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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.