famous reporter 40
- HELEN GARNER
Launch: 'Swimming', by Enza Gandolfo
Melbourne Writers Festival, 30 August
- Ill start by saying that
Enza Gandolfos novel Swimming tackles certain complex and difficult things:
- for example, betrayal, loss,
despair, & terrible rage.
- Its also very interested
in memory and forgetting; in families that work and families that dont, and in how
the ones that dont seem on the face of it to work still have life in them & a
reason to go on.
- And it dives deepest into
matters of work and art, of parenthood and the frustrated longing to be a parent, and of
love, loyalty, and friendship.
- In other words, its about
things that we care for, and need to ponder and contemplate over and over, because we will
never come to the end of their pain, their beauty, and their usefulness.
- Theres always a strange
and deep pleasure to be got from reading a novel thats set in the part of the city
you live in.
- Enzas book is wonderful
about the suburbs of Melbournes old west the small weatherboard houses, the
modest beaches, the sorts of trees that grow in its back yards, and the handicrafts its
older women engage in, which Enza describes with loving respect:
- Kates mother goes over to
the sideboard and takes out a plastic bag; inside, wrapped in white tissue paper, there is
a tiny white blanket. For the babys cot. Kate holds the lacy blanket
against her cheek and then spreads it out on the coffee table and admires her
mothers work. "Butterfly, daisy, snowflake lace and fishtail stitch, her
mother says, pointing to each small square and naming it. The blanket has both texture and
contrast, dips and rises, creating the illusion of many shades of white.
- The novel starts quietly and
carefully, and I felt at home in it right away because it gives off the serious glow of
old-style, pragmatic, domestic feminism, the sort I like, and that we dont hear much
about any more, in these days of Brazilian waxes and people getting their heads kicked on
King Street at 4 am and footballers who glass their girlfriends in glamorous apartment
blocks, though I refuse to believe that the same old beloved modest family struggles
arent being played out every day in kitchens and bedrooms and high school staffrooms
across the nation.
- But just when I thought I could
relax into this familiar, genially cranky element, Gandolfo raises the stakes.
- We find that the baby for whom
the exquisite blanket has been crocheted will never make it into our world.
- The grieving of the woman whom
Gandolfo calls the barren, infertile and then abandoned wife is the
books central sorrow.
- And that sorrow, in the long
run, is what makes its narrator, Kate Wilks, into a writer.
- Gandolfo creates one of the
gentlest, yet toughest portraits of an artists marriage Ive read in Australian
writing. Kate is a high school teacher who falls in love with a talented sculptor called
Tom. When they marry, they move into a house she owns that has some beautiful,
well-established trees in its garden. In a burst of generosity she agrees to the building
of a studio in the back yard, for Tom to work in. To fit the studio in, a maple and a
hibiscus will have to be cut down, and the jacaranda will cop a savage pruning. She
swallows hard, and agrees to this.
- Tom is excited and happy about
- Kate longs for him to see that
she is sad about the loss of the trees, but he doesnt notice.
- And he doesnt say
- This problem, which seems on one
level so trivial, opens the story out into a study of the demands of art and the artist,
and the age-old question of the sacrifices women make to support the art of men.
- It reminded me once more of the
extreme need that people - - not just women - - have for their sacrifices to be noticed.
Its not a demand for gratitude. Its a need that ones sacrifice should be
acknowledged that the beneficiary should sense that its a gift of love that
involves a loss, and not simply take it as his due.
- This struggle between artists
and the people who love them goes very deep, and it can lead to acts of destruction.
- I once heard a very famous
Australian sculptor tell the story of something that happened between him and his first
wife when they were young. They were on their way back to Sydney from the United States,
where he had just spent a fruitful year on some sort of scholarship, and had produced a
lot of work. They were travelling by ship. At some point of the voyage the wife became
enraged by something the artist had done perhaps it was to do with sexual jealousy,
I forget now. Anyway, she went down to their cabin, opened the porthole, and threw out of
it the piece he most treasured of all the work he was bringing proudly home. When he told
this story (quite genially by the time he was an old man), the artist drew from it the
following moral: When the chips are down, women dont give a fuck about
- On the contrary, the women in
this book care a great deal about art. As the story develops, it darkens and becomes
richer and more challenging. A womans inability to bear a child is linked in
profound and painful ways with her struggle to become a writer, and with her sense of what
material she has the right to make use of.
- As a writer, says
Kate, Im a thief, more the lissom cat-burglar than a common gun-toting
criminal. I steal from myself as well as from others
No one is safe or out of
bounds. I justify this shameless pilfering to myself in the name of art and of life, in
the belief that valuable insights come from this narrating of life.
- The act of destruction I
mentioned comes fairly late in the piece and when it does its very shocking, almost
crazy. Its an expression of jealousy and violent rage at a betrayal, but its
linked somehow to Kates own creativity and her sense of self-worth.
- Enza Gandolfo folds the plot of
the novel in a subtle way, moving back and forth over a period of 20 years, so that the
existence of the destructive act is not revealed until she has made the reader fully ready
to understand it. This is a serious achievement and I admired it. There are no hollow
gestures here. She brings her story round in a clever curve into a resolution we have no
hesitation in believing and embracing.
- I realise, says
Kate, at the age of 60, about her long-gone, long-remarried husband Tom, that we
have finally been able to acknowledge each other.
- The book is also a touching
study of long-term friendship between women. I love the character Lynne, Kates
oldest friend, the old leftie activist with a mouth on her, who is now suffering from
dementia. Everything she says cuts through the other characters hesitations and
timidities. Dont feed me that crap, she says when Kate tries to comfort
her. We both know how this is going to end.
- As Lynnes mind closes
down, Kate finds she is now the custodian of the memory of their lifelong friendship.
I have loved her for years, for decades, Kate says. I have loved her
longer than I have ever loved anyone else.
- Its a terrible thing to
know that you are now the only person in the world who understands why certain things are
funny: and that for the rest of your life you will have to laugh at them alone.
- But through the story runs very
delicately written imagery of water and swimming, their power to restore and heal.
- I discovered, Kate
says, that every swim is a new swim, that the ocean remakes itself over and over
again; and I learned to remake myself.
- I was very happy to see this
remark towards the end of the book. It seemed a restatement in swimmers terms of a
wonderfully useful sentence I found in the work of the British psychoanalyst Marion Milner
-- Im always quoting it to people, and I have it pinned to the wall over my desk for
moments when I get a desperate feeling that nothing Im writing is new:
Everything that one
thinks one understands must be understood over and over again, in its different aspects,
each time with the same new shock of discovery.
- Id like to congratulate
Enza on her beautiful novel.
- Congratulations to Helen Cerne
of Vanark Press, a valiant little outfit that I didnt realise was based just round
the corner from where I live in the famous inner west.
- Reading Swimming was a
very rewarding experience for me, and I warmly recommend it to you.
- Im happy to declare it
- HELEN GARNER published her first
novel, Monkey Grip, in 1977. She was best known as a fiction writer (The
Childrens Bach, Postcards from Surfers, Cosmo Cosmolino, My Hard Heart) and
freelance journalist until 1994, when The First Stone, her account of a
university sexual harassment case, provoked a national controversy. Since then she has
become one of Australias most respected writers of essays and non-fiction. In 2004
she published the bestselling Joe Cinques Consolation, about the murder of
a young man in Canberra in 1997. The Spare Room, her most recent novel, was the
winner of the Victorian Premier's Literary Award (2008), the Queensland Premier's Literary
Award (2008), and the Barbara Jefferis Award (2009).