The desires of diarists, to paraphrase Lytton Strachey, are wonderfully various. They can be motivated by Schadenfreude, reportage, self-defence or simple record-keeping. Most diaries are destined never to be read. Others are more grandiose. Alfred Kazin, whose brilliant journals were published in 2011, said of Edmund Wilson that whenever he sat down to write his diary he thought he was writing history. Well, diaries are histories of a kind – of our ceaseless craving, of our disappointments, of the stubborn ironies of our lives.
Despite this plethora, or confusion, of motives, one thing is clear: the diarist is very different from the creature the public beholds. In 1888, Harry Kessler – still only twenty, five decades of inimitable diarising to come – wrote: ‘When I am alone like this evening it often strikes me what an infinitely small proportion my outer life, my life that is known to the world by conversations, letters etc, bears to my inner life, the life I live with myself; hardly the spray that is thrown off the ocean by the wind.’
Helen Garner – now in her seventies, author of novels, short stories, nonfiction, screenplays and a huge body of journalism – has been recording her life in myriad forms since 1977, when her first novel, Monkey Grip, introduced a new subject to Australian readers: Melbourne’s drug culture. Other novels followed: