Thursday, August 28, 2008

More than slightly framous

Painting by Kelly Pretty

Happy 84th Birthday Janet!

What a great day we have had here on earth. $10,000 of Janet Frame's endowment money was given in the Janet Frame Literary Trust Award, to encourage a fine poet. I think Janet would have been very pleased to support her. Like Janet Frame, Rhian Gallagher was raised in the coastal South Island, and went away and lived in London for a long time, but she too has come back to New Zealand.

The trustees of the Frame Estate had our usual annual slap-up meal to commemorate Janet's birthday, and we had much to celebrate. Although we did miss Janet's actual presence at the table, because she always dearly loved to have a good feed in convivial company. She had a hearty appetite for food and conversation, and the ambience when she was there, was always lively and clever and punctuated with uproarious laughter because of her quick wit.

But she was in any case the angel at our table as we reviewed a sparkling year of tending her garden. The release of the posthumous novel, the Montana award for the posthumous poetry, the New Yorker stories, the refreshing of much of the back list in New Zealand and the release of new editions in Australia and the UK, with plans for more renovation and expansion. We're delighted with the sale of US rights for Towards Another Summer, and the list of countries seeking rights to translate it is growing every week. The Australian edition of the Goose Bath is to be launched in a few weeks. All this and more.

Early in the morning there was a knock at the door and a courier delivered a box containing the advance copies of the Bolinda audio book of TOWARDS ANOTHER SUMMER. It seemed like the arrival of a gift!

And in my email inbox was a lovely letter from an expat Kiwi who is living in London, who has been a longterm fan of Janet Frame's work, and was just writing to thank us for bringing out Towards Another Summer - which she had read and loved - and for keeping her up to date with all things Framous, by the web site. Kelly didn't realise it was Janet's birthday, but what great timing it was for her to send some very sweet paintings she had done of Janet, in icon-style!

Thanks Kelly! (The painting is posted above, by kind permission, and you can link to Kelly Pretty's myspace profile here and a gallery of her other work here.)

It's knowing that Janet's readers are responding to her work, and that new readers are discovering what an amazing writer she was, that makes my job worthwhile.

Janet Frame and Prizes

Janet gets a gong

Janet Frame is sometimes attributed with having said: "Life is hell, but at least there are prizes".

It's a good little quote. She did in fact say it, but it was in a short story, so it wasn't strictly Janet Frame who made the claim; it was her first-person narrator who said it. And the character in the story ("Prizes" from the collection The Reservoir: Stories and Sketches) went on to say: "Or so one thought."

"Life is hell, but at least there are prizes. Or so one thought."

Context is all!

By the end of the short story, the narrator is dead. Coincidentally, as I write this, the author is also now dead. But it is her birthday, and I know that many people celebrate this day, wish her a happy birthday in their thoughts, and think of her with much affection and admiration.

For some people though, the death of an author just becomes their moment to plot to exploit and reinvent the life and work. I wish it weren't true. But the author of "Prizes" foresaw the human potential for inhuman greed. The story finishes with the lines:

"And now I lie in the pit, finally arranged, faded, robbed of all prizes, while under every human sky the crows wheel and swoop, dividing, dividing the spoils of the dead."

I don't think that Janet Frame is talking here, about literary prizes. She received many prizes all throughout her school career - she excelled in academic work as well as debating and writing. And of course as an author she continued to win various prizes and honours, grants and scholarships.

Such accolades were often well timed, and as well as giving material support, they provided affirmation for a path rarely taken. She appreciated them, and she approved of them, and she wanted there to be more of them, so she decided to set up her own awards.

As soon as she realised that her ongoing royalties would be able to benefit other writers, she founded an endowment fund and instructed her Estate to use the money to give timely assistance to worthy authors. It's a great pleasure now for her executors to be able to give awards in Janet Frame's name.

No, I'm quite sure that the giving and receiving of prizes is not what the narrator of "Prizes" meant, by "dividing the spoils of the dead."

For me it's those who tear away at the person of the newly dead author with their teeth and their fingernails, who are the vultures. I shudder when I hear about yet another 'researcher' sniffing around the corpse.

Some 'researchers' seem to realise their desires are morally repugnant so they hide from the light, and try to sneak in to some poorly guarded archive and have access to private material, less than five years after the old lady died.

They claim that their 'research' will benefit humanity. Yeah right. They're hitching their wagon to instant fame and they are using someone who made it clear she didn't want to be exploited.

But even worse than the archive sneaks are the 'researchers' who don't want to bother with facts or artefacts at all, but have brewed up their brilliant idea based on hearsay and myth. Especially the ones who haven't even read Janet Frame's work.

Which disease today, do they think they have diagnosed in Frame from watching Kerry Fox's movie impersonation? The primary insult is not in whichever disease or disorder they choose to decide to remake the corpse in the image of - the insult is that they do not allow Janet Frame her agency. They do not listen to her when she tells her story.

They don't even read her work!

I challenge anyone who thinks Janet Frame had asperger syndrome, or high-functioning autism, to read INTENSIVE CARE, the novel which has a character "Milly", who is autistic. Yes, that's right, Janet Frame had several autistic characters in her novels, and several gay characters. She had male characters too.

Janet Frame had close friendships with some gay people, with some men, and with some people who were on the autistic spectrum. She herself was not autistic, not gay, and not male - not, as Jerry Seinfeld said, that there is anything wrong with that!

Frame wrote novels and she invented characters. There is a murderer in INTENSIVE CARE too, but to my knowledge Janet Frame never committed murder. Although I bet she got close to wanting to, when people misrepresented her, because it was her inner truth they were violating.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Freeze Frame

"Janet with Pamela" Northcote, 1955

A moment in time captured. Blurry. But real. I won't try to wax lyrical about memory, because other people have done that far better than I ever could. And anyway, I don't remember this moment. I do know that I was close to my aunt for my whole life, and when I'm asked when my relationship with her began, I can't say exactly. She spent many years of my childhood living overseas, and I didn't see her again until I was 9 years old. During that time she and I used to write to each other, and she often sent me gifts, including some seminal books that deeply affected me - such as The Little Prince, and an anthology of work by Eleanor Farjeon.

This photo was taken when I was around a year old, and Janet was 30-ish. She lived in Auckland for about 15 months, mostly in an old hut at the back of Frank Sargeson's place. During that time she wrote the New Zealand classic novel Owls Do Cry. It was here that she established a regular writing routine and started to build up social networks among the literary community. And at the end of every week she would walk from Takapuna around the harbour to Northcote where my parents lived, and stay the weekend with our family. My father was a travelling salesman, and was away a lot, and my mother never really coped well with her three children so Janet used to help out, and would often babysit.

And here she is, around the same time, courtesy of another imperfect snapshot, at the door of Frank's army hut. Looking very cheerful. What a liberation it was for her to meet a community of people who took art and writing seriously. She was forever grateful to Frank for affirming the worth of life as a fulltime writer, and for coaching her in some of the writerly habits she adopted then and stuck to for the rest of her life. (Rising early, keeping to oneself for the first part of the day so as not to interfere with the imagination, writing in the morning, and saving the afternoon for chores and the evening for socialising.)

For the first time in her life, she was accepted as a writer. (Her desire to write had previously, disastrously for her, been mistaken a a symptom of a delusional disorder!)

It was a traumatic and exciting year-and-a-half for Janet. As well as writing Owls Do Cry and having it accepted immediately for publication (occasioning the beginning of some unbridled envy from her mentor, who had been suffering a dry spell, and who preferred to outshine his protegees), she expanded her social networks, including meeting Elizabeth (known as Peter) Dawson for the first time. Janet stayed with Peter at Mt Maunganui; they hit it off instantly, and became lifelong close friends. (Peter later lived in Norfolk and Janet visited her often when she too lived in England. When Peter died in 1986 she left her cottage to Janet.)

But back to 1955 on the North Shore of Auckland. That was also the year Janet Frame's mother died. It's good to keep this fact in mind when evaluating the legend that has since arisen about the time(s) she locked herself away in her hut and refused to come out. Both her grief and her shyness have been pathologised and exaggerated in some of the myths that have been repeated and embroidered over the years since that brief era.

It also pays to remember that before Janet Frame met Frank, she was already a published author who had received the national literary prize for her first book. (Another myth is that Frank "taught" her to write!) He had sought her out and invited her join his circle, because she was a rising star to watch.

And watch her, while she lived out the back of Frank's, they all did, judging by some of the the anecdotes. Some of the hangers-on, anyway, apparently watched her like a hawk. Every tear, every angry riposte, or hint of uncertainty, was interpreted as a sign of "mental instability" and in the retelling of reminscences, the image of "the girl in Frank's garden" has, according to some of the 'eyewitness' accounts, been frozen in time as more of a caricature than a fully shaded portrait of the woman who stayed there for not much more than a year, over half a century ago, at a time of dramatic transition.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Out of the Frame

This is a poignant image for me. From the left you can see my parents Wilson and June Gordon, Mum's sister Janet Frame, and Janet's biographer the popular New Zealand historian Michael King. The photograph was taken by our friend Reg Graham. In the space of just over four years, all five of them have died.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

"The Frame Police"

I first heard it from Elizabeth Knox, the scintillating Wellington novelist, as I was borne towards her on a heaving wave of glitterati at the impossibly loud and crowded gala opening for the 2007 Auckland Writers and Readers Week. I had sighted Elizabeth and had set my sail in her direction, clutching a festival gift bag full of publishing empire goodies in one hand and a glass of wine in the other.

"Here comes the Frame police," she said (or so I thought), and she introduced me to some people I was already acquainted with in Blogland, but had never met in the flesh. Elizabeth was in a jocular mood, and I chose to take the 'Frame police' soubriquet as a teasing compliment. Frameland is a desirable property, and necessary protection is sometimes called for. I knew Elizabeth would be aware of that, as she has a valuable body of work of her own to care for.

The Frame police. We occasionally say it ourselves now, facetiously, but of course it has a gritty grain of truth. The Estate wouldn't be doing its job properly if it allowed free reign to everyone who wanted a piece of Janet Frame. Frame worked hard to preserve her autonomy and her integrity and she is entitled to have her work and her good name defended against exploitation for personal or commercial gain.

Rarely, the odd person with an ambition to use Frame for some particular scheme, doesn't take kindly to having their plans frustrated. I have had to learn not to take their resentment personally.

But I really prefer to think of myself, in my role of literary executor, as a gardener rather than a guard. I think of tending a wonderful old magical walled garden, with stately trees and grassed avenues, mossy sundial, topiaried hedge plants, wild overgrown parts, a hothouse for sensitive plants, with a lush heady jungle and a waterlily goldfish pond, vegetable plots and flower borders, a potting shed with musty rich mix, and supplies of seeds and bulbs, with many surprises in store... that analogy really works for me.

I'd much rather mulch the borders than patrol them.

Janet Frame in her garden at St Clair, Dunedin
(Photo by Reg Graham)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Janet Frame's Elegy for Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath died in London, early on the morning of Monday, the 11th of February, 1963. Her suicide is known to have deeply affected Janet Frame, who was also living in London at that time. Janet Frame often spoke to her friends of how, one day soon after hearing the news, she boarded a London bus and sat upstairs, in grief, and just rode around London all day. This was the very same week that Janet Frame started writing her first draft of the novel Towards Another Summer. The first page of the first draft is dated “Feb 14th”.

It had been an eventful week for Frame. The Friday beforehand, February the 8th, she had boarded a train to go north to spend the weekend with Guardian journalist Geoffrey Moorhouse and his family in Manchester. She had hit a dry patch in the writing of her novel The Adaptable Man, so had decided to take some time off to pursue a budding friendship with Moorhouse. She described the weekend later as one of those “rich” and “seminal” times that were invaluable for a novelist. But rather than allowing her to return refreshed to resume work on her current novel, the weekend spent in the company of a fellow New Zealand expatriate (Moorhouse’s wife), with all the talk and reminiscence of Frame’s homeland, had heightened in her a homesickness that she had already been experiencing, and had given her the idea for a whole new novel, based around the concept of a woman writer who has been transformed into a migratory bird.

That novel, Towards Another Summer, ends with the protagonist Grace Cleave travelling back from the fictional northern town of “Relham”, and arriving at her cold London flat late on Sunday afternoon. As one reviewer has put it:

One can see why Frame would not have wanted this book published when it was written. This is the writer naked, skinned, raw. We feel for her in her vulnerability. We are grateful that she has got back to her desk in its corner by the bookshelves, the lamp, the piles of paper, the typewriter. This is where the migratory bird belongs. We are far from sure, even so, that she will be all right. We know now that she has survived; it would not have been at all clear that she would have, from this novel. (Marion Halligan, Canberra Times)

And so the novel finishes, with the lonely young woman writer Grace Cleave, late on a Sunday afternoon, mulling over her uncertain future. Janet Frame herself, alone in her posh London flat (provided by her ambitious publisher in the hope that the luxury would encourage her to write a conventional bestseller), on Sunday night the 10th of February 1963, was probably far more sure of her next step. She was bursting with the recent experiences, observations and conversations, as well as the childhood memories that had been evoked by her stay at the Moorhouses. She was likely already starting to plan in her head to fashion “the story of the weekend” into an exploration of the themes raised by her visit.

And then the next day came the death of Sylvia Plath. In the light of the news, the BBC rebroadcast the recording made late the previous year, of Plath reading her poems.

Recognising this synchronicity of events in Janet Frame’s life may well offer an added resonance for fans of both Plath and Frame as they read Towards Another Summer. Frame includes a poem in the text that can be read, with this knowledge, as her elegy for Sylvia Plath. The poem is redolent with Plath-like poetic symbolism and does seem to contain a reference to the BBC radio recording which Frame would have been familiar with:

Dear mother, dear father dear husband dear child,
there is no answer,
this microphone like a beehive celled with honey
is blocked forever with the sweetness of death.

The poem also appears to refer to Frame’s response to Plath’s death:

I rode on a red bus
inside a clot of blood
I rode in grief over London,
I smashed nothing, no mirrors, windows, or glass sheets of sky.
I prayed Let the world have wonder enough to care
when poets live
and to grieve when they die.

As a further frisson to those who search for the multiple meanings Frame is famous for, one of the minor characters in Towards Another Summer is named “Sylvia”. Janet Frame was notorious for using the names of everyone she knew and loved and admired (or didn’t admire) for her fictional characters. The character didn’t necessarily have any similarity to the real person whose name Frame had borrowed, although sometimes there was a resemblance or a link. (She used my name, Pamela, at least twice, for fictional characters, so I can attest to the habit at first hand!) By indulging in this practice, Janet was acting rather like those film directors who give walk-on parts to family and friends, or who appear themselves as an “extra” in their own movie. It seems to be no accident, given the timing, that there is a “Sylvia” in the novel Janet Frame starting writing three days after Sylvia Plath’s death.