Saturday, January 23, 2010

They also serve who only sit and type

Janet Frame's posthumous novel Towards Another Summer received a review in The NY Times last year [which I have only just happened across] that dealt to what the reviewer calls the 'tedious and condescending debate' about Frame's mental health. The protagonist, Grace Cleave, feels exquisite social discomfort to the point of disability, and much has been made of the fact that publication of the book was delayed until after Frame's death. Many saw this as the author protecting herself, but the NY Times reviewer, David Gates, believes she was trying to protect others, and condemns a rehabilitation physician in 2007 called Sarah Abrahamson who publically diagnosed Frame as high-functioning autistic.

Poets and novelists, who persist in the obsessive-compulsive pursuit of those “interests” of theirs, may seize on that terrifying passage as further evidence that shrinks want to pathologize genius....

Like every writer worth remembering, Frame exploits — or creates on the page, to be absolutely puristic about it — her peculiar sensibility, her private window into the universal.... A writer’s neurochemistry may matter to physicians, biographers and general-­purpose gossips, but it’s not the reader’s business. Frame’s sad, slyly comic fish-out-of-water story needs neither explanation nor excuse, and Grace’s aloneness isn’t a medical condition — it’s a human one.
Which must warm the cockles of the heart of Frame's niece and guardian of her work, Pamela Gordon, who has always said this. Now is the time, surely, to give Frame full recognition for her genius without hissing behind our hands with the next breath in an attempt to diminish that genius. While I haven't hissed exactly, I did murmur something not exactly dismissive of the Abrahamson theory in a Radio NZ review of Towards Another Summer a couple of years back. I regret that now. Discussion of Frame's life belongs firmly elsewhere.

Reading the NY Times review - especially the extracts from Towards Another Summer - makes me want to read the book all over again. The language is as exquisite as the discomfort Cleave feels. Unmatchable.

Full review here.


TK Roxborogh said...

Do you not think, Mary, it's the tall poppy thing? I hear comments about writers all the time: 'her writing is fabulous but she's a real cow' or 'but he's a drunk you know'. I like what the reviewer said about what's on the page for the reader is what should concern the reader. That's why I often avoid go too much into the life of a writer with students until WAY after they have own the work for themselves and then are ready to consider the context of the when and where and why of the writing.

It must drive Pamela nuts people always barking on about Frames 'mental state' as if people are looking for a 'reason' for genius. Why can't the product just be damn good without trying to find the 'fault'.

Mary McCallum said...

Yes, Tania, that tall poppy thing... a lack of tolerance for difference, a need to keep a person firmly in his/her place. Kirsty Gunn would source it straight back to the dourness of the Scottish settlers here. In her wonderful Wellington Letter, Lauris Edmond put it down partly to the physical nature of our country.

"In this land of giant angularities
how we cultivate mind's middle distances;
tame and self-forgiving, how easily
we turn on one another, cold or brutish
towards the weak, the too superior..."

Rachel Fenton said...

Why must people constantly seek to belittle other people's talents - ah well that explains it...they say, smugly...why? If the grapes do constantly lurk in dark corners to eavesdrop and gossip they never do ripen in the sun!

Elisabeth said...

I suppose like other commenters here I put this churlish insistence on Frame's psychopathology down to envy.

Some people just can't stand to see someone else's talent rise above their own, unless it matches perfectly their expectations.

How sad and what a waste of time. But Frame's writing will live well beyond these petty quibbles about her mental health.

The Paradoxical Cat said...

Bless you Mary for quoting this review, it certainly is a refreshing counter to the belittling message about Frame we seem to get mostly from within NZ, basically originating just from a few grumpy old men, who still can't believe that a woman could have been a better writer than one of their number! Those commentators have been far too influential within New Zealand, and they seem to have redoubled their efforts since her death (because you can lie about dead people, and they can no longer be sued for the slander).

Envy does seem to be a large part of it. In the earlier days of NZ Lit it seemed that women writers were only permitted to succeed if they were mad or pretty (or even better, mad and pretty!). In that way they always remained in some way 'inferior' emotionally, or subordinate - as an object of sexual desire and exploitation.

The particular message you get about Frame from the likes of Sargeson and Stead, for instance, is that she is 'gifted' but wild and unrestrained (presumably because of her crazy genius) and therefore we infer that her work cannot compete with their supposedly more crafted and deliberate - and worthy - efforts.

So many people believe this about Frame without having read a wide enough sample of her work to realise the truth - that as well as being a genius, uncompromising and stubborn, she was a well-organised and conscious craftsperson, ambitious and career-oriented and highly educated.

Not that there would have been any discredit to Frame if she had suffered from a genuine mental illness or neurological disorder - as many successful writers have. But the kind of 'madness' that is attributed to Frame is nothing that actually exists in a text book - she's pictured as some sort of feral wild pathologically shy and bizarre creature: it's pure fantasy, and its purpose is to try to weaken her power. There is no diagnosis that explains it, and the strongest 'symptom' appears to have been that she had wild curly red hair!