Preludes to a Kiss

The Children's Bach by Helen Garner, foreword by Rumaan Alam. New York: Pantheon. 176 pages. $25.

The cover of The Children's Bach

IF THE TITLE of Helen Garner’s 1984 novel, The Children’s Bach, could strike a chord, it would be a diminished seventh—an unexpected tone of dissonance, curling toward the uncanny, eager for resolution. The title is borrowed, as chords often are, from a 1933 collection of Bach’s easier pieces, edited by E. Harold Davies and still in print. The instructional text telescopes into the novel: Garner’s character Athena is learning to play piano, pinched by determination in the absence of natural talent, no longer the hypothetical child of Davies’s intent. She is the mother of two sons, home for long afternoons as one, Arthur, attends school, and the other, Billy, who is severely disabled and nonverbal, goes to a state-sponsored activity center. In a time of products like “Baby Einstein” and “Baby Mozart,” implying, strangely, that those two are usually NC-17, the pathos in Garner’s title might be easy to glance over. For me, the heart-wrench is in the use of the aspiring possessive. The Children’s Bach is about the clumsy claim on splendor that everyone parlays from the winnings of birth, the stricken desire to be better than what you are—more artful, more meaningful. It asks how to tolerate our perpetual childhood, our inexperience and our inability in the face of Bach—the perfection inherited from the dead. Do we seek to mimic the kinetic life and work of the greats, or merely the state of fulfillment they have reached, the deathliness of known outcomes? We are tasked to play the beautiful very badly and survive our failure. New fingers fumbling the little preludes; trying to love another person well. 

In The Children’s Bach, reissued this fall with a new foreword by Rumaan Alam, the piano is in the kitchen, like everything else intimate and necessary. Garner’s novels are, at their core, domestic, meaning they are about the things we do at home, like sex, drugs, and childcare. All her novels have the grubby, profound erotics of a full house. An affectionate fuck in the light-filled crust of morning, with the sound of children’s feet chattering down the hall. Garner is deservedly famous in her home Australia for evoking Melbourne bohemia in the 1970s and ’80s, the relationships that knot and tangle around ideas of communal living, sexual freedom, long-term unemployment, and vague creative ambition. Housemates, husbands, babies, lovers, touring musicians, friends without a place to stay—Garner captures what it’s like to cook dinner every night without knowing how many people will be at the table. Athena’s husband, Dexter, brings unexpected guests and cries, “Soup means lots!” When the car pulls in, “more than two doors banged. She got up from the piano and took a knife to the rest of the loaf.” This is what an open-door policy actually means in practice. “Come round the back. We never lock the door,” invites Dexter, and Vicki does, every day, until she moves in. What I just did there—mentioning Vicki as if I’d previously explained who she is, as if you’re familiar—that’s another classic Garner move. Everyone is already fully there by virtue of being welcomed into the house of the novel (“Soup means lots!”); they are already known. Like life, there is no silhouetted figure of a mysterious “stranger” at the door, only parts of ourselves that become strange, in shifting lights, at certain thresholds. 

There are three “families” in The Children’s Bach, but they overlap and make the term redundant: Dexter and Athena of Bunker Street, married, with two kids; Elizabeth, Dexter’s old college friend, and her teenage half sister, Vicki, twenty years younger, who has nowhere to live after their mother dies; Philip, Elizabeth’s wayward boyfriend, and his semiautonomous preteen daughter, Poppy. I realize I’ve grouped them by blood, but I could have just as easily described them like this: Athena and Philip, who fall into a spectral affair over the course of the novel; Dexter and Elizabeth, lifelong not-lovers; Vicki and the boys, whom she proxy-mothers when Athena is swept away. Poppy is left out in the cold in that arrangement, but, as I said, there could be further groupings and regroupings. Garner draws a chalky line of commitment around a pair in one scene and then erases it in the next, until the emotional terrain is covered in a snowy palimpsest, and it is unclear who owes what to whom. Conventionalities like marriage, monogamy, or even motherhood offer no signposts. 

Garner’s novels are domestic not only in plot, but also in formal details, in the spare, silver nails she hammers to the wall to hold up the portraits of her characters. She has a propensity and brilliance for using a household object to tell us more than exposition could ever manage. Elizabeth, a working actress, thirty-seven, lives alone, sleeps on a bed where “the top sheet was stolen, the bottom one paid for. They made a pair.” Philip, an aging musician, barely comes home, falling “into strange beds in houses where a boiling saucepan might as easily contain a syringe as an egg.” He lives his life in the hours “when light is not yet anything more than the exaggerated whiteness of a shirt flung against a bookcase, a higher gloss on the back of a kitchen chair.” Bedsheets, saucepans, shirts, and kitchen chairs are things that, in other novels, might remain the purview of Athena, a stay-at-home mom, but Garner sees every kind of life in terms of its kitchens, its burrows, its sustenance, its despair, and its dawns. 

In a pivotal scene, as the group gathers for a dinner at Bunker Street, Elizabeth and Vicki discuss the circumstances of their mother’s death, how she avoided all treatment for her cancer, unable to comprehend her own mortality. (This theme recurs in Garner’s virtuosic later novel The Spare Room, about a friend in terminal-cancer treatment who comes to stay, similarly rejecting the unrejectable.) Billy is screaming at a high pitch, writhing and biting himself, bothered by the sound of sirens outside; it is the first of his periodic fits that the reader encounters, another part of life at home. Garner throbs the scene with step-by-step flashes of the potatoes Athena is chopping, washing, and peeling, as she stands with her back to the room over the sink. Athena is often seen facing away, whether she’s at a sink or a piano—or in a dream. Garner’s writing can feel cinematic, moments perfectly framed and fleeting, but it’s certainly a weird movie: imagine a charged family dinner, but between sharp, confessional lines of dialogue, we keep seeing a recurring close-up of a potato. At the mention of the now-dead mother’s denial of her own death, Athena “hung over a black gulf, she heard the wind. . . . What? Me die? Life go on without me? Impossible! It was briefer than a pulse. It was over before she had time to gasp. She held the hard potato in her hand.” 

The steady recourse to object and sound, spud and aria, is perhaps a way to sidestep the snarling torrents of language. The Children’s Bach lingers on the instances when communication is diverted into wordless ruts and furrows, tracking these alternate paths, following whether or not closeness can still flow or seep. This is most concentrated in Billy, Athena and Dexter’s child, who screams and sings but cannot speak. Billy is explicitly endured by his parents, particularly Athena, who is unabashedly brutal about her son. “I’ve abandoned him, in my heart,” she says, smiling. At the possibility of “getting rid of him,” putting him into permanent care, she exalts, “in her very civilized voice”: “the very thought of it is like a dark cloud rolling away.” Garner is clear-eyed about the “rapture of disgust” that Billy’s presence engenders in those closest to him, which verges on the murderous. “You know, sometimes he screams all day,” adds Dexter, as neither explanation nor apology. In the hands of a lesser writer, Billy might simply serve as a fermata, the half-moon used in Bach’s compositions to signify a silent moment, a pause between musical phrases. He might be categorized as a mere metaphor for the inscrutability of others and the limits of intimacy. But it is essential not to mistake the feelings of the characters for the feelings of the novel. Billy is not the void in the center of the family, the moat of emptiness between them and their fantasy of communion. Their betrayal of him is the drain they are circling; it reveals how the family, as a structure, is a tentative agreement, and how easily one might abandon, abide, or be cast out.

When Billy’s grandfather describes the boy, he, too, finds himself beyond language: “They didn’t realize for quite a . . . He never spoke. He does sing. His voice is very . . . Dexter and his wife thought for a while he was some sort of musical genius.” What wretched pinnacles of beauty Billy is expected to produce to compensate for his need of care. In The Children’s Bach, the discourse of song that Garner orchestrates within earshot of her own characters is heartbreaking because they only catch snippets, unable to recognize the larger harmonies. They often do not know that they are communicating with one another at all, let alone the content of their messages. As Athena starts taking long, aimless walks with Philip, she still seems deeply in love with Dexter—“You will never be anything to me but beautiful,” she thinks, looking at his sleeping face—until a scene where she is practicing piano, struggling, yearning. Dexter watches: “Her straight back, her shoulders square with concentration, her ankles crossed under the bench, her whole posture drove him to distraction. Without taking his hands from his pockets he shot out his foot in its holed sock and thumped it on the upper keys.” She leaves him within a page. When Vicki takes Billy to the park, he dances and plays, blurry with the wind. On the swing set, “of course, he sang no words, only a round-mouthed ooh-oohing, but the tune was perfect, its rhythm was timed to the rushes and pauses of the swing, and his voice was high, sweet, and melodious. . . . He sang a verse, a chorus, another verse, and the words ran back to her in her mother’s voice and she joined in.” A conversation, by any other name. And yet, she has the physical impulse to push Billy in front of a truck on the way home. 

In theory, the unspoken pact of every family is that you do not need to be beautiful or genius to be deserving of your place in it, that the group will not only withstand but welcome inevitable frailties, but the best possible scenario is that such an agreement is made, broken, remade, broken again, and so on. A daily contract, a minor infinity, more pinkie promise than blood signature. In Garner’s novel, taking responsibility for another person, lack and all, is how one copes with the lack within oneself. Yet, it is this lack that, at times, makes the specificity and ongoingness of that responsibility almost intolerable. Perhaps we are just moving the lack around, waiting for the music to stop, a dauntingly circular game of pass-the-parcel. After Athena has gone off with Philip, Bunker Street turns to chaos without her maintenance work, leaning towers of dishes, sheets heavy with children’s piss, long parades of slugs. Dexter goes to find her, to beg her back, leaving motherless Vicki, only seventeen, home to take care of the two boys. She steps into Athena’s role with a breezy anxiety and an air of fatefulness. It is always a comfort to reconstitute the dead, or the missing, with one’s own flesh, to shed the duty of becoming oneself. Garner writes,

The back door did not lock: the wood was wormy, the metal loop had lost its grip. Vicki went to the boys’ room and fortified herself, as women do, with the sight of sleeping children, the abandonment of limbs, the oblivious breathing, the throats offered to the blade. “If anyone came to harm them,” thought Vicki, “I would kill. Without even thinking twice.” Thus, having imbued their limp bodies with her own vulnerability, she felt iron; but took the hammer out of the toolbox and carried it with her to the front room and laid it on the second pillow.

The house is no longer unbarred by choice. With Athena’s departure, the perimeter has started to crumble. Political idealizations are, in the end, best enacted by the hunger of baby worms. It is the first time in the novel that an open door whispers dangerous possibility, now that all the grown-ups have up and left. Vicki becomes less of a child by turning up the volume on the boys’ indulgently powerless bodies, their child-ness. You could say she’s getting the hang of parenting. The inclination to kill is suddenly protective, turned outward, away from Billy and his unconcealed innocence. “When she woke again in full light the brown hammer looked silly beside her head, like a symbol left behind by a dream.” The father-husband replacement—goofily phallic, household object, potential weapon—falters in the light of day. Her iron body, temporary and displaced, will have to do.

Dexter has a well-tended fantasy that his family has boundaries, enclosed like the photo he pins to the kitchen wall, an image of Tennyson, his wife, and their two sons, one son “turned towards the drama of his parent’s faces.” Salvaging his attachment to Athena until she returns, he blames Elizabeth, for bringing her seductive boyfriend and erratic sister into their orbit and dismantling the unity of Bunker Street with their sexual availability. Garner writes, “He was afraid of the way he imagined she lived; and she wanted, in some obscure sadism, to induct him into it, into the rough sexual world that lies outside families.” But both characters are mistaken about the level of fortification at the edges of their experience. There is no wall between “the rough sexual world” and the “family.” They are one and the same. Little half sisters appear, orphaned and ardent. Daughters drop their father’s hand when they walk to school, never to be picked up again. A mother and father make love, “their habit imperturbable, and just as she comes she sees a coin of sun on the puffing bulge of the lace curtain and bursts out sobbing.” Children run away and back again. The piano is in the kitchen. 

Audrey Wollen is a writer living in New York City.