Thursday, January 26, 2012

To be utterly Frank

The Selected Letters of Frank Sargeson edited by Sarah Shieff (February 2012)

I'm looking forward to reading this volume to be published soon by Random House NZ.
As Frame's literary executor I have had quite a bit to do with this project as of course there was a very large correspondence between Janet Frame and her loving but difficult friend Frank Sargeson. And the book will undoubtedly be of some interest to Janet Frame scholars given that it will shed so much light on the attitudes towards Frame from the male-dominated NZ literary coterie that she encountered early in her career.

Because of the significance of Sarah Shieff's undertaking to the history of Zealand literature at a formative moment, given the various kinds of influence that Frank Sargeson has had over generations of writers and readers, the Janet Frame estate took the decision to let Sarah read all of  Frank's many letters to Janet and to publish the ones she felt suited her project best. The Sargeson letters to Frame (except for those cases when Frank kept his carbon copies) are still held under the strong restrictions that Janet Frame placed over her personal and literary papers, so this book will provide a unique opportunity to read what Frank, the big fish in the small pond, had to say over the years as he addressed his increasingly world-famous friend (and to compare that to what he said about her behind her back!)

I'm expecting that  there will be some unpleasant moments for Frame fans in reading these letters as Frank, despite being lovable and generous to a fault, was well known for his delight in spreading malicious gossip. He was perhaps not so well known for his mendaciousness, so my hope is that this volume does put his bewildering contradictions into a humanist perspective that does at last begin to unravel the ways in which Frank Sargeson at times undermined Janet Frame. He was of course also a benign and supportive influence on her, not at the beginning of her career (as the myth has it) because she was well launched as a significant writer before he even met her (that is why he tracked her down!), but at an important crossroads for her as she was making her attempt to flee New Zealand's narrowmindeness, something Frank understood all too well, and that he helped her achieve.

Later on, Frame was the mentor and the support for instance as she trudged around London attempting to interest editors in his manuscripts.

Frank's love was also tainted by envy, and I expect that these letters to all his correspondents may well show the insidious process by which Frank caused Janet's reputation much harm by his hysterical and highly coloured representations (and misrepresentations) of her.

In my cynical moments, I brace myself for a reception of this book in which the usual suspects in NZ literary commentary will take everything at face value that Frank (and others of his group) said (and say) about the Janet Frame who shot through their skies like a meteor for a brief time in the mid fifties.

At least one seemingly gullible reviewer of Speaking Frankly, the collected Waikato University 'Frank Sargeson Memorial Lectures (also edited by Sarah Shieff) apparently swallowed the 'Gospel According to Saint Frank' (as it concerns Janet Frame at least) whole. Frank Sargeson is referred to uncritically in the review as "patient friend to the seemingly impossible Janet Frame". This patronising information was transmitted in those lectures, as it has been over the years, by the Sargeson acolytes, as a series of increasingly embroidered and demeaning anecdotes about the "Janet" they remember, that bear little resemblance to the facts, which of course will in the fullness of time reveal Frame to be just as patient a friend to an equally if not more, impossible Frank.

But I do hope that the volume will provide overwhelming evidence that Frank had this quite dark side to his character, and that he is not at all a reliable witness when it comes to Janet Frame's state of mind or demeanour.

"We'll see", as Janet used to say philosophically.

In any case, the selected Sargeson letters will fruitfully be read as companion piece to Janet Frame In Her Own Words by any reader who is genuinely interested in a balanced perspective on New Zealand social and literary history.

Then they can compare for themselves the person we meet in Janet Frame in her own words with the second-hand Janet Frame that emerges from Shieff’s Selected Sargeson. And they can observe over Sargeson's long career, that he did mount propaganda campaigns against various people, and that Janet Frame was just one of many who were under fire for various reasons, and that perhaps many of the popular beliefs about Frame and her work that can be traced back to that brief Sargeson hut era of her life, may not be true.

As the letters themselves will undoubtedly show, Sargeson himself actually moved on with regard to his early misconceptions about who Frame was, but as (I predict) some of the reviews will show, a few of his followers have not.

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