Being in Helen Garner’s house was nothing to Maya; she’d known Helen for years. So when I arrived on the doorstep, bottle in hand, accepting Maya’s invitation to dinner, I tried hard to make it mean nothing to me either. Not only because being star-struck is a very disturbing experience—a little like unrequited love in its excruciating reduction of the self to a quivering point in the face of one who, of course, knows nothing of you—but also out of respect: I felt that Helen would have no problem with her house-sitter inviting a friend over for dinner, but that she might not approve of that friend drooling on the furniture.
Helen was on the road promoting Joe Cinque’s Consolation, but was returning the next day and then moving out of her house within a week. Maya’s part of the house-sitting deal was that she pack Helen’s books into boxes. And before dinner, Maya asked if I might help her. Until then I had managed it: I had felt almost nothing about being in Helen’s house. But books? Books are different. Books are intimate in a way that goes beyond the domestic. Between the covers of a book lies a private experience shared by no-one else. Would I help Maya take Helen Garner’s books, one by one, handle each of them in turn, and put them into boxes? I played it cool.
‘Of course,’ I said.
Maya stood on a ladder and handed the books down to me in twos and threes and I arranged them in boxes. I paused over a Murray Bail, but resisted the temptation to open the front cover and read any possible inscription. As we worked, our talking grew quiet with the rhythm of passing and stacking, and the titles and author names washed over me like past conversations. I flipped open a copy of Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye in the hope of seeing something in the Canadian’s hand, but just like in my own well-thumbed copy, there was nothing. Many of the titles I was handling had twins on my own shelves—books I hadn’t read for years, but couldn’t part with. My bookshelf was about half the size of Helen’s but, I considered, I had only lived half the life. Perhaps by the end of my life I would have a collection twice that size.
Some people don’t keep their books. Unlike those of us who must shift mountains of books every time we move house, some people are happy to hold onto a book while they read it and then let it slip away; they don’t feel the need to keep their books in their lives. And some people—shocking, but true—don’t read at all. They find other things to do. And they seem to get on all right. Why then, when I think about life without books, or even worse, without reading, do I feel panicked?
I used to joke that I read so much because it was easier than meditating: that reading fiction was the quickest way to escape the traps and tropes of my own thoughts. But reading is not meditation; it is almost the opposite of meditation. Reading fiction isn’t disposing of thinking, it is borrowing another person’s thoughts; and not just their mundane semi-conscious thoughts—the sort we battle against every day to make room for a smell, or a sigh, or an inexplicable fleeting feeling of happiness—but their most well-crafted, important thoughts. The best fiction can draw me into experiencing another person’s thinking-invention as if it is my own, as if it is a total world, one that I am experiencing firsthand, like a dream. As if it is me.
Like me, Helen was clearly a book-keeper. Her bookshelf covered the entire wall and the books took some packing, and after a while it was only work, only a bookshelf, only books. So when Maya suggested we stop and make dinner, I was ready to leave the books to themselves. We cooked together and talked about the things we always talked about—work, life, love. And we ended up as we always ended up, talking about ‘our friends’ and meaning ‘ourselves’: asking each other, where are the men to match these women? A Helen moment, in The Feel of Steel; two women, Helen and a younger woman, drinking together in her kitchen toasting something they had in common: problems with men. We ate in the back yard, on the grass. There were fruit trees and a veggie patch. We wondered how it would feel to have a place like this, a garden that we spent time with, a garden that bore fruit.
Only a week later, when Maya had gone to stay somewhere else and Helen had come back from her tour, I sat in my own study, in front of my own small bookshelf. I thought of Helen’s books, all boxed up ready for the move. I imagined someone examining my own books and wondered what they might glean about me from my collection.
The phone rang. Maya invited me to come out to a bar.
‘Who’s going to be there?’ I asked.
‘Just me, and Anna, and Helen said she might drop by.’
I almost said no. It was one thing to spend an evening with a person’s books, but a meeting—I didn’t think I could handle it.
‘Sounds nice,’ I said. ‘What time?’
My fingers lightly touched the spines of my books and of their own accord drew out Postcards from Surfers, and held it, again.
Where are the men to match these women? There had been a man, for me, years before. A man who had matched me. Cameron. A beautiful man, a beautiful relationship that had a fatal flaw from the beginning. He was gay and we both knew it. We shared a love of Helen Garner. One day he showed me a story from his copy of Helen Garner’s Postcards from Surfers, the story ‘La chance existe’: ex-lovers, a man and a woman meeting up after years of separation made necessary by his homosexuality. I read it and cried. I was inconsolable. And Cameron, suddenly seeing in it the picture of our own inevitable future, became inconsolable too.
Torturous step by torturous step, we played out the story and put an ocean between us. Only distance could do it. And I discovered too late that when I revealed my broken heart to people, explained the situation, they found it laughable. He was gay? Didn’t you know? I was made to feel like a dupe, when I knew I wasn’t that—anything but that. I stopped talking about it, and instead went back to Helen’s ‘La chance existe’. I turned to her clear-cut and heart-rending words. I lived in her male character’s uncomplicated directness, his continuous, reverberating, present-tense answer to the ubiquitous unasked question. Why? Why? I lived when he says, ‘I love her, that’s all.’
I stopped talking about it and instead spent a year writing a novella, pouring out a wild diatribe against the pigeon-holing of love, about how love should be superior to sexuality. But he was gone, over the sea, because I was not a man. Sexuality had trumped love. The tension between idealism and reality infused the novella and gave it an uncertain life, but at the end of that year I was as angry and as empty as I had been when I began. I had poured as much of myself as possible into my words and I was still fully situated in my own flesh.
Helen’s one line meant more to me than my thousands of words. He had loved me. And I had loved him. That was all.
At the bar, I sat mute. Maya sat between Helen and me, and I had trouble hearing the conversation, the bar was noisy. But it wasn’t that. I couldn’t speak. Any words I spoke felt like a lie. I was panicking. I had lost the ability to know how I should act, to know what was appropriate. And I felt angry with her, with Helen, for the way she wrote, showing so much of herself—there she was, in Monkey Grip, in The Feel of Steel, in The First Stone, giving her hardest, darkest bits to the world so that when you read her words you couldn’t help feeling that you knew her, that you were her for a moment. And here I was, unable to give anything of myself to her. I couldn’t say anything of purpose here. Here I was just a body in space, and there she was, sitting in the thoughtless luxury of being known.
We changed bars and with the new seating arrangement came a new me, the other me, the overcompensating extroverted me: loud, silly, gregarious. A deception, but I couldn’t stop. I made Helen laugh once or twice, and other times fell flat. Dan, a friend of mine, arrived. We were booked to see a play; we had to leave. I loudly invited Helen and everyone in the circle to come with us. They all politely declined, and Dan and I left.
My stomach hurt as we walked down the cobbled alley away from the bar. Soapy water, thrown from the back doors of the Chinese kitchens, gathered in little pools between the stones, glistening in the streetlights. I had to keep my prickling eyes turned away from Dan as we walked the streets from Chinatown to La Mama.
That was the week when Helen’s Joe Cinque’s Consolation joined the ranks on my bookshelf, and years later I introduced it to a spirited class of Melbourne University undergraduates. It polarised the group. They were not divided by the subject matter—the death by overdose of a university student, his girlfriend charged with his murder. They were shocked by Helen’s unabashed presence in the book. That she was the main character in the book seemed a devious ploy; as if, by presenting a fictional version of herself, she was unfairly making them think her thoughts. One group of students argued this side: that Helen had no right to put herself into someone else’s story, even if she was writing it; and another group, mostly young women, fought vociferously for another perspective: that the story was Helen’s, that this was a book about a character, Helen, experiencing a story—a story about law, death, ethics, mental illness, compassion, conscience, grief—experiencing it in her intellect, her emotions, her identity and her life.
I suggested to my students that perhaps Helen Garner’s overt presence in Joe Cinque’s Consolation was the only fair way she could have written it. That she had located her prejudices and emotions where they should be, with Helen, and had not dishonestly embedded them in a documentary-style prose, masquerading as facts. I suggested that this might make it easier to see where Helen ended and the other story began. That Helen, by putting herself in the book, was allowing herself to be more easily extracted from the story she was first hearing and then telling.
It was a useful classroom exercise, but later my suggestion seemed to me almost ridiculous. It swept away too easily the meshed dream-space between teller and hearer. It implied that we could surgically separate words from people: words from the people who heard them, the people who wrote them, the people who read them. It ignored both the problem and the beauty of reading: that the edges are blurred, the lines are fuzzy. Where do I end, and you, the writer, begin? In the act of reading, am I you, just for a moment? In the act of hearing your story, am I you, just for a moment? And it failed to ask the real question: not whether I could extract Helen from her story, but whether I could separate myself from Helen.
The morning after the bar I sat alone in my room. Dan and I agreed that the play had been unmemorable, although he was a little more forgiving than I was. I was sitting on the floor in front of my own half-wall half-life bookshelf, in front of my own Atwoods, Byatts, Tóibíns, McEwans, Austens, Kunderas and Garners.
Looking at my books, I came across the novella I wrote after Cameron left, filed on my shelf without system between Jolley and Moorhouse. I hadn’t opened it for years. I picked it out and read the first page. Then I read the second, and then the third. The writing was wild and uncontrolled. It was very young, but it wasn’t awful. The red-raw heartbreak was there, all over the page. And so was I. I was back there again, aching. I had a strange moment, suspended between writer and reader, experiencing personally the story of someone else who used to be me.
It was an irrefutable impulse: I put the manuscript in an envelope. Helen would get this, she’d understand. She’d understand everything about it: the experience itself, the need to write it, the need to give it. I sat down at my desk and wrote a letter to Helen. I told her about my sudden impulse to give her the book, and that I hoped I wasn’t imposing but I wanted to give her something of mine that I thought might interest her.
I put the letter in the envelope and walked from my house to hers. I knew that Helen had already moved, but that she came back now and then to collect things from the house. I walked past the house to make sure. Nothing moved. I walked past again. Still nothing. I opened the gate and walked up the path. I put the envelope under the mat, and then thought better of it—the sky was threatening rain. I opened the screen door and stood the envelope against the wooden front door and closed the screen against it. I walked back up the path and out the gate and was almost out of sight of the house when I heard the front door open. And then I ran. I didn’t mean to; it was a reflex. I almost went back to explain myself, but the thought of running and then going back was mortifying. Had she seen me, faffing about on her porch? She must have thought I was mad.
I ran all the way home. My housemate Alisa took one look at my blazing exultant eyes and said dryly, ‘What did you just do?’ I panted and giggled and recounted, speaking too loudly, until she was doubled over laughing at me. For a week I felt exhilarated and ashamed and embarrassed, and then it subsided into acceptance. I thought about Helen’s new bookshelf, wherever it was, full of the books I had packed away for her: all those stories she had read, dreamed, experienced. Perhaps that book of mine was there among them. Perhaps she’d thrown it away. It didn’t matter. It wasn’t about that.
I wasn’t expecting a response but only a few days later a letter came. It was small and grey with my name on the front in a pointy sliding hand, and it wasn’t until I had opened it that I saw who it was from. I sat down suddenly in my armchair and read what Helen had written to me. A different experience. No vicarious living. No borrowing thoughts. Words addressed from one woman to another. When I had finished, I folded the letter back into its envelope and after a moment I leaned across to my bookshelf and slid the thin envelope between Helen’s books The First Stone and The Feel of Steel.