A frightening, different creativity, Anne French

The Inward Sun: Celebrating the Life and Work of Janet Frame
Elizabeth Alley (ed),
Daphne Brasell Associates Press, $34.95

Perhaps the worst fate a writer can suffer is to have their life talked about while their work is ignored. If so, Janet Frame has every reason to feel somewhat frustrated. The film An Angel at my Table made her name and the facts of her life story familiar to millions. But while, before the film, her novels were often praised but seldom read, they are now – er – praised, but seldom read.

The volumes of autobiography, on the other hand, have won prizes and sold well – not surprising, in a half-century obsessed with biography at the expense of fiction. Still academics tend to set her work in advanced courses, if at all; booksellers stock her novels cautiously; and the common reader avoids them like the plague. Why? She’s difficult, she’s clever, she’s complicated. And it’s not realism.

All of which would have seemed rather surprising to me when I first encountered her work. That is a long time ago. I began with some of the stories and Owls Do Cry and systematically worked my way through everything else that was in print, up to The Rainbirds. Intensive Care was published that year, but a copy hadn’t yet turned up in my local library, so I was ignorant of it. But I vividly remember spending a holiday that summer in a rented house in New Plymouth, holed up with The Professor in the morning (not as good as Jane Eyre, I thought) and Faces in the Water in the afternoon. Always one for atmosphere, I read Charlotte Bronte indoors, in the hot, over-stuffed sitting-room, and Janet Frame outside, sprawled in the orchard, biting on hard, sour green apples. If you’d asked me then, I’d have said Frame was the better writer. I know a lot more now, but I still think my instincts were correct.

The story of Frame’s life is so familiar it hardly needs repeating. The theme is difference, causing or leading to exclusion from the mainstream: in childhood, by virtue of her family’s poverty and her brother’s illness; as an adult, by virtue of her own prodigious creativity. Creativity was frightening to provincial fifties New Zealand, and had to be dealt with, first, by labelling it as chronic schizophrenia, and “treating” it, and second, by exile (both geographical and social – to Europe, or small country towns, and especially to the margins of New Zealand society). Neither solution has silenced her, indeed, her work has dealt explicitly with the same theme from first to last, exploring not just the experience of difference and life on the margins, but exposing and anatomising New Zealand’s punishing social conventions with the thoroughness of a pathologist at work on a corpse.

Yet in a sense the story has become myth, or has taken on the force of myth, with all its beautiful simplicity and explanatory power. Back in the seventies we became more familiar with the idea of the sanity of the insane, through the work – so different! – of Ken Kesey or R D Laing, although many of those who went to the movie of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and cheered when the nurse got her comeuppance were probably quite ignorant of the archetype of the Wise Fool. The details, therefore, of Frame’s case, of sordid boarding-houses and hospitals and 200 “treatments” of ECT and of the men who saved her from more of the same (Frank Sargeson, the writer who encouraged her to write, and the nameless doctor at the Maudsley Hospital who assured her she wasn’t mad) and helped her on her quest, simply add verisimilitude and colour to the tale. The story is an ancient one, of the shaman, the seer, the Fool. It’s not real life as much as an episode from The Waste Land.

So here we have a paradox: the writer who only wants to be left alone to write, and who is so private she shuns almost all public appearances, who cannot bear to be interviewed – yet who writes her autobiography and allows it to be made into a movie for all to see and who is interviewed only a bit less frequently than the attention seekers in the writing community. Who is the real Janet Frame? Seer or seen, Wise Fool or savvy genius? And is any of this what she intended?

The answers are probably to be found in Living in the Maniototo, one of her finest novels, and her most explicitly metafictional. I don’t want to bore you with the full lit-crit proof, but if you aren’t familiar with it you should know that it is a Russian doll of a novel, but a doll in the shape of writers, Violet Pansy Proudlock, and Howard Conway, and Peter Wallstead (who actually, that is, fictionally, lives in the Maniototo), some of whom are writing about some of the others; and that negotiating its multiple plots and locations for the first time is a lot like walking through a mirror maze. (Remember, too, that one of her early narrators was called Vera Glace, that is, True Mirror.) It is also extremely witty, unlike some of the translated French postmodern theory which has dearly inspired it. Frame the novelist can manipulate fictional facts as well as anyone in the business. She likes a joke. My view is that she’s got in first. She probably knows Benjamin Jowett’s precept: Never apologise, never explain – do what you will and let them howl! (To which can be added: And don’t wait for a biographer!)

What of her place in New Zealand literature? Back to the myth. We know she’s a great writer; let’s honour her. She has a DLitt. Last year Massey University gave her the Massey Medal, and this year, for her seventieth birthday, she’ll get a book – full of tributes from fellow writers, friends, and admirers. Fortunately, some of the contributors know Frame a little, well enough to guess at her reaction. Fleur Adcock, for instance, after Frame’s reading at the International Festival of the Arts in 1986: “When I joined the queue to congratulate her afterwards she was puzzled by our enthusiasm.” Or Barbara Anderson, a day or so later, stammering awkwardly about what The Lagoon had meant to her: “She stood silent, polite but puzzled. ‘But that one was thirty years ago,’ she said eventually.”

Many of the contributors have been reading Frame for a long time. For them she has become inextricably part of the way they see the world. Margaret Mahy: “Janet Frame achieves the true writer’s miracle. You read her story which is uniquely her own, yet paradoxically, it is your own story too…” She is one of a select group of writers whose work has informed their own; and thus, with splendid irony and in defiance of the myth, she has become – at least in a literary sense – conventional. Joy Cowley: “Janet is a writer’s writer, a catalyst for the art. As Cézanne is to twentieth-century art, so is Janet Frame to modern literature.” Moreover, the world Frame writes of is our own, our familiar homely country. Barbara Anderson: “There were other delights in [The Lagoon]. One I remember from that time was reading the phrase, ‘and we swung high, high as the dunny roses’, with no further explanation, and certainly no Glossary of New Zealand Terms for those in Need of further Help.”

Bill New, on the other hand, finds her work speaks to him as a Canadian: “Twenty years later, reading Janet Frame’s stories for the first time, I heard childhood all over: the ordinariness of danger, the flat recognition of divisiveness, the flimsiness of fenced security, the cockiness that follows fear. … It wasn’t just a case of Oamaru telling Vancouver that life in the far-flung provinces of Empire was once much of a piece. It was something more, pools of shadow. … Janet Frame’s stories find ways to enter the human heart.” If all this gives the New Zealand reader a precious, brief and undeserved feeling of superiority, it is probably worth the price of the book.

The essays I enjoyed most in the collection were those in which the famous bowed decorously low, or made an appropriate tribute, or gave me a new insight into her work. Pieces which begin “I first read The Lagoon in 19..” pall eventually (though it is fun to compare people’s starting dates). A low bow is made by George Braziller, Frame’s New York publisher, who also tells us how to decode her writing paper: “Janet usually complained on green, whereas the white and pink letters always carried friendlier thoughts.” C K Stead and Patricia Grace contribute some fiction from their next books; Kevin Ireland and Bill Manhire write fine poems (Wilson Harris’s wife even writes one); and Dennis McEldowney, Owen Marshall, Phillip Wilson, and Fiona Farrell provide reminiscences full of insight, written with craft and love.

But perhaps the two essays I least expected were Robert Cawley’s and John Money’s. Money’s work I knew – he is a New Zealand sexologist, teaching at Johns Hopkins, the author of a number of enormously interesting books on sexuality, including Gay, Straight, and In-between. I also suspected him of being the original for the thanatologist in Daughter Buffalo. But no – or not only that – he is, he says, the original for Brian Wilford in Living in the Maniototo. His first academic essay, “a search for a theory of knowledge”, was called “Delusion, Belief, and Fact”, and he wrote it while a junior lecturer in psychology at Otago University. He was interested, he tells us simply, “in the workings of creative insight and inspiration.”

He got lucky. It was at Otago that he met Janet Frame, a student in experimental psychology who wrote up her reports as poetic fables (and earned As for them), and there he read the Lagoon stories, some of which were thrown into his room as their author fled down the stairs. On his way to Harvard in 1947 he dropped the MS off at the Caxton Press in Christchurch, and eventually they published it. Money and Frame have been friends ever since, of course. Although he doesn’t say much about the psychological aspects of creativity and inspiration – did he get side-tracked? – his former student has said plenty.

Robert Cawley, whose essay, wholly appropriately, opens the book, was that doctor at the Maudsley Hospital. He met Janet Frame at the beginning of his second year of training as a psychiatrist. ‘I was fortunate in having some outstanding teachers, but I was not prepared for the shock of meeting a new dimension of educational experience. … There I sat with this quiet, nervous, enigmatic woman, writing my observations as I plied her with the standard questions. It soon emerged that an instrument of clinical investigation was meeting some powerful resistance from a force which could perhaps challenge and debunk much of what I had believed I knew.”

But this is not conventional politeness. Cawley goes on to describe something of what happened during Janet’s months at the Maudsley, and what he learned from her. “Janet Frame taught me much about the examination of the mental state; the limitations of psychiatric nosology, the overwhelming importance of the patient’s world of experiencing the evanescent nature of the arbitrary boundaries between knowledge and imagination, and art and science; and much else which only an undreamt-of literary talent would allow me to express briefly. All psychiatrists are privileged by being given access to people’s minds. With Janet I was exceptionally, hugely privileged.”

 

The Inward Sun, unlike many books of this kind, is both readable and rewarding. Almost all of the essays earn their keep, and the best of them may even encourage those who don’t know them to attempt the novels.

 

Anne French, formerly the publisher at Oxford University Press New Zealand, is a full-time writer. Last year she was Massey University’s inaugural Writer in Residence.

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Posted in Biography, Literature, Non-fiction and Review
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