The most famous of Janet Frame’s poems is probably the one about the little boy dying of leukaemia, “Yet Another Poem About a Dying Child”, which ends with the appearance of Death as a giant spider which gobbles the child up. That Frame too succumbed in due course to leukaemia, and that her own passing appears to have involved the same feeling of closure brought by the fairytale spider with the lamp-light eyes are typical of the Frame world, in which for nearly 80 years Art and Life seemed to run so closely side by side.
Famously, she put family members and friends into her fiction, rarely to their subsequent gratitude; a fictional version of a jilted fiancé from her past gets violently, pointlessly, murdered in The Adaptable Man; it is possible to visit the Levin house in which she set The Carpathians and watch her former neighbours blithely mowing their lawns unaware that, transformed in the alembic of the imagination – and somewhat less talkatively than in Life – they tread that novel’s pages, secretly kidnapped and transported into Art by that shy, dumpy little lady who used to live across the road.
On the other hand, also famously, Frame sported a family that was the stuff of the urban legend and small-town gossip that overwhelmed me when I first tracked her to Oamaru nearly 30 years ago. Hero of these yarns, without a doubt, was her brother George, with his highland regalia and his tendency to create memorable havoc wherever he turned; but there were also whisperings about others in the family nearly as bizarre, a mother who couldn’t cope, a sister who used to dress strangely, more distant rellies in the hinterland who had to be locked away – really, you wouldn’t read about it in a book.
Now that her Spider has come for her at last, books are all that are left. They, however, are not enough for an initial evaluation of her achievement as an artist: a survey of local libraries in the Christchurch area I made 25 years ago revealed that some titles were never taken out from one year’s end to the next, making posthumous media-generated interest in possibly unpublished work a joke – why hunger for unpublished writing when hardly anyone has read what’s already there? This neglect was understandable, given the difficulty and sheer gloominess of her fiction; I can recall reading her novels in order of publication during a grey Christchurch winter many years ago, and slowly subsiding into despair: what was the point of it all, why go on living?
The mental hospital novel Faces in the Water and the two that came next, The Edge of the Alphabet and Scented Gardens for the Blind, seemed to me perhaps the grimmest, although they were pressed for that title by The Rainbirds, a cheery page-turner about a Dunedin man who dies and then comes back to life again. All this awaited the students who eagerly enrolled in a university course on her fiction which I ran several years ago. At the start, they just couldn’t wait to do the Janet Thing, but the vision faded as the year went on and the writing started to take effect. I could feel the energy go out of the class; absences started to occur, then withdrawals; one young woman went onto Prozac. “We liked Janet Frame till we read her,” one of the class wrote on her end-of-year evaluation form.
And yet the question of what “Janet Frame” refers to in that sentence takes us into the heart of what made her distinctive as a writer, her renegotiation of the customary relationship of Art to Life.
When we read about the embodied author of The Edge of the Alphabet, Thora Pattern, trying to write that novel in a boarding house while the landlady’s daughter practises the piano directly below her floor each afternoon, and then read in Michael King’s biography that in 1959 Frame lived in a boarding house while the landlady’s daughter practised the piano directly below her floor each afternoon, we get a sense of how thin and tremulous the line between the two could be. This survivalist sense was attractive, and made me put up with the bleakness of those middle novels: instead of feeling compassion for the characters, in a bizarre reversal of the usual contract, I felt compassion for the author.
When I tried to resist this gravitational pull in a sceptical review of The Carpathians in the New Zealand Listener, there was a torrent of protest: how dare I say anything negative about New Zealand’s Greatest Living Writer! I was intrigued by this protectiveness, and by the obvious existence of some generally agreed idea of her that her writing generated. This involved a vulnerability whose other side, curiously, was the reluctance – sometimes almost fear – some who had known her showed when asked for information (even, apparently, when Michael King showed them her formal warrant of introduction).
This response, of which media interest in some missing masterpiece is just the most recent version, I call the “Frame effect”: the sense that her writing conceals A Secret, some private fact or facts, even some kind of scandal, which, if known, would make her oeuvre suddenly complete. It came out of her control of that imago which the writing produced and of how the writing was to be read, something more ruthless and efficient than I have found in any other writer and involving a fundamental contract with the reader which was always basically adversarial.
How this worked I began to realise 20 years ago when I talked with Craigie McFie, a psychiatrist who had worked with R H Cawley in London, most significant in the trail of male mentors which went through Frame’s strongly patriarchal life, and, according to McFie, truly a great man. Each night when Frame was in the Maudsley Institute during the late 1950s, McFie told me, Cawley was obliged to play a game of her devising, in which she would give him a baffling sentence to unscramble – presumably something like those cryptic crossword clues she helps her father with in the first volume of the autobiography – which Cawley was expected to have “solved” for her each subsequent morning. And each subsequent morning, apparently, Cawley came across.
There, in a nutshell, is Frame the Writer. As readers, each of us is caught up in the same contract she had with Cawley, under her control whenever we read her and required to perform – to solve. Each successive work she wrote was increasingly like a chess master class, apparently seamless to read on a first go, quite baffling at times, and not at all helpful. I don’t know how often I worried over Scented Gardens for the Blind before it suddenly clicked: the novel is impossible to get near until we realise that it is incomplete, and that the long story “Snowman Snowman”, written around the same time, is its completion – the clues go both ways, from novel to story and story to novel, and lie in the imagery of snow they share: each fulfils the other, making a satisfying reading whole for the first time.
And I’m not sure how long it took me to work out one of the many bizarre oddities in what is surely her fictional triumph, the brilliant game-novel Living in the Maniototo: the sudden realisation that one of its characters has disappeared many pages back while scrubbing his bath with bleach – the very bleach with which Frame has scrubbed him out of her text!
As with all these stunts there is no signposting, no grandstanding: just the sense of a mandarin Jamesian author standing above us watching our helpless struggles as she pares her nails. How she would have loved the moment when I detonated another of these little linguistic mines that she liked to bury in her text for unsuspecting readers, this time in To the Is-Land, where she gives us a wretched schoolgirl so friendless that she was willing to turn the skipping-rope in the playground without ever expecting a chance to skip. Her name? – why, Nora Bone, of course.
Wait a minute, wait a minute, who does Frame think she’s kidding? Nobody’s called Nora Bone – what kind of parent would – hold on a minute, though (by now I was in the Oamaru phonebook), it seems like there’re quite a lot of people called Bone in Oamaru . . . maybe there was . . . no, there can’t’ve been . . . but how could she be called Nora Bone, isn’t this one of Frame’s tricks, doesn’t it tie in with all the bone imagery in the first volume? In the end (it’s not easy to confess this), I was reduced to writing to every single family named Bone in the Oamaru phonebook to ask if they had a relative called Nora Bone … I just had to know, I couldn’t rest. I still don’t know, I still can’t rest, because not one of The Bone People replied.
That fix, where her reader is completely caught up between “fact” and “fiction”, neither able to solve the puzzle nor able to put it down, is exactly where Frame wanted us. Her genius was to dissolve the boundary between Life and Art in such a way that we learn, through learning how to read her, a sense of the inseparability the two domains must increasingly have had in her mind as she read and wrote her way into her life – hence, presumably, her rage at my unlicensed early snoopings in Oamaru, condensed into her unforgettable accusation that I was “one of the Porlock people”: the proper mode of entry to the Frame World was through the writing, not the shrubbery under the bedroom windows.
After all, how could mere facts explain a life so attuned to the rhythms and patterns and repetitions of art that they could delight in “found fiction”, as she called it – as in the coincidences that provided not only the possibility of a schoolgirl called Nora Bone but had the Bee sisters of her childhood Oamaru living in Humble Street, a classmate called Shirley Grave whose father was in an early grave, one of two similar buildings in her hospital years called Simla, her favourite teacher sitting her on his knee like a ventriloquist’s dummy as she was learning the language, and so on?
That is why Rilke was so important to her, for here was a modernist ancestor who understood that the Angel she found in his poem “Vergers” must come down here to us in order to illuminate the quotidian world with that intense light which so charmed readers of the first volume of the autobiography in particular. The writing which results from this distinctive contract between Life and Art is often charged with a metonymic energy that makes it seem slightly different each time we reread it, as if she has been up in the night with a torch and a biro, secretly performing her tricks.
This capacity is, for me, her greatest distinction, and is part of a triumphant rewriting of her life that has persuaded us, over the years, to remember her as Jane Campion’s film of the autobiography would have her, redeemed through Art and happy at last, tap-dancing on the wooden floor of Sargeson’s cottage like that cheery old matron who struts her cheerleader stuff in the mattress advert on television.
But will we still “like Janet Frame” now we don’t have that living author to infuse an artificial life into the writing; will she be read by those of our descendants who read at all? I don’t think so, not if she has been so unread in her time. But the kind of mediation that has given her to us and by which we have come to understand her is likely to persist, celebrating what I think are impressive achievements from impoverished beginnings: a refusal to write anything but what she wished to write; an insistence on maintaining a formidable level of intelligence in her work despite a local reading culture that is sometimes, in all truth, Carthaginian; a demonstration, amid a post-modernism increasingly sceptical about such things, of the redeeming power of art, of how the creative act can actually work to nourish and make meaningful one person’s life; and, above all – quite unexpectedly, given her early work – an affirmation of the human spirit. A life lived, in other words, in obedience to the rules of Art for a parallel to which we have to go back to her much-admired Yeats.
Patrick Evans has taught New Zealand literature at the University of Canterbury since 1978, and is the author of Janet Frame, a biographical critique.