Yes — Janet Frame — You CAN Write!
The Salon meets again! On hand were, Left to Right:
Valerie Ihsan, Ross West, Anne Dean and Sondra
Kelly-Green, who hasn’t returned a library book since 1965.
New Zealand’s Janet Frame (1924-2004) is an honest writer of deliciously rich imagery. You might know her from director Jane Campion’s 1990 film ‘An Angel at my Table’, which Salon members Ross West and Valerie Ihsan viewed while reading this month’s selection. Both were blown away by its intensity.
The Salon’s focus book this month, also entitled, An Angel at My Table, a stand-alone read, is actually the second part of her full work, Janet Frame, An Autobiography. The whole book is a big bite of literary pie, but if you find yourself loving Janet’s raw honesty, tragic history and ultimate triumph it might be just the winter read for you.
Two synchronistic surprises this month. One is that Salon member Anne Dean lived in Dunedin, New Zealand for a few years, which I didn’t know when I suggested the book for group review. Although Anne does have a tendency to hopscotch about the globe, still, it’s an unusual corner of the world for her to have popped up in. But even more amazing, she was a member of the choir that sang at Janet Frame’s funeral.
Synchronicity struck again when Valerie and I discovered we both loved the exact same passage from the book, and it’s a great example of how Janet Frame can capture and convey a scene with surgical precision.
(The set-up): Janet is embarking on an ocean liner from New Zealand to London on a literary grant. She’s also terrified, with near-crippling shyness. As she leaves her family behind on the dock, a brass band plays and streamers fly (just like in old movies).
(The passage): “I stayed on deck to catch one more glimpse of Aunt Polly, looking frailly neat in her blue coat, Uncle Vere, tall beside her, and Dad, huddled against the wind, in the half-shelter of the wharf shed, then with a final wave, and clutching the five-pound note Aunt Polly had pressed into my hand with a whispered ‘Something from Uncle Vere and myself’, I went towards the stairs, just as the band was playing ‘Now is the Hour’, and the music reached down like a long spoon inside me and stirred and stirred.”
This passage is all one sentence, but one so well-written, with such simple and well, stirring words, you’re not even aware of its length. Now that’s writing. This might be what comes of starting out as a poet—as Janet did—this care for each word, this ear for the rhythm of its flow on the page.
Her Story: Janet is raised in a large, impoverished family in Dunedin on New Zealand’s southernmost island. Two of her sisters, as young adults, drown within years of each other and her brother Bruddie begins to have seizures and is diagnosed with epilepsy, which their father insists, ‘He could get over if he wanted to’. It’s a tough, hardscrabble life that Janet quietly mines for inner meaning and beauty, inspired by her hard-working, peace-keeping mother who sometimes manages to get a poem published in the local paper when ‘not caring for the kiddies’.
Janet leaves home for training to be a teacher, eager, most of all, to ‘be no trouble’, as Salon member Ross West pointed out. She’s so painfully shy, our modern minds reach for what her challenges might be called today. Social phobia? Agoraphobia? Panic disorder? Certainly not schizophrenia, which she is ultimately diagnosed with, mostly due to her encounter with a young, handsome psychologist, John Forrest, a Freud apostle just itching to put his learning to work. Janet falls for him in a transference-on-steroids sort of way. She desperately presents with symptom after symptom to hold his attention. This includes an airy allusion to a recent suicide attempt. (She’d dramatically downed a bottle of aspirin.) As a result she finds herself committed for most of her twenties to Seacliff, a nightmarish mental hospital she’s known since childhood as the place where the loonies go. No one gives her any individualized attention. No one discusses decisions about her treatment with her. And sadly, her simple, well-meaning family assumes that the authorities know best. Once she’s been diagnosed, John Forrest seals her fate during one of their ‘chats’.
“ . . . He next made the remark which was to direct my behavior and reason for many years. ‘When I think of you,’ he said, ‘I think of Van Gogh or Hugo Wolf . . . ‘”
Janet did her research. They were both named as schizophrenic, (along with Schumann, whose compositions Forrest not only admired, he’d played for her.)
“ . . . with all with their artistic ability” Janet writes, ”apparently the pearl of their schizophrenia. Great artists, visionaries . . . My place was set, then, at the terrible feast. I had no illusions about ‘greatness’ but at least I could endow my work and — when necessary — my life with the mark of my schizophrenia.”
It’s mesmerizing reading—this measured portrayal of her shyness, submission and agony mixed with a certain pride in her diagnosis as an artistic badge of ‘differentness’. Janet docilely takes what the nation’s appalling mental health system dishes out until, eight years into her treatment, she’s actually scheduled for a lobotomy, which, she later says, in the absence of drugs, was becoming a ‘convenience’ treatment for Seacliff’s overworked, under-motivated, often downright vindictive staff.
This is when Janet’s life takes a soap opera turn right up there with amnesia and evil twins. She’s shared her writing with—yes—John Forrest—who, once her Judas, is now her redeemer. Through his efforts, her art, quite literally, saves her when word reaches the hospital just days before the brain surgery is scheduled that her short story collection has won the national writing award for best prose. As a result, she’s freed by the amazed administration of Seacliff into a society increasingly fascinated by both her talent and her ‘madness’. What follows is a life in which she, blessedly, falls into a network of artists inspiring, supporting and in Janet’s case, saving each other.
As her writing career soars, Janet questions whether or not she truly has talent, or whether her awards and notoriety are because she’d been labeled insane, or because her native New Zealand is an underrepresented country just finding its voice on the world literature scene. She also wonders whether other writers have supported her because of her talent or because of the mental problems she still grapples with.
When Ross termed this ‘imposter’s complex’ we knew he’d hit the nail on the head. We also agreed this isn’t a rare thing among artists who’ve been helped by other writers along the way.
The irony is that Janet’s “Can I write?” questioning is so devastatingly, beautifully written.
Her life is an amazing arc to follow. You cheer for her and feel for her and know that she couldn’t be who she became if she hadn’t gone through what she did and lived to tell about it. Horrible things happened to Janet. But she never stopped hoping. And she never lost her sense of awe at how, when she needed them most, people appeared. People helped.
This is a harrowing yet hopeful book. It’s also a book that makes you wonder what you would do under the same circumstances. I believe the very best biographies, and autobiographies, do that.
Next, the Salon tackles the unlikeliest of craft books that nearly every author I know agrees, hits it right out of the ballpark. Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’.