Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Plot Thickens

The cover of this excellent book tells its own story, foretelling the centrality that the location 'Esmonde Road' would play in the construction of New Zealand literary myths.

(The cover was designed by Kalee Jackson who also designed the cover of Jan Cronin's recently published monograph The Frame Function.)

The groundbreaking New Zealand writer Frank Sargeson located his influential salon at 14 Esmond Road, Takapuna. Over its history the street name has been 'officially' spelled alternately with and without and then again with the final 'e' - a naming as fluid and difficult to pin down as as the discourses that have emanated from the 'Sargeson mafia': a coterie of acolytes that for a long time has attempted to impose a party line on the telling of, for example, the Janet Frame 'story'. Some Frame scholars (eg Gina Mercer, Maria Wikse) have commented on the prominence of condescending representations of Frame as eternal handmaiden to the 'father of New Zealand literature', a judgement that competes with a perhaps more clear-eyed perception of Frame as trail blazer in her own right. But for many onlookers, Frame remains frozen in time in the little more than a year she spent boarding with Frank Sargeson, from early 1955 to mid-1956. The often misoygnist accounts of that era have favoured demeaning anecdote about Frame over objective report. One can detect many years of boozy hilarity and exaggeration in the retelling of the gossip, and eventually it has hardened into dogma. Meanwhile the hagiographical elevation of Frank to an untouchable sainthood is a little hard to take for those others of us - like me - who were also part of Frank's circle and weren't drunk at the time.

For examples of colourfully embroidered hearsay concerning Frame's brief stay at Esmond Road, see for instance the forthcoming Speaking Frankly - a soon to be published collection of the Frank Sargeson Memorial lectures delivered at Waikato University, edited by Sarah Shieff. It will be very useful to have all these lectures gathered between two covers.

Sarah Shieff is also editing a collection of Frank Sargeson's letters to be published next year by Random House NZ, and what a fascinating and revealing volume that promises to be. Frank and Janet had a long and rich correspondence and, considering the significance of the project, the Janet Frame Literary Trust has made Sargeson's letters to Frame available to Shieff as she makes her selection.

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