A literary angel mourned

By Gordon McLauchlan


No one doubted the literary community in New Zealand would deeply mourn the passing of Janet Frame, our most famous contemporary writer, but what has astonished us all is the widespread sense of national loss that followed the announcement of her death from leukaemia on Thursday.

The reverberations of sorrow from around the country came not so much from New Zealanders as readers - because she was never a racy, popular novelist - but from many thousands of people who understood that in a celebrity-spangled world, this retiring woman endured lifelong personal difficulties with unremitting courage.

To many Kiwis, Janet Frame's special triumph was her life, yet the 11 novels, short story collections and three volumes of autobiography written during the second half of the 20th century earned her an international reputation as one of the finest writers in English.

The legend of her young life happens to be true. In 1952, she was on the surgical list at Seacliff Hospital in Otago for a prefrontal leucotomy (more commonly known as lobotomy) to make her "normal", after she had been wrongly diagnosed as schizophrenic. When told of the decision, made with the support of her confused mother, Frame later said her reaction was a "swamping wave of horror".

She was saved within days of an operation that would have destroyed her creativity by winning a literary prize for her first book, Lagoon and Other Stories. She had never heard of the Hubert Church Memorial Prize for prose but the announcement that she had won the award persuaded the hospital authorities not to proceed with the planned surgery.

Also, her life was marked by a dichotomy: she was at once famous and a recluse. Although a gentle, affable and humorous woman among her few close friends, she avoided contact with people, except on her own terms. In 1958, to distract attention, she changed her name by deed poll to Nene Janet Paterson Clutha. ("Nene" was after Tamati Waka Nene, a Maori leader whom she admired, and was close to her family nickname of "Nini". "Clutha" was after the river in Otago.)

In 1982, I discovered she was living in Wanganui and wrote to ask if she would allow me to interview her for the television arts programme Kaleidoscope. Her friendly reply said she was going overseas and would consider my proposition while she was away because she had liked the programme I did on Frank Sargeson. Six months later, she wrote and said no but I was welcome to call on her personally "on your way north or south, although there seems little point in that, now that I have decided about not being filmed". Next time I was going north or south, I decided to call on her but discovered she had moved on.

Over the years, she moved from town to town, making her whereabouts known to few people and always avoiding the limelight. She was easily distracted and upset by loud noise and, although she did accept occasional visitors, regarded a visit as "like a storm".

Despite this aversion to anything resembling celebrity treatment, her life has been more scrutinised and is more widely known in detail than that of any other New Zealand writer.

Frame contributed an autobiographical essay to a series called Beginnings in the literary magazine Landfall in 1965. She wrote a famous three-part autobiography: To the Is-Land (1982), An Angel at my Table (1984) and The Envoy from Mirror City (1985). They were later published in one volume, which formed the basis of a widely admired film.

In 2000, Michael King wrote a prize-winning biography, Wrestling with the Angel, but the brilliant complexity of her writing, her absolute commitment to language and the subtlety of her insights will ensure that Frame's long-term international reputation rests on her novels and short stories. The autobiographies will rather nurture the legend of her troubled life.

Frame was a Member of the Order of New Zealand, an honorary foreign member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was awarded an honorary doctorate in literature by the University of Otago.

IN the 1970s, she won the Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship, enabling her to live for several months in Menton, France, and she accepted the Burns Scholarship in Dunedin and the residential Buddle Findlay Sargeson Fellowship in Auckland.

Her novel The Carpathian won her the Commonwealth Prize for Literature in 1989, and she was also awarded a New Zealand Scholarship in Letters. Last year, she was presented with a $60,000 Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement, along with two other writers: her biographer Michael King and Maori poet Hone Tuwhare.

Also last year she was tipped as a strong contender for literature's richest and most celebrated international award, the Nobel Prize, after many years of being nominated by compatriot writers. Among those who regarded Frame as the top candidate was Swedish literary critic Asa Bechman. When asked what she would do should she win the $2 million prize, the railway engine-driver's daughter joked: "I'll buy the railways". The prize was eventually awarded to the South African novelist J.M. Coetzee.

Of Scottish stock, Frame was the third of five children born to George and Lottie Frame and brought up in poverty and in what was regarded as an eccentric family, mostly in Oamaru, where her father worked for the NZ Railways. Two of her sisters died in drowning accidents and the sensitive Janet wrote later that "the idea of death is with me all the time".

She possessed an electric intelligence, was a brilliant student at Dunedin Teachers' Training College and Otago University but suffered from a pathological shyness that saw her spend much of her 20s under psychiatric care on the assumption that she suffered from mental illness.

She aspired to be a writer from childhood but after difficulties coping with the institutional life at training college and university, worked as a housemaid and waitress. The strain of these jobs on her solitary and hyper-sensitive personality meant few lasted long.

In 1955, while visiting her married sister in Auckland, she was introduced to Frank Sargeson, the best-known New Zealand writer of his generation. He offered her the sanctuary of an army hut behind his house in Esmonde Rd, then a North Shore backwater.

Sargeson was mentor to dozens of writers and Frame cautiously accepted his hospitality. She lived and worked in the hut for 16 months. The result was her first novel, Owls Do Cry. She later said the time with Sargeson saved her life.

When the novel was published I was a young journalist starting out on a novel and - extraordinary coincidence it seems now - the central character's surname was Withers.

I can still remember the astonishment with which I read Owls Do Cry, and the embarrassment when I thought of my own plodding beginnings in comparison to the brilliant evocation of her Withers family. I stopped novel writing there and then.

ALMOST everyone's first novel is the autobiographical one stuffed in a drawer somewhere with rejection slips, the one in which aspiring writers wield revenge, apportion blame, expiate guilt, re-order their lives in wishful, amateurish ways. In the drawer is where almost all of them should stay. Owls Do Cry is very much an autobiographical novel, yet perhaps the most achingly beautiful written by a New Zealander.

Frame's experience in mental hospitals gave enormous depth to her gift for insight. Sargeson referred to her "frightening clarity of perception" and noted how "brilliantly acute" she was.

The novels departed from the traditional realism of our literature with its well-constructed plots and defined characters. Her stories are shaped magically and frequently defect from novelistic conventions. They are borne aloft on lyrical, bewitching prose. She may have been shy in person but in the private life of her words she was worldly, unsentimental, brusquely analytical, and tellingly ironic.

After leaving the Sargeson hut, Frame went to Britain and Europe and for a time was adamant she would not return home. By the time she did she had a growing band of ardent readers around the English-speaking world.

I remember being introduced as a New Zealander to a young American couple at an airline cocktail party in New York in the 1970s. They had never heard of the All Blacks, knew vaguely about Ed Hillary but waxed eloquent about the novelist who wrote Faces in the Water and The Edge of the Alphabet.

As age brought her increased confidence and some relief from the tyranny of her shyness, Frame travelled internationally, especially in North America.

She announced last December she was terminally ill, after being diagnosed with cancer on August 28, her 79th birthday.

The reaction among New Zealand writers to her death is one of deep sadness. Those who knew her had great affection for the quiet, pleasant woman, and boundless admiration for her genius, her amazing intellect and talent.

Roll of honour

The Lagoon (1951) short stories

Owls Do Cry (1957) novel

Faces in the Water (1962) novel

The Edge of the Alphabet (1962) novel

Scented Gardens for the Blind (1963) novel

Snowman Snowman: Fables and Fantasies (1963) short stories

The Adaptable Man (1965) novel

A State of Siege (1966) novel

The Reservoir and other stories (1966) short stories

The Pocket Mirror (1967) poetry

The Rainbirds (1968) novel (also published as Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room)

Mona Minim and the Smell of the Sun (1969) children's book

Intensive Care (1970) novel

Daughter Buffalo (1972) novel

Living in the Maniototo (1979) novel

To The Is-Land (1982) autobiography

You Are Now Entering the Human Heart (1983) short stories

An Angel at My Table (1984) autobiography

The Envoy from Mirror City (1985) autobiography

The Carpathians (1988) novel

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