Monday, April 20, 2015

New Yorker podcast of Janet Frame's 'Prizes'


Miranda July reads aloud Janet Frame's short story 'Prizes' and discusses it with fiction editor Deborah Treisman.

'Prizes' was first published in the New Yorker by Janet Frame in 1962.

'Prizes' is collected in the volume of short stories known in the USA and New Zealand as Prizes and in New Zealand and the UK as The Daylight and the Dust.


Janet Frame and the Popular Girls

"A selection of four or five girls, who were not, however, among the top scholars, maintained a concentration of power and privilege through sheer personality and so were less likely to suffer the taunts directed at the slower pupils. This group was the core of the class, with their activities at home and at school the source of most of the class interest and news; the rest of us moved on the outside in more or less distant concentric circles, looking toward the group whose power, in effect, surpassed even the glory of the scholars who, after all, were sometimes known contemptuously as ‘swots’.
   On the rim of the farthest circle from the group which was my usual place, I found myself with a tall, asthmatic girl, Shirley’s friend, who talked constantly of her brothers at university, quoting them incessantly, with their quotes being chiefly from Karl Marx. Karl Marx says this; Karl Marx says that . . . I sat with this girl for lunch while she explained communism and talked of Karl Marx while I looked with envy toward the place where the group sat, eagerly talking, shaking with laughter as they recounted what Mummy and Daddy had said and done during the weekend at the crib by the sea. The power and happiness flowing from them were almost visible as they talked. Their lives overshadowed the lives of the rest of the class; even Karl Marx was no match for them. Their families were happier, funnier, more exciting, than any others; and they all lived on the fabled South Hill. Even the teachers could not resist them, giving them regularly parts in class play-reading while we others watched and listened enviously. It was they who travelled on the Golden Road to Samarkand, who lived through A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merchant of Venice; Portia, Titania, Puck were among them while the rest of us had to be content with playing lone fairies or first, second or third voices offstage."

This passage from Janet Frame's autobiography has yielded at least one influential line for frequent use in Frame studies: "On the rim of the farthest circle". This phrase is  especially useful when Frame is characterised as an 'outsider' or as incapable of entering a 'normal life', and sometimes is even further used to characterise her work as being only concerned with losers and drifters and people who are somehow less than whole members of society*.

Iconoclast that I am, I would like to point out that the power group encompassing power and privilege consisted of only "four or five" girls, so the majority in fact consists of everyone outside the inner circle. The people located in the concentric circles presumably exhibit the 'normal' condition, not that such a thing exists, but my point here is that the inner circle is the anomaly. If one doesn't have access to that socio-economically determined position, then someone with an ambition to excel can strive to be exceptional in some other way, and one choice is to do this by standing as far off as possible. At the farthest point. Watching. Writers have to be watchers, and this does mean moving back to be able to observe.

To which one might retort: Which came first - the chicken or the egg? Do you watch because you are at the edge, or because you have nothing better to do? I've certainly heard and seen it argued that because Frame was a failure at life she turned to writing to console and heal herself. (My own opinion is that her talent and drive to write caused most of her early problems. If she had stayed obediently within her socially-determined place her punitive society might never have noticed her.)

But the chicken/egg one is a good question. Are our best writers often at a remove from 'mainstream' society because that is all they can do (an implied failure) or do they place themselves there in order to have a better view? And what about the popular girls? How do they feel about the rest of us? Do we ever hear from the popular girls themselves?

There's another proposition buried within the above passage that should not be overlooked: the popular girls "were not, however, among the top scholars". But their power "surpassed even the glory of the scholars who, after all, were sometimes known contemptuously as ‘swots’.

As with most of Frame's writing, there is a lot to mine in even a small excerpt. It would be easy to take this passage literally and not notice the implied social criticism, relayed at the expense of the author's own teenage self, gently mocking herself as the naïve young girl just learning the ways of the world, falling for hollow glories. Frame has often put it on record in her interviews that she was very careful in her autobiography to try to enter her own mind at the time, so that at each stage of her life you are hearing the language and perception that she remembers (or imagines) that she had at that time.

One of the things that we can learn from this passage is that New Zealand does have that strong seam of anti-intellectualism. 'Swots' are held in contempt, even if there is some 'glory' attached to their achievements.

This passage reminds me of Frame's short story 'Prizes' where many years later the narrator returns to her small town and contemplates these issues at length. What exactly are the 'prizes' we seek?

These thoughts are also relevant when I consider with amazement that anybody can seriously think that Frame's first novel Owls Do Cry can be characterised as: "gently exploring mental health, poverty and loneliness."** Anyone who thinks that Frame only ever wrote about these three things 'mental health, poverty and loneliness' (implied as an obsessive rehash of her own experience) has quite obviously read very little of Janet Frame's work. Even Owls Do Cry which does consider those themes, considers them along with an unprecedented and stringent analysis and criticism of New Zealand society.

*(Frame herself resisted this interpretation, her main reason being that she didn't consider any person less worthy than another.)
** (17-03-2015 - Janet Frame’s Owls Do Cry announced as the 2015 Great Kiwi Classic book)


Announcing the publication of a new edition of Faces in the Water in Polish translation.
Janet Frame
Replika (2015)

Sunday, April 19, 2015

New academic book on Janet Frame's work

The Unharnessed World: Janet Frame and Buddhist Thought
by Cindy Gabrielle
Foreword by Professor Marc Delrez
Cambridge Scholars Publishing (2015)
ISBN-13: 978-1-4438-7203-4
ISBN-10: 1-4438-7203-2

This is a must-read for all Frame scholars. As Marc Delrez says in his foreword:
"quite apart from uncovering astonishing intertextual filiations, Gabrielle evinces a rare ability to enter into the spirit of Frame's oeuvre, and to provide exciting and subtle close reads of the texts under consideration." 

Jean Watson

Jean Watson
New Zealand author and humanitarian
1933 ~ 2014
There is another sad death to record among the friends and contemporaries of Janet Frame. Jean Watson died suddenly on the 29th of December 2014. She was a wonderful person who received well-deserved public accolades in the last year of her life with the release of a fine documentary on her life and especially on her work in South India.
The film is called Aunty and the Star People and I highly recommend it for an excellent insight into a person of singular vision and compassion.
 Janet Frame and Jean Watson were not much more than acquaintances, although they both had huge respect for each other's work, and fondness for each other. They shared a very close mutual friend, Jacquie Baxter, so the three all did meet up from time to time and shared a few outings and escapades, and through Jacquie they kept up with each other's news and gossip and publishing milestones. I remember that Janet spoke admiringly of Jean's work in India, her spirituality, and her writing.
I had met Jean Watson myself a few times over the years and was very glad to sit down and catch up with her last year in a Christchurch pub when we both attended the  WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival. She was in excellent form and had delivered a most entertaining and enlightening performance on stage in conversation with film maker Gerard Smyth at the festival.
Jean had a story to tell of the first time she had met Janet Frame. It was in 1955 when Janet was living with Frank Sargeson at Takapuna, and Jean had gone to visit Frank Sargeson to ask him for a favour - she needed him to write her a reference for University study. Frank wasn't home when Jean called, but Janet Frame was, and they got on like a house on fire. Janet was very welcoming and hospitable, and even wrote Jean a reference herself. Didn't seem anything wrong with her at all, said Jean, despite all the dire warnings that visitors to Frank's place were always prepped with, about not 'startling' or 'cornering' Janet who allegedly was as easily scared off as a feral cat. 
(This anecdote is very much in line with one told by other people who were whipped into such a high state of anxiety before meeting Janet - the alleged 'madwoman' or 'recluse' - that they were very surprised to find her to be warm, sociable, articulate and witty. Some however, could not see past their own preconceptions...)
I was reminded last year of what a wicked sense of humour Jean had. That was a feature Janet and Jacquie shared too, that made them all a joy to be around, and there was always much laughter when they were together.
My sympathy goes to Jean's family and to her friends and the communities who loved her.
Here is a link to the Radio NZ report on her death.
The Karunai Illam trust set up by Jean Watson in South India.
 "There are people who will always look in lighted windows and want to be there behind the safety of drawn blinds, and when they are there they’ll suddenly not want it or something will bugger it for them and they will feel the road beneath their feet again..."
(from Stand in the Rain by Jean Watson)

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Room Temperature

Room Temperature is an installation at Dunedin Public Art Gallery by artist Mary McFarlane that explores the memories and experiences associated with caring and illness. It's a moving experience to look through wire-wove bedding at the sick-rooms within the contained areas, blurred glimpses evoking the loss of privacy that so often accompanies a major long-term illness but also the secrecy and distance and the separation of the ill person - and their carer - from their former daily lives. Symbols, metaphors and allusions abound, and the viewing takes on a personal element as the onlooker brings their own memories to the contemplation of the scenes and objects.

 "Language weaves a personal narrative through the atmospheric environment."

Words also appear as part of the installation, embroidered, printed and painted and drawn and scrawled throughout the arena. Some are words or phrases on the objects, or on hanging cloths, and some messages are presented as ephemeral, written on large tissues that can be read and then scrunched up by visitors.

Some aspects of the installation memorialise prominent New Zealand writers and artists, including Mary McFarlane's late husband the great Ralph Hotere, and their Dunedin friends Janet Frame, Ted Middleton, Hone Tuwhare and others whose names appear on enamel cups on a shelf along one wall.

Mary McFarlane quotes a passage from Charles Brasch that has long inspired her:

"The course of an illness, like a long voyage, carries one through constantly changing seas and weathers, now sailing quietly on, now becalmed, now even being blown back, passing through all the climates of the seasons, and touching at lands known and unknown." ~ Charles Brasch (from Indirections: A Memoir)

A line written by Ralph Hotere and embroidered by Mary McFarlane.

See this link for an Otago Daily Times review.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Owls Do Cry is the #greatkiwiclassic 2015

In breaking news this week: the NZ Book Council in association with the Auckland Writers Festival has chosen the 2015 "Great Kiwi Classic" for 2015: Owls Do Cry by Janet Frame, after a period of nominations from the public.

Owls Do Cry will be the subject of a "giant book club" discussion culminating in an event at the Auckland Writers Festival in May during which a panel of authors will discuss their responses to the much loved book.

Here is the Press Release.

See the Janet Frame Facebook Album for more Owls Do Cry book covers.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

'The Marquis De Sade's Favourite Recipe'


Janet Frame's Pavlova Recipe:

Here is a recipe for something that is sometimes known as N.Z.’s national sweet. You are not a New Zealander, it seems, until you have a Pavlova cake, called a ‘Pav’. Shudder and horror of horrors.           

Here it is:

4 egg whites


¼ teaspoon cream of tartar

cup of sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla essence

2 teaspoons vinegar

1 dessertspoon cornflower

Add salt and cream of tartar to the egg whites and BEAT UNTIL STIFF. (The Marquis De Sade’s favourite recipe.)

Add sugar, a little at a time. Add vanilla and vinegar and fold in cornflower (beating all the time).

Then wet a large piece of greaseproof paper, place wet side down on oven tray. Pour mixture on paper. Put tray in oven at 350 degrees and turn off oven. Leave for 45 minutes to an hour.

Remove. Invert on plate and spread with whipped cream and fruit if liked, especially passion fruit.
That is a party dessert.


(From a letter to Bill Brown, August 1970)

Photograph of a passionfruit pavlova from:


Thursday, February 19, 2015

Happy New Year of the Sheep!

Happy Chinese New Year! This year the symbol is that iconically Kiwi animal the sheep.

At least two of Janet Frame's short stories prominently feature sheep: 'Two Sheep', a brilliant and chillingly unforgettable story that she read aloud at the Fifth International Festival of Authors held in Toronto in 1984.  The festival was also attended by Margaret Atwood, Susan Sontag, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Homero Aridjis, and we included Janet Frame's draft report on her attendance at that festival in Janet Frame in Her Own Words.

Another story, "The Day of the Sheep", has yielded one of the more popular Janet Frame quotes to be found around the internet:

“It would be nice to travel if you knew where you were going and where you would live at the end or do we ever know, do we ever live where we live, we’re always in other places, lost, like sheep” ~ Janet Frame (from 'The Day of the Sheep')

This quote apparently holds special appeal for those restless souls who enjoy travelling - and I heard recently that someone had met a tourist who had part of this quote tattooed on her arm!

Definitely the first time I have heard of a Janet Frame tattoo. Wish there was a photo!

'The Day of the Sheep' was first published in The Lagoon (1952) and 'Two Sheep' is originally from Snowman Snowman (1963). Both stories have been reprinted in the selected stories collection Prizes - also known as The Daylight & the Dust, widely available in paperback and ebook.

By the way: Janet Frame was interested in Chinese astrology - as she was in so many other things - and was aware that she herself had been born in the Year of the Rat.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Happy New Year!

Summer holiday picnic at the beach.
From left: June & Wilson Gordon, Pamela Gordon, Janet Frame.
Photograph by Ian Gordon. 
Wishing all the readers of this blog a Happy New Year 2015.
PS: This photo very likely dates to early 1964, not long after Janet Frame returned from her years of living in Europe. She was 39 years old at the time. Coincidentally Frame's autobiographical trilogy AN ANGEL AT MY TABLE (written in the early 1980s) ceases at the exact time captured in the image - shortly after she returned to New Zealand and was staying with her sister's family in Northcote. But Frame went on to live for another action-filled 40 years!

The 'mother' of New Zealand fiction?

In the Memorial Room was reviewed insightfully for the blog NZ LIT 101: Reviews of New Zealand Books:

"The book is funny, not in a snorting laughter way, but it is a satire with an edge of irony.  If Katherine Mansfield, which of course the Menton Fellowship in Frame’s book refers to, is the Grandmother of New Zealand fiction, Janet is potentially the mother.  Perhaps releasing the book after her death means that Frame can poke fun at the way writers are remembered, how they are memorialised, and how as readers and literary groupies we try and house writers in our collective imaginations."

The reviewer notes that Harry "feels like the memorial room is a grave that keeps Hurndell’s death alive rather than her work."

Nicely said!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

A death in the family

Janet Frame's beloved nephew Ian Gordon died suddenly in August this year at the age of 64. Ian was the "nephew sleeping in a basement room" of her famous poem 'Rain on the Roof' (see poster below), written when Ian was a teenager and Janet Frame was staying in a caravan in the back yard of the Gordon family home in Northcote.

Ian was a veteran Radio New Zealand engineer and technical producer of radio drama, having started working for the state broadcaster 47 years ago. More recently Ian had become an occasional comedic actor, featuring in short films and TV productions. He is dearly missed by his family, friends and colleagues.

 Tribute to Ian Gordon in Phantom Billstickers Café Reader #4
In his memory Radio New Zealand has instituted the Ian Gordon Memorial Award for excellence in Technology. The first award was presented recently in Wellington by Ian's brother Dr Neil Gordon (with Ian's daughter Aimee Tolhopf present from Auckland by video link). The winners were Shannon McKenna and Matt Thomson.


Saturday, December 13, 2014

Janet Frame poems in Italian

The 31st October 2014 issue of the Italian online journal ATELIER features three poems by Janet Frame.

'The Happy Prince', 'The Icicles' and 'A Journey' - all from The Goose Bath (2006) appear in the original English and in Italian translation.

The poems were translated into Italian by Eleonora Bello and Francesca Benocci.


Spanish translator wins prize for volume of NZ stories


 A volume of 20 New Zealand short stories translated into Spanish by Paloma Fresno Calleja, published by the University of Zaragoza Press (Prensas de la Universidad de Zaragoza 2014) has won a prize for its translator. For more, read co-editor Janet Wilson's blog post here.

The selection of 20 short stories includes Janet Frame's story 'The Lagoon'.

"not just a brilliant novel" (Angela Meyer in THE AUSTRALIAN)

"In the Memorial Room is not just a brilliant novel but a considered and poignant posthumous literary act, a curtain call by one of the world’s greatest authors, New Zealander Janet Frame, who died in 2004."

Angela Meyer, 'Writer's Cell Block', a review of In the Memorial Room by Janet Frame, The Australian 4 May 2013

Australian author, critic and book blogger Angela Meyer (of Literary Minded fame) really gets Janet Frame. It's a delight to reread her insights about Memorial - I blogged this review at the time, but have just come across it again while looking for something else, and had to marvel yet again at how perceptive it is.

"It is mentioned in the preface that Frame did not want to offend anyone involved with the Mansfield Fellowship, or in Menton, but it's also probable that she enjoyed the idea of a posthumous conversation with the reader, about language, expression, "truth" and endings: retirement, personal or professional obliteration, and (always there behind it all) death. And here, too, lies Frame's sharp, knowing wit, her attention to the absurd, and also - as some may think of it - her darkness."

A Mijo Tree for Christmas

The Mijo Tree by Janet Frame
Illustrated by Deidre Copeland
Published by Penguin New Zealand (2014)
Reprinted 2015
Hardback 101 pages
Available: Australia/New Zealand

This unique little treasure of a book was published for the first time just over a year ago - it sold out almost immediately and wasn't reprinted until this year - so there are probably some left if anyone missed out on the Christmas rush last year.

There is a new review of The Mijo Tree in the latest Landfall magazine. It's a print edition so the contents are not online, so I'll pick out an observation or two made by the reviewer James Norcliffe.

Landfall 228 (Spring 2014)
University of Otago Press

The review is entitled 'Strange and Powerful Music' which could refer to a lot of Janet Frame's writings, especially when she resorts to her fable style as here.

Norcliffe notes that the book has been "beautifully packaged" and thinks that the 'retro' design with its monochrome illustrated frame and the occasional full-page illustrations are "somewhat reminiscent of Arthur Rackham" and that these "complement the bleak message".
The Mijo Tree is indeed a dark story, and Frame had learnt by the time she wrote this piece that the squeamish gate keepers of her acquaintance at that time would likely be repelled by it. So she preserved it for posterity - she knew posterity to be strangely enthusiastic for long lost manuscripts - and here we are, lucky posterity, able to read it at last. There are two surviving copies, both lodged at the Hocken Library in Dunedin - one amongst her own literary papers and one donated by her friend John Money, to whom Janet posted a copy of the manuscript in 1957.
Norcliffe kindly refers to my " very useful afterword on the origin and subsequent history of the manuscript", and he goes on to give a thorough and appreciative reading of the fable as "more Aeschylus than Aesop" with no "happy-ever-afters or comforting bromides here, nor finger-wagging moralising."
The review concludes with the observation that while biographical speculation "adds a frisson to the reading, The Mijo Tree exists quite independently of this as a dark, bleak little tale and a most worthwhile addition to the Janet Frame canon."
Here is a link to an earlier blog post with reviews, news features, a radio interview and the launch speech by Vanda Symon: The Mijo Tree takes root


'Dear Charles, Dear Janet' at the DWRF (on youtube)

Here is a video recording of a public reading from Dear Charles, Dear Janet that was performed to a full house earlier this year at the Dunedin Writers & Readers Festival.

Readers were (from left):
Pamela Gordon (literary executor for Janet Frame)
Alan Roddick (literary executor for Charles Brasch)
Georgina O'Reilly (English Lit student, University of Otago)
David Eggleton (current editor of Landfall)

Dear Charles Dear Janet consists of a series of excerpts from the correspondence and other writings of Janet Frame and Charles Brasch - shaped into a conversation between the two - that also serves as an enlightening portrait of both writers. It was selected and edited by Frame trustees Pamela Gordon and Denis Harold in 2009 with the intention of drawing out the development of the long relationship between Frame & Brasch that began with her tentative approach to him as august editor of the literary magazine Landfall and ended with the tender mutual affection and respect of their last letters. The conversation is fascinating, at times very moving and at times humorous.

Dear Charles, Dear  Janet was first performed as Can You Hear Me, Whangaparaoa? at Auckland Writers and Readers Festival in 2009 to a large and appreciative audience. The text was enlarged and subsequently published in a hand-printed fine edition by Holloway Press at Auckland University.

The Dunedin readings were slightly abridged to fit a shorter timeslot (from 60 to 45 minutes).

 “This was such a clever idea - a programme of readings from unpublished correspondence between two towering NZ literary figures, Janet Frame and Charles Brasch… Well done whomever it was that came up with this idea.” (Graham Beattie)

 “This was a fabulous glimpse into the lives of Janet Frame and Charles Brasch, and certainly highlighted the mischievous sense of humour of Janet! I felt I came away with a real taste of the characters of these remarkable individuals.” (Vanda Symon) 

“It was an original and moving tribute, attended by a big crowd. Brasch’s and Frame’s voices came strongly down the years; some things have changed, some are the same. Brasch writing to Frame that “bulldozers on Waiheke sounds like sacrilege” is all too familiar, but Frame’s description of Brasch as having “discipline instead of marrow in his bones” could not be applied to too many people now.”  (Christchurch City Libraries Blog)

 Graphic: Otago Daily Times