Thursday, April 21, 2011

Tales from the Tribe

Amidst the wider story of Bill Pearson, a NZ writer and academic who stayed in the closet in order to preserve his status and lifestyle in the face of homophobia, this book also contains a couple of rare and remarkable insights into the social life and relationships of Janet Frame, an author who moved in some of the same social circles, and whose own story intersects and contrasts with Pearson's.

No Fretful Sleeper (Auckland University Press 2010) is a careful study of a writer who allowed the narrowness of his times to stifle his literary expression. Bill Pearson's censoring of his own fiction in the face of oppressive attitudes towards homosexuality contrasts with Janet Frame's courage in valiantly pursuing her ambition to live as a professional writer despite a society that was every bit as punishing towards single women who did not conform to expectations of their behaviour. In Frame's case it seems the choice was either to marry or to teach, and she did neither. She chose to write. To this day the masculinist popular narrative of Frame (such as is conveyed in the reprehensibly patronising 'biography' currently displayed on NZ's official online encyclopedia) is that her abandonment of an unsuitable teaching career was a "failure", rather than the triumph it really was, of a brave dedication to her literary vocation. The Te Ara bio (written by Patrick Evans, ironically himself a former highschool teacher) even insultingly subtitles the article about Frame with the definition "schoolteacher, writer" thus defining her by a career that she never really started, and that she decisively abandoned for positive rather than negative reasons.

The sexism of this definition of Frame as a "schoolteacher" is cringe making, especially when the parallel Frank Sargeson biography doesn't similarly demean his purity as a writer by labelling him as a "lawyer", despite the fact that he before he started scribbling he did qualify in the law.

Frame chose to abandon teaching in her probationary year, to pursue her writing, a decision which led directly to institutional punishment that still did not deter her from her literary goals, which she reached despite all the hurdles she encountered.

It would be good to see some feminist research comparing the discourses about Frame compared to the way her male contemporaries are cast in a much more positive light despite their addictions and other weaknesses, and to 'reframe' Frame as a role model who managed to escape the "puritan straightjacket'. And to survive "as a person" as well.

Paul Millar does not in this particular volume succumb to the jaundiced masculinist perspective on Frame. His Frame vignettes - drawn from primary material and not the usual hearsay - are unusually fresh and will probably surprise those who know only the myths about Frame. Especially touching is the revelation that Frame was one of Sargeson's most trusted confidantes, and that in his letters to her we see him at his most honest and vulnerable. (Perhaps the more shocking, then, to hear how he refers to her behind her back!)

Fretful Sleepers is an excellent study filling in a few gaps; it makes fascinating reading (although there are a couple of startling errors overlooked at proof stage).

Peter Wells reviewed the book for the NZ Listener, and highlights Millar's chilling summary of Pearson's choice:

"Although he survived as a man when he returned to New Zealand, he perished as an artist."
Of course here might lie one of the sources of the depersonalising attitude to Frame that comes out of male NZ academia (as has reached its climax in the bloodless portrait of her in Evans's fan fiction romance Gifted). Janet Frame did not perish as an artist, so the men assume (and perhaps hope) that she had to pay the price of her humanity, for the artistic choices she made.

One of the first disseminators of this derogatory attitude towards Frame - that she was in the world, but not of it - was her so-called "mentor" Frank Sargeson. We see in Millar's book that by 1963 Sargeson's attitude has so hardened towards Frame that he deplores the fact that her Scented Gardens for the Blind has won the NZ Book Award for the year, thus crushing his hopes that the top honour would be given to Pearson's novel Coal Flat. (The later Sargeson mellowed somewhat, but much damage had already been done to Frame's reputation within NZ.)

In masculinist NZ literary mythology Coal Flat is still mentioned in reverent terms as one of the contenders for the elusive "Great NZ novel". And it is a great novel, but now we learn why it was not truly great. Pearson censored himself. Perhaps the example of Frame's contrasting honesty on the page, leading quite simply to her persecution, was instructive.

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