Fresh frames, Lawrence Jones

Gorse is Not People: New and Uncollected Stories
Janet Frame
Penguin, $40.00,
ISBN 9780143567707

 

The title story of this posthumous collection touches a memory almost 30 years old: in 1984 reading An Angel at My Table, the second volume in Janet Frame’s autobiography, I felt a twinge of regret when in her chapter on Charles Brasch and Landfall she told how in 1954 she had sent Brasch a story called “Gorse is Not People” and he had rejected it as “too painful to print”. In her account Frame had movingly described in some detail the visit from Seacliff to Dunedin that was the source of the story, and it sounded as if the result would have been a very good story. I remember checking and finding that it was not listed in any bibliographies of Frame and certainly had not appeared in any of her collections, including her retrospective You Are Now Entering the Human Heart of the previous year. This made me fear that in her disappointment and loss of confidence she might have destroyed the only copy of the story. But, as Pamela Gordon and Dennis Harold, trustees of the Janet Frame Literary Trust, point out in their preface, for a variety of reasons “Frame deliberately left work unpublished in her lifetime”, and this story along with others was left among her papers. In 2008 they retrieved it and through an agent it found a place in the New Yorker that September, four years after Frame’s death. It is indeed very good, deserving of its titular place in this fascinating collection.

Another early story included in the collection which I had once feared lost is “The Gravy Boat”. Looking for literary reviews in the Hocken’s file of 1950s Listeners about 20 years ago, I found a December 1953 radio review by “Loquax” that mentioned the story as having been read aloud on 4YC by Frame, asserting that it was “the best thing in the year’s programmes”. Again a check showed that it had never reached print, and I wondered if it had been rejected by an editor and destroyed. Michael King devoted a paragraph to the review in his Wrestling with the Angel but did not quote from the story, which might have meant that it no longer existed. Thus I was gratified to see it in this volume and found it especially interesting in its use of a mixture of interior monologue and free indirect discourse to capture the sad thoughts, feelings, and idiom of the retired engine driver protagonist. Another outstanding early story printed for the first time in the collection is “An Electric Blanket”, the story that Frame in An Angel at My Table reported as having shown to Frank Sargeson when she was staying with him in 1955 and which he condescendingly told her was “quite good of its kind” – but it is much better than that.

The collection includes 28 stories, all of them not printed in any previous collection: seven appeared in periodicals in Frame’s lifetime, five have appeared in periodicals since her death, and 16 are published for the first time, selected from the manuscripts among her papers. In dates of composition the stories range from 1946 to the mid-1980s. Some of them play variations on familiar types of Frame stories: the autobiographical stories of childhood, often turning on the  child’s innocent and imaginative misunderstanding of adult customs and idioms, as in the delightful “In Alco Hall” or “Between My Father and the King”; the more fanciful stories written for the School Journal such as “The Friday Night World”; the stories depicting the sadness and absurdity of institutional life in the mental hospitals such as “A Night at the Opera”; the sharply critical sketches of fashionable life, as in “The Spider”.

Other stories, especially those not previously published, are more experimental, usually exploiting narrative point of view for effect. There is, for example, the very brief “Letter from Mrs John Edward Harroway”, written as a coda to “The Bath” (which appeared in 1965 in Landfall and was later collected in You Are Now Entering the Human Heart). This coda was not published then and appears here without the story but with a note stating the relationship. Read in the context of the story, the “letter” has a complex effect. The story had its origin in the terrible experience of a widowed aunt who had had to be rescued from her bath by a neighbour, a tale which Frame said in a letter to Sargeson “haunted” her and which led to a powerful expression of empathic and sympathetic imagination in “The Bath”. The letter both increases and complicates a sympathetic response to the story, for the speaker, the protagonist, in trying to “put [the writer] right on some matters”, seems to be denying some of the thoughts attributed to her, both because they are too “terrible” for her to acknowledge to herself and because her traditional upper-middle-class sense of respectability makes her not want her feelings to be “aired to the world”. At the same time the speaker’s request to the writer to “tell the truth and not invent things” is a naive wish contradicting what Frame herself knew to be true – that even her most experience-based and/or autobiographical stories inevitably involve invention.

The act of first-person ventriloquism that underlies the letter is especially strong in some of the other previously unpublished stories. “My Tailor is Not Rich” is the naive, hopeful, sometimes vivid monologue of an illiterate Italian refugee in Andorra, probably based on El Botti Mario, Frame’s fellow-boarder and would-be suitor during her brief stay there. “Caring for the Flame” is the monologue of a boiler attendant at a cement works, expressing puzzlement at the suicide of his workmate of 20 years, for, like the coroner at the inquest, he could see “no earthly reason why Ted Polson, fifty-three, happily married, happily employed, in sound financial circumstances, in good health, should have killed himself”. In the very process of describing the “mystery”, like Ring Lardner’s barber in “Haircut”, he reveals the answer (and his own incomprehension shows that he as good friend was himself part of Ted’s problem).

In contrast, in “I Do Not Love the Crickets”, Frame projects part of herself onto her monologuist, a writer who is irritated by the noise and the materialistic sense of priorities of her DIY neighbours. She has a genuine problem: “When I’m writing I must start with the idea that I love the people that I am writing about”, but “What is there in the habits of people around me to make me love them as I know I must?” The writer in the story sees a possible solution to her problem in separating her art from her irritations in real life and trying to enter the kingdom of art with a spirit of identification with her subjects something like Keats’s “negative capability”. But, at least in the story, she does not seem able to carry it out. Frame has made a story out of the difficulty of making a story, has found a voice for that aspect of herself that kept her ceaselessly shifting her place of living in order to escape from the habits of the people around her. Perhaps in “I Do Not Love the Crickets” she was using her power of first-person ventriloquism for a therapeutic self-examination.

The collection includes many other stories well worth making available in a volume. Eight years after Frame’s death, we continue to receive more previously unpublished and/or uncollected work from the Frame papers, released and usually edited by Gordon and Harold for the Trust. This volume joins The Goose Bath – Poems (2006), the previously unpublished novel Towards Another Summer (2007), Prizes: Selected Short Stories (including five previously uncollected stories, 2008), Dear Charles Dear Janet: Frame & Brasch in Correspondence (2010), and last year Janet Frame: In Her Own Words (the first collection of her non-fiction, including also a few previously unpublished pieces of fiction and poetry). No wonder the back cover of Gorse Is Not People quotes from Frame: “I think posthumous publication is the only form of literary decency left”! We can only hope that these welcome additions to Frame’s oeuvre will ultimately be joined by scholarly editions of the collected short stories, the letters, the collected poems and the novels, drawing upon the full resources, including drafts and manuscripts, of Frame’s papers.

 

Lawrence Jones is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Otago.

 

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Posted in Autobiography, Literature, Non-fiction, Review and Short stories
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