Thursday, December 7, 2017

The book Janet Frame wrote in Ibiza


Janet Frame arrived on the Spanish island of Ibiza in November 1956 at the age of thirty-two. She was relishing a sense of freedom in having recently escaped from the stifling environment of her native New Zealand. Her fears about her fate should she stay in her homeland were real enough: she had spent the previous decade being defined by and at times forcibly detained because of the misdiagnosis of schizophrenia that had become attached to her in her twenty-second year.
In 1952 a fortuitously timed literary prize for her first book of short stories had convinced authorities not to carry out a scheduled lobotomy; until then her authorly ambitions had been regarded as delusional by some nursing staff, and her poetic language had been recorded in her medical notes as evidence of hallucination.

Her writing had saved her, but it also continued to endanger her. In that narrow-minded provincial society it seemed that Janet Frame would always be pathologised as ‘odd’.The New Zealand literary gatekeepers of the day had, at least, accepted Frame as a brilliant writer and had encouraged her, but she continued to stand out as unusual. She was a deliberate literary experimenter too far ahead of her time to fit in with their largely nationalist agenda. Her ‘genius’ was admired but her pioneering style was thought by some to be na├»ve and uncontrolled, and even her key advocates Frank Sargeson and Charles Brasch disapproved of her taboo-breaking subject matter, interpreting it and much else about her as a symptom of her supposed mental disturbance.
Frame, highly educated but from a working-class background, was conflicted by her failure to fit in with the mostly middle-class intelligentsia. She felt miserable at her lack of social experience due to her time spent in institutions, but then again it was in her make-up to resist arbitrary norms and fashions. Her appearance alone made her seem quite peculiar – even in a supposedly 'bohemian' setting – with her untameable red hair and her stubborn refusal to wear the girdles and brassieres that young women were expected to wear. It wasn’t until later in the 1950s, in London, that Frame at last freed herself from the influence of society’s oppressive ‘you shoulds’, and learnt to be herself without apologising or feeling self-conscious.

Ibiza had been recommended to the young author on her first trip ‘overseas’ as a place where artists could live inexpensively and in relative freedom. She had inadvertently left her luggage and typewriter behind in Paris but with her usual independence, fatalistic air and sense of adventure she set out securing cheap lodgings and settling into a working routine. Conditions were good and distractions were few. For some months Frame struggled with the writing of Uncle Pylades, the second novel she had begun in Auckland. Her first novel Owls Do Cry was soon to be published in New Zealand, but Uncle Pylades wasn’t working out to her satisfaction and she eventually abandoned the attempt and concentrated on producing stories and poems.The stories she was happy with she sent to her trusted friend, the psychologist John Money in Baltimore, who was acting as a sounding board and an informal literary agent.
Ibicencan life was liberating for the industrious Frame, free at last from the stigma of her past and the judgmental curtain-twitching of New Zealand society. At first she avoided the lotus eating lifestyle of the bohemian expatriate community and enjoyed the company of the Spanish-speaking locals.Then early in 1957 as spring came to the Mediterranean, Frame engaged in a new form of liberation: her first profound romantic relationship.As she related in her autobiography An Angel at My Table, ‘I thought Bernard’s laughter was the most joyous I had ever heard.The sound seemed to have the right assembly to connect with a jagged shape inside my heart. I could not otherwise explain the delight of listening to his laughter.’

The springtime love affair was intense and pleasurable, full of delights and revelations for Frame, and self-deceptions, but she was brought to her senses when her American lover exclaimed,‘That would be terrible!’ at the prospect of her becoming pregnant. Disillusioned, she refused to see him again, and resumed her dedicated work schedule.
Some weeks later Frame left Ibiza to live in Andorra, where she miscarried the baby that had been conceived. She wrote to John Money with this news, also letting him know that she had more work to send him, but ‘I haven’t been able to bring myself to post it.’

By May 1957 Frame was back in London. She began to distance herself from the work she had written on Ibiza, belonging as it did to a time of her life she was keen to leave behind. In June she wrote to John Money using a rugby football metaphor: ‘I think somehow, in New Zealand language, that it was a curtain raiser, and the Shield match will happen quite soon . . .’ She was on the verge of major change. Her novel Owls Do Cry had now been published to considerable acclaim and she was determined to get reputable advice about her psychiatric label that had never been properly investigated back in New Zealand. British medical experts eventually discredited the original diagnosis and Frame would, by the end of the year, embark on a process of restoring her self-confidence and overcoming the trauma from the abuses she had suffered. In May 1958 she was to go as far as changing her name by deed poll (from Janet Paterson Frame to Nene Janet Paterson Clutha) to represent this breaking away from the troubles of her past.

Janet Frame Clutha (1958)
New Name, New Passport
Perhaps one of the last acts of Frame’s old life was to send a manuscript she called ‘The Mijo Tree’ to John Money in July 1957. It’s not surprising, then, that this five-thousand-word fable seems never to have been heard of again, remaining unpublished and unheralded in her lifetime. Later that month she took two hugely influential and positive steps: she engaged Patience Ross of A. M. Heath as a literary agent, and she sought the help of psychiatrists at the Maudsley Hospital, thus at last taking her personal and professional fate out of the hands of her friend John Money, who, being neither a qualified psychiatrist nor equipped to further her literary career, had over the years arguably done her more harm than good with his misguided attempts to ‘help’.
There are two surviving identical manuscripts of The Mijo Tree. The original typescript sent by Janet Frame to John Money in July 1957 is archived with his papers. Frame kept the carbon copy hidden away with her own papers in a trunk she lodged at the Hocken Library in 1970. Her copy bears the imprints of the corrections in her own hand that were written on the top copy. She bound her own copy between sheets of manila cardboard, with each page hole-punched and the lot tied up with twine, as was her custom when submitting a manuscript to a publisher. She typed the title (‘THE MIJO TREE’) and her name (BY JANET FRAME) in capital letters on the front cover.This special treatment, usually reserved for her novels, sets this manuscript apart from her other stories, despite its short length, suggesting that Frame conceived The Mijo Tree to be a standalone title.

In published titles such a short text is normally reserved for a children’s book, and the beautiful lucidity of the writing initially gives the reader the impression that The Mijo Tree is written for children. As the story unfolds however that impression is soon shattered.This grim tale is more like a scary fairy story for adults.The subject matter and setting of The Mijo Tree unmistakably belongs to Frame’s six-month sojourn in the Mediterranean region in 1956–1957 and the themes can be easily related to her own sexual awakening and disappointment experienced at that time. Perhaps Frame realised this transparency and kept the manuscript private for that reason. Most of the other work Frame left for posterity had been well signposted in her lifetime (‘the novel I wrote in France’,‘the goose bath poems’), sometimes with their names tantalisingly mentioned (Towards Another Summer,‘Gorse is Not People’,‘The Electric Blanket’).
She made no secret that she had deliberately reserved some of her manuscripts to be evaluated and published posthumously. The Mijo Tree is unique for the secrecy surrounding it: she never spoke publicly of it, and its name was unknown.

Is there such a thing as a ‘mijo tree’? If there is, it would seem to be a dialect name as the only appearance of the word ‘mijo’ in any botanical lists is as the Spanish name for a millet plant.The mijo tree as described in Frame’s story (having purple flowers and producing wood for ornaments and veneers) has the characteristics of Cercis siliquastrum, commonly known as the ‘Judas tree’ (for the belief that Judas Iscariot hanged himself on it) or the ‘love tree’ (for its heart-shaped leaves).This possible background to the nature of the fictional mijo tree seems to contain the rich levels of allusion that we associate with Janet Frame’s work. Also it appears to be no accident that the Spanish contraction mijo or mi’jo (pronounced mee-ho) is a very common slang term for male friend, male beloved, derived from mi hijo meaning ‘my son’. (The female equivalent is mija from mi hija, ‘my daughter’.)

For those readers who may feel that the The Mijo Tree’s message is unrelievedly tragic, may I recommend a repeated reading. Frame’s work always rewards subsequent visits and new depths and layers are revealed each time. The allegory is not limited to a simple exposition of selfishness and callous betrayal; there is also community and sacrifice, optimism and joy, faith and loyalty, and a tenderly and generously carried bloom that holds the seed of future possibility. Perhaps because Janet Frame triumphed over adversities that most of us couldn’t imagine, she was able to transform every experience, even the saddest, into an art that speaks far beyond the circumstances of its making.
Grateful acknowledgment is due to Deidre Copeland for her evocative, darkly sensual illustrations, to Katie Haworth for superb project management, to Catherine O’Loughlin,Tessa King, Sarah Healey and the rest of the team at Penguin New Zealand for making this dream a reality, and to the staff at the Hocken Collections, University of Otago, where The Mijo Tree has rested undisturbed for decades awaiting its moment.

 Pamela Gordon
Chair, Janet Frame Literary Trust
(from The Mijo Tree by Janet Frame, Penguin Books 2013)


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