Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A moving and heartfelt portrait

After Janet Frame died her late biographer Michael King wrote several obituaries and tributes tailored for different readerships. One was an informal personal sketch published in New Zealand for a Sunday paper, that he called 'A Life Touched by Angels and Shadows'. It's a moving piece, not academically rigorous at all, in that it does contain hints of Michael himself indulging in the temptations of myth making that do eventually seem to seduce almost everyone who writes about Janet.

Click on this link to read 'A Life Touched By Angels and Shadows' from the recently published The Silence Beyond: Selected Writings by Michael King (Penguin NZ 2011), edited by his daughter Rachael King.

The eagerness of the public for titillating 'behind the scenes' detail and a colouring in of the legend was perhaps too strong a lure at such an emotionally charged time. And Michael was basically a journalist: he knew how to give the audience the drama they sought.

So there are several exaggerated and reinvented anecdotes in this piece, whose inaccuracies are obvious to those in the know.

(1) Michael says he played Scrabble with Janet and he challenged her when she used the word 'silltits' but he is actually merely repeating an anecdote told to him by Janet's American friends and is claiming to have have been present. (Californian painter Bill Brown tells the anecdote on film in the feature length Ninox documentary on Frame's life - the word was actually 'silltitted'.)

(2) Janet never promised to bankroll Alan Duff at all, she was just making polite conversation at a convivial lunch she shared with Michael and Alan at a St Clair beach cafe. Janet did say later she was perturbed when Michael mistook her intentions, obviously thought she was going to hand her fortune over, and kicked her in the shins under the table! Alan had said he needed money, and Janet had said "Would you like me to give you some?". Michael interpreted that, wrongly, as an offer of money instead of a clarification as to whether Alan was just telling her about his project or actually pitching it. And for Michael to claim that this one over-exaggerated incident was proof that Frame was 'vulnerable to conmen' was clearly tailored for the type of newspaper the squib appeared in.

(3) Publisher Liz Calder absolutely did not fear to eat Janet's scones, in fact she and others at the gathering at Maurice Shadbolt's place had appreciated Janet's delicious baking immensely. And Janet herself happily attended the Shadbolt tea party, whereas in Michael's version of the anecdote, Janet is languishing alone at her home (this particular distortion of the tale fits the hermit myth rather better, and you'd be amazed at how often this kind of travesty of the truth has entered the so-called 'historical record' after a couple of drunken retellings).

There was a mock reverential burial the next day of the by now stale scones, because the Shadbolts and Liz Calder couldn't bring themselves to throw Janet Frame's leftover scones away in the rubbish. (All as Elspeth Sandys has confirmed in writing, in a letter to the editor of a Wellington newspaper in which Michael had made this bizarre claim shortly after Janet's death. Sandys was actually there at the tea party and the mock burial - Michael wasn't!)

But Michael's elegy is harmless enough and a well-meaning piece of rhetoric. Even Michael was susceptible to believing the embroiderings of literary gossip!  He has his heart in the right place and I think he succeeds in his intention to capture his perplexing and mercurial friend as well as he could.

As has been said before of Michael, at times like these he didn't let the facts get in the way of a good story.

This is the storytelling Michael, all the more charming for the efforts he makes to convey Janet's sparkling and beguiling and brilliant and deeply compassionate personality. The overall effect seems to be a really genuine and touching portrait, containing heartfelt statements such as this:

"what those who knew her will recall most vividly is her intense and immense compassion for people who were marginalised or in any respect – financially, physically or emotionally – worse off than herself. This concern was one which spilled over from life into her literature."

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