Monday, August 29, 2011

Ghost words


Jim Wilson of Phantom Billstickers did a Janet Frame poetry poster run in Christchurch yesterday to commemorate Janet Frame's birthday. He took this photo of a couple of the Janet Frame posters in front of an abandoned hotel in the part of the city devastated in the past year by a series of disastrous earthquakes. Here is the poem on the poster, and in the context of the Christchurch catastrophe - so many lost lives and so much lost heritage - it's very suitable:

THE END

At the end
I have to move my sight up or down.
The path stops here.
Up is heaven, down is ocean
or, more simply, sky and sea rivaling
in welcome, crying Fly (or Drown) in me.
I have always found it hard to resist an invitation
especially when I have come to a dead end
a
dead
end.

The trees that grow along cliff-faces,
having suffered much from weather, put out thorns
taste of salt
ignore leaf-perm and polish:
hags under matted white hair
parcels of salt with the string tangled;
underneath
thumping the earth with their rebellious root-foot
trying to knock up
peace
out of her deep sleep.

I suppose, here, at the end, if I put out a path upon the air
I could walk on it, continue my life;
a plastic carpet, tight-rope style
but I’ve nothing beyond the end to hitch it to,
I can’t see into the mist across the ocean;
I shall have to change to a bird or a fish.

I can’t camp here at the end.
I wouldn’t survive
unless returning to a mythical time
I became a tree
toothless with my eyes full of salt spray;
rooted, protesting on the edge of this cliff
- Let me stay!

 

Recent academic books on Janet Frame

Chasing Butterflies: Janet Frame's The Lagoon and Other Stories
Vanessa Guignery (Publibook 2011)

Janet Frame: Short Fiction
edited by Marta Dvorak & Christine Lorre (Commonwealth Essays & Studies 33.2 Spring 2011)

The Frame Function: An inside-out Guide to the Novels of Janet Frame
Jan Cronin (Auckland University Press 2011)

Janet Frame (Writers and Their Work Series)
Claire Bazin (Northcote 2011)

Janet Frame: Semiotics and Biosemiotics in Her Early Fiction
Matthew St Pierre (Rowman & Littlefied 2011)

The Lagoon and Other Stories: Naissance d’une Œuvre
Claire Bazin & Alice Braun (Presses Universitaires de France 2010)

Janet Frame: The Lagoon and Other Stories
Ivane Mortelette (Atlande 2010)

Frameworks: Contemporary Criticism on Janet Frame
edited by Jan Cronin & Simone Drichel (Rodopi 2009)

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.

Frame takes her place



The Settler's Plot: How Stories Take Place in New Zealand
by Alex Calder (Auckland University Press 2011)
ISBN 978 1 86940 488 8, paperback, 312pp $45

Publisher's blurb:
The Settler’s Plot is a fresh and engaging study of the relationship between literature and place in New Zealand. Drawing on an engrossing selection of documentary and literary sources, from F E Maning and Herbert Guthrie-Smith to Mansfield, Sargeson, Curnow and Frame, Alex Calder explores the places our writers have turned to most often: the beach, the farm, the bush, the suburb and ‘overseas’. He connects the history of Pākehā settlement to the way stories take shape in these settings through fascinating and unpredictable readings of some of our greatest works of literature.
Reviewer Nicholas Reid. calls A Settler's Plot "a book of  outstandingly good socio-literary essays". I agree, and recommend the rest of Reid's review as well as the book, to anyone interested in New Zealand literature in general and of course in Janet Frame's place in the canon in particular. 

The last chapter in the book is called 'Placing Frame' and appears to me as a refreshing and intelligent perspective on Janet Frame's work. It was satisfying to note that Calder has identified the posthumous autism 'diagnosis' of Frame by Hilary Stace and Sarah Abrahamson as "no more scientific than a diagnosis of witchcraft".

Highly recommended. And reading this book is a fine way for me to celebrate Janet Frame's birthday.

Happy Birthday Janet!


Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Good Keen Kiwi


The marvellous Chris Cole Catley was farewelled in Auckland today. She was a prominent New Zealander having contributed to the good of our society in so many ways, and she'll be sadly missed. She was a member of Frank Sargeson's 'inner circle' and as such she and Janet Frame knew each other quite well. Chris was also a very close friend of Michael King, who wrote the biographies of both Frank Sargeson and Janet Frame.

Chris has a quite astonishing list of achievements including being responsible for the renaming of the fruit known as a 'Kiwi' around the world! She was - among other things - a feminist, a Labour party activist, a journalist, an educator, a founder, an innovator, a lterary benefactor, a publisher, an author - and there's no doubt her tremendous energy and good nature charmed and overcame most of the obstacles she encountered in her drive to make the world a better place. Being such a lovely, fun-loving person, she'll be deeply missed by her family and friends and colleagues. She certainly has made the world a better place in so many ways and her legacy won't be forgotten.

I was privileged to know Chris and to cooperate with her on some literary and charitable projects and she was always a delight to work with and very supportive of my role as guardian of Janet Frame's estate.

One of the good guys. Farewell Chris, and may you rest in peace.


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Butterfly Effect


Wow. I am finding it hard to keep up with all the publishing on Janet Frame in the past year or so! Here is another book that has recently been pointed out to me. This volume comprises a selection of papers presented at an international conference at the École Normale Supérieure in Lyon, France, in October 2010, as well as additional essays.

Janet Frame once called the process of writing stories 'more like chasing butterflies or mosquitoes than nettng a swarm of words ... I "capture" them by writing down their titles.' (Letter to Tim Curnow, 1989)

From this quotation comes the title for the latest scholarly volume on Janet Frame:

Chasing Butterflies: Janet Frame's The Lagoon and Other Stories ed. Vanessa Guignery (Publibook 2011)

See a preview on Amazon UK:

Publisher's Blurb:
In 1951, Janet Frame published her first book The Lagoon and Other Stories, a collection which would win the most prestigious national literary award in New Zealand and launch her fascinating career. The essays collected in this volume examine the motifs at work in Frame’s short stories and unravel a unique literary world which revisits the realist tradition and grants prose a poetic dimension.
As much a reflexion about language, voice, modes of writing and narrative strategies as an analysis of Frame’s recurrent concerns with identity, childhood, relationships between mothers and daughters, secrecy, marginality, community or death, Chasing Butterflies is a great tribute to one of the most famous New Zealand writers.

 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Janet Frame's inspiring example



It's always heartwarming to learn how many people from all around the world and from many walks of life have been inspired by Janet Frame's incredible but true story of survival and success. Her escape from the abuses of the provincial psychiatric institution that had misdiagnosed her, was a combination of her own strength of character and her determination to pursue her writing vocation no matter the trouble it got her into, with a touch of blind luck and even the gift of divine intervention courtesy of her guardian "angel".

Janet Frame's transformation into literary superstar was of course the result of no one magical event: as they say, it's amazing how much work over how many years goes into becoming an "overnight sensation".

It seems that the magnificent Spanish film maker Pedro Almodóvar is one of Janet Frame's many fans; according to a recent report in the Observer he recommended Janet Frame's autobiographies to his "new leading lady" Elena Anaya.

A previous Almodóvar leading lady was shown in one of his earlier films The Flower of my Secret to be a fan of Janet Frame's writing, along with the likes of Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, and Dorothy Parker. Almodóvar says of the women writers his character admires: "All these women are considered intellectuals, but what unites them most of all is the emotion in their work. They awaken feelings like a bolero, that Cuban feeling which endows the dancer of the bolero with such importance. For Leo [a former romance novelist, protagonist of The Flower of the Dance] it's the same. She is as moved reading a book by a woman as she is listening to a bolero. This is the subject of the essay she's writing - 'Pain and Life'. If she changes the tenor of her novels, her aim is not a greater intellectualism but a greater authenticity." (From Almodóvar on Almodóvar.)


Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A new collection of Frame scholarship

The field of academic commentary on Janet Frame continues its dramatic expansion. The latest issue of the journal Commonwealth Essays and Studies has been devoted to a study of Janet Frame's short fiction. Some prominent names in international Frame studies are represented in it. We are always in safe hands when Belgian Marc Delrez - who, according to Peter Marsden, easily earns the status of "primus-inter-pares" of Frame scholars - is involved in the project, and there is much good research and analysis to recommend in this volume.

I feel the volume is blighted by the odd obsessive touch of biographical myth-making, but that is always going to happen when the subject is all things "Janet", which, let's face it (and I'm quoting here from her biographer Michael King in his more 'off-the-record' mode) "can be a bit of a nut-magnet"...

Even worse from my perspective, than the idiosyncrasies of pseudo-psychiatrists, is the fact that in two of the papers [Williams, Wevers] there are blatant examples of product placement - two academics from the same university both give astonishingly insupportable endorsements to a highly controversial fan fiction novel published by their own institution's academic Press. The novel exploits the publicity value of the myth of Janet Frame and stretches it beyond credibility for anyone who is actually familiar with her biography, as these 'experts' have proven themselves not to be, by their apparent swallowing of the deliberate and demeaning distortions their colleague has stitched together in order to "stitch up" Frame. The scholar-cum-novelist Patrick Evans has been "notoriously"  plodding away at his campaign for decades, never letting the facts interfere with his speculation. He's finally realised that the truth is too much of a straight jacket, and has opted for outright fabrication. Both these commentators fondly quote his fanfic novel as if it contains valid insights into Frame's life or her attitude to language, and they seem to prefer the fictional caricature to the real Frame, and cite Evans's clumsy imitations rather than Frame's own texts. They even bypass Frame's posthumously published fiction (including a short story 'Silkworms' in which Frame herself fictionalised Sargeson, surely ripe material for synthesising!). For these parochial academics to favour an inferior copy of Frame as rendered by one of their cronies is a 'Framean' phenomenon indeed.

In context, the Commonwealth Essays and Studies volume offers gripping reading for the student of Frame, and makes a solid contribution to the burgeoning bookshelf. Don't forget to read Frame herself though guys! Many of the papers don't show any evidence that their authors were aware of or flexible enough to handle, the steady posthumous publishing of finished works that Frame either would not or could not get published in her lifetime. Where is the reaction to a delayed masterpiece such as Gorse is not people, crushingly rejected when Frame was at her most vulnerable?  In her autobiography Frame even prepared her readers for the eventual release of her unpublished works such as Towards Another Summer and Gorse is not People, by telling the stories around them. As Maria Wikse recently pointed out in a review of another excellent volume of criticism, Frameworks (ed Cronin & Drichel), there does seem to be a peculiar reluctance on the part of some academics to go back to the drawing board and consider the 'new works'. (The argument that there hasn't been time to assess the posthumous works yet won't wash when one considers that the ripped-off novel Gifted written by an elderly male Professor, seems to have wormed its way into the discourse - thanks to the patsy recommendations, with no hint of a rigorous critique - after less than a year.)

Another sadly neglected work of Frame's is of course her autobiography, frequently relegated here to the status of warehouse to be plundered for real-life correspondences to fictional events, but not a text to be trusted where the author makes any claims that contradict the legend. This attitude is aptly illustrated by the footnote on page 98 (Oettli): "John Money is the person who inspired the character of John Forrest in Frame's autobiography". Inspired the character? There seems to have been precious little learned from Michael King's biography Wrestling with the Angel, either, and this distrust of the veracity of the non-fiction written by Frame as well as by her biographer has led to errors of fact that range from the merely sloppy to the scandalous.

If there was any overall process of editorial fact-checking in this volume of essays, it appears to have missed the extraordinary claim made by Simone Oettli in discussion of  'My Last Story' (written in 1946 along with most of the other Lagoon stories, while Frame was working as a housemaid-waitress-nurse in a rest home) that: "As far as we know, it will be ten years before Frame starts to write again"... The romantic belief that Frame and her fictional narrator in 'My Last Story' are one and the same, appears to take primacy over the historical facts. The facts are not hard to come by, and I am quite disillusioned to discover that even a Frame 'expert' can seem to be so unfamiliar with Frame's writing and publishing history. The facts are available to all via Frame's autobiography and the King biography, but the story of these "ten years" that seems to be quickly gaining traction, among the NZ academics at least, is the made-up one from the Evans novel (quoted at length in this volume by Lydia Wevers) in which an unknown and unpublished young woman arrives unannounced on to the great Frank Sargeson's door step. He is perplexed but takes her in. This is all lies, as is to be expected in fiction, but the reinvented story is treated by at least two papers here (written by Wevers and by Williams) as if it were an enlightening portrait of Frame and Sargeson.

In fact by 1955 Frame's reputation was striking awe into her countrymen. So much so that Frank Sargeson had sought her out and asked her to stay with him, and her presence there created a minor sensation, with the troops flocking by for a look at the "mad genius", as she had already been typecast. She had been publishing regularly, poetry (in The Listener in the early 1950s) and two book reviews, and had read a very well-received story on the radio, had of course won the prose fiction prize for The Lagoon. From the very first, she had been ambitious. Her first adult story had been published in The Listener without John Money's help, and there's an entirely valid argument available that it wasn't until Money started intercepting her stories (the legend says he "rescued" them from her), that she ran into the terrible five year delay between the acceptance of The Lagoon and its being published. Even while she was waiting for Denis Glover to publish her manuscript, Frame continued to send work to editors such as Charles Brasch. We now know, for instance, thanks to letters published in Dear Charles, Dear Janet (2010),  that Frame sent Brasch a story for consideration in 1949. Brasch passed the story on to Glover without even replying to Frame. (Now there's something that deserves investigation! Why do we only hear how Frame was helped and mentored, when a cold hard look shows her being as often rejected, blocked, and being subject to delays despite her unfailing persistence in her vocation?) Now, much of this writing history between 1945 and 1955 is covered by Frame herself, and more is revealed by King, and some more has been uncovered by Frame's estate. If a 'Frame scholar' can be as wrong as to say "As far as we know it will be ten years before Frame starts to write again", about this period, what else are they getting wrong? 

As a family member, of course I will be disconcerted when I discover that people are saying biographical things that I know to be incorrect. I know first hand how much it annoyed my aunt to be lied about, and misunderstood, and I know what some of the lies are and why they are so virulently defended. But my pleasure in reading the overall carefully argued and intelligent criticism in this collection is not diminished, and I do look forward to the continuing evolution of the arguments and the expositions.

As Jan Cronin says in Frameworks - "These are exciting times for Janet Frame studies."

33.2 (Spring 2011): Janet Frame: Short Fiction

CONTENTS

Marta DVORAK, Foreword
Marta DVORAK and Christine LORRE, Introduction

'The subject of words'

Marc DELREZ, The Literal and the Metaphoric: Paradoxes of Figuration in the Work of Janet Frame
Jean ANDERSON and Nadine RIBAULT, Why Two Heads are Sometimes Better than One: Collaborative Translation of Janet Frame's The Lagoon and Other Stories
W.H. New, S(words)tories

'External landscapes and geographies of the mind'

Allan WEISS, The Form and Function of the Modern Fable in Janet Frame's Short Stories
Lydia WEVERS, "A girl who is not me"
Mark WILLIAMS, "Tending the ovens": Janet Frame's Politics of Language
John THIEME, "Making chalk marks on water": Time and the Sea in Janet Frame's Faces in the Water and "The Lagoon"

The 'watching self'

Christine LORRE, Secrets in The Lagoon and Other Stories
Simone OETTLI, Janet Frame's Conceptualization of the Writing Process: From The Lagoon to Mirror City
Cindy GABRIELLE, Fences of Being: The Child in the World in Janet Frame's "A Note on the Russian War," "Prizes" and "Royal Icing,"

'(Inter/meta)textuality and the ontology of authorship

Janet WILSON, The Lagoon and Other Stories: Storytelling, Metafiction and the Framean Text
Marta DVORAK, Frame-breaking: "neither separate nor complete nor very important"

Reviews

Peter MARSDEN, Frameworks: Contemporary Criticism on Janet Frame. Ed. Jan Cronin and Simone Drichel
Marc DELREZ, Dear Charles Dear Janet: Frame and Brasch in Correspondence. Ed. Pamela Gordon and Denis Harold
Christine LORRE, The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield. Vol. 5, 1922-1923. Ed. Vincent O'Sullivan and Margaret Scott
Jean ANDERSON, Reading Pakeha? Fiction and Identity in Aotearoa New Zealand. By Christina Stachurski

Annex

The Writing of The Lagoon Stories, by Pamela Gordon, Literary Executor, Janet Frame Literary Trust

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Enough already with the Chicks and Toby

June Gordon pays a friendly visit to Oamaru to see her brother George Frame and his children

For my sins, I have been reading some contemporary Frame criticism, and I have been shocked to discover that there are still some people out there who obtusely equate members of Janet Frame's family with her fictional characters. Specifically, the Toby and Chicks of Owls Do Cry are conflated with Janet's brother George and her sister June. This despite the author's frequent protestations: for example, see the previous post where Janet Frame is quoted at the very moment of publication of her first novel - in 1957 - vehemently denying the suggestion that it is "autobiography". She even clarifies that her "Toby" is a much less bitter person than she believed her brother to be, and that her only surviving sister is completely unlike her "Chicks", which she explained elsewhere, was a deliberately drawn negative portrait of a vain and materialistic housewife. Anyone who knew my left wing, politically idealistic and rather other-wordly mother knew instantly that to insist on the comparison between her and "Chicks" was not just a slander, it was stupid.

The persistence of the belief reminds me of the well-known phenomenon of the naive viewer of a soap opera or film who mistakes the actor for the popular character they play (or vice versa!) and when the actor is seen out on the street, it is as if the celluloid image has taken on human form. Actors do get used to this. A young New Zealand actor who rose to prominence playing a Russian immigrant in the local drama Outrageous Fortune, is now playing a native-born Kiwi in a home-grown soap opera, and is apparently regularly complimented on how well she has managed to disguise her Russian accent! She has said in an interview that she has learnt not to bother insisting that it was the European accent that was the fake one.

My late mother June Gordon, Janet Frame's sister, continues to be misrepresented by similarly credulous soap-opera-brained "literary theorists" who even in 2011 are publishing academic papers claiming that the materialistic "Chicks" character in Owls Do Cry was a deliberately cruel - but accurate - portrait of the younger sister.

June Gordon, along with countless other candidates for the role of young married postwar woman with several children who left the provinces for life in the city, did share some but by no means all of the outward characteristics of the "Chicks" that Frame satirised.

One of the things that annoyed Janet Frame about the triumph with which certain literati trumpeted their so-called discovery of the "inspiration" for a particular character she had invented, was their patronising belief that they had any insight into her social circle and her experiences. Their assumptions that her circle was so narrow that they knew all the people she could possibly have drawn on, betrayed their condescending attitude towards her literary skills, and their likely swallowing of the myth that she was socially incapable.

Frame consistently denied that there was any correspondence between Chicks and June other than the kind of background detail that every novelist has to borrow from somewhere, which they do, perhaps unthinkingly at first, not expecting paparazzi to come snooping through armed with discarded toys and faded old family photos and half-remembered anecdotes, trying to fit them like cardboard jigsaw puzzle pieces into an Old Master. My mother and anyone close to her recognised and accepted that "Chicks" was not at all a portrait of her, and that any blame for the mistake was squarely to be placed at the feet of the hacks who were pushing the angle for their own reasons, not the least of which was an attitude of disbelief in the ability of the author to invent a fictional world. Because the insistence that her fiction is fact does usually tend to arise from the parallel insistence that Frame's mind was so disordered that she was incapable of making the distinction. These are the commentators who also usually proceed to claim that Frame "made up" her autobiography! They then have themselves a nice tidy package, worthy of a career of fruitless unwrapping, which is starting to look to me as though it is pretty much the way a lot of English literature academics spend their lives. 

The original mistake was made early out of ignorance, and multiplied often, and the scholars are still quoting and footnoting each other's inventions as if they were gospel. The flakiest and the most mediocre shore each other up and rush to each other's defence if anyone (like a literary executor!) should be so importunate as to point out an occasional fact that gives the lie to their fantasy constructs.

What part of "the work is fiction" do they not understand?


"It is of course pleasing to me to know that you like Owls Do Cry. [...] It is unfortunate that the book seems autobiographical, for except for occasional background and the portraits of the parents, the work is fiction. I do have a brother who is an epilectic; he would have to be much modified and sweetened to fit the character of Toby. The opposite process would have to take place in order to render my youngest sister anything like Chicks."

 From a letter Janet Frame wrote to Pat Lawlor of Wellington, dated 17 June 1957, London. (Janet Frame's copy).