Monday, April 20, 2015

New Yorker podcast of Janet Frame's 'Prizes'


Miranda July reads aloud Janet Frame's short story 'Prizes' and discusses it with fiction editor Deborah Treisman.

'Prizes' was first published in the New Yorker by Janet Frame in 1962.

'Prizes' is collected in the volume of short stories known in the USA and New Zealand as Prizes and in New Zealand and the UK as The Daylight and the Dust.


Janet Frame and the Popular Girls

"A selection of four or five girls, who were not, however, among the top scholars, maintained a concentration of power and privilege through sheer personality and so were less likely to suffer the taunts directed at the slower pupils. This group was the core of the class, with their activities at home and at school the source of most of the class interest and news; the rest of us moved on the outside in more or less distant concentric circles, looking toward the group whose power, in effect, surpassed even the glory of the scholars who, after all, were sometimes known contemptuously as ‘swots’.
   On the rim of the farthest circle from the group which was my usual place, I found myself with a tall, asthmatic girl, Shirley’s friend, who talked constantly of her brothers at university, quoting them incessantly, with their quotes being chiefly from Karl Marx. Karl Marx says this; Karl Marx says that . . . I sat with this girl for lunch while she explained communism and talked of Karl Marx while I looked with envy toward the place where the group sat, eagerly talking, shaking with laughter as they recounted what Mummy and Daddy had said and done during the weekend at the crib by the sea. The power and happiness flowing from them were almost visible as they talked. Their lives overshadowed the lives of the rest of the class; even Karl Marx was no match for them. Their families were happier, funnier, more exciting, than any others; and they all lived on the fabled South Hill. Even the teachers could not resist them, giving them regularly parts in class play-reading while we others watched and listened enviously. It was they who travelled on the Golden Road to Samarkand, who lived through A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merchant of Venice; Portia, Titania, Puck were among them while the rest of us had to be content with playing lone fairies or first, second or third voices offstage."

This passage from Janet Frame's autobiography has yielded at least one influential line for frequent use in Frame studies: "On the rim of the farthest circle". This phrase is  especially useful when Frame is characterised as an 'outsider' or as incapable of entering a 'normal life', and sometimes is even further used to characterise her work as being only concerned with losers and drifters and people who are somehow less than whole members of society*.

Iconoclast that I am, I would like to point out that the power group encompassing power and privilege consisted of only "four or five" girls, so the majority in fact consists of everyone outside the inner circle. The people located in the concentric circles presumably exhibit the 'normal' condition, not that such a thing exists, but my point here is that the inner circle is the anomaly. If one doesn't have access to that socio-economically determined position, then someone with an ambition to excel can strive to be exceptional in some other way, and one choice is to do this by standing as far off as possible. At the farthest point. Watching. Writers have to be watchers, and this does mean moving back to be able to observe.

To which one might retort: Which came first - the chicken or the egg? Do you watch because you are at the edge, or because you have nothing better to do? I've certainly heard and seen it argued that because Frame was a failure at life she turned to writing to console and heal herself. (My own opinion is that her talent and drive to write caused most of her early problems. If she had stayed obediently within her socially-determined place her punitive society might never have noticed her.)

But the chicken/egg one is a good question. Are our best writers often at a remove from 'mainstream' society because that is all they can do (an implied failure) or do they place themselves there in order to have a better view? And what about the popular girls? How do they feel about the rest of us? Do we ever hear from the popular girls themselves?

There's another proposition buried within the above passage that should not be overlooked: the popular girls "were not, however, among the top scholars". But their power "surpassed even the glory of the scholars who, after all, were sometimes known contemptuously as ‘swots’.

As with most of Frame's writing, there is a lot to mine in even a small excerpt. It would be easy to take this passage literally and not notice the implied social criticism, relayed at the expense of the author's own teenage self, gently mocking herself as the na├»ve young girl just learning the ways of the world, falling for hollow glories. Frame has often put it on record in her interviews that she was very careful in her autobiography to try to enter her own mind at the time, so that at each stage of her life you are hearing the language and perception that she remembers (or imagines) that she had at that time.

One of the things that we can learn from this passage is that New Zealand does have that strong seam of anti-intellectualism. 'Swots' are held in contempt, even if there is some 'glory' attached to their achievements.

This passage reminds me of Frame's short story 'Prizes' where many years later the narrator returns to her small town and contemplates these issues at length. What exactly are the 'prizes' we seek?

These thoughts are also relevant when I consider with amazement that anybody can seriously think that Frame's first novel Owls Do Cry can be characterised as: "gently exploring mental health, poverty and loneliness."** Anyone who thinks that Frame only ever wrote about these three things 'mental health, poverty and loneliness' (implied as an obsessive rehash of her own experience) has quite obviously read very little of Janet Frame's work. Even Owls Do Cry which does consider those themes, considers them along with an unprecedented and stringent analysis and criticism of New Zealand society.

*(Frame herself resisted this interpretation, her main reason being that she didn't consider any person less worthy than another.)
** (17-03-2015 - Janet Frame’s Owls Do Cry announced as the 2015 Great Kiwi Classic book)


Announcing the publication of a new edition of Faces in the Water in Polish translation.
Janet Frame
Replika (2015)

Sunday, April 19, 2015

New academic book on Janet Frame's work

The Unharnessed World: Janet Frame and Buddhist Thought
by Cindy Gabrielle
Foreword by Professor Marc Delrez
Cambridge Scholars Publishing (2015)
ISBN-13: 978-1-4438-7203-4
ISBN-10: 1-4438-7203-2

This is a must-read for all Frame scholars. As Marc Delrez says in his foreword:
"quite apart from uncovering astonishing intertextual filiations, Gabrielle evinces a rare ability to enter into the spirit of Frame's oeuvre, and to provide exciting and subtle close reads of the texts under consideration." 

Jean Watson

Jean Watson
New Zealand author and humanitarian
1933 ~ 2014
There is another sad death to record among the friends and contemporaries of Janet Frame. Jean Watson died suddenly on the 29th of December 2014. She was a wonderful person who received well-deserved public accolades in the last year of her life with the release of a fine documentary on her life and especially on her work in South India.
The film is called Aunty and the Star People and I highly recommend it for an excellent insight into a person of singular vision and compassion.
 Janet Frame and Jean Watson were not much more than acquaintances, although they both had huge respect for each other's work, and fondness for each other. They shared a very close mutual friend, Jacquie Baxter, so the three all did meet up from time to time and shared a few outings and escapades, and through Jacquie they kept up with each other's news and gossip and publishing milestones. I remember that Janet spoke admiringly of Jean's work in India, her spirituality, and her writing.
I had met Jean Watson myself a few times over the years and was very glad to sit down and catch up with her last year in a Christchurch pub when we both attended the  WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival. She was in excellent form and had delivered a most entertaining and enlightening performance on stage in conversation with film maker Gerard Smyth at the festival.
Jean had a story to tell of the first time she had met Janet Frame. It was in 1955 when Janet was living with Frank Sargeson at Takapuna, and Jean had gone to visit Frank Sargeson to ask him for a favour - she needed him to write her a reference for University study. Frank wasn't home when Jean called, but Janet Frame was, and they got on like a house on fire. Janet was very welcoming and hospitable, and even wrote Jean a reference herself. Didn't seem anything wrong with her at all, said Jean, despite all the dire warnings that visitors to Frank's place were always prepped with, about not 'startling' or 'cornering' Janet who allegedly was as easily scared off as a feral cat. 
(This anecdote is very much in line with one told by other people who were whipped into such a high state of anxiety before meeting Janet - the alleged 'madwoman' or 'recluse' - that they were very surprised to find her to be warm, sociable, articulate and witty. Some however, could not see past their own preconceptions...)
I was reminded last year of what a wicked sense of humour Jean had. That was a feature Janet and Jacquie shared too, that made them all a joy to be around, and there was always much laughter when they were together.
My sympathy goes to Jean's family and to her friends and the communities who loved her.
Here is a link to the Radio NZ report on her death.
The Karunai Illam trust set up by Jean Watson in South India.
 "There are people who will always look in lighted windows and want to be there behind the safety of drawn blinds, and when they are there they’ll suddenly not want it or something will bugger it for them and they will feel the road beneath their feet again..."
(from Stand in the Rain by Jean Watson)