Friday, March 13, 2009

Putting Frame's early stories in perspective

The short stories in Janet Frame's first book The Lagoon and other stories, were written in 1946 while the aspiring author was working as a live-in housemaid/waitress/nurse at a boarding house in Playfair Street, Caversham Dunedin.

The highly educated and widely read Frame reported later that she had been especially inspired to write her own short stories by reading the stories of US writer William Saroyan, and by saying to herself "I can do better than that!"

By early 1947 Denis Glover of Caxton Press had accepted the stories for publication. But there they sat, on his desk, until 1952 when the book was finally published. Meanwhile, Janet Frame "languished" (this was Glover's own quip about her institutionalisation having possibly been elongated by his unthinkable tardiness with the publication) in a series of stays in mental hospitals, having been misdiagnosed and misunderstood by the small minded and conventional system of the day that had no room and no comprehension for the kind of rare butterfly that had fluttered into their stultifying net. Her medical notes show that her literary aspirations and observations were listed among her supposed medical symptoms.

Those early Lagoon stories were indeed inspired by the cutting edge world literatures of the time. Those in the know in New Zealand could recognise the brilliant new talent The Lagoon represented, and the book was awarded a prestigious literary prize. It was only because of the publicity for this prize that Frame escaped being mutilated by a scheduled brain operation.

The rest is history, and no medical professional who ever examined Frame from that day on, ever suggested that she was schizophrenic. In fact it was made quite clear by a panel of experts in the UK that it was clearly a grave mistake ever to have hospitalised her, and that she had no mental illness at all, although she had been traumatised by the abuses she had suffered through ignorance as well as spite.

If she had been from a wealthy family, and from a middle class home, she would have had a very different journey through life. But maybe we would not then have had the incredible insights that she has been able to share with us in her fiction by transforming her experiences through the filter of her imagination.

The Lagoon stories are legendary and dearly loved all around the world. The collection itself, or selections containing stories from it, or individual stories, have been repeatedly published and translated (some of the cover images of these books decorate this post).

Many of the Lagoon stories have been performed live, and recorded for radio, and selected for innumerable anthologies over the years. The active engagement of the reading public and the publishing and educational world with the best of the Lagoon stories continues to the present day (eg in 2008 'Swans' was reprinted in an Australian educational text as well as in an anthology of the Best NZ Short Stories). Bloomsbury Books have the rights to The Lagoon for the UK and it remains in print there. In New Zealand a combined edition of The Lagoon and The Pocket Mirror (released in 2004) has been very popular and has proved to be an extremely strong seller with several reprints.

Frame herself, though, quickly moved on from that stage in her career, and when anthology editors pressed her to include one of the 'childhood' stories, she always tried to interest them with something more recent. She hated to look back, and her next story was always her favourite.

It's interesting then to note that a New Zealand reviewer has suggested, in recent NZ Herald review of Prizes: Selected Stories, the brand new selection of Frame's stories, that it might have been time to discard some of the early stories from the selection. He had "a sense that their time has gone."

He's tired of the 'introspection' and he's tired of hearing - not just from Frame but in New Zealand literature in general - about "the tribulations of growing up".

I'm absolutely sure that Janet Frame would have entirely agreed with him. She was frustrated by the way that many New Zealand commentators didn't seem ever to grow with her beyond her early books into the great mature flowering of her work.

The very fact that one hears so often that Frame's life "fed into" her work reveals that some commentators have not been exposed to the wide range of styles and themes of Frame's writings. She didn't just write about children and hospitals, in fact these topics do not form the main part of her work at all.

Yes Janet Frame tackled sophisticated subjects and branched out in all sorts of directions.

As Stephanie Dowrick said:

"It is impossible to call yourself well-read if you have not yet discovered Janet Frame."

The early Frame is not the only Frame, and I'm glad to see somebody pointing that out.

However, I honestly think that there would have been an outcry if Frame's early stories had been dropped from the comprehensive selection of her best stories!

The brilliant and perceptively written stories of Janet Frame (and also Katherine Mansfield) on the subject of childhood, may well have been tediously imitated by new generations and thus have given rise to a certain ennui, but in rejecting the seeming NZ obsession with "growing up" (which is perhaps a part of the reader's own "growing up") one does run the risk of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

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