Diary

‘I would like to write about dominance, revulsion, separation, the horrible struggles between people who love each other,’ wrote Helen Garner, foreshadowing How to End a Story, the final instalment of her published diaries, following Yellow Notebook (2019) and One Day I’ll Remember This (2020). While the first two volumes spanned eight years apiece, How to End a Story spans only three. Starting in 1995, shortly after shortly after the release of Garner’s The First Stone, it details the dissolution of her marriage to another writer, V. As Lisa Gorton notes, this volume differs from its precursors both in tone and focus: ‘This one is as compelling as a detective story. This one is edited with the sense of an ending.’

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The first two volumes of Helen Garner’s diaries – Yellow Notebook (2019) and One Day I’ll Remember This (2020) – cover eight years apiece. This one covers three. It is an intense, even claustrophobic story of the breakup of a marriage – a story told in the incidental, fragmentary form of a diary.

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At a sports carnival early in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Decline and Fall, the schnockered schoolmaster Prendergast, unsteadily wielding a starting pistol, shoots poor Lord Tangent in the foot. Thereafter, Tangent barely appears in the narrative, with only a sentence now and then charting his slow medical decline. ‘Everybody else, however, was there except little Lord Tangent, whose foot was being amputated in a local nursing home.’ And later still: ‘It’s maddenin’ Tangent having died just at this time,’ some old sea dog mutters.

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Here we have the first intimations of the coming flowering of the Donald Friend diaries, which are to be published by the National Library with support from Morris West’s benefaction. Friendliness was not always the same as ugliness or cleanliness when he was alive. So, it is somehow comforting that two Australian artists, so different from each other in lifestyle, should after their deaths find common cause.

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‘Unerring muse that makes the casual perfect’: Robert Lowell’s compliment to his friend Elizabeth Bishop comes to mind as I read Helen Garner. She is another artist who reveres the casual for its power to disrupt and illuminate. Nothing is ever really casual for her, but rather becomes part of a perfection that she resists at the same time. The ordinary in these diaries – the daily, the diurnal, the stumbled-upon, the breathing in and out – is turned into something else through the writer’s extraordinary craft.

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The fortieth anniversary of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras might have been an occasion for unbridled elation. Held in March of 2018, the celebration came soon after the bitterly fought battle to legalise same-sex marriage in Australia. Dennis Altman, a pre-eminent figure in Gay Liberation, paints a different picture of the Mardi Gras. His new book, Unrequited Love: Diary of an accidental activist, conveys a sense of unease despite the frolicsome charms of such festivities.

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Anyone who keeps a diary day in, day out for decades knows why Helen Garner, a few years ago, destroyed her early ones, deeming them boring and self-obsessed. Incineration has a long, proud history: think of Henry James, late in life, at his incinerator in Rye, burning all his letters and private papers – that lamentable blaze. The sheer misery and tedium of our early journals can be dejecting. ‘What is the point of this diary?’ Garner asks herself in 1981. ‘There is always something deeper, that I don’t write, even when I think I’m saying everything.’

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The white explorers who first penetrated the interior of this continent were exceptional men. White Australians of the time considered them heroes, performing an essential role in identifying opportunities for exploitation, settlement, and commerce. Mostly, the explorers were heroic – determined, tough, single-minded, and stoic in the face of enormous hardship. They also needed bushcraft, that elusive ability to ‘read’ the landscape, the weather, vegetation communities, and animal behaviour, so as to improve the quality of the daily judgements needed for survival. Success under these conditions requires a clear vision and a strong, intelligent, and organised leader. John McDouall Stuart and Augustus Gregory come to mind as examples; Robert O’Hara Burke does not.

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The final volume of the diaries of Donald Friend covers the years from 1966, when he was fifty-one, to 1988, the year before his death. For a little over half this period (represented by more than two thirds of the diary entries), Friend lived in Bali. He did so in some splendour, waited on by a retinue of houseboys and visited by the distinguished and the celebrated. This was before mass tourism. There are extensive descriptions of Balinese life – the people, their customs, the religious festivals – and of the ancient monuments. These are of interest, but there is little of Friend in them. He could have been writing a travelogue. There is much on his collecting expeditions for Balinese artefacts, his property developments and his problems with thieves. It is not the quotidian nature of these activities which is the problem. A skilful diarist allows us to see the mundane afresh, through his or her peculiar lens. Here, again, Friend seems to have gone missing.

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Memory is actually anxious to be heard.

                                                       A.F. Davies

What a year, and how lucky we are that our country can only play a timid, cringing, subservient role in Iraq – which is not at all to disparage the soldiers we send there. It must be a bastard of a job for those young men, at the accursed interface.

February 6: We fly to Hobart for our Coles Bay holiday, pick up a car and gradually find Sarah and Gordon’s evasive house on its steep hill. The following morning he starts me off with a long stiff walk over the mountain slopes: easier at his age. But I could eat a horse afterwards, were that required.

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