Sunday, April 28, 2013

"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.

No comments: