Framing herself, Kim Worthington

Towards Another Summer
Janet Frame
Vintage, $30.00,
ISBN 1869418689

In the months leading up to last year’s posthumous release of Towards Another Summer, a novel written almost 45 years earlier, we learned only that Janet Frame deemed it “too embarrassingly personal” for publication during her lifetime. Review copies were carefully distributed under embargo until the official launch. It’s hardly surprising, then, that the book has been read by many in eager anticipation of revealing content. But there’s never a simple giveaway in Frame.

If we know anything about Frame, it is that what we think we know about her is far from the full picture – not least because she has insisted on this, again and again. Frame spent a lifetime authoring not only fictional lives, but her own. Her repeated narratorial trick is to expose the inventedness of her worlds and characters, and not just in the fiction. In her autobiographical trilogy, she continually reminds us not only of the unreliability of memory and her gift of creative imagining, but also her right to withhold.

Although her fiction and poetry are replete with characters and experiences recognisably drawn from real life, Frame always warned against the error of naively extrapolating biographical fact from the fiction. Such an error was, perhaps, perpetrated by Patrick Evans in his 1971 book on Frame, when he proposed “a biographical base for discussion of her art”. His account is often dismissed as an example of how not to read Frame. Such criticism is not entirely on the mark: while Frame’s work is framed by the vociferous denial of biographical reading, it also encourages and demands engagement with the life.

That same paradox is played out in other ways, not least in the posthumous promotion of the writer. At the risk of scorn at our naivety or derision at our presumption, we may tentatively attempt to join biographical dots while others draw precisely the bold, strong lines we can imagine Frame would have gleefully scuffed.

So it is with “A Biographical Sketch” by Pamela Gordon, Frame’s niece, which appears at the start of all the new Vintage reprints of Frame’s work – a welcome and attractive series that finally makes all the novels and stories readily accessible. Unquestionably, we owe a large debt to Gordon: not least for the generosity of her rememberings, for helping to make available previously unpublished material, and for batting on Frame’s behalf in silly posthumous media debates (such as whether or not Frame was diagnosably autistic). But truth be told (if one can use such a phrase when reviewing Frame) it’s more than a little frustrating that the sketch and introduction which preface all the novel reprints so carefully retrace the now well-worn contours of both the author’s life and critical approaches to it. There is nothing here to unsettle or challenge or even invite rethinking the sanctioned Frame. Gordon’s piece, for example, is full of declarative statements which further batten down the familiar myth: “She chose never to marry as she found that the few sexual relationships she had experienced were too all-consuming; she preferred to preserve her personal space from distractions, even attractive ones.”

Similarly, Lawrence Jones’s eminently readable introduction – while clearly detailing the major thematic threads, shifts and changes in Frame’s writing, as well as her continued preoccupations – remains securely within the canonical critical cordon. He gives short shrift to what might be considered alternative (or new) interpretations of the oeuvre, despite the fact that these, in recent years, have done much to unsettle the simplistic readings the author appears to have abhorred. So Jones: “even her most intricate metafictional techniques were never the game-playing of postmodern relativism proclaiming the unreliability of language and the arbitrariness of subjective invention.” It goes without saying, I think, that a much more nuanced notion of “postmodern” than that offered here is required to enter into a debate on the correct appendage of this particular -ism.

It’s intriguing, too, that those who so vociferously denounce the errors of biographical reading are also so wholly part of the machinery of posthumous Frame (re)publication, which encourages us to read her, looking not just for the personal, but the embarrassingly personal. No doubt Frame would have delighted in this irony. She continually played with such dual injunctions to – and expectations of – her readers. At the very least, that is, in the later fiction. Granted, in the earlier fiction, there seems a clearer line drawn between the often-cruel real and the realm of the imaginary, but the demarcation is always far from definitive.

Frame developed beyond such binarism to create richly playful works that continually challenge the borders between the real and the fictional, the lived and the imaginary. The later novels are characterised by wry, sly humour often indulged at the reader’s expense (and to their delight). But these qualities are also evident in the earlier work, especially if we read back, from the last to the first or, as perhaps Frame would have preferred, if we read in no particular order at all.

Ostensibly, Towards Another Summer, written in 1963, belongs with the early work. Or does it?  Deliberately withheld for publication long after the last novel (The Carpathians, 1989), it is both early and late, before and after – a wonderful supplementary nose-thumbing at attempts to map the oeuvre linearly, to order, categorise and foreclose the life and the fiction.

On one level, the novel is a self-deprecating comedy of manners, the tale of a social misfit forced to endure a weekend in close company with others whose verbal skill and capacity for relationship leaves her if not dead, then at the very least mute. On another level, it’s a display and celebration of creative prowess.

According to Michael King’s biography, Towards Another Summer was written in about three months when Frame took a break from work on her fifth published novel, The Adaptable Man (1965). It was written, then, after the four early (and most explicitly autobiographical) novels – Owls Do Cry (1957), Faces in the Water (1961), The Edge of the Alphabet (1962) and Scented Gardens for the Blind (1963) – and belongs to the grouping written during a remarkable period of creative output, while Frame was living in England (1957-1963). (Two story collections were also published in this time: Snowman, Snowman and The Reservoir.)

The novel ostensibly mirrors the circumstances of its writing. The protagonist, Grace Cleave, is an author of minor celebrity who has spent some years under psychological medical care. Not just cripplingly shy and devoid of social graces, she is terrified to the point of silence by social interaction. Work on her current novel is blocked and, uncharacteristically, she accepts an invitation from journalist Philip Thirkettle to join him, his New Zealand wife Anne and two young children, in the remote English village of Relham for a mid-winter weekend. Michael King informs us that Frame accepted just such an invitation, at just this time, from journalist Geoffrey Moorhouse and his Kiwi-born wife, Janet.

In barest terms, the novel gives Grace’s account of the weekend visit. She has to write of it: it’s “stuck in the gullet” of the novel she’s currently working on, and the blockage needs expulsion. In King’s account, the real weekend visit was as distressing for Frame as the fictional one is for Grace. What disturbed was not just the intimate family setting (which opened the floodgate of memory about her own childhood) or the expectation of social interaction, but also what Frame described (in a letter to her friend John Money) as the unsettling effect of “repeated, strong, undiluted doses of New Zealand”: “If I don’t get back to New Zealand I’ll die, or, which is equivalent to death, my writing will get worse and worse.”

Grace believes she fails to meet her hosts’ expectations for a brilliant, lively, houseguest; instead she’s “stricken with the terrible certainties and uncertainties of speech”. Grace is a social deadweight, and the weekend drags painfully. There’s no disappointment for Frame’s readers, however. We move fluidly between stilted, awkward conversations, reported in the third person, and Grace’s vivid, resplendent imagination often detailed in the first person.

One example. Staring from the window of Philip’s study, to which she has retreated, Grace contemplates the barrier (“the windows whose one side is a mirror”) which separates the lived world from the view – the realm of the imaginary.  She imagines “pass[ing] beyond the view, beyond oneself to – where?”:

Not to the narrow source that a speck of dust, a full-stop, and insect’s foot can block forever, but to some bountiful coastline with as many waves as beginning fish or sperm before the choice is made, the life decided, and the endowed drop of water shining with its power and pride perfects its lonely hazard under the threat of dust, full-stops, insects’ feet; only a multiplicity of wave provides a horizon, as coastland, a land; beyond the view, beyond the narrow, vain chosen speck of life to the true source – the boundless billionaire coastline of eternity; from ceaseless rivalries and rhythms and patterns of beginning, to silence and stillness; no wind in the trees; no sky or people or buildings; to reach there one may need the extreme discipline of breathing: that is, death.

 

It is in the sheer lyricism of writing like this that, for me, the magic and majesty of Janet Frame lies, particularly when it is so masterfully juxtaposed with the fragmentary, awkward language – the dumbness – of everyday interaction.

“A migratory bird may fly there,” thinks Grace of this place. And that is precisely what she has changed into, as we are told at the start of the book: a migratory bird. This baldly stated fact is of course metaphoric, however real the experience of transmutation is for Grace. As such, she is figured as continually displaced. On one level, the competing magnetism is between New Zealand and England; but the dualism extends to encompass everything about her being: the social and the imaginative realms, outer and inner, other and self, childhood and adulthood, present and past. “Which world do I inhabit?” is her anguished question.

Deep in the English winter, she imagines New Zealand, an imagining evoked and amplified by the images of New Zealand on the wall of Anne’s father’s bedroom, in which she sleeps, and her fireside reading of The Book of New Zealand Verse. An extract from Charles Brasch’s “The Islands” is placed as an epigraph to the novel, and lines from the poem recur throughout, sometimes re-ordered as in the novel’s final line: “Distance looks our way; the godwits vanish towards another summer and none knows where he will lie down at night.” (Parts of poems by Allen Curnow, John Masefield and C K Stead also feature.)

So, yes – the driving question is one of where, and if, one might belong. It’s not just an expatriate question of course, but an existential one – and not unique to Frame, although the anguish of (not) belonging is a repeated motif throughout her work. This finds expression, most boldly and distressingly, in the juxtaposition between the (English) Thirkettle’s family life and Grace’s remembered (New Zealand) childhood. The former apparently evokes the upsurge of memories of the latter. Grace’s parents’ names, and those of her siblings, are those of Frame’s own; and many of the details of her childhood are recognisable as the author’s (at least as these are detailed in the autobiography). Oddly, at the slightest hint of tension between the exhausted but loving couple the obscure fear that surfaces, for Grace, is that “Philip and Anne will kill each other. You see, they are my father and mother.”

That the novel begs psychoanalytic reading is perhaps a given. Is this familial saga the “too personal” Frame deferred for almost half a century? A (still muted) account of domestic abuse in the portrayal of a mother who “wait[ed] for the blow”? Or the shame and hatred of a daughter who “want[s] to … push and hit” her “spineless” mother, “perhaps killing her”? Or perhaps the “personal” afforded is (via Grace’s account) a slightly more embellished version of the author’s famously short-lived Ibizian love affair? Or the suggestion, via the sexual attraction Grace expresses for Philip, of a similar attraction of Frame for Moorhouse or vice versa?

Where does this leave us – and, really, does it matter, after all? Far better, perhaps, to read Towards Another Summer as yet another Frame supplement, inviting reading and rereading of the ever-incomplete whole.

 

Kim Worthington is a lecturer in the English Programme at Massey University.