Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Jane Campion on top of her game

It's Jane Campion's birthday today and she has plenty to celebrate. She is, I hope, enjoying all the well-deserved praise for her compelling new TV mini-series Top of the Lake which has just completed its season here in her native New Zealand. It made riveting and harrowing viewing. The production was beautifully filmed, judged and acted. Pace is a particular strength of a Campion project: she is never in a hurry. There was so much you have come to expect of the classic New Zealand movie: gorgeous but somehow sinister landscape, eccentric characters, gallows humour (literally), rough diamonds, crazy crowd scenes and at least one charismatic psychopath. And more, of course. Top of the Lake is television raised to a work of art and so of course comparisons have been made with Campion's celebrated earlier mini-series, An Angel at my Table, which was a slightly fictionalised adaptation of Janet Frame's three-volume autobiography.

I was very much struck by the resonances between the strong lead character Robin and the earlier eventually triumphant Janet. Both were victimised, misunderstood, marginalised, struggling against brutally patriarchal institutions and individual bullies, and yet with a stubborn persistence to survive and an ability to get back up again after a setback. The message is hope and perseverance. I wasn't the only viewer to notice the similarities between Robin and Janet. In 'Jane Campion's first great miniseries' (Slate), June Thomas lists some of the similarities between the damaged but battling young women lead characters, and suggests that the character of Robin has been influenced by Campion's knowledge of Frame's life:

"It also seems that Campion, who wrote Top of the Lake with Gerard Lee, internalized some of the details of Frame’s life when she set out to create her newest fictional world."

Here's where I disagree. Rather than Jane internalising Janet, and projecting Janet onto Robin, I suggest that Jane is projecting onto Robin the same preoccupations and obsessions that she projected onto Janet in Angel. In an earlier blog post 'How much Jane is there in Campion's Janet?' I discussed this hypothesis and I referred to the work Alistair Fox has done in teasing out the evidence for this creative process in his book Jane Campion: Authorship and Personal Cinema (2011).

However the mysterious process of creating art comes about, from the interweaving of material from the artist's life with the illuminations given by their imagination in the service of the fictional story and in the pursuit of the themes and the tropes and the 'hauntings' (as Frame called it) of the artist, we the reader and the viewer can only marvel to be presented with another masterpiece.

Monday, April 29, 2013

A new German book club edition

German bookclub edition of An Angel at My Table
Ein Engel an meiner Tafel by Janet Frame (Büchergilde Gutenberg, 2013) 

“Eine der bedeutendsten Schriftstellerinnen unserer Zeit.”
Deutschlandradio Kultur
“Man wird sofort in Janet Frames Universum hineingezogen, in dieses wahnwitzige Wechselspiel aus Euphorie und Traurigkeit, kindlicher Sprachfreude und schierer Verzweiflung.”

“Ich bin begeistert von Janet Frame. Sie ist tot, weshalb ich mich als Schwede schuldig fühle, dass sie nie den Nobelpreis bekommen hat.”
Håkan Nesser

Sunday, April 28, 2013

"witty, erudite and profound" (Sunday Star-Times)

Sunday Star-Times 14 April 2013 (Page E32)

Review by Steve Walker

In the Memorial Room by Janet Frame:

"among the most impressive of her already imposing oeuvre"

"it explores a range of ideas that were central to her life and work"

"an unparalleled exhibition of all her skills - comic, satirical, poetic and profound"

"It is a formidable work. It is also amusing and satirical, poetic and provocative - a real joy to read."

"well worth reading" (NZ Listener)

Reviewing the review

There's another new review of Janet Frame's In the Memorial Room, but it's behind a pay wall, sorry.

If you don't subscribe to the NZ Listener and can't read this review by Associate Professor Peter Simpson of Auckland University, then you really won't have missed any useful insights into the novel itself. The review is mostly concerned with searching for the biographical Frame in her fiction, as well as making speculations about its real life inspirations and jumping to false conclusions about its composition. (Simpson inexplicably and with no evidence whatsoever, erroneously claims Frame would not have viewed the novel as finished. She viewed it as finished all right. But why spoil the long cultural history re Frame of just making things up?)

The novel itself is as overlooked by this review as the proverbial wood is overlooked for the trees.

If you want an insight into the politics of 'NZ Lit', or if you're curious about how an academic can take a vibrant coherent work of literary art and suck the life out of it by trying to second guess the individual components, then by all means pay a few dollars and marvel at the same phenomenon that dogged Frame in her lifetime. (Frame described her perception of certain academic approaches as having left her own books "lying alongside them like shrivelled skins".)

'Riviera redux' was written by the first of the elderly male professors of NZ literature to weigh in on the new Janet Frame novel, and exactly as I predicted, this really funny and cleverly composed work of fiction is firstly interpreted as an attack on the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship. Witness the bold subheading to the review:

"The Menton writers’ fellowship falls under the sharp, sometimes even cruel, eye of Janet Frame in this posthumously published comic novel."

I was surprised at the proposition that "the Menton writers' fellowship" was the subject of this novel. It's a novel! It's fiction! As well as searching for the biographical Frame, Simpson searched for the biographical Mansfield and he didn't find her, but curiously, he did find her biographical fellowship. And, oh dear, Frame has been "cruel" to the personified fellowship?

There is a Menton fellowship in the novel but surely it's a fictional fellowship not a biographical one?

One really is reminded of CK Stead's public outburst in 1974 when Frame's friends dared to complain on her behalf about the substandard conditions she endured as Katherine Mansfield Fellow. Frame herself had not at that stage complained publicly about the inconveniences she suffered due to the incompetent administration of the fellowship, but two of her friends did speak out in the pages of the NZ Listener. In the same forum, Stead counter-accused the complainers of "selective malice", of "extravagant overstatement" and that their "attack" on the fellowship conditions "amounts to an attack on the fellowship itself".

Which response in turn, seems an extravagant and malicious overstatement. The storm in a Vegemite jar that was whipped up by the simple complaint about the frustrations Frame encountered seems very likely to be one of the reasons that Janet Frame withheld this novel from publication in her lifetime. If the blokes could turn so nasty when she mentioned that it was inconvenient not to have a toilet and not to be paid on time, then how would they respond to a black comedy satirising (among other things) the cult of a dead author and the superficiality of literary hangers-on?

By the way, it's not a bad review. Simpson is a highly regarded and reputable literary critic, and he is entitled to his opinion of course. He thinks the book is "well worth reading", and notes the "deliciously acerbic satire". But unfortunately he doesn't seem capable of shrugging off all of NZ Lit's historical baggage enough to take this novel at face value, as a novel. What a lot he missed by searching for gossip and for biography (and, possibly, well-primed by his social network to detect an "attack" on the Menton fellowship).

Simpson concludes his review by having a buck either way on whether or not Frame's 13th novel deserved to see the light after nearly 40 years:

"Its publication will probably neither greatly enhance nor damage her reputation."

What could he mean?

If it won't damage and it won't greatly enhance, I'm guessing he has judged it as up to par for the high bar Frame set herself?

Possibly. Or maybe he is aware that if he pronounces on either side of the fence, he'll be chastised at the next cocktail party he attends.

I'm intrigued by the obsession of certain reviewers and commentators to pronounce on whether a reputation will be enhanced or damaged by posthumous publication. You rarely hear this touching concern from a real fan. In my opinion the reputation will always be set by the greatest work, whether or not that was published before or after death. And some of the greatest writers and works of literature were published posthumously. And some of those took a while to emerge from out of the fog of their contemporary politics.

Janet Frame House to host writing workshop

Children's author Kate de Goldi is to visit Oamaru next month as a guest of the Friends of the Janet Frame House.

On Friday 10th May 2013 she will conduct creative writing classes for pupils at Janet Frame's alma mater Waitaki Girls' High School.

From 9.30am until 4pm on Saturday 11th May she will run a workshop for the public at Waitaki Girls' Learning Centre and the Janet Frame house in Eden Street. Participants must register beforehand. (Limited places, $25 per person; to enrol call: 021 343 119.)

At 6pm on the Friday Kate de Goldi will give a free public lecture at the Oamaru Public Library.

These events are sponsored by the Janet Frame House Trust, Waitaki District Libraries and the Creative Communities Scheme.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

"like finding an unwrapped gift" (NZ Herald)

The first online review (that's not hidden behind a paywall, anyway) of In the Memorial Room is out today, and it's a good one!

Saturday 27 April 2013 NZ Herald
In the Memorial Room by Janet Frame Review by Paula Green

"Reading this is like finding an unwrapped gift long-hidden at the back of the wardrobe. The novel is quite unlike anything else Frame penned, yet she is recognisable in every pore of every sentence and of every word."

"This novel is like a prism that becomes something other as the light changes. It is a comedy, then fable, satire, then autobiography and, overall, uplifting fiction."

"This is a novel layered with vulnerability, intelligence, pain, joy and finely judged humour. I loved it - there is much to offer those familiar with Frame's work and a perfect starting point for those yet to read one of our treasured writers."

It's gratifying to see how well Paula Green 'gets' this dazzling book, even noting Frame's deliberate parody of vogue European writing styles.

This 13th and last novel from Janet Frame is out from Text Publishing in Australia and New Zealand.

US edition from Counterpoint available in the northern hemisphere fall of 2013.

Note: The marvellous photograph of Janet Frame illustrating the NZ Herald review was taken for the NZ Listener bJane Ussher, one of New Zealand's foremost portrait photographers. 

Friday, April 26, 2013

In Search of Janet Frame's New Zealand

American author Aaron Hamburger recently visited New Zealand 'in search of Janet Frame's New Zealand' and wrote five fascinating and moving reports for the Matador Travel Network on his experience as a literary pilgrim:

 My trip, which had nothing to do with backpacking, surfing, hobbits, or sheep.

"I was going to trace the life of one of my literary heroes, Janet Frame, who is perhaps New Zealand’s greatest writer. Her inspirational story was recounted first in her masterful autobiography, and then in the moving film adaptation An Angel at My Table by another extraordinary Kiwi artist, director Jane Campion."

Dunedin Railway Station:

“Ah, yes. Janet Frame,” he said. “Angel at My Table. Amazing film. Wasn’t that with Kate Winslet? When she was just starting out?”
“No, you’re thinking of Heavenly Creatures,” I said.
“I’m sure it was Kate Winslet,” he said.

A former workplace:

Along the way back into town, I passed the Grand Hotel, where Frame had once worked as a waitress while writing stories and poems in her spare time. The once elegant restaurant had since been turned into a rather sad casino.

56 Eden Street, Oamaru:

Taking a last look at the house from the other side of the fence, I felt something stir in my chest. Such a small, simple, non-descript, pale yellow house, in a small, simple New Zealand town that few people had ever heard of. It was from here that Janet Frame had drawn a lifetime of inspiration. She was perceptive enough to notice its everyday magic that everyone else had overlooked.
If such an ordinary place could have served as the foundation for such an extraordinary career, then surely there was enough fodder in my own life to sustain me if I was just willing to look hard enough.

Seacliff Mental Hospital:

The Seacliff Asylum for Lunatics (as it was called at the time) was established in 1879 and was built to resemble a sprawling Scottish castle in the Gothic Revival style, surrounded by lush gardens. It was set on top of a hill with a view of the sea through the trees that surround the property. If you hadn’t known better, you might have assumed it was a resort.

However, the portrait Frame drew of Seacliff in her writing is unmistakably horrific. She describes the wardens as at best indifferent and at worst sadistic. Patients were beaten for wetting the bed or threatened with radical medical treatments, ranging from electroshock therapy all the way to neutering and lobotomy.

Patients were shuffled from beds to dayroom to electroshock treatment like consumer goods rolling down a factory assembly line, which may explain how Frame was misdiagnosed for so many years. In fact, at one point, her prose, with its loose stream of consciousness style and unusual metaphors, was held up as confirmation of her insanity.

The fact that Frame had actually published a book was not enough to prevent an overeager doctor to schedule her for a lobotomy. It was only after she made newspaper headlines when the book won a literary prize that the lobotomy was canceled, with only days to spare.

Takapuna Beach:

I stopped at the beach, where 50 years ago, Janet Frame had sat, staring anxiously at the volcano island of Rangitoto as Sargeson read one of her stories, the moving “An Electric Blanket.” (He damned it with faint praise as “quite good of its kind,” and she never showed him her drafts again.)

Frank Sargeson's shack:

While living with Sargeson, Frame wrote and sold her first novel, Owls Do Cry. One of the books at the house contained a copy of the strikingly timid cover letter Frame had composed asking her first publisher to consider her novel:
Maybe it could be published, though I understand publishing in New Zealand is in a bad way at present. Shall I send it to you?
Which, I wondered, was in a worse way: publishing in 1950s New Zealand or 2013 New York City?

(Excerpts from 'In Search of Janet Frame's New Zealand' by Aaron Hamburger, Matador Network April 2013.)

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Between My Father and the King

My father fought in the First World War that used to be called ‘Great’ until the truth of its greatness was questioned and the denial of its greatness accepted. My father came home from the war with a piece of shrapnel in his back, remnants of gas in his lungs, a soldier’s pay book, an identity disc, a gas mask, and a very important document which gave details of my father’s debt to the King and his promise before witnesses to repay the King the fifty pounds borrowed to buy furniture: a bed to sleep in with his new wife, a dining table to dine at, linoleum and a hearthrug to lay on the floor, two fireside chairs for man and wife to sit in when he wasn’t working and she wasn’t polishing the King’s linoleum and shaking the King’s hearthrug free of dust; and a wooden fireside kerb to protect the hearthrug, the linoleum and my father and his wife from sparks when they sat by the fire.

Read the rest of Janet Frame's short story 'Between My Father and the King' in the Manchester Review.

The collection Between My Father and the King will be released in the USA on the 14th May 2013 by Counterpoint Press.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Publication day prize draw (NZ Book Council)

See the New Zealand Book Council Facebook page to enter a prize draw for one of ten copies of In the Memorial Room courtesy of Text Publishing.

It is publication day in New Zealand and Australia. Here at last is the novel Janet Frame knew she wouldn't have been able to get away with in her lifetime, not without the critics coming down on her for daring to 'undermine' the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship and satirise literary society and its hallowed institutions.

Ironically Janet Frame herself has never escaped the barbs of stringent criticism, malicious gossip and the humiliation of a widespread sniggering attitude in her homeland. Her detractors have been careful to vigorously root out any tendency they have observed to honour her achievements, reserving a special revulsion for any hint of "reverence". Certain novelists and playwrights have viciously satirised and misrepresented Janet Frame with impunity, and they haven't waited 50 years to do it either, they haven't even waited ten years since her death in 2004.

Frame wrote this novel in Menton in the South of France beset by obstacles and frustrations. There were delays in receiving the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship payments and there were trying writing conditions at the room.

Frame and certain supporters initiated one of NZ's notorious literary stoushes by complaining publicly about the substandard conditions in the Memorial Room at that time (which subsequently improved markedly).

As Frame's biographer Michael King noted in Wrestling with the Angel: A Life of Janet Frame, she wrote to previous fellow Margaret Scott from Menton:

"The lack of lavatory and running water is my chief problem. I’m trying to do all I can to see that this state of affairs doesn’t go on as it has done for — five? — years now."

But when the substandard conditions were exposed by Frame's friend Anton Vogt in a NZ Listener feature, there was a backlash. CK Stead replied that such a complaint "amounts to an attack on the Fellowship" and that the campaign (in the light that some improvements were planned) - "seems quite pointless." Apparently the glitterati of the day resented Frame's discomfort. Frank Sargeson remarked sarcastically that clearly he'd escaped being lambasted for the lack of a toilet in the backyard hut Frame had rented from him 20 years beforehand.

Privately, Frame said she was being attacked because she didn't have a penis:

"I was criticised because I did not like peeing in the garden as there was no toilet and no water. In short I was criticised because I was not a man with a man’s physical facilities for a quick pee."
(from Janet Frame in Her Own Words, Penguin NZ, 2011)

Just one of the aspects of In the Memorial Room is the hilariously portrayed patronising attitude that Janet Frame herself so often encountered. It's coolly observed and captured, and cleverly lampooned.

But this delightful novel contains so much more than that.


Monday, April 8, 2013

"Frame at her sparkling best."

A brilliant black comedy
It's a thrill like no other when the advance copy of a new book arrives.
Janet Frame's 13th novel offers all sorts of pleasures!
In the Memorial Room by Janet Frame
Text Publishing
24 April 2013
 "immensely delightful, funny and profound" (Metro, April 2013)
 "It sounds black and it is, but much of the humour is as light as any jeu d'esprit, with Frame's whimsical, punning side to the fore." (North & South, April 2013)