said Janet.
‘Oh, everybody,’ said Maxine, ‘at some stage has to do a spell on earth.’…
‘I know it sounds strange at first’ … ‘See – angelic beings aren’t necessarily aware of their status.’

Ray, on the other hand (being a Queenslander) “knows Jesus”. Sure, Garner is making fun of them, but somewhere along the line she buys into it.

Life goes on. Maxine makes a ‘bride’ out of straw and Ray’s best shirt (a doll with magic powers) which assumes an importance I don’t understand. Ray somehow gets a job, saves money, hides a grand at the bottom of his dirty clothes basket. Maxine gets involved with a pyramid scheme for getting rich. ‘Borrows’ Ray’s grand and blows it on the scheme. Alby arrives with a truckload of worthless second-hand furniture. Maxine floats away in a cloud of jonquils.

If an author, as Garner has done here, declares a collection of pieces to be a novel, then that is how I will read it. But these pieces don’t speak to each other at all. If this is a novel, then as far as I am concerned, it is a failed novel.

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Helen Garner, Cosmo Cosmolino, first pub. 1992. My edition Text, Melbourne, 2012. 283pp.

Honour & Other People’s Children, Helen Garner

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Honour and Other People’s Children are novellas of 56 and 100 pp respectively. The front cover of my copy looks like the one above but adds “by the author of the best-seller, Monkey Grip”. Monkey Grip (1977), a fictionalisation of Garner’s experiences as a single mother living with a drug addict in inner Melbourne, was Garner’s first novel, coming out when she was 35, and after she was sacked as a teacher for writing an article about discussing sexuality with her students.

So this is Garner’s second. Rather slight, just slices of life – I guess her publisher was pushing her to take advantage of her initial success – with interestingly, more distance between the author and her protagonists than in her other works. Garner is of course famous for writing about herself and her friends, only loosely fictionalized, but if she is in these stories then she’s not so blatant about it. Though perhaps it’s just that they are both in third person.

Honour

Honour is the story of Kathleen, Frank, Jenny, all thirtyish, and Flo aged 6, told from Kath’s point of view. Frank has left Kath and Flo to live with Jenny and now he wants not just a divorce from Kath but for Flo to live with him and Jenny.

The setting of course is the inner suburbs of Melbourne, around Melbourne Uni, in the 1980s when gentrification was well underway in Parkville and Carlton, but not so much in North Carlton, North Fitzroy and the nearer parts of Brunswick, and beyond them, not at all.

Sometimes when you read Helen Garner you can work out, almost to the street, where she/her protagonist is living, by where she walks and the trams she takes. This story feels like Brunswick, once working class, ‘modernized’ by Greeks and Italians in the 60s and 70s before they moved on and out to bigger suburban houses, then taken over by young, Anglo bargain hunters. In fact, to get completely sidetracked by geography, it must be West Brunswick:

The house was at the bottom of a dead-end road with narrow, yellowing nature strips, and a railway line running across its very end like stitches closing a bag… Its facade, a triangle on top of a square, was slightly awry and painted the aqua colour favoured by Greek landlords.

In the late 60s when I first came to Melbourne, Brunswick Rd, Dawson St and all the other east-west roads that crossed that line had big white wooden gates that were opened and closed by a railway man in a little wooden hut; Brunswick was industrial, with factories and transport depots; and the Sarah Sands‘ customers had all lived through the Battle of Britain and if you went there on a Saturday night for the singing and dancing you could imagine Lancaster bombers overhead.

By the 80s that was just about all gone, Brunswick was seedy residential, and in Garner’s work implied rather than described, but unmistakably Melbourne. I digress. Kathleen and Frank have been happily separated for some time and both are surprised that he wants a divorce.

‘You see’, he began in a gentler voice, with his head on one side, ‘I’ve always thought I’d go on being related to you, for the rest of my life.’

Golly, that strikes a chord! The story meanders round a bit, establishing the connections between Kath and Frank, and the very knowing relationship Flo has with Kath. Kath and Jenny as you might expect have an awkward relationship, but Flo dreams that they might all live together. And in Garner’s world of share houses and cooperative living it is possible that they might. As the story ends Flo has persuaded her two mothers to sit facing each other on a seesaw:

It rose without haste, sweetly, to the level, steadied and stopped. They hung in the dark, airily balancing, motionless.

Other People’s Children

The second story has a completely new cast and is about the difficulties rather than the possibilities of shared living, about a share house in Fitzroy, say, which Garner contrasts with another house in Prahran, south of the river, where they just can’t do it right.

Scotty is a school teacher unhappy with her lumpy body, committed to cooperative living, but bossy with it. Ruth is a deserted mother of two with a complaisant daughter and a feral young son. Scotty and Ruth had lived in a happy, noisy women’s share house but the lease had run out and the best Scotty could find for them was this smaller house. The other tenant is a musician, Alex.

In the Prahran house Madigan, an inarticulate, unemployable, “great lump of a fellow”, has a ‘room’ which is a actually “a converted shed that sagged against the back fence”. His housemates are hippies. “The women worked at odd things, tolerated the three children of one of them, cooked huge, ill-assorted vegetarian meals, and listened respectfully to the opinions of the men, all of whom were musicians of one stripe or another.”

Madigan is a musician too, plays the mouth organ. The point of the story, I guess, is Ruth working up the courage to break free from Scotty, but the climax is a pub gig, Madigan up front leading Alex’s band and Scotty drunk, dancing: “… Madigan working away at the centre microphone … peeling off high, sheer ribbons of sound. Everyone was dancing.”

The last time I lived in a share house, in Drummond St, Carlton, next door to the police station, I was in my early 20s and the Young Bride and I were just back, unemployed, after a year in Queensland. I was chasing driving jobs, but the others were student teachers, on bursaries, primly middle class, house-sharing an economic rather than a political option, for us as well as them, and YB and I were soon in a little house at the coal yard end of Alfred Crescent.

The women and men of Garner’s households are a decade older, sharing is how they live. Garner knows them and dissects the tensions of their lives with wit, finesse and pellucid prose.

 

Helen Garner, Honour & Other People’s Children, McPhee Gribble, 1980 (Cover pic of Penguin edition, 1982)

Map of inner Melbourne (here). Brunswick is at the top and Prahran bottom right. Carlton isn’t named but is the area immediately to the right of Melbourne Uni in the centre. Google maps is very poor at showing railway lines, but the line to the northern suburbs (the Craigieburn line?) runs from south to north up the centre of the map.

The Spare Room, Helen Garner

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The Spare Room is a work of fiction. Any similarity between the characters in this book and real people, living or dead, is coincidental.” Except of course that this is an almost journalistic account of Helen Garner’s nursing of her friend, Jenya Osborne (Wiki), Nicola in this ‘novel’, who is dying of cancer.

Peter Carey, for the back cover blurb, calls this “A PERFECT NOVEL, imbued with all Garner’s usual clear-eyed grace …”. But Robert Dessaix writes in his review, “[Garner’s works] are not novels. They are all of them fine works of art and innovative explorations of literary approaches to non-fiction, every one of them an outstanding example of stylish reportage, but none of them is a novel. ”

Let Garner have the last word, “She doesn’t want to define fiction, and the notion that it should be entirely made up is, of course, absurd.” [Interview in The Age, 29 Mar. 2008]

Garner, and her protagonist ‘Helen’, were about 60 when The Spare Room was written, living in an inner-northern Melbourne suburb within walking distance of the Broadmeadows train line, with her daughter’s family next door, when she accepted a request from an old friend, Nicola, to stay for three weeks while she underwent a course of ‘alternative’ therapy for her terminal cancer.

Before Nicola arrives Helen discusses her with her therapist friend, Leo:

‘You work with cancer patients,’ I said. ‘Does this sound bad?’
He shrugged. ‘Pretty bad. Stage four.’
‘How many stages are there?’
‘Four’
[…]
‘Maybe that’s why she’s coming to stay. Maybe she wants you to be the one.’
‘What one?’
‘The one to tell her she’s going to die.’

In Sydney, Nicola, an old hippy, has a house on the northern beaches accessible only by dinghy and a long clamber up from the beach. This involves an effort which for some time she has been too weak to make and so she has been staying with her niece and the niece’s boyfriend, Iris and Gab, in their one-bedroom flat closer to the city. Unbeknownst to Nicola, Helen and Iris have been discussing her via email.

The treatment that Nicola has chosen involves injections of huge doses of Vitamin C which incapacitate her and leave her in tremendous pain, which she attempts to deal with, initially at least, with aspirin, though Helen quickly gets her to a real doctor and a prescription for proper pain killers.

Garner’s writing is spare and to the point. For three weeks she takes us through the day to day struggle of getting Nicola to appointments; of edging her back to conventional medicine; of the sleepless nights spent removing and replacing bedding soaked with night sweats; Helen’s own life and work, even her relationship with her granddaughter, on hold for the duration.

The heart of this story is not the failure of alternative therapy; not the huge workload imposed on Helen, the long nights, the hours spent ferrying Nicola to and from appointments; nor even Nicola’s refusal to give up on alternative therapy in the face of all evidence to the contrary; but of Helen dealing with her anger – her anger with the venal and incompetent alternative therapists, with Nicola’s rictus of a smile in denial of her punishing pain, but most of all, with Nicola’s refusal to face up to her impending death.

Yet through it all, Helen maintains her love for Nicola and remains committed to caring for her for the whole three weeks. I don’t think Helen is ever angry at Nicola for asking this of her and I certainly don’t think she begins to hate her, although this was the impression I retained from listening to all those Radio National discussions of The Spare Room back in 2008.

Iris and Gab come for a short stay and they encourage Helen to confront Nicola with her anger:

The last of my self-control gave way.
‘Get that grin off your face. Get it off, or I’ll wipe it off for you.’
It faded of its own accord. She took two steps backwards, gaping at me. ‘Why are you so angry?’
‘This house is full of anger! Can’t you feel it? The rooms are stuffed with it. And a lot of it’s got to be yours.’
[…]
‘Everyone’s angry, everyone’s scared,’ I shouted. ‘You’re angry and scared. But you won’t admit it. You want to keep up this masquerade, so you dump your shit on me. I’m sick with it. I can’t breathe.’

Nicola gets a new diagnosis which means an operation and then recuperation in Melbourne but Helen cannot face even one more day beyond the 21 requested. In a final chapter Garner fills us in on Nicola’s final weeks – she has the operation and recuperates in the Windsor Hotel (a fine old hotel and a Melbourne icon) with carers flown down from Sydney, then Helen flies to Sydney to join the women in Iris’s apartment seeing Nicola through to the end.

As seemingly with all Garner’s work, this is a story about Garner, about Garner’s reaction to the stress of having sole care of a dying, loved friend. We know this is the third time she has had to do this, first for her sister, then her mother, so perhaps its about her reaction to them dying too, despite her care for them. Garner’s utter honesty about her own reactions make The Spare Room unputdownable.

 

Helen Garner, The Spare Room, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2008

Robert Dessaix’s review in The Monthly (here)
Jason Steger, The Age, Melbourne, 29 Mar 2008, Interview: It’s fiction and that’s a fact, (here)

Michelle at Adventures in Biography is a Garner fan and has posts on Garner’s This House of Grief (here and here)
Sue at Whispering Gums must be a fan too. A list of her Garner posts (here)
Lisa at ANZLitLovers is not a fan but she has reviewed The Spare Room (here)
My review of Garner’s essay collection The Feel of Steel (here)