Friday, March 20, 2009

A shrewd and clever book *

Released this month in the UK is a fresh and exciting new paperback edition of Faces in the Water, introduced by novelist Hilary Mantel. (See the Virago website for more details, and to read an extract from the novel.)

The Hilary Mantel introduction challenges the biographical fallacy about Frame, and contains the most perceptive and finely expressed analysis that I have ever read, of the perils of the sensitive artist who falls among dullards. Here is a brief excerpt from Mantel's essay:

"Janet Frame remains subject to categorisation. She was put into the mad category, saved at the last moment for the artist category, and is sometimes put back into the mad category by people keen on classifications and unable to explain her genius except by defining it as an abnormality. A arid reductionism still haunts her. In 2007 a paper in the New Zealand Medical Journal suggested that she had an autistic spectrum disorder. It is time to subdue the urge to pathologise, and see Frame as the highly conscious artist that she was."

- Hilary Mantel (2009)

The first edition of Faces in the Water was published in London in 1961 by WH Allen, in America by George Braziller and in New Zealand by Pegasus Press.

The 1961 New Zealand hardcover edition released by Pegasus Press (pictured above) sold more than 2,000 copies in New Zealand alone, in its first month on sale in Janet Frame's homeland.

Here are some excerpts from international reviews:

"Janet Frame's evocation of madness is unforgettable... Faces in the Water is especially brilliant in its description of what happens inside the patient's mind"... "[Frame] writes with a cool eye, a detached sympathy, and a warm but unsloppy love of sane and insane alike" - Time Magazine

"This remarkable New Zealand novelist has built up a reputation that fair dazzles, and deservedly so" - Publishers Weekly

"her prose has beauty, precision, a surging momentum, and the quality of constant surprise" - Atlantic Monthly

"Janet Frame seems to me the most considerable New Zealand novelist yet. Her innocent eye can show one the commonest object for the first time, her sensibility can convey, and has perhaps experienced, the bloodiest tortures of the mind." - Patrick White

"One of the most impressive accounts of madness to be found in literature... A masterpiece." - Anita Brookner

"Frame's best book" - Joyce Carol Oates, New York Times Book Review

"Lyrical, touching and deeply entertaining" - John Mortimer, The Observer

"Miss Frame shows an insight into the minds and lives of other patients which brings them back into the scope of her art. And her skill in penetrating the feelings of the staff unites patients and staff in such a way as to make them all, however whirling, members of the same tragic microcosm. In freshness of language Miss Frame is the most remarkable New Zealand writer since Katherine Mansfield and Frank Sargeson." - Times Literary Supplement

This important and influential novel has never been out of print in the 48 years since first publication. It has been through the hands of some different publishers over the years, for instance here are two of the covers from the Women's Press UK edition that was in print for 25 years, from 1980 until 2005:

But here follow the names of the publishers who currently hold the English language rights:

Virago Press (2009)
Current UK/Commonwealth edition (ex Australia/New Zealand):

Random House Australia (2008) Current Australian edition:

Vintage NZ (2005) Current New Zealand edition:

Here's the cover of the US edition (first published 1961, multiple editions and reprints):

* "It is also a shrewd and clever book, revealing without fuss (or sociologist's jargon) how oppressive institutions work" - Hilary Mantel, 'Introduction to Faces in the Water' (Virago 2009)

Friday, March 13, 2009

Putting Frame's early stories in perspective

The short stories in Janet Frame's first book The Lagoon and other stories, were written in 1946 while the aspiring author was working as a live-in housemaid/waitress/nurse at a boarding house in Playfair Street, Caversham Dunedin.

The highly educated and widely read Frame reported later that she had been especially inspired to write her own short stories by reading the stories of US writer William Saroyan, and by saying to herself "I can do better than that!"

By early 1947 Denis Glover of Caxton Press had accepted the stories for publication. But there they sat, on his desk, until 1952 when the book was finally published. Meanwhile, Janet Frame "languished" (this was Glover's own quip about her institutionalisation having possibly been elongated by his unthinkable tardiness with the publication) in a series of stays in mental hospitals, having been misdiagnosed and misunderstood by the small minded and conventional system of the day that had no room and no comprehension for the kind of rare butterfly that had fluttered into their stultifying net. Her medical notes show that her literary aspirations and observations were listed among her supposed medical symptoms.

Those early Lagoon stories were indeed inspired by the cutting edge world literatures of the time. Those in the know in New Zealand could recognise the brilliant new talent The Lagoon represented, and the book was awarded a prestigious literary prize. It was only because of the publicity for this prize that Frame escaped being mutilated by a scheduled brain operation.

The rest is history, and no medical professional who ever examined Frame from that day on, ever suggested that she was schizophrenic. In fact it was made quite clear by a panel of experts in the UK that it was clearly a grave mistake ever to have hospitalised her, and that she had no mental illness at all, although she had been traumatised by the abuses she had suffered through ignorance as well as spite.

If she had been from a wealthy family, and from a middle class home, she would have had a very different journey through life. But maybe we would not then have had the incredible insights that she has been able to share with us in her fiction by transforming her experiences through the filter of her imagination.

The Lagoon stories are legendary and dearly loved all around the world. The collection itself, or selections containing stories from it, or individual stories, have been repeatedly published and translated (some of the cover images of these books decorate this post).

Many of the Lagoon stories have been performed live, and recorded for radio, and selected for innumerable anthologies over the years. The active engagement of the reading public and the publishing and educational world with the best of the Lagoon stories continues to the present day (eg in 2008 'Swans' was reprinted in an Australian educational text as well as in an anthology of the Best NZ Short Stories). Bloomsbury Books have the rights to The Lagoon for the UK and it remains in print there. In New Zealand a combined edition of The Lagoon and The Pocket Mirror (released in 2004) has been very popular and has proved to be an extremely strong seller with several reprints.

Frame herself, though, quickly moved on from that stage in her career, and when anthology editors pressed her to include one of the 'childhood' stories, she always tried to interest them with something more recent. She hated to look back, and her next story was always her favourite.

It's interesting then to note that a New Zealand reviewer has suggested, in recent NZ Herald review of Prizes: Selected Stories, the brand new selection of Frame's stories, that it might have been time to discard some of the early stories from the selection. He had "a sense that their time has gone."

He's tired of the 'introspection' and he's tired of hearing - not just from Frame but in New Zealand literature in general - about "the tribulations of growing up".

I'm absolutely sure that Janet Frame would have entirely agreed with him. She was frustrated by the way that many New Zealand commentators didn't seem ever to grow with her beyond her early books into the great mature flowering of her work.

The very fact that one hears so often that Frame's life "fed into" her work reveals that some commentators have not been exposed to the wide range of styles and themes of Frame's writings. She didn't just write about children and hospitals, in fact these topics do not form the main part of her work at all.

Yes Janet Frame tackled sophisticated subjects and branched out in all sorts of directions.

As Stephanie Dowrick said:

"It is impossible to call yourself well-read if you have not yet discovered Janet Frame."

The early Frame is not the only Frame, and I'm glad to see somebody pointing that out.

However, I honestly think that there would have been an outcry if Frame's early stories had been dropped from the comprehensive selection of her best stories!

The brilliant and perceptively written stories of Janet Frame (and also Katherine Mansfield) on the subject of childhood, may well have been tediously imitated by new generations and thus have given rise to a certain ennui, but in rejecting the seeming NZ obsession with "growing up" (which is perhaps a part of the reader's own "growing up") one does run the risk of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Year of the Shark

The Year of the Shanghai Shark by New Zealand's Mo Zhi Hong has taken the regional Best First Book prize for South East Asia and the South Pacific (one of four regional areas) at the Commonwealth Writers' Prize 2009 announcement in London.

Congratulations! And good luck for the final!

Mo Zhi Hong will go on to compete for overall Best First Book - and this prize will be announced at a May 16 function at the Aotea centre, during the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival.

As a finalist for a major category in the Commonwealth Writers Prize, Mo Zhi Hong is treading in the venerable footprints of Lloyd Jones, who won the overall Best Book two years ago in 2007 for Mr Pip.

And of course The Carpathians by Janet Frame also won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for overall Best Book twenty years ago in 1989.

FYI here below is a selection of English language editions of the 1989 winner of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best Book:

George Braziller USA/Canada 1988 hardback

George Braziller USA/Canada trade paperback 1988

Routledge USA paperback 1989

George Braziller USA/Canada paperback 1993

Vintage (Random House NZ) flexibind 2005

Vintage (Random Century NZ) paperback 1992

Century Hutchinson 1988 hardcover (NZ, UK, Australia, South Africa)

Bloomsbury Publishing UK hardcover (1988)

Pandora UK/Commonwealth paperback 1989

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Redhead Effect

Janet Frame was a redhead. Not only that, she had famously wild frizzy hair. It's the first thing everyone who met her when she was young, mentions about her.

We know that as a child she hated the constant attention to what was regarded as her 'strange' hair. It seems she became quite hypersensitive about it, being subjected to the constant taunting from a very young age, that almost all redheads are subject to. Probably the frizzy hair only increased the mockery. One can imagine the teasing was mostly a bantering good natured but aggressive "Hey, ginger!", but she has made it clear in her writing that she sometimes wished the earth would swallow her up.

Now what is it about red hair, that gets people's backs up?

I have been interested to find that I can identify the redhead effect in some of the commentaries on Janet Frame, in which clearly someone who met her superficially has formed a strong opinion that she was very odd (often they'd been told this beforehand so were ready for this interpretation) - but then it seems that without realising it, they have included her 'crazy' hair as one of signals of her difference, or her 'eccentricity', or even of her 'madness'.

Here's an example of a report, from an eyewitness who met Janet Frame shortly after she was released from the years of abusive punishment in psychiatric hospitals, from his book* published in 2008:

"there was something very strange about her - shyness, hypersensitivity, timidity, fear, to the point of morbidity, certainly; but even beyond all that, something intangible I felt very strongly, with a sort of animal apprehension when we were young; something that expressed itself physically, in her body language, her clothes, but in the body itself, neck, skin, hair."

So the red hair effect is even felt by people who one might have thought were otherwise rational!

It's often mentioned as if it was a 'symptom' of what is commonly regarded as her 'oddness'.

And yet, how could she be responsible for the red hair? In what way is red hair dysfunctional psychologically?

It's not unreasonable to suggest that because her hair was regarded as so odd, that it led observers to assume she must be a strange abnormal person, and so her red hair may well have contributed to the misdiagnosis of schizophrenia.

*CK Stead, Bookself (2008). One can understand the shyness Stead describes, in the context of Frame's recent return to the world, but 'morbidity' seems an excessive word in that Stead also makes it clear elsewhere that Frame was friendly, warm, funny, well-read, smart and a great conversationalist, and the fact that she was writing one of NZ's most highly acclaimed novels of all time, at the time, does indicate she can't have been in too bad a condition. (A startling contradiction to his sketch here!)

It's poignant to hear of the fear Frame showed at that time, undoubtedly the post-traumatic result of the treatment she had sustained, and remarkable to realise what courage it must have taken to mix with the complicated sohisticated literati she found herself amongst. How strong and determined she must have been, to survive, and to get on with her writing now she was free.

It should also be noted that Stead's observation of Janet Frame as having strange clothes, is likely to indicate that there is also a class judgement being made. Most of the Sargeson circle were firmly of middle class origins. It's pretty clear that if Janet Frame had been from a wealthier family of higher social status, that she would not have been labelled as insane, and her 'eccentricity' would have been overlooked just as the middle class are blind to their own peccadilloes.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Just Do It

"The only certainty about writing and trying to be a writer is that it has to be done, not dreamed of or planned and never written, or talked about (the ego eventually falls apart like a soaked sponge), but simply written: it's a dreadful, awful fact that writing is like any other work."

Janet Frame (The Envoy From Mirror City)

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Biographical Myths: Busted

Introducing a series of exposés of some of the commonly encountered biographical myths about Janet Frame.

If possible I'll investigate why particular fallacies have snowballed so far away from any kernel of truth. In part, it's because of the human tendency to embroider and exaggerate to make a good story.

Sometimes there is an easily discernible deliberate attempt to shape the Janet Frame myth - Frame herself did it, for instance, in her Beginnings essay in which her aim was to secure financial aid for her writing. So she made sure to give a good case for needing to write. She lived to regret that, and tried to suppress the essay subsequently!

She also clearly shaped the 'recluse' myth as a method of self-protection from the harassment suffered by all prominent people, and also to deter attempts by superficial people to waste her time by socialising with her as if she were some trophy.

To be discerning in the company you keep, and to be anti-social, are two quite different things. Janet Frame was the former.

In the early years of their friendship, Frank Sargeson often played up Frame's vulnerability in order to try to secure her some sort of funding. Other friends protected her loyally from unwanted advances, but this gate-keeping was sometimes without her knowledge and now and then more than a little motivated by possessiveness, or to cement themselves as having a rare and special status in Frame's circle and to exclude any competition.

The rule of silence she demanded from her friends and family did tend to encourage the wild speculations that form the basis of many journalistic portraits. I've been looking recently at the obituaries published around the world in early 2004, and it has been a shock to me to see how much misinformation there is, even from obit writers who ostensibly knew Frame well. Even one of the most accurate obits contains the extraordinary claim that she was "pathologically shy" - which is not a diagnosis, and has not issued from any qualified source. It's an invention.

She was shy, certainly, as are many if not most people in appropriate contexts, but her shyness had no part at all in her medical misdiagnosis, and it was a situation-specific shyness and was not excessive, as is indicated by the number of eye witnesses who attest to her cheerful nature, wit, and gift for brilliant conversation (see for example, CK Stead 2008).

The fact that Janet Frame had the discipline and motivation to at some point walk away from a convivial group and go to her study in solitude and to write a masterpiece, appears to have really really annoyed some people. So they pathologise her ability to separate life and work.

And apparently readers who never even met her can make their own decision about what was "wrong" with her. Many people assume that because of her brush with medical misadventure, she must have has something "wrong" with her.

I believe that most intelligent readers do realise that what was "wrong" was the narrow punitive society of the time, and the authoritarian and obtuse medical system. Unfortunately those people haven't written the potted bios one finds dotted around the Internet! (Perhaps they've written the obscure ponderous theses!)

Another factor in the Frame mythography is that embittered researchers or others spurned by Frame, or fellow writers out-shone by her, seem to have on occasion carried out vindictive or envious campaigns characterising her as disordered in order to disparage the value of her work.

This tendency has survived her death, alas.

Michael King, Frame's biographer, gathered a fair bit of evidence for that same phenomenon, but while Frame was alive it was too sensitive a subject for him to explore too deeply. He does touch on it in the biography so a careful reading shows the trend.

Ironically, some of Frame's (and King's) detractors claim that King withheld the "truth" about Frame, and merely reported a 'compassionate truth' about Frame while she was still alive.

Of course these commentators insist that the withheld 'truth' is a derogatory 'truth' about Frame herself - because why would King withhold a truth that revealed a Frame more sane, more self-directing and stronger than the popularly imagined 'Janet'? (Why indeed? - it's a good question!)

One of the stories that King did not tell, was in fact the story of the depth of resentment that a few of her associates harboured towards Frame. King didn't tell (much) about the deliberate character assassination... There were various reasons, including the fact that it would not have been compassionate for Janet (who was capable of deep compassion and forgiveness) if King opened old wounds and relitigated obsolete battles, that she had no wish to revisit.

But King wasn't protecting Frame as much as he was protecting those in whose interest it had been to foster the various myths about her. And of course while some of the protagonists were still alive he couldn't tell the whole story for fear of creating new literary feuds, or involving himself in litigation.

Some of the worst betrayals and false portrayals of Janet Frame may not even be told in my own lifetime, but I have some satisfaction in being confident that it will all come out in the wash, in the end.

Because the evidence is all out there...

Friday, March 6, 2009

Radio France documentary on Janet Frame

French radio journalist Anne de Giafferri visited New Zealand over the southern hemisphere summer and travelled around the country meeting people, looking at our beautiful environment, especially the native bush, researching New Zealand literature especially the Maori writers, and recording the sounds of birds.

Anne also gathered material for a documentary on Janet Frame while she was here, that was later broadcast on Radio France as part of the UNE VIE, UNE OEUVRE series.

Anne talked to a few friends and associates and family of Janet Frame, as well as consulting a variety of academics to hear the latest proliferation of multi-faceted theories that Janet Frame's writing continues to spawn, even (or should that be especially) in France.

The Radio France web site contains a short biography listing some of the most recent editions of French translations of Janet Frame's work.

Janet Frame's books have been well-received in France. Along with Katherine Mansfield, who of course lived in France, Janet Frame is the best known New Zealand writer in France, although the 2006 special focus on New Zealand writers as part of the Les Belles Etrangères initiative has managed to bring more Kiwi writers to the attention of the French public.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

"tender, funny, luminous, brave, unique"

Found a review today (at of Hacia Otro Verano the recently released Spanish translation of Towards Another Summer.

I don't speak Spanish so I passed the text through an online Spanish to English translator, and gathered that the following is a fair representation of some of the expressed sentiments of the reviewer Alicia Misrahi:

"With the same poetic and gracious insistence with which the waves lick the flanks of a sunk boat, Frame offers a great personal fragment to us in this sincere novel"

"Frame undresses the soul and the feelings of Grace Cleave, her protagonist and alter ego, as only the great writers can do, and transforms each detail and each small episode of their fight to integrate themselves in society"

"In the meantime, we, those who read this, have learned to love Grace/Janet."

The computer translation is clumsy but it's clearly a lyrically written sensitive review, in line with many of the English language reviews (see the Janet Frame Literary Trust web site NEWS page for excerpts and links to reviews).

Photo above is of Charles Brasch and Janet Frame at Charles' holiday home on the Otago peninsula, in April 1966. New Zealand academic author and critic CK Stead is in the background. The photo was taken by poet Ruth Dallas. The title of the novel Towards Another Summer was taken from a poem by Charles Brasch.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Virago Classic Author of the Month

Virago Press
, Janet Frame's new publisher for the UK and Canada, is featuring her on their web site as their March 'Classic author of the month'.

Last January Virago released their beautiful new edition of Janet Frame's bestselling autobiography An Angel at My Table, "one of the greatest autobiographies of the twentieth century" (Sunday Times).

And then in July came the exquisite posthumously published novel Towards Another Summer which led Alice Sebold to say "Janet Frame is, and will remain, divine." This novel has won hearts around the world and has received glowing reviews. The first of the foreign translations has already been published (the Spanish Hacia Otro Ventro) and the US edition from Counterpoint Press is soon to be released). The Virago paperback will be released in the middle of this year.

Meanwhile this month Virago reissue one of Frame's most famous novels, one that changed the way the world perceived the treatment of "insane" people. Frame's unique perspective of having been trapped in a false diagnosis, and incarcerated in hospital wards, allowed her a privileged perspective. She came back out into the world and used her wrting gifts to speak for the people who had no voice. "One of the most impressive accounts of madness to be found in literature ... A masterpiece" (Anita Brookner). The 2009 Virago edition of Faces in the Water has a perceptive and enlightening introduction by novelist Hilary Mantel.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Janet Frame's career is not over

“I’m a short story addict, both reading and writing them,
and I always keep hoping for the perfect story.”
- Janet Frame

Last week the University Bookshop in Dunedin hosted the launch of the NZ edition of Prizes: Selected Short Stories by Janet Frame. It turned out that the launch coincided with the fresher Toga Party at the University of Otago, in which thousands of students, some draped with sheets and some not, later battled in the streets hurling raw eggs (and worse things) at each other and at the general public.

The book launch had a very good atmosphere, and there was a reasonable crowd considering there was a riot simmering outside, with masses of drunken students walking past, chanting aggressively, as they gathered nearby for their parade.

Luckily the students were oblivious to the literary gathering. Meanwhile, barricaded inside the bookshop there was a fantastic atmosphere and Emeritus Professor Jocelyn Harris gave an excellent speech, in which she quoted some passages from several stories and made connections and proposed analyses that were genuinely enlightening, and that many of those listening said had made them eager to read the stories in a new light.

Dunedin's Channel 9 TV had earlier interviewed yours truly along with UBS buyer Bronwyn Wylie-Gibb at the bookshop, about the release of this tenth volume in the Janet Frame Collection.

I also gave a short speech at the launch, outlining the timeline for the Janet Frame Literary Trust, which was founded ten years ago by Janet Frame, with great forethought, to protect her posthumous interests.

I then reviewed the progress that the Janet Frame Literary Trust has made in the five years since Janet Frame's death. It was cause for celebration that the publication of Prizes meant that all Janet's back list was now simultaneously in print in New Zealand. (At any one time there were usually up to ten titles in print in NZ, but some of the lesser known novels might not have been reprinted if the estate had not agreed with the publisher to issue the double volumes.) The whole of the attractive uniform edition was on display to admire. And of course not only is the entire back list now in print, but of course there is also the freshly illustrated children's book, the posthumous book of poetry and the posthumous novel, all of which have been critically acclaimed as well as strong sellers.

I spoke briefly about the reason for the release of a "Selected" ("best of") published stories, rather than an enormous door-stop "Collected" stories. I pointed out that the definitive "Collected" ("complete works") editions are usually issued at the end of an author's career. But the Frame estate is still publishing "new" formerly unpublished stories (as for instance the two remarkable New Yorker stories in 2008), and so it would be premature to issue a "Collected" stories until we have assessed all of the unpublished story manuscripts.

I assured those listening, to their amusement, and enthusiastic applause, that: "Janet Frame's career is not over."

The first reviews of Prizes: Selected Stories are in:

Graham Beattie on his Beattie's Book Blog declared of the selection of 42 stories:

"not a dud among them."

Elizabeth Alley reviewed the collection in the NZ Listener (archived online after March 12).

She said:

"The real value of such a collection is the opportunity to appreciate the versatility of her style, the range and power of her writing, and - yes - "the magic of words" over stories that spanned 1952 to 1983."