Janet Frame - Towards Another Summer
Kate Gould welcomes a novel that Janet Frame deemed too personal to ever be published in her lifetime, and analyses the deceased Kiwi writer’s legacy
Blurring of fiction and fact and the overlapping of character and writer have long influenced the interpretations of Janet Frame’s work. With her writing featuring characters who resembled her and experiences lifted from her life, readers have often assumed her fiction to be thinly veiled autobiography. Alarmed by this assumption, Frame attempted to ‘set the record straight’ with three autobiographies – To The Is-land, An Angel At My Table and The Envoy From Mirror City. Made into the biopic An Angel At My Table (about which she quipped, ‘until Jane Campion’s film I was known as the mad writer. Now I’m the mad fat writer’), the volumes recount Frame’s impoverished childhood in New Zealand, marked by the deaths of two sisters and her brother’s epilepsy.
Distressed by family tragedy and by teaching (panicked, she walked out of the classroom during a government inspection, never to return), she suffered an emotional breakdown and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. The diagnosis was later revoked, but she spent eight years in psychiatric hospitals where she was treated with insulin and administered over 200 rounds of electroconvulsive therapy. Scheduled for a lobotomy, Frame’s The Lagoon and Other Stories, published while she was interned, received the Hubert Church Memorial Award, prompting the surgeon to cancel the operation.
Referring to her experience, she later wrote: ‘I inhabited a territory of loneliness which resembles the place where the dying spend their time before death and from where those who do return living to the world bring inevitably a unique point of view that is a nightmare, a treasure, and a lifelong possession. It is equal in its rapture and chilling exposure to the neighbourhood of the ancient gods and goddesses.’ Leaving psychiatric hospital, Frame lived in a hut in the garden of her mentor, writer Frank Sargeson, where she wrote her first novel, Owls Do Cry. She then moved to Europe, based primarily in London, where she continued to write. In 1964 she returned to New Zealand where, though travelling widely, she remained until her death in 2004, aged 79.
The recipient of numerous awards (including honorary membership of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a Nobel Prize nomination) and author of a tremendous body of work, Frame’s contribution to the literary landscape and her depiction of inner states and mental illness is remarkable and enduring.
Responsible for purchasing Frame’s work, including Towards Another Summer, a novel Frame considered too personal for publication in her lifetime, Virago editor Donna Coonan says: ‘I was bowled over by the lyrical beauty of her writing, and by how vivid and alive it is, and how courageous; there really isn’t a shred of self-pity. What is most remarkable, though, is her humour. Although her autobiographical work can be harrowing, she has such a lightness of touch and a self-deprecating humour that makes her writing very human, warm-hearted and life-affirming.’
Towards Another Summer is a sorrowful tease. Sorrowful in its depiction of a woman freed only fleetingly from mental instability and the persistent haunting of memory. Teasing in its avoidance of answers to the questions it raises about Frame’s life. Far from elucidating the balance between autobiography and fiction in Frame’s writing, the novel simply heightens the mystique surrounding her.
Towards Another Summer is published by Virago on Thu 3 Jul.