Monday, August 4, 2014

The 'Great' war - 100 years later

Photo: George Samuel Frame, Janet Frame's father

One hundred years ago today, Britain declared war on Germany. Janet Frame's father George Samuel Frame served in the First World War as a sapper in the New Zealand engineers corps:

"Mum and Dad were married at the Registry Office in Picton three weeks before Dad sailed to the Great War. When Dad returned from the war, he and Mother set up house in Richardson Street, St Kilda, Dunedin, helped by a rehabilitation loan of twenty-five pounds, with which they bought one wooden kerb, one hearth rug, two Morris dining chairs, one duchesse, one oval dining table, one iron bedstead and flock mattress, one kitchen mat, these items being listed on the document of loan with a chilling reminder that while the loan remained unpaid, the King’s representative (the agreement was between ‘His Majesty the King and George Samuel Frame’) had the right to enter the Frame household to inspect and report on the condition of the ‘said furniture and fittings’. The loan was repaid after a few years, and the document of discharge kept by my parents in their most hallowed keeping place – the top right-hand drawer of the King’s duchesse – where were also kept my sister Isabel’s caul, Mother’s wedding ring, which did not fit, her upper false teeth, which also did not fit, Myrtle’s twenty-two-carat gold locket engraved with her name, and Dad’s foreign coins, mostly Egyptian, brought home from the war."

~ Janet Frame, from To the Is-Land (Autobiography Volume 1)

Apparently haunted by the whole issue of "the King's furniture", Janet Frame wrote a brilliant short story based on her real-life experience of the rehabilitation loan received by her father. She called this story 'Between My Father and the King' and it was published for the first time in 2012. The story opens the volume Gorse is Not People: New and Uncollected Stories released in New Zealand in August 2012 by Penguin Books NZ. The collection was also published the following year - with the title Between My Father and the King - by Counterpoint Press in the USA and by Wilkins Farago in Australia.

Some reviews of Between My Father & the King:
Boston Globe
Publishers Weekly
Landfall Online
New York Times Book Review
The Australian Book Review

The story 'Between My Father and the King' was published in November 2012 by the Manchester Review as part of a special Remembrance Day themed issue.

"Janet Frame is one of New Zealand’s greatest writers. Equally famous for her memoirs, poetry and fiction the Manchester Review is delighted to publish her characteristically sidelong, subversive account of her father’s return from what ‘used to be called the ‘Great’ war’. At a time when the centenary of World War I looms large on the UK’s cultural horizon, Frame’s short, fantastical account resists the piety and national feelings stoked up by some more recent commemorations."

You can read Janet Frame's story 'Between My Father and the King' online here.

Almost one hundred years after the events of WW1, the story 'Between My Father and the King' was identified by the Manchester Review as 'a controversial account of the Great War', so it's easy to see why Frame never submitted the story for publication during her lifetime. Several of the other previously unpublished stories in Gorse is Not People were suppressed or criticised by various literary gatekeepers for what they regarded at the time as 'unsuitable' subject matter. Frame seems to have self-censored some of her stories that were based too closely on people she knew, or that were overly critical of various sacred cows. As Frame said herself: "Posthumous publication is the only form of literary decency left."

The Manchester Review mistakenly categorised Frame's story as 'non-fiction' and it's easy to see why they should make that error, given the true life inspiration and the powerful imaginative force behind this small but astonishing piece of writing. Frame herself called it a short story: she listed it on a table of contents that she drew up for a book of new stories and poems that she was planning late in her life. And if you carefully compare the short story with the biographical facts it is based upon, you would be able to isolate several details that Frame has altered in order to create a more satisfying and coherent work of art. Other aspects of the short story, for example the poetic use of repetition, also mark the story out as belonging to a classic short fiction genre.

[Most of the content of this post has been taken from the earlier entry 'Lest We Forget' posted on this blog in November 2012]