Wrestling with the Angel: a life of Janet Frame
ISBN 0 670 89371 4
Penguin Books knew they were onto what commerce knows as “a good thing” when they took on the publication they now advertise as “one of New Zealand’s biggest and most eagerly awaited publicity achievements”. There was smart marketing too in the cloak-and-dagger reluctance to release advance copies even for reviewers, even proofs being kept under lock and key (which did not prevent an American e-mail service offering a set for sale a week before the book was out). Then one holds the real thing in one’s hand, and forgives the hype.
When was the last time such a handsome volume went for $49.95? And “big” is the word for these almost 600 pages, with their sets of fascinating photographs, their stern binding, their exquisitely printed jacket. If you want to know what so much of New Zealand was like for most of the last century, then as Melville said about the impact of leviathan’s tail, “this were the thing to do it.” If you want what may have seemed unlikely, to be taken closer still to the grain of an extraordinary life, then that too is there once you pass the title page. But troubled, I expect, will be the word most often in mind.
This is a book about a woman who feared being judged, who suffered deeply because of wrong judgements, whose professional life and enormous gifts were then marshalled for decades to challenge and evade a world, variously crippled by those who judge. The Place of Judges is where most of us live. Those few who resist and erect a counter-world know language is their ultimate and often their only weapon, a living, vibrant force for defiance – the writer as perpetual revolutionary against the zombie-speech of convention. As Thoreau said in another tough, raw society, the dead want to use our mouths to do their talking for them.
An extended preamble, I’m afraid, to this long and important book, in which New Zealand’s foremost biographer tells the life story of our foremost autobiographer. A challenge for its author, if ever there was one. For hadn’t Frame herself, in one of the most celebrated works of its kind, told a story she rightly declared was hers alone to tell, not someone else’s to gloss? Isn’t Frame legendary for her privacy, her dislike of exposure, her discomfort with even kindly-meant attentions? And yet here is a book that already is rumoured to “tell all”, as opening not just the windows and the doors of a life that the owner already has conducted us through, but the attic and the basement as well. In his last chapter, King deftly implies that for this story to be so frankly told while Frame was there to confirm its accuracy was indeed the most effective way to ensure authenticity, a last defence as it were of a life that already seems public property; an outmanœuvring of the vultures who inevitably wait their day.
It is on these terms that Wrestling with the Angel so admirably succeeds. Frame’s own three volumes bring us as close as autobiography is likely to do to the pulse of a creating mind; yet that story is cleverly evasive too, in its fable of the girl who dreamed of Hollywood, and whose disabling hobble, as in some folk tale, was in fact her dance to the wells of imagination. Those volumes were brilliantly inventive, charged with Frame’s rare metaphorical currents, as true as story-telling is likely to be. King’s book is so good because what it does is so different. It takes a life from A-Z, from ancestors to the present, in the most direct and conventional way. It is a patient and near-exhaustive account of what Frame was doing as well as being creative, and thinking of herself first and always as a writer. It is the story of how others saw the emergence and the triumph of the woman who wrote books when the odds seemed so stacked against it.
King gives us, with what I think is enormous tact and discretion, the ground-level richness of the facts that sustain imagination. There is an adroit, detached sympathy in the way he avoids nothing, yet sensationalises nothing. Behind his narrative, one feels inevitably the generosity of Frame herself, accepting that yes, better to tell it all. For it seems little is concealed in these details that show her behaving generously, yet also unattractively; the warm friend, but also the manipulative one; the game-playing that takes subtle advantage, the prevarication so that anything smelling of authority or challenging expertise is put on the back foot. One suspects the story of her bizarrely self-promoting brother may have been the most painful for her to have made public, with – for some readers at least – its ensuing assumptions. Love affairs, on the other hand, are rather flattering things to have revealed, a touch of unexpected cosiness for those who tend to read the writer and her fiction as meeting at all points. There is often an admirable cunning in putting the record straight.
Nietzsche remarked how “Metaphor is the desire to be somewhere else”, a perception that makes immediate sense when one applies it to Frame’s own writing, but now to her life as well. “Anywhere but here” is the refrain in so much of King’s narrative: happier away from her family; far more at ease with friends outside New Zealand; 14 shifts of house in 28 years; leaving by the back door when someone knocks on the front; fiction itself as necessary alternative to what is. The needles of embroidery of course will continue to flash and probe about the question of Frame’s “sanity”, as they have always done. It is not a question that seems to me particularly relevant. Frame so clearly and splendidly is a mind so different from almost any other one has heard of, that trying out this label or that surely by now seems censorious, or capriciously ill-informed. King makes it very clear that his subject is a personality that does not, and does not want to, interact with others along what we usually think of as normal or predictable tracks.
There were times in her life when pressures of one kind or another became insupportable. Involuntarily at times, quite by her own choice at others, she withdrew from the kind of living most of us do, and encountered a reality, an expanse of mental distress, that lies beyond what we know. King offers explanations of why this was so, and perhaps the abiding coup of his research is to be able to use so extensively and tellingly the letters between Frame and John Money, her earliest psychiatric mentor and enduring friend, and the attractive and wise Dr Cawley at the Maudesley Hospital in London (the RHC of several dedications). There may be no certainty in such matters, but one would be rash to go against the drift of what that correspondence makes clear – an almost constantly troubled mind, but one of appalling clarity and vision and incisive wit, a mind so out of the ordinary that the easiest way for many to deal with it was to reach for a label that says its rareness is its problem, and so further understanding is excused.
The interest of King’s careful and level-headed account is not that he produces a final, rock-solid “explanation” of Frame, as though she were a tough equation that might finally be worked out; it is in that dense, troubled, cagey, funny, complex web of possibilities, that sequence of little salvations, which is the story of Janet Frame and her dealings with the world. There is the continuing and heartening detail of how her closest friends were so devoted to her, a catalogue of trials and strain resolved under the banner of “Friendship triumphant”, with Frank Sargeson, Peter Dawson, the Baxters, and a band of rich, artistic Americans as central figures. One does not expect the amount of fun that surfaces in those friendships, nor Frame’s gift for bawdy exchanges. There is also the near-Pythonesque muddle that she so often landed in, with a shadowy cast of neighbours from hell as she moves from house to house, evading circular saws and bulldozers, those icons of what she detests in middle New Zealand life.
King does not conceal the edginess in so many of her relationships, nor how easily she took offence. Yet exposure is no more the purpose of his work than is fudging the record. His success in what he intended to do, to delineate as clearly as both documents and personal co-operation allowed the dark richness of Frame’s life, is more artful and poised than may at first strike home. The 30 chapters of roughly equal length, the subtle changes in emphasis, the continued threading of the past into the present, the sense of diminishing pain and the discreet suggestion that Frame wrote less pressingly as death seemed to lose its pervasive terror, are the product themselves of an agile, alert craft.
There is often an uninvited but hardly unexpected guest at the reader’s side – the Frame we already know, not through her autobiographies, so much as through her fiction. William James was talking about philosophers when he said “Any author is easy if you catch the centre of his vision.” Can we say the same about a novelist like Frame? It may be a little too easy to take up one of her luminous sentences, as though we are picking up that mastodon’s tooth she warned may seem at first like any other pebble, and to interpret that as Frame’s “snapshot” on existence. Her sentence “In an age of explanations, one can always choose varieties of truth” was my desk-diary’s quote for the day when I began reading this biography. The more post-modern we like to fancy ourselves, the stronger the appeal of that “varieties of truth”.
But Frame’s own “truth” lies no more in some laissez-faire “your pick is as good as mine” than it does in gnomic prescriptiveness. The thrust of creativity in Frame is that it remains fluid, expansive, elusive of any final defining; the next half-written paragraph, with its flares of descending metaphor, its refining on what went before, may be different and just as “true” as anything already said. What does stay constant, though, is the kind of courier one meets on the way from her fabled Mirror City of imagination – the artist, the marginalised, the figure skirting the crowds. For Frame’s world is an elitist one. Only a few pick up what we take for pebbles, and open their hands on treasure, even if part of that treasure is to call horror by its right names. The rest of us would hardly know a diamond from a mintie. One of the troubling features of reading Frame, at the same time as we read about Frame, lies precisely there – the extent of her compassion and insight, yet the vastness too of what she excludes as worthless, obtuse, too ordinary for words.
King is careful to make it clear he is not writing a critical biography, and that Frame herself was determined this account of her life should keep off literary assessment. Academic figure-skating and theoretical excursions seem to have irritated her far more than they enlightened. (To make a work of art, as she felt Vincent Ward and Jane Campion had done with her own texts as their basis, is another matter entirely.) The biographer gets round this proviso by quoting at length from reviews and assessments as each volume of Frame’s work appeared. The autobiographies were far and away the best received of her works. The novels often drew high praise, but also sceptical wariness, and many reviewers did exactly what Frame found so galling – a reading of her stories as though they were direct accounts of her life. Respect grew as her career advanced. Her fiction was valued more and more for its virtuosity, its narrative strategies, and something darker and deeper than its stylistic effects was heard – the muted whoop of elation as the planks are pulled from beneath what is normal and conventionally valued, the sad diminishing certainties of an exhausted, humanist belief. For it is not her characters that stay in mind so much as that tenor of what surrounds them, the energies of language set against the cold horizons of a reality that reduces and regrets.
King’s final image for this troubled, heroic, endlessly fascinating life is a set-piece of compelling understatement. It is of Janet Frame as he sees her today, behind locked doors and drawn curtains, in front of her computer: “[a]s always, she feels most herself at the keyboard, transferring thought, feelings, dream and memory, pushing the possibilities of language to their furthest limit.” She is most alive, he concludes, most at ease, as she sits in the glow from her screen, rediscovering her world in language “without the burden of social contact”.
What a resonant cameo that is, the aging woman absorbed in her own words as they reflect back at her, in the glow of what she may choose to continue, to end, or to begin again, whenever she chooses. The world “out there” may indeed be real, and may impinge at any moment. But here she is in control, where the shape of what her writing tells her is as true as anything else. And she alone decides. The angel reads over her shoulder, now the wrestling is done.
Vincent O’Sullivan is Professor in the School of English, Film and Theatre at Victoria University of Wellington.