Surfaces of Strangeness: Janet Frame and the Rhetoric of Madness
Simone Oettli-van Delden
Victoria University Press, $39.95,
Albert Wendt and Pacific Literature: Circling the Void
Auckland University Press, $44.99,
For a supposedly puritanical country dedicated to plain speaking and true seeming, New Zealand has produced a surprising number of writers in whose work and self-projections invention and mendacity blur. Katherine Mansfield learned young from Oscar Wilde that the self as much as art is a fabrication. Frank Sargeson disguised his homosexuality under an extravagantly masculine literary persona that corresponded to a national identity myth even while exposing it to ridicule. Keri Hulme beguiled the nation with a persona in which the real could not be disentangled from the invented. Most teasingly and compellingly, Janet Frame through seven decades of continuous fictional production (by which I mean the autobiographies as well as the novels) has invited readers to believe in the unworldly, wounded artist behind the writing, yet devised elaborate strategies to disguise the self that is subject of her work.
If deception and disguise have an honourable tradition in New Zealand fiction, then Frame is assuredly the country’s most talented practitioner of the mode. The anecdotes about Frame at events in her honour, shyly present yet requiring to be treated as absent, correspond to the way she appears and disappears in her writing and to the way she manages her relations with her reading public. Simone Oettli-van Delden has produced the most astute book-length critical study to date of this brilliantly deceptive writer – not by tracking down the sly author and revealing her at last as she truly is nor by treating the novels as wholly autonomous linguistic structures – but by anatomising the ways in which self is made and remade in the novels and autobiographies. Oettli-van Delden focuses on the figuring in the autobiographies of “Janet Frame”. This narrative approach and some deft unpacking of the figurative language of Frame’s novels allow her to ask hard questions about the “Janet” represented in the biographies, the wise-naif who literalises words so fiercely that she tricks herself into mistake after mistake about meaning, yet who also shows an extraordinary ability to manipulate the polysemous possibilities of language.
Frame’s accounts of insanity have formed an irresistible point of entry to the novels for her readers, from those seeking lurid diaristic account of madness by one of its tribe to literary critics interested in the likeness of her examination of the discourses of sanity and insanity to Foucault et al. Oettli-van Delden questions the claim that Frame entered madness as a visitor to a foreign land where she learned the language of the inhabitants. If the mad are truly saner than the sane, she asks, why is Frame “so determined to place herself within the boundaries of the sane”? Yet her purpose is to explore how madness is expressed in her writing and what it can be made to represent, not to arrive at a diagnosis of the author which either confirms or refutes that she was schizophrenic. Her subject is not the lived experience of the author but “that life as it is represented in books”. We see how the word schizophrenia – which “[came] to determine the reality of Janet’s life” – is configured in the fiction. We see how Frame’s fictional rhetoric, with its obsessive figurativeness, connects the discourse of madness with that of literary expression, but we also see the conscious control she exercises as an author.
Oettli-van Delden acknowledges the problems as well as the successes in Frame’s presentation of self and her engagement with language. She celebrates Frame’s triumph over the terrible power a savage diagnosis exercised on her life and early work by the progressive modelling of the fictional Self into an author rather than a victim. An exemplary guide through the often puzzling work, Oettli-van Delden is able to elucidate the ideas that inform Frame’s fiction, notably Platonism, and those that have impacted on her life, especially psychiatric theory. She is also illuminating on Frame’s profound immersion in the literary. Attentive to the fine balances and yawning chasms of the writing, not reverential (the psychiatric ideas are related in an often critical spirit), she ultimately gives us not the person but the career in words and the struggle to continually reinvent the imagery of selfhood.
Albert Wendt, born in Samoa, and 15 years younger than Frame, has lived in New Zealand for lengthy periods and published continuously in this country since 1973 when Sons for the Return Home appeared. He has engaged critically with New Zealand life. His books have won major awards here and he was for more than a decade professor of English at Auckland University. Yet it is significant that this first substantial critical study of his work’s place in world literature is written by an Australian academic. No doubt this is in large part a function of Wendt’s ambivalence towards New Zealand as migrant and exile, yet it is precisely as an immigrant writer, one who identifies strongly with indigenous struggle, that Wendt expresses in his work a central and shaping element of life in late 20th century New Zealand.
Wendt’s concept of the author seems at odds with Frame’s. For him, the artist “draws his mana (his artistic and imaginative energy) from everything surrounding him …. This mana he transmits back into his community in a reconstituted form.” For Frame, the artist stands in primary relation to the Mirror City of language: the common world of human habitation is a raw and alien source of experiences and images in need of the imagination if it is to become real. For Wendt, the artistic unconscious is socially grounded in the life, history and stories of the tribe.
Yet there are curious commonalities between the writers. Both are highly intertextual writers, their primary literary affiliations concentrated in the modernist period. Both have used their art to dramatise and control feelings of not being at home in the available world. A sense of nothingness at the basis of being informs the work of both, prompted by different but traumatic experiences of alienation. Both use fable in even their most realistic writing. Both mingle comedy and tragedy. Both discompose their readers by deliberate strategies of rhetorical discomfiture. Both are aware of the power of labels to limit and distort the inner lives of individuals. Both employ religious tropes and echoes, while rejecting the conformity and oppressions of conventional religion. And, in both, the self is not a secure source of identity, but fragile and precarious.
Paul Sharrad has produced a critical study of Wendt that is not merely a survey or an introduction (although, usefully, it is both), that is not limited by a nationalist perspective, that applies an undogmatic postcolonial approach to his work, and that places Wendt’s work in the local and international contexts where it belongs. Sharrad’s study is minutely detailed and exhaustively thorough. It will be a boon for students, teachers and researchers, containing minute histories of reviews and awards, a chronology and an extensive bibliography. Sharrad supplies the details of Wendt’s life that are not well known as are Frame’s. A sense of the earthy, direct, sometimes choleric nature of the man emerges: ”’So much crap to unlearn’” is Wendt’s pithy summation of his required reading in a colonial school system. Sharrad is able to move lucidly and authoritatively from discussions of writers of the postcolonial world to academic squabbles in Auckland, the Fiji coups, existentialism, the Beats, and the evolution of decolonisation literature. Sharrad gives us his subject in large: not just a political writer but one who addresses the poetics of exile; not just a Pacific writer but a world writer.
The problem with Albert Wendt and Pacific Literature is not that Wendt’s ambition and scope as a writer, his range of sources and the force of his ideas do not merit such serious critical attention, but whether his work belongs, as Sharrad suggests, alongside that of Naipaul, Walcott, Les Murray, Salman Rushdie. Placing Wendt in a “decolonising” historical context, Sharrad concludes that his work “makes unique theoretical contributions to questions of identity, hybridity, historicity and the place of the artist”. This is true, yet questions remain, even in this account, about the consistency of the literary achievement. Read alongside Murray’s or Walcott’s, Wendt’s verse lacks range and potency. His fiction addresses all the theoretical issues Sharrad lists and at times, as in the splendid Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree, justifies the company among which Sharrad places it. But Wendt’s novels and stories, for all their compelling probing at angst and exile, their shifts from realism to metafiction, their mixture of exuberance, earthiness and satire, lack the precision of verbal effects and the sheer narrative grip we find in Naipaul, the collisions of serious purpose and wild entrancement in Rushdie.
Mark Williams teaches English at Canterbury University. He is editing a book of essays on creative writing in New Zealand, which should appear this year.