Tuesday, September 30, 2008

New Yorker Stories

More than fifty years after Janet Frame wrote them, the short stories "A Night at the Opera" and "Gorse is Not People" have in 2008 been published for the first time, in the venerable NEW YORKER magazine.

Frame devotes a chapter in the second volume of her autobiography An Angel at My Table, to the story of her writing of "Gorse is Not People" (and some other stories and poems) on a second-hand Remington typewriter in her attic room while working as a live-in waitress at the Grand Hotel, Dunedin, in 1954. The editor of the literary magazine Landfall rejected the superbly written "Gorse" on the grounds it was "too painful to print".

Both stories are indeed painful, drawing from her experiences and observations of the hidden world of the locked wards of mental hospitals, where society's rejects and failures, and those who just didn't fit in, were dumped.

It has been a great privilege for me to be involved with the coming to light at last, of these two heartbreaking but beautiful stories. Janet was far ahead of her time in criticising the casual brutality of the NZ psychiatric institutions of the 1940s and 1950s. The material is not only piercingly poignant, it also exposes a culture and a philosophy that was due for dramatic reformation.

As she says in her autobiography of the conveniently forgotten residents of the hospital back wards, "It was their sadness and courage and my desire to ‘speak’ for them that enabled me to survive".

These stories indeed speak, both in human terms and as literary treasures. If you haven't seen them yet, they are archived online:

GORSE IS NOT PEOPLE September 1, 2008

It may be of interest to note that these stories are not the first of Janet Frame's to appear in the pages of the NEW YORKER. In the 1960s she published stories in magazines such as the New Yorker, Harper's Bazaar and Mademoiselle, and she even fictionalised an account of the boost such publications could give to an impoverished author:

-You’ve another book coming out soon?
-Yes, in summer. It’s hopeless. And there are some stories.
-You’ve had some in the New Yorker?
-Yes. I’ve been living on the proceeds for the last year. They pay - they pay a huge sum, quite out of proportion-

She could see that Philip was waiting for her to name the sum, but she was shy of doing so - how could she explain that she had been ashamed and embarrassed (pleased too) at being paid so much for a few hours’ work when a complete book was rewarded by a tiny spurt of royalties as useful as toothpaste forced from the end of an almost empty tube.

-- from Towards Another Summer (written 1963, published 2007)

Monday, September 29, 2008

Longing to Belong

Janet Frame and friend, Baltimore USA
It's no secret that I'm not impressed by the fad for posthumous diagnosis of celebrities.
What is a little less obvious, apparently, is that it is not the particular condition or disorder being touted, that I have any particular objection to. I don't have an irrational dislike of any particular condition. I have a rational distaste for people being misrepresented and labelled based on hearsay, myth and presupposition.
The same people who are quick to say they understand someone as complex and baffling as Janet Frame, and can name her so-called "problem", would be chilled to the bone if they themselves or somebody they loved and knew well should happen to be labelled and placed in a box by someone who had never even met them, and furthermore who had little more than the roughest caricature of facts about them, and had never had access to any reliable empirical evidence concerning them.
Nevertheless, various "researchers" continue to venture where angels fear to tread, and feel quite sure they can sum up, with one "diagnosis" or another, an extremely complicated and multi-faceted woman, who had a dazzling personality.
So, initially, she was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia. That was overturned. She learned eventually not to reveal herself in conservative, conformist or arrogantly authoritarian company, for fear of being thought mad for the brilliance of her conversation. She didn't care for small talk so she often fell silent. She was not mute, and she was not inarticulate when she was in amenable company. And she does make this quite clear, repeatedly, in her autobiography. And there are an army of witnesses who have attested to her sparkling quick-witted communicative abilities. She could certainly be stubborn and uncommunicative when faced with pretension and insincerity, which she could not abide. (Oh and I'm sure the 'inability to abide insincerity' will now be added to the list of her "symptoms" that add up to some pathology or other!)
I'm reminded of the wonderful Sufi/Buddhist/Hindu tale of the blind men and the elephant. And myself just another of the blind men, perhaps.
I did know Janet far too well to agree with anyone who would claim that she was bipolar (or manic depressive), had Asperger's Syndrome, suffered from depression, was subject to episodes of fugue, or had high-functioning autism. She had none of those, although she had an astonishing empathy and understanding for people who did. She counted medical doctors and psychiatrists amongst her many friends, and not one of them declared her to have anything wrong other than some minor post-traumatic effects of the abuses she had suffered in New Zealand hospitals.
But I do admit to a soft spot for one of the labels that have been bandied about since her death. That is, that she was a "womb twin survivor".
Janet really had been deeply affected by the knowledge that her foetal twin had not survived. Her biographer Michael King had appreciated her lifelong sense of loss and longing to belong to her own kind, and satisfied himself that in fact she had really been the only survivor of twins, so much that he claimed to have named his biography Wrestling with the Angel in order to suggest the influence on Janet of her sense of being a lone twin.
So here's yet another posthumous label: if you're interested, you can click on the link to read a description of Janet Frame as a "womb twin survivor". Although in my opinion this portrait is incomplete and unsatisfactory, and is more than a tad fanciful, it does at least have a touch of emotional authenticity about it (she was lonely, at times, in the way gifted children are lonely for their own kind), so I don't find it as offensive as some of the other characterisations.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Australian Cousins

Heather Bolton reading at the Australian Goose Bath launch

Most New Zealanders have Australian cousins, and the relationship between our two nations is certainly a close one. I've just spent a pleasant almost fortnight in Australia during which time I attended the launch in Melbourne of the Australian Edition of The Goose Bath.

The launch was held at Readings bookshop in Lygon Street on September 17th and was jointly hosted by the publisher Andrew Wilkins of independent boutique publishing firm Wilkins Farago and the New Zealand Consul-General Shona Bleakley.

There was a warm and welcoming crowd of Kiwi expats and Melbourne literati, along with friends and colleagues and fans as well as curious bookshop patrons. The atmosphere was great - partly thanks to the generosity of Montana Wines and Whitestone Cheese. Shona and Andrew spoke, and I also addressed the audience. They seemed to be amused when I told them that sometimes I imagine my aunt on my shoulder, sharply reminding me not to forget, when I am enjoying all the fuss for this beautiful book, that SHE was the one who had written the poems in the Goose Bath!

Those present were given a special treat: an intelligent and illuminating reading of some selected poems from The Goose Bath by Heather Bolton. Heather is a Kiwi actor now resident in Australia who has already demonstrated her outstanding ability to interpret Janet Frame's work in the Bolinda audio book production of Owls Do Cry released earlier this year. That title has already won a 2008 AudioFile Earphones Award. The focus of these awards "is the audio presentation, not the critique of the written material. EARPHONES are awarded to truly exceptional presentations that excel in narrative voice and style, vocal characterizations, appropriateness for the audio format, and enhancement of the text." I really enjoyed hearing Heather's interpretations; even though I knew the poems well already, I felt that new subtle shades of meaning had been brought out for me by her sensitivity and professionalism.

Heather has also done the reading for the newly released Bolinda audio book of Towards Another Summer and I'm looking forward to hearing that. As an expat I'm sure she was easily able to identify with the meditations on escape and exile that predominate in that work.

We rounded off the formal part of the evening with an audio clip of Janet herself (recorded about a year before her death) reading "The Icicles" which is an astonishing poem that has emerged as one of the top choices so far for anthology editors.

The event was about celebrating poetry itself as well as Janet Frame's poetry, and it was great to be part of such an enthusiastic gathering.

Earlier that day Andrew Wilkins and I spoke to Ramona Koval for the ABC Book Show (click on the link to hear a podcast).

The Goose Bath had already starred in a couple of newspaper articles before the launch. In a feature for the Sydney Morning Herald (August 30-31 2008) Angela Bennie said:
Throughout the volume, Frame's voice comes through: strong, powerful, idiosyncratic, whether in grief or joy. Images recur from one poem to another, as do colours, sounds, ideas and patterns of language, deliberately so, creating the impression that the poems are talking internally to each other as much as outwardly to a reader.
And here from the Herald Sun (Melbourne) review (13 September 2008):
The richness of content and her sense of the natural world delights. She writes about mathematics, other poets, music, sex, family and childhood. And when you think you have her taped, she surprises with an audacity that takes the breath away ... This is a living, breathing volume of the best of her uncollected poetry, an elegant selection that constitutes part of a very decent legacy indeed.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Framed by Fame

6 February 1990
Members of the Order of New Zealand
(NZ's highest civil honour)
line up with Queen Elizabeth

Janet Frame and Ed Hillary
were both suitably fitted for their "Kiwi Icon" status
by their remarkable achievements in their own fields,
their determination and courage
but also their down-to earth practical natures,
shy self-deprecating humour,
compassion, sense of justice, and humility.

All New Zealand mourned earlier this year when the great Kiwi hero Sir Edmund Hillary died. The country stopped still to pay respects on the day of his State Funeral. The Hillary family, long used to sharing their loved one with his admirers, coped remarkably well given the unrelenting public interest.

Janet Frame's family had a smaller taste of a similar outpouring of public grief, when Janet died 4 years earlier. We found that we shared our loved one with a nation who also loved her. Two weeks after her private funeral, a public memorial service was held in the Dunedin Town Hall, and attended by the Prime Minister, the Governor General, the Mayor of Dunedin, other dignitaries, friends, family and colleagues, and about 1500 well-wishers.

Janet's memorial service was broadcast live on TV, and so was Edmund Hillary's funeral.

At Sir Edmund Hillary's funeral his son Peter spoke, and something he said struck me deeply. He was talking about his long experiences of sharing his famous family member with the public. He learned at a very young age, he said, that there were several Ed Hillaries - there was his Dad, of course, and others too, playing various roles. One of the Ed Hillaries especially, was an Ed who bore very little resemblance at all to the Ed his family knew. This was the Ed that Peter first met in the school playground. The Ed his classmates knew and held dear. This was the legendary Ed, a man built up by genuine admiration, anecdote, perhaps some myth-making and some projection, and who had become to many people who maybe had never even met the real Ed, a solid living breathing person as familiar to them as the members of their own families.

I did envy Peter Hillary for learning this lesson so young. Janet Frame was already very famous in New Zealand terms by the time she came back to NZ in the early 60s (as she had "made a name" overseas), but she protected herself, and her family and friends, from the worst effects of the fame, by her insistence on living a private life.

Her inner circle - not a small group at all, but a fiercely loyal network - kept her confidences. Janet did not even nearly live the reputed life of a "recluse" - she was secretive, not reclusive (there is a crucial difference). But the lack of information about her actual comings and goings, and relationships, allowed the myth of reclusiveness to flourish. Which suited her I guess, because she thus managed to avoid as much as possible the pretensions and superficialities of "celebrity" life, which she detested.

All those years I thought that in our secretiveness we were protecting her from harassment and exposure. And we were I suppose. What I never suspected, was that she was protecting us from the fallout of having a family member who was famous.

Because Janet's true personal life and identity were so well hidden, it wasn't until after her death that I have encountered the power and persistence of her mythical alter egos. I have received angry comments from people who lecture me about my own best friend, and tell me I didn't understand her at all...

I receive poison pen letters from a crazed stalker who tells me I am mad and all my family are mad, including my aunt of course, and who makes the distressing accusation that I locked my own daughter in a madhouse at birth. This kind of cruel falsehood is sick or evil, or both, and apparently comes with the territory... No wonder Janet was so keen not to entertain her fame.

It is alarming to know that someone is so obsessed and hostile that they go to such lengths to be unpleasant... Janet was plagued occasionally by celebrity stalkers over her career even in spite of her attempts to live a relatively normal life. Anyone famous risks this and that's why famous people do throw walls up around themselves. The shame is that Janet Frame's self-protectiveness has been so pathologised, and that in challenging the fallacy of her "social inadequacy" I have become a target also, of slander and venom.

I must hasten to assure anyone reading this, that the messages received are not all so horrific!

Most of it is all good, and there are copious amounts of business mail to occupy me. if you want nothing but the positive news, look at the JFLT website for news of new editions etc.

In the same mail I also receive letters of gratitude and affirmation. Today some angel - a kind stranger - emailed to say "thank you for the fantastic work you do in honour of New Zealand's greatest writer", and a card came from a woman battling cancer, who had picked up and read a copy of Towards Another Summer that she found in hospital, and loved it so much she wanted to make contact somehow.

One of Janet's favourite songs was "I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden" - she used to sing it and say it to me over the years. When I was a teenager she sent me a postcard with a picture of a rose garden on one side, and she had scrawled "I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden' on the other. It was just like her to subvert the cliche refusal to provide a rose garden, into the statement of the gift of a rose garden, and to exploit the simultaneously opposite meanings of the one statement. That was her forte.

As a linguist I studied the phenomenon of the 'auto-antonym' - an ambiguous word that has two meanings, which contradict each other. Janet enjoyed hearing about my discovery of these - but of course it wasn't news to her at all. Her protagonist in Towards Another Summer is called "Grace Cleave", and cleave is an auto-antonym, the opposite of itself. Bind to, and separate from.

If your preoccupation is in being or defending those who are "socially isolated", you read Grace Cleave as incapable of connection, and you read her as Janet. But if you don't also get the double meaning of 'cleave', then half of what Frame is telling you is going "whoosh" over your head. Even if Frame was Cleave, she would still have to be the other meaning of Cleave, the one you're missing.

I'm not trying to say that your Janet, if you have one, is wrong. I would like you to consider that your Janet is only a part of the real Janet. I'm glad your Janet is a hero to you, and that you find inspiration from her deep knowledge and understanding of and compassion for the things and people that move you. You seem to think that was all she was though, and that you can define her by one part of who she was or could be. She was all that - but she was also more than that.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Silence has found a voice

Janet chats with the Prime Minister and the Minister for Arts, Culture & Heritage, 2003

Janet Frame's supposed 'silence' for her last 15 years of life isn't really surprising, once you realise she was already 65 years old when in 1989 she published the last of over 20 titles released in her lifetime.

65 is generally regarded in NZ as an appropriate retirement age. Unlike many authors who earn their living doing other jobs, and look forward to their retirement so that they can concentrate on their writing at last, Janet Frame had achieved her ambition of living as a full time writer. Her publishing career had been very prolific.

From her mid-60s onward, she had increasingly bad health, successfully battling cancer, heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. But despite poor physical health she was blessed with extraordinary stamina, and she was kept very busy administering her extensive oeuvre, including overseeing new editions, translations, permissions and adaptations, and engaging in publicity both for her own work and for the King and Campion projects. She gave many years of effort to cooperate with her biographer, and also consulted on film-maker Jane Campion's fictionalised version of her life.
Janet meets the three fictional Janets on the film set

The 2 books on Frame produced by King, and the Campion movie, including the publication of the film script, all depended on Janet Frame's intensive input, and can hardly be called an indication of 'silence' on her part. Her collaborations required much time, interaction, and generosity in providing published and unpublished material for the biographer to quote, and in consulting on and approving the film adaptation of her autobiography.

But even if one subscribes to the point of view that Frame's full and active retirement could have been described as 'silent', then she is making up for her own publishing hiatus now!

In the less than 5 years since her death her Estate has released a posthumous collection of poems, a novel, and two magnificent formerly unpublished stories. Janet Frame herself set up the conditions for this return to publishing.

Janet Frame had always found the publication process unpleasant; she didn't like being the centre of attention and she didn't like being distracted from her writing. She had been especially disillusioned about further publication by the initial mixed reception to her last novel The Carpathians. An unpleasant audit by the tax department had also left her feeling alienated.

She did several times over those 15 years seem to be close to supplying a new title - but always pulled back. It was no secret that she had a store of unpublished work, and that she was also still writing. By this stage she didn't want to revisit the older manuscripts - they could wait till after her death. She was being pressured to produce the much more saleable prose work, but she preferred to work on her poetry. This clash between the work she wanted to publish and the the more marketable work her publishers wanted, may also have contributed to a stalemate that meant nothing more was published saved a few individual poems.

In any case, she didn't have to publish any more, to survive - she didn't need the money, and she didn't welcome the sometimes hostile reviews her work attracted, especially in her home country, and especially when there was non-local content.

She liked the thought of posthumous work appearing; the life beyond the grave seemed to her to be a fitting continuation of the career of a serious writer.