In the Memorial Room
It will come as no surprise to readers of Janet Frame’s work that this hitherto unpublished novel is, before anything else, an examination of language, and the slippery, unreliable character of words. “I must intrude language wherever I look and breathe,” Harry Gill, Frame’s protagonist declares, as he settles into his tenure as the latest Watercress-Armstrong (Katherine Mansfield) Fellow in Menton. It is also, like all Frame’s fiction, a search for authenticity, an attempt (doomed to fail because of the treachery of words) to pin down truth.
Early on in the piece Harry, having just been awarded the Menton fellowship, pats himself on the back for correcting, in his novel Wairau Days, a number of “half truths” about the real place on which that fictional story was based. “How surprised I was that I so much enjoyed my task of telling the truth,” he confesses. A hundred pages further on, after a series of bewildering experiences in Menton, he is not so cocky. Having experimented with a writing style stripped of adjectives, “without judgement, thinking, feeling”, suffering from psychosomatic semi-blindness, he no longer knows what is true and what is mere illusion. He thinks he sees, from the window of his apartment, two people up early enjoying the view from their roof. But when he puts on his glasses he sees that what he has been looking at are two narrow chimneys standing side by side. In seeking to describe only “the common property of human sight” he had, by omitting to wear his glasses, conjured up a vision that had felt “truthful”, but was in fact false.
The discovery that this way of writing cannot be trusted any more than his earlier, more confident, but now rejected method for teasing out truth, is the start of what will become, by the end of the novel, confusion and breakdown.
Frame has warned readers (and reviewers!) to be careful of reading the life into the work, but it’s hard not to do that with this particular work as the “voice”, despite the sex of the narrator, seems so close to what we identify as the “voice” of Janet Frame. The occasional references to shaving, and having “lustful thoughts” about women do nothing to dispel the sense that this is Janet telling us about her months as the Mansfield Fellow in Menton, a “city of innumerable retirement dreams quietly being wrecked by reality”, amusing us with her juxtaposing of the “paradise” Menton is supposed to be – she stays initially at the Villa Paradiso; travels, miserably, from New Zealand, on a ship of the Paradise Line – with the reality of “decayed villas with rust running out of their blank-eyed windows”.
The humour, which at times hovers close to paranoia, is quintessential Frame. The Villa Paradiso turns out to be little more than a squalid room, overlooking a working, fume-generating garage, with no hot water, a stinking lavatory, and the constant sound of trucks “labouring up through the narrow alleyway to Italy”. For a writer of Harry/Janet’s nervous sensibility this is about as far from paradise as it’s possible to get.
Again it will come as no surprise that Frame, in this novel, plays with paradox, extracting humour in the early chapters from the condition her protaganist finds himself in, but succumbing later to the temptations of paranoia. Anticipation is held up to the test of reality. The writer’s need for solitude stands in awkward contrast to his need for human contact. The world of dreams is presented (somewhat confusingly) as a riff on the waking world:
I told myself I was dreaming the literary dream of a literary blind man, just as those who write or dream fiction have invented a “literary” madness which abstracts from the dreary commonplaces of thinking and behaviour a poetic essence and sprinkles it where the shadow of ‘the truth’ falls upon the written or printed page.
How, Harry/Janet asks, is the writer (the dreamer) to survive in this “Age of Explanation”? The world, he insists, “has adopted the Boy Scout motto, Be Prepared, while remaining at the Boy Scout level of maturity.”
Such observations, elevating the writer’s view of the world, are threaded throughout the novel, raising the question of where this work, coming as it does before the autobiographies and the later, “difficult” fiction, stands in the canon. There are passages of writing that could only have been written by a poet: “The room slowly became ‘aired’, like old stored linen. Small chutt-chutting birds, with whistlings and secretive noises began singing outside.” Other passages are like the one quoted above, difficult and tortuous, written by an author struggling to express complex thought in words that refuse to stay moored to specific meaning.
For the first two-thirds of the novel, the reader is buoyed up by the sense of an ongoing narrative. Thirty-three-year-old Harry Gill, who secretly fears he is going blind but will in fact, during his tenure at Menton, go deaf (another paradox), has resolved to turn his back on the historical fiction with which he has made his name, and write a “comic novel in the picaresque tradition”. To me this sounds like Frame talking to herself about the writing of In the Memorial Room, the first third of which is indeed picaresque, though the comic elements become increasingly dark, till, in the last third, they, along with Harry’s confidence, disappear altogether. By this time the people who came forward to help Harry – a motley collection of relatives of the poet, whose memory the fellowship has memorialised, and literary hangers-on – have been revealed as smiling assassins, determined to “annihilate” him, and replace him with a more suitable candidate. It’s a chilling reversal of Harry/Janet’s original intention, signalled by a change in the writing from the darkly humorous but nonetheless accessible opening chapters to the increasing paranoia of the closing sections.
The end of the novel is bizarre. Harry seems about to be replaced by Michael Watercress, son of the fellowship’s founders, a man who looks every inch the writer, whereas poor Harry, with a long history of being ignored, resembles “a clerk, a doctor, a commercial traveller, anything but the accepted idea of a ‘writer’. ”
The picaresque novel has been discarded in favour of “interior monologues, of the type that had always bored me when I tried to read fiction”. The result is 10 pages of what might almost be described as “automatic writing”, closely followed by a stream of consciousness display of the many formal (false?) uses to which language can be put. No sense can be made of this last burst of writing, unless it is the sense of growing anger that language can be made to do so many unpoetic things. Frame reserves her greatest venom for the language of advertising, but what this has to do with Harry’s blindness/deafness, or his struggle to hang on to the fellowship, is not clear. The only explanation is that, like Harry, language has lost its way, and both author, and the tools of his trade, are in a state of breakdown.
In the Memorial Room raises several questions, the most obvious and pressing being, why was it never published? If, as I assume, Frame decided it wasn’t her best work (it isn’t), then that raises two more questions. Why didn’t she destroy it, and is it doing her a disservice to publish it now? Posterity will no doubt decide the answer to the second, but I can offer a slant on the first. At several points in the novel Harry meditates on fame and the magnetic pull of posterity. “I believe a writer is not ‘known’ until his grocer and barber have read his works without astonishment” is one such observation. Another looks at the manipulations of what would today be called “literary groupies”, who seek fame by association: “I suspect … that the founding of the scholarship was a means by which the Watercresses and the Armstrongs, denied fame in their journalistic endeavours, might snatch a little of its nourishing glory … .”
The fact that In the Memorial Room is being published at all is, I would suggest, proof of its author’s sense of the posterity that awaited her. Had she not wanted it to be read she would have destroyed it. What the reader makes of this uneven, but nonetheless fascinating, novel will depend on where she stands in relation to Frame’s body of work. For me its interest lies in the fact that it seems to stand at a crossroads between the earlier, accessible stories, and the later, critically acclaimed, but less user-friendly fiction. Her use of the first person and the writer persona could be seen as heralding the autobiographies which stand in such contrast to the novels that surround them. But however you view it, In the Memorial Room remains a strange, only partially successful hybrid.
Elspeth Sandys is a Wellington writer, playwright and reviewer.