Good old immortal artists, Vincent O’Sullivan

 

Dear Charles Dear Janet: Frame and Brasch in Correspondence
Pamela Gordon and Denis Harold (eds)
Holloway Press, $250.00,
ISBN 9780986461804

 

As I’ve thought before about the Holloway Press, it’s a tricky business to bring out works of deliberately chosen limited interest, and then to price them so far beyond the range of most of those readers who might be interested in owning them. There is a suggestion from the start of a rather refined club, which is exactly what the press intends. As Holloway’s imaginative and energetic director, Peter Simpson, reasonably defended this stance when speaking of an earlier volume, Michelle Leggott’s hand-set, hand-printed Journey to Portugal, with its individual Gretchen Albrecht collages:

$500 might seem expensive for a book, but in terms of an artwork, it’s relatively little. Any art school graduate producing lithographs will charge up to $1000 for a single print. These books are more akin to an edition of a print run than a normal commercially printed book.

 

What he also expects you to keep in mind is “the great tradition” of hand-crafted publishing in New Zealand, the shades of Bensemann and Lowry and Glover, Gormack and Loney, at his shoulder as he instructs. Their avatar is the press’s devoted and gifted Tara McLeod, who has now designed and printed yet another handsome volume, limited to 150 numbered copies. (My review copy unfortunately arrived without the elegant blue paper jacket that adds a distinctly period charm.) We are in debt to Simpson and McLeod for what their commitment comes up with. The persistent pity remains, nonetheless, that a text of such interest as Dear Charles Dear Janet is necessarily angled to collectors of fine print editions. I expect many who would want to own the book are not likely to have the chance.

There is a curiously old-fashioned courtliness in these exchanges between Charles Brasch, the poet and patron par excellence, and Janet Frame, a writer who defies conventional categories, over the 20 years they knew each other. The prevailing tone is respect shading into affection, affection monitored by decorum.

The book has only 60 pages, and would be much shorter were it not for the inclusion of sections from An Angel at My Table, and from Frame’s letters to other friends. The editing is amateurish, filleting extracts rather than including full letters, leaving occasions and persons crying out to be identified. Little effort seems to have been made to find less guarded views of Janet in Brasch’s unpublished diaries. But one is grateful for what one gets. A famously reclusive writer emerges as far less guarded than her friend the public figure, whose inclination was to conceal even more than she did.

Frame explains with utter candour why it is she writes, and what she expects it to do for her. As most of her readers would agree, it is neither plot nor character that holds their interest in her fiction, as they follow an extraordinary mind unreeling its store of obsessions, constructing its right to assert them. She recalls in An Angel at My Table what it was like for her, as a young writer, waiting to hear whether Landfall had accepted various pieces she had sent it: “I felt myself sinking into empty despair. What would I do if I couldn’t write? Writing was to be my rescue. I felt as if my hands had been uncurled from their clinging place on the rim of the lifeboat.” While Brasch as editor, and of course unknown to her, had noted with editorial coolness on the work she sent him, “6 poems, none good. 2 asylum stories, excessive suffering. 1 straight sketch.” But good editor that he is, he says little of what he does not care for, briefly admires what he does, assures her she can assume his support. (He meant financially as well. It was Brasch who hectored the government for years to win her a state pension, as well as several times, with great tact and discretion, helping her out of financial holes with his own substantial contributions.) One sees, as he too had seen, that this remarkable young woman, at first seeming to play up her line as almost irrecoverably hesitant, is desperate to be accepted, for acceptance is what acknowledges her gift, her gift confirms she is clinging on, a survivor on her own terms.

As Frame tells Brasch early on, defending against a reviewer’s charge that her weakness is to overwork metaphor, “I’m afraid I breathe metaphors … it is the obsession with images which prompts me to write.” Thus she puts her finger on the kind of fabulist she is. The metaphoric is what allows her to change ground, to take herself and her reader from there, where you, they, the rest of the world, are so in command, to here, where the writer alone rules, imposes, calls the shots. Metaphor to Frame is what logic is to the logician. It is how power is defined, and how it is achieved.

Even after the two decades of friendship these letters cover, they never arrive at quite what one would think of as a spontaneous rapport. Each for the other was always seen in their role as writers. Each fed the other’s sense of a special calling, so that Frame can sound morbidly precious as she tells another friend during Charles’s last illness, “If he has pain, that is perhaps the least of matters, for poets and painters and composers feed upon pain.”

The imbalance of the book means more is seen from Frame’s perspective than from Brasch’s. And so we read that even after 15 years of visiting him “for a cup of tea and seed cake”, Janet admits:

I always feel rather constrained in Charles’ company and so I was glad when it [a visit] was over, though he is very sweet and gentle and when I was leaving he gave me a little bag of fresh ripe walnuts.

 

Ah, the art of the kindliest put-down! Frame can be funny and irreverent as Brasch almost never was. She will tease him behind his back for his solemnity and rigour, but with unmistakable affection for “a noble, upright old man, with discipline instead of marrow in his bones”. She noted and welcomed how:

it was wonderful to see him gradually losing his primness which rather scared people away and openly enjoying himself with the earthy things; not that he hadn’t always, I suppose, but it did appear as if some higher authority suddenly relaxed the rule over him and said, Charles, you may enjoy yourself, you have my permission to be human.

 

Two rare spirits, one might think by the end of this rather lovely, hideously expensive, admirable volume. Or to take a phrase that few apart from Frame could get away with, teetering as it does on what comes an awful cropper if said by someone less: “Good old immortal artists”.

 

Vincent O’Sullivan, poet, fiction writer and biographer, lives in Wellington.

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Posted in Letters, Literature, Non-fiction and Review
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