Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 18, 2013

In the Memorial Room, by Janet Frame

In the Memoiral roomThere’s a real irony implicit in this amusing book by New Zealand author Janet Frame (1924-2004).  She wrote it to satirise the fetishisation of another Kiwi author, Katherine Mansfield, but now Frame herself is on a similar kind of pedestal …

Released posthumously in accordance with Frame’s instructions, In the Memorial Room is a wicked black comedy. Written in the 1970s, it was withheld from publication because it’s so obviously based on Frame’s own experience in Menton, France, as a recipient of the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship.   It’s very witty, but as is obvious from the Sensational Snippet I posted a day or so ago, it’s not hard to see how it would have ruffled feathers if it had been published 40 years ago.

Frame, however, is too good an author to pen just an everyday satire.  It’s easy to poke fun at people who take themselves and their devotion to the object of their admiration too seriously.   But Frame also explores some serious undercurrents: what kind of identity does an author have when she is inhabiting her characters with intensity?  And what is lost by agreeable people when they adapt themselves too slavishly to the demands of others because they fear revealing their true selves?

Harry Gill, 33 years old and the author of two moderately successful novels, is the recipient of the Watercress-Armstrong Fellowship, a scholarship set up in memory of the revered New Zealand poet, Margaret Rose Hurndell.  Her devotees have (much like the devotees of Katherine Mansfield, who also died young) set up a ‘memorial room’ in the former larder of the house where she stayed in Menton.  The room is cold, bleak, dark and desolate, and to Harry it feels like a tomb.

A unique memorial, to pay a writer to work within a tomb!  I felt, however, that if the sheer physical discomfort (there was no access to running water or toilet, little light, and little warmth – what need have the dead of these? – and in the course of my day’s work I would spend several hours in this one place) could be ignored (though unhappily it could not) I should find in the grave-like aspect of this room, in spite of the roar of the construction machinery in the many apartments being built nearby and the constant close passing of trains, all of which became somehow insulated when one thought of oneself in a grave where one could not be reached, a sanctuary for working. (p. 45)

(Harry, as you can see, a few problems with tangled sentence construction – so we hope he has a good editor).

But it is not just that the room he is expected to work in is so uncongenial, it’s that the Fellowship committee and the relations of the dead poet are also resident in Menton, and they do more than cramp his style.  They have their own expectations of Harry, and because he’s ‘an habitual agreer’ he  can’t express his dismay about the way they impose the cult of the dead poet on him.  These characters are all mutually incomprehensible to each other.

One of the most annoying ones is Michael Watercress, a would-be author himself as well as the handsome son of Connie and Max Watercress.  (You will have noticed of course that the scholarship is named after the devotees, not the object of their devotion, i.e. the poet herself).  Michael is handsome, and tall, and he looks like an author, whereas Harry, alas, looks so unlike an author that it is Michael who is photographed by the press at the reception in Wellington and is believed to be the recipient of the Fellowship by most of the good folk of Menton.  This turns out to be especially annoying when Harry has an existential crisis and the committee would like to rescind the fellowship in favour of … well, you can guess, can’t you?

I don’t want to spoil the stylish plotting of this clever novel, so I will simply alert you to Frame’s interest in this issue: what happens to one’s sense of self when shutting out the static of other people invading your life becomes an all-encompassing preoccupation?  When the reader remembers Janet Frame’s own history of mental illness, it becomes apparent that for all the novel’s breeziness, the author is sharing the stigma that comes with mental illness.  You won’t be able to resist a cheer when Harry stands up for himself at last …

PS I am an unabashed fan of Katherine Mansfield. I have reviewed two of her books here and I loved Kathleen Jones biography as well.

Author: Janet Frame
Title: In the Memorial Room
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2013
ISBN: 9781922147134
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

Availability

Fishpond: In the Memorial Room
Or direct from Text Publishing.


Responses

  1. Great review until you reference a non-existent “history of mental illness”… (seemingly under the influence of an ignorant comment on your earlier post). Actually a major feature of Frame’s biography is that she did not have a mental illness, although she was tragically misdiagnosed with one. The diagnosis was later completely overturned but the Mad Myth has been more seductive than the truth. Once you realise that, because of the myth, Frame was often treated with ‘kid gloves’, you can see a possible source for her scathing mockery of the patronising treatment Harry receives.

    • Hello Pamela, and thank you for your contribution.
      However, I have checked the Wikipedia entry, and (while of course Wikipedia can’t always be taken as an authoritative source) it says that while she was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia (a term now no longer used) she suffered from anxiety and depression after she left New Zealand, and today these conditions are described as mental illness. So I’m not altogether happy with your use of the word ‘ignorant’ to dismiss the comment on the earlier post.
      I’ve never read a biography of Frame, only her own autobiographies, can you recommend one which would clarify the issue?

    • Hi Pamela,
      I can fully understand the tragedy of Janet Frame being misdiagnosed with a severe mental illness and being institutionalized due to that misdiagnosis. Her milder problems such as anxiety and depression were misdiagnosed. I do think that she herself knew she had difficulties communicating with people as the following quote from Frame in ‘Towards Another Summer’ indicates : “There was always a flurry of it’s great to know you, then disappointment that the woman who wrote books had difficulty in speaking one coherent sentence, then silence, silence.”
      Perhaps Janet Frame had neuroses like many people do, but not a psychosis. I do think that her struggle with everyday living gave her more insight into life that most writers ever acquire.

  2. Thanks Lisa. Wikipedia is not reliable, and it is currently a toxic source of information for Janet Frame, as her article has been hijacked and shaped by non-neutral editors who have academic and other agendas. My use of ‘ignorant’ is not intended to offend. It’s a technical term – meaning “not knowing’. Your commenter made a bald claim that Frame withheld a manuscript because it was too revealing of her so-called ‘mental illness’. He states it as a fact but it is completely without any basis. This is how myths spread. But the cure for ignorance (or myth) is information. Frame’s autobiography tells her story truthfully.

  3. Thanks Lisa: I think I’d like this. I saw an interesting biopic on Frame: An Angel at my Table (a Jane Campion film).

  4. A great review and such an interesting back-story; and please do seek out Michael King’s stunning biography Wrestling with the Angel – a life of Janet Frame, fear not it’s length, it is compelling, captivating and an honest tribute to the writer. It is a book I have wanted to recommend to so many reader’s I know, but especially to those familiar with Janet Frame’s work.

    I am sure you will really enjoy it and then rest comfortably in the knowledge of who she was, if we can ever know that about another person.

    • Hi Claire, I’m sorry, I missed this comment of yours somehow, but would now like to thank you belatedly for the recommendation. I’ll keep an eye out for this biography that you recommend, I love literary bios and have quite a few on my TBR!


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