As sure as she was of the endemic features of her southern home she was acutely conscious of the culture's potential for mental fascism. A consistent theme in Frame's plots are characters struggling against the constrictions of a society that neglects its mind. In Owls Do Cry the material suck of the undertow is an oppressive metaphor for her country's fear of the intangible, the imaginative:
"... the Woollen Mills, the chocolate factory, the butter factory, the flour mill -- all meaning prosperity and wealth and a fat-filled land; and lastly a photograph of the foreshore with its long sweep of furious and hungry water ... where you cannot bathe without fear of the undertow, and you bathe carefully, as you live, between the flags."
She moved to Takapuna, Auckland, where she was taken under the wing of New Zealand literary mentor Frank Sargeson. She wrote her first novel, Owls Do Cry, in Sargeson's shed, drawing heavily on her experience of family tragedy and her time in mental hospitals. The book was published internationally to acclaim. The author was cast as an antipodean madwoman in a cabin, praised for her original style and insight into the world of the mentally disturbed. In 1956, with Sargeson's encouragement she traveled abroad, on a State Literary Fund grant, visiting Ibiza and Andorra before journeying to England. Hers was a wing-spreading overseas exile more driven than most: "I knew, and others knew, that leaving the country was my last hope to avoid life-long confinement in a hospital." In London Frame was excused from her place at "that terrible feast" that is schizophrenia when, in 1958, psychiatrists at the Maudsley Clinic concluded that she had been misdiagnosed. She was instead recognised as someone who was shy, preferred being alone, and who was "just different" to most people (a situation exacerbated no doubt by spending most of her twenties socially dislocated in mental institutions). Frame was empowered, (she would wryly write later, "for your own good is a persuasive argument that will eventually make a man agree to his own destruction"). Before her now was what she called the "Mirror City", her playhouse of the imagination.
Her time in London was to be highly productive and when she returned to NZ in 1963 she had completed Faces in the Water, Scented Gardens for the Blind and The Edge of the Alphabet. She had publishers on both sides of the Atlantic and was developing an international critical reputation. The New York Times called Scented Gardens "Amazing...the most remarkable book I've read in a long time. A most overwhelming and brilliant tour de force." Frame first visited the United States in 1964, to see her old friend John Money, now an eminent and controversial sexologist, at John Hopkins University in Baltimore. He held numerous residencies in artists' and writers' colonies in the US in the late 60s and early 70s, returning periodically to Dunedin. Back in the colonies Frame associated with other writers and artists, including Eudora Welty, May Sarton, Philip Roth, Charles Neider and the painter and musician William Theophilus Brown. She engaged in a doomed (he was "one of the boys") but permissive and revelatory relationship with Brown, which she would later describe as "the chief experience of my life". She lived an itinerant lifestyle for some years, in non-descript dwellings and suburbs from Auckland to Wanganui, Horowhenua and Rangitikei. A friend described this as "moving, loving, loathing, leaving." Finally, in 1997, she settled in Dunedin where she lived until her death from leukaemia in 2004. Famously reclusive, Frame was reticent about interviews and spurned awards ceremonies. In 1972 she changed her name to Clutha to preserve her privacy while continuing to write under her own name.
Throughout her career Frame strived to deflect attention from herself to her writing. Yet hers was a life that demanded attention, triumphant and tragic like Mansfield, Keats, Dickinson, Van Gogh's. It had the mysterious archetypal quality of a camp-fire folk-tale.
With Frame's consent Michael King spliced together the frames of her life in his exhaustively researched biography Wrestling With The Angel - A Life Of Janet Frame (a Montana New Zealand Book of the Year in 2001). King contrasts the myth of the tragic isolated genius/bard of bedlam, revealing intimate and intense friendships and a dry sense of humour. After undergoing breast surgery, Frame stated that she would now be able to "wear topless dresses with equanimity". While at MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire in the late 60s, Frame was part of a bohemian coterie ("the Baby Group") and would compose "salty" limericks about her fellow inhabitants: "The pecker of Harrison Kinney/ was so excessively skinny/ that like a Greek statue/ his balls stared back at you/ with little eyes, nose and chinny." Frame joked in an interview that during stays at the writers' colonies she was surrounded for the first time by other people who read people. "I was being read too. We would sit round at lunch, everyone was too sort of brilliantly sensitive."
Away From the Main View
of a desire to be myself, not to follow the ever-dominant personalities
around me, I had formed the habit of focusing in places not glanced at by
others, of deliberately turning away from the main view...My memory of
myself contains now myself looking outward and myself looking within from
without, developing the view that others might have of me."
dared to be different in a staid 1950s New Zealand society, which was a
particularly difficult choice for a woman writer. It was a society whose
protective institutions had brutalised and nearly destroyed her, that had
deemed her crazy.
meant abnormal. Divisions of the kind were fashionable at that time, and
it was so easy to stifle one's need to help by deciding that help could
neither be accepted nor understood. I have seen a quick-drying paint
advertised lately in the shops. It is most convenient; it dries
immediately it is brushed upon the wall. It is like habit, except that
habit sets even more quickly upon the mind, and one is grateful for this
convenience, the way it removes the need for laborious action or thought.
And so we have grouped the deaf, dumb, blind, crippled, mentally ill, in
one mass in order to "deal with" them, for we must "deal
with" these vast surfaces of strangeness which demand all our lives a
protective varnish of sympathy."
It might be fallacious to read the life of the author as the life of the work. But the life chronicled in her writing has the same energy emanating, from Frame's urgent explorations into the possibility that writing could be turned into life; that the imagination could verbally compose itself into language. Or the life into writing. An irony not lost on Frame is that it took the publication of her three-part autobiography, (followed by Campion's film adaptation in 1990), to see her readership swell in New Zealand. Michael Holroyd of The Sunday Times (UK) acclaimed it as "one of the greatest autobiographies written this century." We are given "the transformation of ordinary facts and ideas into a shining palace of mirrors"
in my early years time had been horizontal, progressive, day after day,
year after year, with memories being a true personal history known by
dates and specific years, or vertical, with events stacked one upon the
other, "sacks on the mill and more on still", the adolescent
time now became a whirlpool, and so the memories do not arrange themselves
to be observed and written about, they whirl, propelled by a force
beneath, with different memories rising to the surface at different times,
and thus denying the existence of a 'pure' autobiography and confirming,
for each moment, a separate story accumulating to a million stories, all
different and with some memories forever staying beneath the surface. I
sit here at my desk, peering into the depths of the dance, for the
movement is dance with its own pattern, neither good nor bad, but
individual in its own right--a dance of dust or sunbeams or bacteria or
notes of sound or colours or liquids, or ideas that the writer, trying to
write an autobiography, clings to in one moment only."
in the Elsewhere
Another writer that bears comparison is Thomas Pynchon (also a notorious recluse) in his unswerving obsession with the onion-peeling search for the centre of meaning amongst the layers of language and the world. As Frame's fiction developed her works became increasingly concerned with language as a problematic constructor of experience, pushing the letters on the typewriter keyboard towards their logical conclusion. The slippage between experience, thought and expression: "The sea crashes against the alphabet, the letters crack and split like icing when the soft sweetness has worn away and only the brittle water-tasting bones remain." Her work is significant for its subversion of literary norms and its playfully serious experimentation with accepted codes of language, a gesturing at reality through the manipulation of words. Tara Hawes in 'The self as other/othering the self (Deep South v.1, n.1, 1995) writes that Frame's experiments in the waste disposal of language mark her as an author out of her time:
"Her stories and novels experimented with metafiction way before it became a buzzword for postmodern and postcolonial literary critics, for example, The Edge of the Alphabet, published in 1962 has a metafictional narrator, Thora Pattern. Frame actually had to lessen Thora's prominence in the novel to please her publishers. Several of her later novels, including her last, The Carpathians (1988), play even more unconventional narrative games, showing Frame to be not only ahead of her time, but a literary trendsetter."
"difficult" to read, Frame has been aptly compared to the
mythical Cassandra: "like all visionaries she is revered and
avoided" (Lauris Edmond). With the gift for insight Frame was able to
convey subtle nuances of experience, particularly for those people on the
margin. Her range of characters living in "the elsewhere"
include the insane, eccentrics, murderers, oddities, epileptics, the
elderly, artists, scientists, exiles and children. Individuals (for her
characters are atomised; strong relationships are unusual) who have in
common an ability to conjure up imaginative worlds in opposition to the
'normal' world; damaged, ordinary people attempting to free themselves
from the constrictions of society.
Her arrangement of their worlds is original, not in any way derivative, whether it be plotting their interior mindscapes or the changed exterior world. Sets range from South Seas suburban neurosis (a recurring theme), a post-WWIII nuclear society ruled by technocrats (Intensive Care); ye-olde village in England adapting (more dual wordplay) to the twentieth century where a handsome, quintessentially modern young man commits murder (An Adaptable Man); an elderly woman alone in State of Siege who retires to an idealised magical, but ultimately flawed, world free of social responsibility. In The Carpithians a wealthy New Yorker journeys to the edge to small-town Aotearoa in search of the "gravity star" that will destroy the concepts of space and distance and obliterate thought. In Living in the Maniototo a New Zealand woman makes the reverse journey, connected through a tremulous fault-line to the centre, Berkeley, San Francisco.
Frame's stories exist in the place between the Aotearoa summer blooming and the always present duality of decay, the threat and promise in the long white cloud: "the fluffy asters in every pastel shade were curling and browning at the ends of their petals; the cream banksia roses of the summerhouse were already shrivelled and fallen. We lay on the parched front lawn, looking up at the clouds, interpreting their shapes, asking, What do you see? What do you see?" What Frame sees and shapes is communicated through unique perspectives: two sheep in conversation on the way to the slaughterhouse; a man who cuts off his body to free his mind; a snail, "bathed in slime, fretting at his journey to the end of the world"; a television becomes death: "... just look at the sky, blurred and coming down on us like the telly with the Horizontal Hold broken... . But the sky then in its frame of light slipped from the Horizontal Hold. The mirrors and the world blurred. Darkness came." In Scented Gardens a study of a family driven nuclear is told from the alternating perspective of its three members - the daughter who has ceased to speak, the mother who has turned herself blind and the father who has retreated into his genealogy. In manifold constructions the obsession is with making 'sense' through imagination and language. Frame has commented that her favorite work is in a fable she wrote entitled Bird, Hawk, Bogie. In it the bird (inspiration and imagination) is eaten by a strong hawk (materialism), which in turn is eaten by the bogie (repressed imagination and individualism). This triangular plot provides the recurrent symbolism for much of her work.
Often insights into character are coupled with dark humour and satire. The comic mixed with the serious, the commonplace with the bizarre. In Scented Gardens a young girl Erlene, has ceased to speak:
was not going to speak to anyone. She could not speak if she wanted to,
because every time she opened her mouth to say something, her voice, in
hiding, reminded her that there was nothing to say, and no words to say
it. People usually went on talking all their lives, until just before
their death, when it was said they tried to cram everything in at once,
confessing. And then no one understood them. They dreamed aloud in a
topped and tailed language while relations and friends leaned over them,
trying to snatch their share of words that with the approach of death and
silence had suddenly gone up in price."
of the Exile
Frame takes on the position of the exile even when in her homeland. When she submitted articles to London Magazine as a young writer she claimed to be of "Pacific Island origin"; later when she went to London, she claimed to be writing from the point of view of "a West Indian arrival" By her later novels, as Kim Worthington writes, "the writer is no longer portrayed as an alienated isolate unable to communicate, but rather as one with the capacity to 'impersonate' a variety of subject positions and able to access the 'manifold' of cultural and personal memory." Frame's response in a world of mirrors and replicas is to suggest that the imitations of art may prove to be the closest we come to what is real and true.
This point of difference was never lost on overseas' critics - geographically and culturally, New Zealand epitomised otherness to the dominant American and British literary scene. Yet Frame has used distance and isolation to her work's advantage by making "the other" both its subject and intended audience.
the rim of the farthest circle from the group was my normal place."
Frame held numerous overseas fellowships - in New York, New Hampshire, and Menton, France. She received Italian (1993) and Chilean (1996) awards. She was an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, winner of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize and in 2003 was short-listed for the Nobel Prize for a second time. The hours and years spent in the factories, the streets, the cathedrals of the imagination ("not on a shopping expedition" as Frame put it when describing the writer's lot) resulted in a corpus of work that stands as a singular and unique literary voice. The Age's Stephanie Dowrick described Frame as one of "the two great 20th-century writers in English from our region, and among the top dozen writers in English from any country." Mark Goulden, for 36 years chairman of British publishing house W.H. Allen, wrote, "I have met in my lifetime only three persons whom I regarded as geniuses." Dylan Thomas was one, another was "a relatively unknown author called Janet Frame".
Wild Word Music
Janet Frame: "just different" as English psychiatrists assessed her with splitting-the-totara economy. Reading her sentences is something akin to Joseph Banks awakening and hearing the deafening dawn chorus for the first time in Queen Charlotte Sound during Cook's first voyage of down under discovery: "They seemed to strain their throats with emulation, and made, perhaps, the most melodious wild music I have ever heard, almost imitating small bells, but with the most tunable silver imaginable, to which, may be, the distance was no small addition." Frame wrote of dawn awakenings both natural and human: from the profound peal of the bellbird to the irritating man-made sound of suburban New Zealand's weekend domestics: "motor-mowing, hammering and chainsawing summers". In our literature she has taken a Flymo to the dictionary and reconfigured the wor(l)d. Frame's wild word music, from the edge of literature and the world, "to which distance was no small addition", configures experience as a passenger of language, the keyboard her conduit to the Third Place:
stared at the heap of letters. They looked faded, used, yet the morning
sun, striking them, made them sparkle and shine, reflecting, perhaps, an old thought lying between letters. Mattina wondered why she felt afraid to
touch them, to brush them into a pan and drop them in the trash. After
all, they were only a pile of old letters of old alphabets with a
sprinkling of full stops and commas, seedlike with tiny sprouts not of
life but of the final decay of the old language that had lasted well,
magnificently, but were now like the old gods and goddesses who no longer
could change or accept new growth and must perish to feed the birth of the
Books by Janet Frame:
The Lagoon (1951) short stories
Authorised biography: King, Michael. Wrestling with the Angel: A Life of Janet Frame. Auckland: Penguin, 2000.
Comprehensive University of Auckland bibliography of books and articles
on and by Janet Frame:
Worthington, Kim. "Janet Frame." New Zealand Book Council
Te Kaunihera Pukapuka o Aotearoa.
Liukkonen, Petri. "Janet Frame (1924-2004)." Pegasos.
Hawes, Tara. "The Self as Other/Othering the Self." Deep
South v.1, n.1, (February 1995). http://www.otago.ac.nz/DeepSouth/vol1no1/hawes1.html
McNaughton, Howard. "Fraying the Edge of an Alphabet." SPAN
Journal of the South Pacific Association for Commonwealth Literature and
Language Studies, Number 36 (1993). http://wwwmcc.murdoch.edu.au/ReadingRoom/litserv/SPAN/36/McNaughton.html
Carey, Diane. "Janet Frame and The Tempest." Journal
of New Zealand Literature.
"Creative Quotations from Janet Frame." Creative
WRITTEN BY PAUL WARD.
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