Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Janet Frame's Elegy for Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath died in London, early on the morning of Monday, the 11th of February, 1963. Her suicide is known to have deeply affected Janet Frame, who was also living in London at that time. Janet Frame often spoke to her friends of how, one day soon after hearing the news, she boarded a London bus and sat upstairs, in grief, and just rode around London all day. This was the very same week that Janet Frame started writing her first draft of the novel Towards Another Summer. The first page of the first draft is dated “Feb 14th”.

It had been an eventful week for Frame. The Friday beforehand, February the 8th, she had boarded a train to go north to spend the weekend with Guardian journalist Geoffrey Moorhouse and his family in Manchester. She had hit a dry patch in the writing of her novel The Adaptable Man, so had decided to take some time off to pursue a budding friendship with Moorhouse. She described the weekend later as one of those “rich” and “seminal” times that were invaluable for a novelist. But rather than allowing her to return refreshed to resume work on her current novel, the weekend spent in the company of a fellow New Zealand expatriate (Moorhouse’s wife), with all the talk and reminiscence of Frame’s homeland, had heightened in her a homesickness that she had already been experiencing, and had given her the idea for a whole new novel, based around the concept of a woman writer who has been transformed into a migratory bird.

That novel, Towards Another Summer, ends with the protagonist Grace Cleave travelling back from the fictional northern town of “Relham”, and arriving at her cold London flat late on Sunday afternoon. As one reviewer has put it:

One can see why Frame would not have wanted this book published when it was written. This is the writer naked, skinned, raw. We feel for her in her vulnerability. We are grateful that she has got back to her desk in its corner by the bookshelves, the lamp, the piles of paper, the typewriter. This is where the migratory bird belongs. We are far from sure, even so, that she will be all right. We know now that she has survived; it would not have been at all clear that she would have, from this novel. (Marion Halligan, Canberra Times)

And so the novel finishes, with the lonely young woman writer Grace Cleave, late on a Sunday afternoon, mulling over her uncertain future. Janet Frame herself, alone in her posh London flat (provided by her ambitious publisher in the hope that the luxury would encourage her to write a conventional bestseller), on Sunday night the 10th of February 1963, was probably far more sure of her next step. She was bursting with the recent experiences, observations and conversations, as well as the childhood memories that had been evoked by her stay at the Moorhouses. She was likely already starting to plan in her head to fashion “the story of the weekend” into an exploration of the themes raised by her visit.

And then the next day came the death of Sylvia Plath. In the light of the news, the BBC rebroadcast the recording made late the previous year, of Plath reading her poems.

Recognising this synchronicity of events in Janet Frame’s life may well offer an added resonance for fans of both Plath and Frame as they read Towards Another Summer. Frame includes a poem in the text that can be read, with this knowledge, as her elegy for Sylvia Plath. The poem is redolent with Plath-like poetic symbolism and does seem to contain a reference to the BBC radio recording which Frame would have been familiar with:

Dear mother, dear father dear husband dear child,
there is no answer,
this microphone like a beehive celled with honey
is blocked forever with the sweetness of death.

The poem also appears to refer to Frame’s response to Plath’s death:

I rode on a red bus
inside a clot of blood
I rode in grief over London,
I smashed nothing, no mirrors, windows, or glass sheets of sky.
I prayed Let the world have wonder enough to care
when poets live
and to grieve when they die.

As a further frisson to those who search for the multiple meanings Frame is famous for, one of the minor characters in Towards Another Summer is named “Sylvia”. Janet Frame was notorious for using the names of everyone she knew and loved and admired (or didn’t admire) for her fictional characters. The character didn’t necessarily have any similarity to the real person whose name Frame had borrowed, although sometimes there was a resemblance or a link. (She used my name, Pamela, at least twice, for fictional characters, so I can attest to the habit at first hand!) By indulging in this practice, Janet was acting rather like those film directors who give walk-on parts to family and friends, or who appear themselves as an “extra” in their own movie. It seems to be no accident, given the timing, that there is a “Sylvia” in the novel Janet Frame starting writing three days after Sylvia Plath’s death.

1 comment:

dirt said...

I must say I find this VERY interesting!