Monday, June 10, 2013

Hilary Mantel on Janet Frame

Hot off the press: a newly released Italian edition of Janet Frame's classic novel Faces in the Water, first published by WH Allen in the UK in 1961.

Volti nell'acqua is published by Neri Pozza (June 2013) and uses the original translation by Lidia Perria (first published under the earlier Italian title Dentro Il Muro).

This new Italian edition features the introduction Hilary Mantel wrote for the 2009 Virago Modern Classic edition of Faces in the Water.

This particular beautifully and perceptively written passage by Hilary Mantel is quite timely given the apparent ongoing urge of some commentators to interpret Janet Frame's unique writing style as evidence for mental aberration:

"Despite the other things she could do, distinctive and remarkable things, Janet Frame remains subject to categorisation. She was put into the mad category, saved at the last moment for the artist category, and is sometimes put back into the mad category by people keen on classifications and unable to explain her genius except by defining it as an abnormality. An arid reductionism still haunts her. In 2007 a paper in the New Zealand Medical Journal suggested that she had an autistic spectrum disorder. It is time to subdue the urge to pathologise, and see Frame as the highly conscious artist that she was. At first her prose may seem a luxuriant unpruned Eden. But soon the reader sees the careful gardening, the astute nurture of what nature provides. Frame’s inner geography is complex, her psyche contains elaborate structures. She had the artist’s ability to make strange associations and imaginative leaps; along with this ability goes, not infrequently, a certain social awkwardness, a deep reserve and a tendency to withdraw from small talk. Social situations are difficult because an artist like Frame sees and hears much more than the average person; the subtext of every human negotiation is written in large type and cast in a brilliant light.

When such a writer is at the height of her powers, everything seems significant; the merest everyday object becomes freighted with symbolic value and drenched in a strange kind of beauty. This is how writers and visual artists glimpse the latent value in everyday things. Objects transform before their eyes and reveal their true nature; the world unpeels itself. Meaning proliferates, so that to write a sentence is to touch on, allude to, all the possibilities of other sentences allied to it. The world takes on a heightened poignancy, which then destabilizes emotion. This is the essence of the artist’s work. It is not a disease progress, an evidence of disintegration. But when the artist tries to explain herself – and there is always the demand –  she may be able to do it only by evoking symbols. The dart and movement of her communication, in speech or in writing, can sound like ‘schizophrenese’ and her awareness of significance and connection can sound like the insistent formulations of paranoia. To the listener of a crude sensibility, inspiration sounds like madness – all the material is there, for a medic with a check list."
~ Hilary Mantel, from her 'Introduction' to Janet Frame's Faces in the Water (Virago Modern Classics, 2009)

 PS. Click here to read Hilary Mantel's (July 2008) Guardian review of Towards Another Summer by Janet Frame.

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