Tuesday, June 21, 2016

A bad review in more ways than one


More Shelf-Regard from Karl Stead

I see that CK Stead's new book of essays Shelf-Something-Or-Other includes his 'review' of Janet Frame's posthumously published novel In the Memorial Room that she wrote while she held the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship in Menton in 1974.

Among other things, many other things, Frame's short novel contains some compassionate and very funny portraits of well-meaning but terribly patronising middle class literary hangers-on. Some have called these vignettes 'cruel' but are they as cruel as the blatant condescension they depict, in which a hapless artist is harassed and exploited and squabbled over like a piece of cultural property?

According to the publisher's Table of Contents, Stead calls his piece 'Janet Bites the Hand...' It first appeared in a Katherine Mansfield organ (Katherine Mansfield Studies Volume 6).

(Please note that Stead is spluttering about a novel that kept its counsel for just short of FORTY YEARS.)

Riiiight.

So Janet Frame is not permitted to satirise and lampoon human frailty? Without being accused of being ungrateful to those very kind self-sacrificing people who did all they could to help the poor thing despite herself? (As those busybodies apparently saw it.)

This pompous attitude, from the author of All Visitors Ashore, which contains a viciously unflattering fictional pillorying of Janet Frame herself, as well as other recognisable characters, is outrageously hypocritical.

Oh the double standard, oh the self-importance.

For a start, helloooo, isn't this fiction? So only this self-proclaimed towering pillar of NZ Lit is himself permitted to have his satirical work treated seriously? But Frame is once more by another mediocre and unimaginative critic, relegated to the autobiographical corner and her work is parsed only for what some misguided detective THINKS they can source to her real life? Ignoring all the rest - and Stead has certainly not noticed a lot in this 13th of Frame's novels - he claims that in it, Frame is blind to the physical charms of the South of France. Where can his head be? There are the usual astute and lyrical Framean descriptions of the physical environment in the book. Stead claiming they are not there does not make it so - it just makes him look like a fool. Here is an example of one of Frame's passages:

I went out of the house and down the avenue to the beachfront and the promenade. It was too early for bathers but there were many people sitting on the seats watching the waves and the black-headed gulls riding again and again the large waves, and the camions tipping their loads of soil to make the reclamation for the new restaurant in time for the summer opening. The soil surged from the truck, some falling into the water, colouring the waves, the colour spreading along the waterfront so that the inner waves were clay coloured, the outer waves the azure so proudly talked of and written of.
I sat on one of the seats. I felt homeless. The Fellowship tasted, not bitter, but sour in my mind. The springtime sky was blue, the distant mountains white with rock and sun.
(In the Memorial Room, Janet Frame)

Frame has the last laugh as usual in a brilliant passage where she describes her protagonist (who is not her, despite the simplistic reading Stead gives him) watching a reclamation project, noting the 'azure' sea being turned a muddy colour in the process. The influx of tourists to the beautiful region has meant truckloads of dirt are being poured into the ocean to extend the land area, to make more room for the brief superficial visitor who demands only the surface appearance of sun and sea. Not unlike Stead himself demanding a vacuous travelogue when the plate set before him is apparently too rich and subtle for him. Frame even gives a jibe here about the dangers of cliché: "the azure so proudly talked of and written of".

Yet I expect Stead's new collection will attract the usual simpering praise from the usual sycophantic suspects.

Very recently this same vein of class disdain that poisons the upper echelons of 'NZ Lit' emerged in an essay written by former Frank Sargeson acolyte Graeme Lay. The mask slipped for a moment and the ordinary reader was exposed to the embarrassing fact of the snobbishness of those who regard themselves as the literary elite of New Zealand. Read the essay here:



It's worth looking at this shocking essay (perhaps it is satire?) in the context of CK Stead's characteristically disparaging descriptions of Janet Frame. It's easy to compare the upwardly mobile young academic Karl Stead's incomprehension of Janet Frame's obstinate non-conformism and working-class-rules, with Lay's deriding of Craig Marriner, the young author from the provinces who is sniggered at for his clothes and judged for his behaviour and the supposedly vulgar company he keeps. They're "not one of us", they're a joke.

Frame's unconventional clothes and frizzy hair (she wouldn't look out of place on either score today) seem to have been the chief symptoms of the mental illness she was believed to be suffering from. The true Bohemian was and is a rarity in New Zealand. Stead wrote in an earlier essay of the 'strangeness' of Janet Frame's clothes and her hair:

"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." (CK Stead, Bookself, 2008) (my emphasis)

 Stead was certainly not alone in being nonplussed by Frame's clothes and hair. News reporters, for example the author of the report of the glittering function at which Frame was presented with the Menton Fellowship, frequently made a point of mentioning her clothes, that they were in some way not quite right. This was fair game for Frame's satire. For obvious reasons she wouldn't have dared publish it in her own lifetime, given the bullying she had received from the likes of Stead and Sargeson when she had the temerity to criticise the poor administration of the Mansfield Fellowship (in a letter to the NZ Listener). 
 
Stead mocks Frame now, and he berated her at the time, for complaining about the facilities at Menton. Here's what she had to say:
 
"I was criticised because I did not like peeing in the garden as there was no toilet and no water. In short I was criticised because I was not a man with a man’s physical facilities for a quick pee."  (from Janet Frame in Her Own Words, Penguin NZ, 2011)
In this new review Stead also lambastes Frame for complaining about the "slow remittances" of the Menton Fellowship money (as he also attacked her at the time in the pages of the NZ Listener). Of course what would Stead know about her precarious financial situation in which a disastrously late cheque meant real hardship? A tenured university lecturer like him with his writing career a mere hobby, the fellowship money would have been cream for him, not the subsistence it meant to Janet Frame, for whom writing was a career.
There is an analogy to be drawn between the outrage that greeted Janet Frame's criticism of the inept administration of the Menton Fellowship and the snide remarks from our prime minister John Key and others about Eleanor Catton and her critique of NZ society: an implication that if a woman has benefitted from grants and fellowships then she should keep quiet like a good girl and not rock the boat. Don't bite the hand that feeds you, girlie.
 
As for In the Memorial Room, there were dozens of rave reviews around the world.
 
There were only two other critics I noticed besides Stead who didn't like Memorial Room much and interpreted it to be a sad, overtly biographical and embarrassing document that would have been better suppressed in order to preserve Frame's 'reputation'.
 
Hah! Frame's many fans may be indeed be very grateful those three critics have not been in charge of Frame's estate! Coincidentally these three naysayers were all New Zealanders, and all were contemporaries of Frame's... it must have been a shock to find their condescending attitude in turn being condescended to. No wonder the book made them feel uncomfortable.
 
Here are some excerpts from reviews rather more perspicacious than Stead's, that do seem to provide excellent evidence that his malicious claim in this review that Frame's reputation is being harmed by the Janet Frame estate in general and by the publication of In the Memorial Room in particular, is an absolute nonsense:
 
Kirkus (1 Nov 2013):
“A strange, resonant, Nabokov-ian novel about the plight of Harry Gill, a New Zealand writer on a six-month fellowship in France, struggling to write his first imaginative fiction. Works by Frame (1924-2004), the New Zealand novelist and autobiographer, continue to appear. Never published during her lifetime, this book is marvelous experimental fiction.”
"Frame’s sentences are marvels, winding like narrow alleys through hill towns: They open spectacular vistas. Brilliant."
Publishers Weekly (USA):
"In her signature eclectic style, Frame has crafted both a canny commentary on literary fame and hero worship and a heartfelt meditation on what it means to be a writer."
The Australian:
"In the Memorial Room is not just a brilliant novel but a considered and poignant posthumous literary act, a curtain call by one of the world’s greatest authors, New Zealander Janet Frame, who died in 2004."
 "It is mentioned in the preface that Frame did not want to offend anyone involved with the Mansfield Fellowship, or in Menton, but it's also probable that she enjoyed the idea of a posthumous conversation with the reader, about language, expression, "truth" and endings: retirement, personal or professional obliteration, and (always there behind it all) death. And here, too, lies Frame's sharp, knowing wit, her attention to the absurd, and also - as some may think of it - her darkness."
Booktopia, Australia:
"Well, who'd have thought! Forget the thin skinned sensitivity of the Janet Frame you associate with An Angel at My Table. This gem ... [In the Memorial Room] ... shows a very different and much lighter personality."
 "A deliciously mischievous piece of fun, this is sharp social satire, ruthless in its mockery of literary pretension."
Australian Book Review:
"In the Memorial Room is a welcome if belated discovery, a delightfully absurd and creepy exploration of a certain kind of writer's plight. Its satire on the literary industry is also chillingly contemporary. Go to any writer's festival and take a look at the people pontificating onstage. You will see a lot of Michael Watercresses: they belong to a tribe that goes forth and multiplies. But you will have to look very hard to find a single Harry Gill."
Sydney Morning Herald:
"mordant, malicious and often very funny"
"In the Memorial Room triumphs as a pungent analysis of the manufacture of fame, a satire of the discontented, a poignant account of the loneliness of every writer and of Harry Gill in particular."
 [The ending to the book is] "a brilliant cadenza".
Sunday Star-Times:
"witty, erudite and profound"
"It is a formidable work. It is also amusing and satirical, poetic and provocative - a real joy to read."
"among the most impressive of her already imposing oeuvre"
"it explores a range of ideas that were central to her life and work"
"an unparalleled exhibition of all her skills - comic, satirical, poetic and profound"
Otago Daily Times:
"downright hilarious"
"brilliant, but cutting"
"Frame is shrewd as ever in her observations"
"Her work is a joy to read"
"The late Janet Frame's works are rewarding to read because they work on so many levels. On the most ''basic'' one, she simply writes a great story. Delving deeper, there is much more.    
The layers of meaning and reference, autobiographical elements, vivid and poetic language, characterisation and satire in Frame's second posthumously published novel In the Memorial Room show again why she is one of New Zealand's literary greats."
Sydney Review of Books:
" ‘It amused me,’ Harry thinks, ‘to suppose what the last word would be.’ And this, in the end, is Frame’s last word – brilliant, original and wry – on fiction, the posthumous writer, and the whole business of being the dead horse in which a pseudo-literary culture cowers, to shelter from shocks."
 "In the Memorial Room is both literally and figuratively posthumous. It centres around  themes of creativity, being a writer, and a writer’s posthumous memorialisation."
"Tumbling across the page from this point in the novel is a hilarious, spiralling and brilliant interior monologue, a bizarre implosion jewelled with the stifling clichés that have caused Harry to deafen. Wild and mischievous, it is part Molly Bloom, part hat-salesman, part-psalm. From the novel’s quiet, observant narrative bursts forth a vibrant new language of the secret, shouting Harry, like the ‘mutinous lunacy’ he has observed earlier: a bright mosaic tessellated with all the smooth phrases he has endured."
Radio New Zealand (Nine to Noon):
'Genuinely laugh out loud funny.'
 'Such a treat - one that everyone just needs to run out and pick up straight away!'
 'It's absolutely fantastic. I can't begin to rave about it enough.'
 'There's so much in it, even though it's only a short novel.'
'Right at the end, she has taken an incredible risk ... the book ends, and she moves into almost what another reviewer has described as "beat poetry" ... it's brilliant, absolutely brilliant.'
Landfall Review Online:
"Frame knows how to hit the sweetest spot when it comes to wry and dry, observational humour. People are ridiculously silly and Frame not only knew that but she is the high priestess of the dark art of conveying it with words. And nowhere in her vast oeuvre is it more evident in her last novel, her final chuckle from the grave, In The Memorial Room."
"This is not a novel as has been suggested, about how miserable Frame found the Katherine Mansfield Residency, but rather one based on her years of observation; watching and understanding, and I suspect being hugely amused, by the social conventions and expectations of this kind of strangeness that is New Zealand Literature. How it can eat you alive, spit you out again or even attempt to replace you with a person who looks far more the part."
 "The cult of expectation is alive and well, as are the literary vultures who never read anything, but always mean to. And not only is the satire still relevant, but the writing hasn’t dated either, and that’s Frame’s true genius. In the Memorial Room could have been written yesterday, it’s just that fresh and relevant in the telling."
Critic:
"a critique of, and commentary on, the sometimes pretentious literary community"
 "More than anything else, this book is about people and their interactions. The observations that Harry makes of the Watercress family are both enlightening and amusing. In the Memorial Room has wonderful character representations, and each character is artfully and cleverly created. Janet Frame really is a wonderful, astute, interesting writer."
New York Times Book Review (Editors' Choice)
"filled with terrifyingly beautiful reflections"
"The problem with literature, Harry concludes, is that this very nothingness — like the nothingness of the dead writer, Margaret Rose Hurndell, in whose honor his award has been given — is what critics and readers memorialize."
 
"This short, funny and often beautifully written novel — completed in the early 1970s but just now being published — provides an excellent occasion for remembering the weird wisdom and genuine talent of Janet Frame, who died in 2004 after a startlingly diverse life."


 

1 comment:

Patricia McLean said...

Absolutely spot on. CK Stead's scorn of women writers needs to be put out there plain and clear. His new bromance with Steve Braunias just shows how easily the guys are scared off by the quiet and competent woman intellectual.