Monday, July 11, 2016

Iain Sharp on Janet Frame

The 88th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the March 1994 issue. It was titled “A Bluffer’s Guide to Janet Frame” and the intro read:
Our greatest writer has produced 21 books – novels, short stories, poems, autobiographies. Naturally, you’ve read Owls Do Cry and To The Is-Land – but what about The Rainbirds or Daughter Buffalo? Never fear, help is at hand. Now you can amaze any dinner party with your intimate knowledge of her entire oeuvre thanks to Iain Sharp, who has read the lot. Here are the Quote Unquote Condensed Versions of the collected works of Janet Frame.
Written in her early 20s and published while Frame was still a patient in Avondale Mental Hospital, these 24 brief tales contain in embryonic form most of the themes of her later fiction. The joys of childhood give way to the pain and disappointment of adult experience. Hanging on to your imagination in a stiflingly conformist world is a perpetual problem. Frame focuses on the lives of losers, loners, loonies, budding writers and people on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The lagoon of the title story is gradually revealed as the murder weapon of a revered but secretly homicidal grandmother. Two of Frame’s sisters died by drowning. Frightening water imagery recurs throughout her work.

OWLS DO CRY (1957)
Set in the town of Waimaru (a thinly disguised version of Oamaru, where the author grew up), Frame’s powerful first novel traces the deterioration of the aptly named Withers family over a period of 20 years. The four Withers children compensate for their poverty during the Depression years with a rich fantasy life, but none of them manages to develop into a fully rounded human being. Francie, the vibrant eldest daughter, perishes in a fire at the local rubbish dump. Daphne, an unstable visionary, is confined to a mental hospital until a leucotomy transforms her into little more than an obedient robot. Epileptic Toby becomes a sullen recluse reliant on scavenging for his livelihood. Shallow little Teresa, who surrenders totally to materialism, is the butt of Frame’s rather crude social satire.

Written in London and dedicated to RH Cawley, the English psychiatrist who helped persuade her she was not a schizophrenic, as hitherto diagnosed, Frarne’s second novel is narrower in scope and less packed with imagery than her first, but nevertheless it remains one of her most haunting achievements. In a generally straightforward and understated fashion, the central character, Istina Mavet (the name blends the Serbo-Croatian word for “truth” with the Hebrew word for “death”), describes the eight years she has spent in New Zealand mental hospitals. There are obvious parallels with the Daphne sections in Owls Do Cry and with Frame’s own medical history. The repeated use of electric-shock treatment, the threat of personality-destroying brain surgery and the disregard for mental patients’ basic human rights are horrifying.

In this oppressively glum sequel to Owls Do Cry, Toby Withers travels by ship to England. He has grown into an even more pathetic misfit since the death of his mother and the change of location helps him not at all. His fellow passengers on the voyage include Zoe Bryce, a suicidal ex-schoolteacher who is desperate for any kind of amorous attention, and Pat Keenan, a dull, repressed, authority-worshipping Irish bus driver. A great title, but it’s hard to imagine anyone picking this one as their favourite among Frame’s books.

Weird, shadowy, ambiguous and less directly autobiographical than any of her preceding works, Frame’s fourth novel was denounced by one early reviewer as “unreadable in the worst sense” and hailed by another as “likely a work of genius”. Possibly both verdicts are correct and it’s an unreadable work of genius. Young Erlene Glace refuses to talk to anyone but her imaginary companion, Uncle Blackbeetle. Her mother, Vera, frets about both Erlene’s silence and the loss of her own senses. Meanwhile, Vera’s estranged husband Edward retreats ever deeper into his two obsessions: genealogy and toy soldiers. The final chapter depicts Vera as a mute, long-term patient in a mental asylum. Has all of the foregoing just been a figment of her disordered imagination? Do her husband and daughter exist? As well as leaving the reader with these brainteasers, the ending also hints at a nuclear apocalypse.

Frame continues in a very strange vein with a series of dream-like, disquieting parables and fairy tales which feature talking tigers, sheep, gooseberry bushes, garden gates and so forth. In the superb title story, which takes up half the volume and thus qualifies as a novella, a newly formed snowman discusses the world around him with an ice crystal on a neighbouring window sill. The snowman foolishly believes in his own immortality, although he is gradually melting and death, at one time or another, has touched the families in the surrounding houses. The ice crystal is known as the Perpetual Snowflake, but its perpetuity may be doubted. It seems, in any case, to be the distilled essence of a previous snowman.

Written concurrently with Snowman, Snowman, the more realistic Reservoir stories cover much the same territory as The Lagoon, but Frame’s skills as a storyteller have improved since her first volume. Once again the shadow of darkness falls on hitherto innocent lives, but Frame now knows how to imply a sense of menace or loss without resorting to melodrama or heavy symbolism.

Begun in England and completed after her return to New Zealand in November 1963, Frame’s fifth novel is a bold attempt to expand her range which doesn’t quite come off. The setting is Little Burgelstatham (literally, “a burial place for the heathen”), an ancient village in East Suffolk to which electricity and the overflow of London’s population are making their debuts. The narrative flits, rather unsatisfyingly, from villager to villager, but the focal points are Muriel Baldry (a social climber fatally obsessed with the huge chandelier she has inherited) and four members of the Maude family. Russell Maude is a boring old dentist who works with outmoded equipment and collects stamps in his spare time. His brother, Aisley, is a tubercular retired clergyman who dreams of emulating Saint Cuthbert, although he has largely lost his faith. Russell’s wife, Greta, devotes most of her energy to the control of garden pests. Her son, Alwyn, “adapts” to the horrible 20th century by seducing Greta and casually murdering an itinerant Italian labourer.

Perhaps suspecting that her talents are ill-suited to coping with a cast of thousands (or even tens), in her next novel (generally considered her strongest since Faces In The Water) Frame explored the psyche of a single neurotic character. Middle-aged Malfred Signal, an art teacher in the small South Island town of Matuatangi, retires early to nurse her sick mother. When her mother dies, Malfred settles in a bach on a Waiheke-like island near Auckland. Isolated during a storm and terrified by the fear of a prowler, she gradually loses her tenuous grip on reality. Made into a sombre film by Vincent Ward in 1979.

The title is confusing, for this volume is actually a selection from both Snowman, Snowman: Fables And Fantasies and The Reservoir: Stories and Sketches. Those were American publications; this is the New Zealand version. It’s not a bad collection, but the absence of the long title story from Snowman, Snowman is a real loss.

Frame seems always to have written verse. Some of her childhood efforts appeared in the junior section of the Oamaru Mail. The Pocket Mirror gathers together 170 of her poems in no particular order. It contains squibs, fizzlers, nonsense poems and free-verse jottings, as well as more finished and profound musings, as if she simply emptied out her bottom drawer and let her publisher grab the lot. The casual approach conceals Frame’s true stature as a poet. There are
enough gems in this lucky dip to make it one of the most rewarding volumes of New Zealand poetry in the l960s.

Walking home from work one evening, Godfrey Rainbird, the British-born employee of a Dunedin tourist agency, is hit and apparently killed by a passing car. The funeral arrangements are made and Godfrey’s sister is summoned from England. Then Godfrey suddenly opens his eyes in the mortuary and emerges from his coma. His resurrection is an embarrassment to everyone around him. He’s fired from his job because his boss thinks it unwise for Dunedin to be represented by a reanimated corpse. This Lazarus fable could have made a wonderful short story, but stretched to 200 pages it’s a bit thin and lifeless. Known in the United States by the off-putting title Yellow Flowers In The Antipodean Room
Frame’s only attempt to date at a children’s book is a tough read for anyone under the age of puberty, but adult fans who haven’t tried it yet are in for a pleasant surprise. Mona Minim is a young female ant. On the brink of adulthood, she’s obliged to embark on two journeys. First she must leave the underground colony where she was raised and venture into the wider world. Then she must go on a mission to rescue friends trapped in a glass by a human child. There are obvious connections with other Frame stories concerning rites of passage, but she’s in an unusually relaxed mood here and she makes some good jokes. In her schooldays Mona studies “Sociology, Monarchy, Scent-Cone Care, Duties of Public and Private Stomachs”. Robin Jacques’ elegant and witty drawings are an added treat.

Divided into three parts, the longest of Frame’s novels examines the appalling treatment of the sick in body and mind over a period of more than a century, extending from World War I to the 21st century. The hero of the first section, Tom Livingstone (another significant name), returns from the Great War with gas in his lungs, shrapnel in his back, a wrecked mind and an obsessive love of Ciss Everest, the pretty nurse who helped him recover from his wounds. Decades later, when he rediscovers the former nurse dying of cancer in an English hospice, the discrepancy between the real Ciss and his romantic illusion is so vast that he feels compelled to murder her. Part Two focuses on the deaths of Leonard Livingstone (Tom’s derelict brother) and Colin Torrance (Tom’s grandson – another love-crazed killer). The final section is set in a bleak future where misfits are executed and used as sources of food, soap and leather. Autistic Milly Galbraith, who lives next to the old Livingstone property in Dunedin is scheduled to be exterminated on her 26th birthday. Overwrought, fragmentary and sometimes absurd, Intensive Care is still a hypnotic novel.

The mind games here are reminiscent of Scented Gardens For The Blind. Turnlung, an aged New Zealand writer of doubtful sanity, journeys to New York, where he meets Talbot Edelman, a young Jewish doctor who specialises in death studies. Edelman’s researches include the systematic mutilation of his pet dog. The two men form a brief sexual attachment. Visiting Central Park Zoo together, they see a baby buffalo, a symbol of America’s once healthy past in sharp contrast to the decadent present. Possibly Edelman is a figure entirely invented by Turnlung. Or vice versa. Certainly not for all tastes, this nightmarish novel fascinates some readers and makes others want to rush to the bathroom.

A woman of many aliases (not unlike her creator), Mavis Halleton, the narrator of Frame’s 10th novel, has tended to do things in pairs. She’s been married twice, given birth to two children, written two books, lived in two countries (the United States and New Zealand) and enjoyed success in two artistic careers (writer and ventriloquist). In rather rambling fashion, she tells us about her marriages, her travels, her travails. The novel is distinguished less by its plot than by its shafts of satirical wit. Near the beginning, Mavis describes the home of American friends as “full of likenesses, of replicas, prints of paintings, prints of prints, genuine originals and genuine imitation originals, imitation sculptures and twin original sculptures”. One of the main themes is the lack of authenticity in the modern world, whether you live in Auckland or California, Maryland or the Maniatoto (a plain in Otago).

The first volume of Frame’s autobiography deals with her childhood and sometimes painful adolescence in Oamaru. It ends with her heading off to Dunedin to become a trainee teacher.  Her recall is extraordinary. She seems to remember every poem she was taught when young, every song she heard, every rebuke that humiliated her and every mispronunciation as she slowly acquired her gift of language. In recent years, because of its lucidity, candour and friendly tone, Frame’s autobiography has become much more popular with readers than the difficult novels of the 1960s and 70s. Jane Campion’s generally faithful 1991 screen adaptation also won Frame new followers.

Ten years on, this is still the best selection of Frame’s short stories. “Snowman, Snowman” is included, as well as hitherto uncollected gems like “The Bath” and “Insulation”. For newcomers to Frame’s fiction, this is an excellent place to start.

The second volume of Frame’s autobiography covers the period from 1943 to 1955, the loneliest and most miserable years of her life, but also the formative years for her career as a writer. Traumatised first by her failure as a teacher and then by the drowning of her beloved sister Isabel at Picton, she became a voluntary mental patient. She spent almost all of her 20s in hospital. Her stories won her some admirers, however, including fellow writer Frank Sargeson, who let her work in the army hut at the back of his small cottage in Takapuna. The volume ends with Frame’s departure overseas on a literary grant.

In the concluding volume of her autobiography, Frame describes her arrival in Europe as a wide-eyed colonial, her first sexual experience (at the age of 32) on the Spanish island of Ibiza, her miscarriage, the revelation that she was falsely diagnosed as a schizophrenic and the period of intense creative activity in London which followed this discovery. Perhaps the trilogy will eventually be extended to a quartet, but so far the autobiography ends with Frame’s return to New Zealand after the death of her father in 1963.

Weary, no doubt, of the straightforward manner of her memoirs, Frame returns in her 11th novel to bamboozlingly opaque symbolism. Mattina Brecon, a wealthy middle-aged American, visits the North Island town of Puamahara (which closely resembles Levin, where Frame lived in the mid-80s). Mattina is lured by the local Maori legend of the Memory Flower, but the town is actually under the influence of the Gravity Star, a cosmic force which overturns all ordinary notions of time and distance. The residents of Puamahara are so absorbed in their material possessions, however, that they remain unaware of the approaching cataclysm until it is too late. The sole exception is Dinny Wheatstone, who is described as “an impostor novelist” and is probably Frame’s ironic self-portrait. As with many writers of science fiction, Frame’s grasp of science is a little shaky, but the real trouble with this strange book is the flatness and remoteness of all the characters. It’s like squinting at unappealing strangers through the fog.

1 comment:

michael byrne said...

Good stuff. Loved it all. Sharp is pretty right, by my reckoning. Wonder what Patrick Evans makes of this. Whatever, it's up there and thanks for putting it out there. Mike.