Discussed in this essay:
• Towards Another Summer, Janet Frame. Counterpoint. $24.00. 208 pp.
• The Envoy from Mirror City, Janet Frame. Vintage. 147 pp. Out of print.
It has all the pieces of a great story: a renowned literary genius, a manuscript discovered after her death, a whiff of schizophrenia, a rewriting of her life story. Here are the basics: a literary celebrity, one who spent eight years in an asylum under a mistaken diagnosis of schizophrenia, leaves her far-flung island country as a certified lunatic and returns home a literary celebrity. Her autobiography, made into a celebrated film, makes her more beloved than ever in her native land. Then, after her death, another manuscript surfaces, an autobiographical novel written during her time abroad that tells, perhaps, what her life was really like.
It’s an appealing story, but the truth may be a little more complicated, for the author is legendary New Zealand writer Janet Frame, and for Frame, personal life and art are always intertwined, at least a little. It is probably fair to say if American readers know Frame at all, it is either through her three-part autobiography (To the Is-Land, An Angel at My Table, and The Envoy from Mirror City) or through Jane Campion’s film of it. In her lifetime, she also published twelve novels, four story collections, and a book of poetry. The “new” novel, Towards Another Summer, written in 1963, was not published during Frame’s lifetime because she considered it “embarrassingly personal.” 1 As Frame’s niece and executer Pamela Gordon states in the acknowledgments to Summer, after Frame’s death in 2004 she “left no specific instructions about Towards Another Summer . . . but since she bound two copies of the typescript and preserved them in separate locations, and made no secret of the novel’s existence, we have concluded that she anticipated posthumous publication.” It was published in New Zealand in 2007 and has just been released in the United States by Counterpoint, and while it is an engaging novel in its own right., it is of special interest just because it is so “personal.”
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“Not even the most devoted of deconstructionists can ignore the fact that Frame’s life is painfully and inextricably connected to her work,” reviewer Rachel Cooke claims. Indeed, it was after the publication of the autobiography, at a time when several of her books had gone out of print, that Frame’s position in New Zealand letters was cemented. So too, the autobiography was also written in response to the rumors circulating about Frame, her family trauma, and her institutionalization; as she wrote to friends, she wanted to “set the record straight.” Thus, Frame was not providing any new information about her childhood. Instead, as Vanessa Finney notes, “What an autobiography does, in part, is retell stories that already exist about the author. In the process, it changes what is already known about her. In Janet Frame’s case, the material of the first two volumes of her autobiography was largely a matter of public record. She rewrites that material and overlays it with her patterning.”2
Towards Another Summer, which is based on an actual weekend trip that Frame took to the home of Guardian journalist Geoffrey Moorhouse, provides yet another “rewriting” of the source material of Frame’s life. For a writer who has already published three volumes of an autobiography, what could be so personal that it had to be hidden for forty years? The novel reveals no racy secrets, but it is disturbing in a way the autobiographies can’t be, because the world of the novel is so much more immediate, allowing none of the distance of an autobiography. This feels like life lived—in excruciating pain—not life reflected. At the same time, comparing Frame’s novel with her autobiography grants insight into the depths of the literary: we see how the same events are transformed through different genres, revealing not only Frame’s creative process but also into how a person processes trauma, the different goals and methods of different kinds of writing, and the metaphors that people use to build an identity. In short, in exploring these connections we can see how literature is made.
On its own, Frame’s biography is fascinating enough. The daughter of a servant and a railway worker, Frame grew up in poverty during the Great Depression. As Michael King writes in his biography, Wrestling with the Angel: A Life of Janet Frame, Frame and her sisters compared themselves to the Brontës, not simply because of their literary output although that was substantial: they were tireless contributors to the children’s section of the local paper, and Janet decided at an early age that she would become a poet, despite the double curse of being both “unimaginitve” and liking math.
But even more than that, the Brontë comparison was made because of the tragedy of their childhood. In King’s words, “their family was an anvil on which disasters fell,” including, but not limited to, two sisters dying of heart failure while swimming, the brother an epileptic who was taken out of school at an early age and became an alcoholic, and another sister who suffered a brain hemorrhage as a young woman. Frame herself did not escape the curse—she spent years committed to a mental institution.
Frame, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and undergone hundreds of electroshock treatments, was scheduled for a lobotomy; only days before the doctor was to remove parts of her brain she was awarded a prestigious national literary prize, which convinced the hospital administration to cancel the operation. She then shipped off for Europe on a literary fellowship, and in Ibiza, Spain, she lost her virginity to an American poet at the age of 32, left for Andorra, and ended up in London where she was again hospitalized. This time, the doctors finally concluded that she was not, in fact, schizophrenic.
Being stripped of her diagnosis is a shock to Frame: “schizophrenia, as a psychosis, had been an accomplishment, removing ordinary responsibility from the sufferer. I was bereaved. I was ashamed,” she recalls in her autobiography. Doctors do, however, agree that her prior institutionalization was the cause of her mental anguish, and continue treatment. The final “prescription” she receives is both unique and humane. Rather than try to fit into “normal” society, Frame should dedicate herself to the thing she is most suited for: writing, and writing on the public dole, at that.
Frame than makes a major choice: to return to New Zealand. This choice occurs after spending the weekend at the home of the young Guardian writer Geoffrey Moorhouse, the very same weekend that Frame will fictionalize in Towards Another Summer.
Moorhouse, whom Frame had described in a letter as “awfully nice and intellectual and intelligent and handsome,” had lived in New Zealand and was married to a woman from there. He has an odd impression of Frame: a “short woman, with frizzy hair, painfully shy and very quietly spoken, who smiled a lot to fill in pauses between speech, which could be quite disconcerting.” Significantly, this is not unlike the image of Frame’s protagonist, Grace Cleave, in Towards Another Summer. In contrast to Moorhouse’s cool remarks, Frame wrote in a letter after the visit that the Moorhouses were a “marvelous family” and their two children “beautiful, just like little Borrowers.” Furthermore, she wrote that being around her countrywoman had provoked a “roots crisis,” making her ask herself, “what am I doing on this side of the world? If I don’t get back to New Zealand I’ll die, or, which is equivalent to death, my writing will get worse and worse.”
And so, her biographer explains, she purchased sea passage to New Zealand and applied for a literary grant to fund it. Why exactly did Frame return home? Certainly the “roots crisis” had something to do with it, but there were also family matters. At the same time as the lunch, Frame learned that her two living siblings had been hospitalized in Auckland: first her brother fell from and was kicked by a horse, then her 34-year-old sister, to whom she was close, suffered a stroke.
Occupied by her family trauma and her “roots crisis,” Frame found herself unable to continue the novel she was writing. She turned, instead, to a new novel, a novel on the theme of migrations, a novel that would never be published in her lifetime. That novel is Towards Another Summer. Three months later she received a letter from her sister saying that her father had died; Frame then finalized the decision to live in to New Zealand for good.
The “roots crisis” and the family trauma would seem to be more than enough to explain Frame’s crucial choice to return to New Zealand, but as Frame’s autobiography shows, she also had other reasons to return.
Some of these reasons can be found in Envoy from Mirror City, the final volume of Frame’s autobiography, written in the early 1980s, twenty years after Towards Another Summer. Here, too, the return is precipitated by her father’s death. Frame writes, “I did not need reasons for returning; but others needed to know why, to have explanations.” The attempt at “reason” that she gives is essentially, the “roots crisis,” but focused almost entirely on her needs as a writer:
I knew, finally, that leaving one’s native land forever can be a strength or a weakness or both, depending on the artist, . . . and that for the writer of fiction being an exile may be a hindrance, especially if the writers if from a country just beginning its literary tradition. The writer (if there is such a person as “the writer”) may find herself spending a lifetime looking into the mists of a distance childhood, or becoming a travel writer who describes the scene, then leaves it, hearing the cries of a world that has been torn from itself into the fictional world, from people whose very skin is left hanging in the centuries-old trees; the unmistakable cry of a homeland truthfully described and transformed.
Thus, a Frame who is 20 years older than the woman who wrote about the “roots crisis” couches her return in different terms. The decision to return to New Zealand is precipitated by her needs as a writer, not outside events. If she were to stay in England, she would be trapped by nostalgia and memory; she might describe the “skin” of people but leave their pulsating bodies behind. It is a graphic, almost grotesque image, yet the one individual body that is not taken account of is Frame’s. By presenting her return in this (forgive the unavoidable pun) frame of artistic necessity, we are removed from the messy, happenstance decisions, the initial plan to visit that was made permanent after her father’s death. Returning home is inevitable, Frame tells us, because she is a New Zealand writer—and thus secures her reputation as a writer of that nation.
Frame’s autobiography would seem to tie up any loose ends: the matter of returning is at once a personal matter, a family matter, and an artistic one. What else could there possibly be? Frame’s recently published posthumous novel proves that the answer is “a lot more.”
In Towards Another Summer, we see exactly what messy, happenstance, unnervingly personal affairs were occluded from Frame’s autobiographical description of her last months in Britain. These affairs are depicted through the character of Grace Cleave, an expatriate of New Zealand, writing and living in London.
While “Janet’s” social hardships are framed by her success as a leading national writer, suggesting that they may indeed have been necessary for her artistic triumph, Grace has no such luck. Nagged by writers block, Grace accepts an invitation to weekend at the country home of a journalist and his New Zealand–born wife. The rest of the novel describes the prosaic yet nonetheless harrowing weekend; harrowing because Grace is embarrassingly shy and tormented at every turn by extreme social awkwardness.
Overlaid on Grace’s social deficiencies is another problem, albeit much harder to explain: Grace discovers that she really is a migratory bird, ready to “fly towards another summer.” This fact, which she must unhappily repress (because who would understand her?), insistently re-surfaces in her consciousness. The narrative gives no hint that Grace is crazy, delusional, or speaking metaphorically. Gregor Samsa is a bug, and Grace is a migratory bird, albeit, in the disguise of a human.
But even if we accept that Grace is really a bird, we are readers, after all, so we should supply some metaphors. Birds fly south “towards another summer”—clearly, to the Southern hemisphere with the opposite seasons. As a New Zealander in exile, Grace is a migratory bird feeling the itch to return to her nesting ground. Indeed, this weekend is a trove of hidden reminders of her past, from comparing memories of her homeland with Anne Thirkettle, to finding Anne’s father’s bagpipes and reading the Thirkettle’s copy of the Book of New Zealand Verse, from which she takes the line, “The godwits vanish towards anther summer.”
The fact that Frame herself flies home to New Zealand shortly after completing this novel, as well as the many similarities between Frame and Grace, begs us to read Towards Another Summer autobiographically. And in fact, we can shed much light on Frame’s decision to return home if we look at two other “migrations.”
Between the Fictive and the Non
The first migration that Towards Another Summer undergoes is the migration from fact to fiction. Indeed, much of the story had already been published in the three volumes of Frame’s autobiography. From the first paragraph, it is clear that Grace and Frame are very, very similar. Grace has “hair that once flamed ginger in the southern sun [but is] fading and dust-colored in the new hemisphere, and she was thirty, unmarried except for a few adulterous months with an American writer (self-styled)”—an apt description of the red-haired Frame herself, down to the coy reference to her “marriage” with the American.
Moreover, there are countless scenes and details that overlap between Towards Another Summer and the autobiography. The characters Grace and Janet share everything, from an early childhood memory of wearing a gold velvet “beastie” dress to their astonishment at the sum that The New Yorker paid for a story. There is no point in listing every overlap; needless to say, although Grace and Frame are not identical, Grace is clearly the same character as “Janet Frame” in the autobiographies. Indeed, it seems likely that Frame later mined this earlier, unpublished work for scenes and images in later works. Frame even reuses language at some points: In Towards Another Summer, she recalls the Ibiza “moonlight sharp as flute-music on the cobblestones,” which is transformed to hearing someone “play[ing] the flute and the flute-notes fell sharp as broken cobblestones, glittering in the moonlight” in The Envoy from Mirror City.
Yet, there are also differences between the Frame in the autobiography and the Frame in Towards Another Summer. In the autobiography, the year 1963 (the same one in which Towards Another Summer was written), is an uplifting year for Frame. Despite the undeniable tragedies of her life, she is now a recognized literary figure. After struggling on public assistance, Frame is now living in a nice, middle-class apartment provided by her British publisher. To put it in the conventional narrative, she has overcome her problems, and they have made her stronger.
Towards Another Summer lacks that reassurance. Here, Grace’s professional life may be going well, but what could that matter when she is so isolated, unable to speak without second- and third-guessing herself, so concerned with her own self that she has no imagination to spare for understanding others? Moreover, while Frame portrays her own childhood home benevolently in To the Is-Land, here the same events are living scars for Grace. When she hears her hosts Philip and Anne speak, she senses with the intuition of an abused child that a violent fight will break out: “Let them not kill each other. He is angry, she is afraid. He will kill her, and be hanged for murder.” And then, “let my father not kill mother because the bills are high.” When she realizes that Philip and Anne are not her parents, and that they are not in fact going to fly into a rage over any possible disagreement, she is flooded with relief.
In this sense, Towards Another Summer seems to present just the story of Frame—that of a woman barely able to survive a normal social occasion, much less live a normal life—that she attempted to occlude with the autobiography.
Towards Another Summer also showcases another theme from Frame’s biography and autobiography: How could such a great writer be both so ordinary and so odd? In other words, what exactly is the relationship between the writer and her life?
This brings us to our second migration, the distance Frame traveled every time she migrated from the awkward, marble-mouthed wallflower to the magisterial writer who could shape worlds on paper with such faculty.
Journalists had long commented on the “unsettling” discrepancy between Frame’s ordinary, even shy exterior and the genius within; in fact Vanessa Finney reports on the incongruity between Frame’s exterior and the genius within. She writes that people often described Frame as “physically absent, or rather, because her appearance gives no hint of the state of her mind, she is seen as a disembodied presence.”
In Towards Another Summer, Grace Cleave asks the same question about herself. On being visited by a young couple who were “young, flowing, so conventionally wanting to be unconventional,” she suspects they are disappointed that she was “not wearing tight black slacks, not having long black hair, living in a smart flat with a three-piece suite with floral covers (floral covers) in the sitting room, not smoking marijuana.” More damning, she is not “witty and sparkling, intelligent, memorable” like a writer houseguest should be; in fact, she is barely articulate. No bon mots fall from her lips; even the bare minimum of social niceties, like complimenting the food, are difficult to formulate. The one moment when Grace shows her artistic sensibility—when she is moved to tears by a piece of music and explains to Anne Thirkettle that she is overcome by Bach—turns sour when it turns out that the music was actually Handel, “good old plodding Handel.”
Perhaps Frame included this detail because just as Grace confuses the sublime and the workmanlike, Frame sometimes gets lost between her twin identities of the awkward maladroit and the genius writer. And yet, although it only comes out through her writing, an artist Frame clearly is.
So what is the link between Frame the inner genius and Frame the awkward outer self? The answer lies in the fact that though neither Grace in Towards Another Summer nor “Janet” in the autobiography manage to act like a writer, by the fact of being a writer each knows the world differently than people who cannot write as they do.[
As children, both Grace and Janet are confused by words, or rather both “believed from the beginning that words meant what they said.” Janet and Grace believe that songs their family sing are about real things they have known; thus, a grandmother must be African American because she sings songs from the Deep South, and the home of a neighbor named Muyphy becomes mystical because it was memorialized in a song about “the stone outside Dan Murphy’s door.”
Similarly, in Towards Another Summer it is described how one of the most frequently told family stories is about the time the house flooded; Grace is dismayed to find out that this historic event happened before she was born. Even worse, it is confused in her mind with another historic Flood, and she burns with jealously that her older brother and sister were able to see all the animals in the world together, two by two. When Grace learns to read, her confusion gets worse. Grace tries to warn Red Riding Hood that the wolf is coming, but writing “Watch Out Red Riding Hood” in the margin won’t change the story; “people in stories may or may not hear you speak to them, yet nothing you say can change the story as it is written.”
These examples of the child’s unyielding belief in the literalness of words would seem to be just a passing stage, yet there is an uncanny echo of them in the final volume of the autobiography, Envoy from Mirror City. Janet still believes that words shape their place. After arriving in London, she books a Garden Room and takes buses because of the story-book names of their destinations—Crystal Palace, Shepards Bush, Ponders End—but ends up in a “cluster of dreary-looking buildings set in a waste of concrete and brick.”
Frame’s disappointment at this betrayal of words would seem a trivial thing if it were not such a prominent theme. When she visits Hampstead Heath and recites Keats, she is aware that “I must have been one among thousands of visitors who had stood by the withered sedge, remembering Keats, experiencing the excited recognition of suddenly inhabiting a living poem . . . always aware that too often everyone must tread the thousandth, millionth, seldom the first early layer of the world of imagination.” When she arrives on the island of Ibiza, she longs to clear space for her “own” thoughts, but instead views it through a Shelley poem. At times one senses that her confusion: is the landscape really beautiful, or does she just think it’s beautiful because beautiful poems were written about it? Europe, covered by this web of overlayings that was sometimes “a web or shroud or other times a warm blanket or shawl,” is contrasted with New Zealand, where “the place names and the landscape, the trees, the sea and the sky still echoed with their first voice.”
With these correspondences between Grace and Janet in place a new dimension of Frame’s decision to leave England emerges. While words and stories had intervened in Frame’s understanding of the world since her childhood, “literature” was something that happened somewhere else: in Europe. Frame’s choice to return home is a choice to not live in the world already shaded by the literature of the past. Whereas Virginia Woolf (one of Frame’s literary forbearers), wanted a room of her own, Janet comes to the United Kingdom and realizes that is not enough for her. Though she had grown up with British history and literature, when she arrives in London she finds that it is the Nigerians, Irish, and West Indians whose backgrounds match her own. As a writer from a colonized land, she cannot find a space of her own in the mother country, where meanings have already been assigned to everything—she needs an entire country of her own on which she can overlay her own meanings.
We are still left with the final question—why did Frame think that Towards Another Summer was too personal to publish? She had not hesitated to publish potentially damaging material before, even, perhaps especially, about the wildest rumor of all, her mental state. (In fact, one critic claims that “it is one of the paradoxes of the ‘Janet Frame’ myth that although she insists that she has never been insane, her successful establishment as a writer and her enduring celebrity were largely dependent upon her having been thought so.” 3) Yet in this small novel, there is no mention of mental illness at all. In the end, perhaps Frame felt this book was too personal to publish because of the closeness that Frame felt to Grace, the difficulty of revealing just how shy and insecure she felt. Or perhaps it was the difficulty of the decision to leave London and the fact that so much of that choice crystallized over the weekend dramatized in the novel. Or perhaps Frame just didn’t want to let go of the person she had painstakingly constructed in her autobiography. Whatever the reason, readers can now compare the various Frames for themselves. They are offered the opportunity through a wonderful new novel, one that hopefully will inspire many to go back through the work of this incredible author.
Beth Wadell is a senior editor to The Quarterly Conversation.
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