Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 28, 2016

Gifted, by Patrick Evans #BookReview

GiftedI discovered Kiwi author Patrick Evans while reading The Back of His Head from the longlist for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards and enjoyed his humour so much that I hunted out a copy of Gifted to read as well.

As Evans told us when he was featured in Meet a Kiwi author, Gifted and The Back of His Head are parts 1 and 3 of a trilogy drawn from his familiarity with the writing of Janet Frame. (No2 is yet to be written).  Gifted is about her brief time living with the author Frank Sargeson (1903-1982), said to be ‘the father of New Zealand literature’, because he was the first to write in the New Zealand vernacular.

Now, the odd thing about Frank Sargeson’s entry at Wikipedia (viewed 28/2/16) is that while it lauds his literary legacy, it doesn’t actually mention the name of any of his books.  (For that you need to go to his entry at Goodreads, where it seems that his books are highly regarded, at least by the Goodreads community).   No, what the Wikipedia entry focusses on is his lifestyle, which was eccentric, to say the least, and which is what makes Patrick Evans’ Gifted so entertaining.

Evans (rightly anticipating the outrage of Janet Frame’s literary heirs) is at pains to point out that only two of his characters were real people, i.e. Frame and Sargeson, and that the book is a work of fiction.  But it does seem to depict Sargeson’s living arrangements with uncanny accuracy.  Sargeson lived in what Kiwis call a ‘bach‘ and what Aussies would call a ‘shack’, a rudimentary dwelling which is a far cry from the stylish and capacious holiday houses that middle-class Aussies have today.  Today tourists can visit Sargeson’s Bach, but it’s important to note that it was the second one he had on his parents’ land – the first one was condemned by the local council.  Yet this site is a sacred site for KiwiLit because this bach, and the re-purposed army hut in the garden, became a hub for a new generation of Kiwi authors, of whom Janet Frame was one.

Gifted begins with the arrival of Janet Frame at Sargeson’s bach brought there by her friend Molly, who says she needs somewhere to develop her talent – to get back on her feet.  But either Frank hasn’t been listening properly (a propensity of his) or Molly is evasive, because it takes months for him to learn where she’s been.

Ah.  Back on her feet – so she’d been off them.  That rang a bell, a tiny tinkle, in my memory.  There’d been a setback of some sort, somewhere in the past.  I had no idea what it involved – tuberculosis?  An abortion?  Piles? – but I definitely remembered something tragic, something dark.

I probed further.  So, I said.  Quite a long illness – ?
Through her twenties, right through her twenties, the woman said.  It’s been her art that’s kept her going.

And she’s better now?

We’re hopeful.  The doctors are hopeful.  She’s recovering from a certain kind of treatment she’s undergone. (p.18)

Sargeson becomes alarmed that perhaps his visitor (soon-to-become-protégé)  is unable to walk or move, but anyone who knows anything about Janet Frame knows that this is an allusion to ECT she had undergone while hospitalised for misdiagnosed mental illness which almost resulted in a lobotomy.  His fuzzy recollection alludes to some knowledge of her celebrity as a prize-winning writer who narrowly escaped oblivion.  But for a very long time he does not remember this and he accedes to Molly’s request because – as we shall see in the course of this novel – Sargeson is, despite his pomposity and rather judgemental character, a very kind man.

So, Janet shyly moves into the army hut which had been home to half a dozen youngsters and at least one crim and Sargeson takes her under his wing.  He explains to her that the morning is sacrosanct because it’s writing time, and then they have lunch and do domestic chores, especially working in his magnificent vegetable patch which helps to keep him self-sufficient.  (Because while Sargeson is acknowledged even then as the father of New Zealand literature he is obviously rather hard up).

Irony takes over when the pupil outclasses the master.  Sargeson is suffering from writer’s block.  He spends his morning looking at blank sheets of paper on the typewriter, while Janet soon starts churning out thousands of words a day.  (The real Frame wrote Owls Do Cry while at the Sargeson bach). He is, of course, consumed by curiosity (not to mention envy), but when he sneaks into the hut to investigate in her brief absence at the nearby shops, he is not best pleased to find himself depicted as one of her characters.

For all his faults, Sargeson is a self-aware man, and he realises that he uses the people he knows in his fiction too, most notably his on-again, off-again lover Harry Doyle.  Again, those familiar with Sargeson’s short stories featuring working class Kiwi blokes will recognise straight away that someone like this fictional Harry is the source of those stories, but Evans leads the reader to work it out anyway.  Sargeson narrates the story in a confessional tone, with a quaint and often pompous loquacity (often in very long paragraphs) which is (I presume) in marked contrast to the humble vernacular in which he writes the stories he is famous for.  In Chapter 10 he lauds Harry as a special type of man, becoming extinct with the passage of time:

I find myself obliged to take him less as an induplicable Harry Doyle than as a specimen of a larger genus Homo Harrius, if you like.  Solomon is another such, one more of that great plurality of blokes thrown up by the first of the two wars and the century that made it. Though their number has been thinned by the usual silent artillery, they are still very much about the place and part of our national distinctiveness: self-sufficient, womanless, and almost as if brought about by some kind of universal male parthenogenesis, they can be found at any pub racetrack football ground or gymnasium as if drawn there by the sweat of their communal exertion.  (p.235)

So, Sargeson can’t write because his muse has taken off for much longer than his usual absences, and Janet is writing up a storm.  He can’t help himself: he stirs up what he thinks is some harmless mischief, which isn’t, and then when Harry eventually comes back neither he nor Janet can hide their mutual hostility.  And when life dishes up a situation where Sargeson needs Janet’s help, he is shocked to find that she won’t give it.  There is a steely hardness about her that he had never suspected, and he comes to realise that in patronising her as he has, he had misread her in more ways than one.

This is a splendid book, amusing and clever, but also with an important message for people to understand.  Sargeson eventually finds out the label used to diagnose Frame’s condition, and he finds himself thinking about her differently.  Evans portrays this satirically, with a panic-stricken Sargeson burying the kitchen knives in the back garden for safety’s sake, but it shows the damage done by prejudice, and the harm done to human relationships by stereotyping.

In this sequence Evans the ventriloquist is channelling one of the key themes of Sargeson’s work: the mental illness label is a ‘worm’ that attacks the core of the lived experience of his characters.  The character Sargeson has been fond of the character Frame but a careless word is enough to sabotage that relationship.  I am indebted for this insight to Bill Pearson’s essay about Sargeson’s stories, where he points out that…

It is this core of beauty in his characters that Mr Sargeson is interested in, a core so vulnerable to attacks of the worm. The work of the borer, however, is only too visible and it is any form of rigid principle imposed on and inhibiting the vitality of the lonely human soul, capable, if not interfered with, of making its own satisfying relationships with others. Ultimately he saw that life-denying principle as deriving from the Protestant ethic of Success and the doctrine that Time is Money, a doctrine that he feared would corrupt before birth such an earthly paradise as Michael Joseph Savage might hope to set up. Repeatedly, his stories involve a conflict between the beauty of the human spirit and some doctrine or dogma that inhibits it and contorts its expression.

Yet this sequence also shows Sargeson at his best, because while he is a prisoner of what was known about mental illness at that time, and he really is fearful and wishes the ‘problem’ would go away, he doesn’t evict Janet, but goes on to help her edit her book and find the right publisher for it.

I like to think that there were people like good-hearted Molly and bumbling Frank Sargeson in Janet Frame’s life.  While Gifted is a satire, and it’s most certainly not didactic, and I have no idea whether any of the events or chronology are ‘true’, Evans has portrayed Frame’s early fragility and gradual recovery with dignity, and shown us that Sargeson teaching her the routines and discipline of the writing life not only helped her with her ambition, but also provided a framework for recovery in a safe place.

Gifted was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2010.

Author: Patrick Evans
Title: Gifted
Publisher: Victoria University Press, 2010
ISBN: 9780864736376
Source: Bayside Library Service

Availability

Direct from Victoria University Press

 

 

 

 

 


Responses

  1. I’ve sworn off of reading books about ‘real people’. I start wondering what is fact and what is fiction and then I felt as though I should read a non fiction book to try to find out.

    • I know what you mean, and here on this very blog, I’ve been a little bit cross with an author for fictionalising a real person when I thought he shouldn’t. But I’ve come round a bit since then, because I think I’ve come round to the view that we can never really know the truth about people anyway. Not even the people we know in real life, that we think we know really well…

      • yes but some authors take such enormous liberties,, plus I like reading non fiction. Currently reading a very interesting book about Elizabeth Taylor.

        • Oh, I love literary bios, I have so many on my TBR shelf I don’t know which one to start with next!

          • This one has an interesting take. I’ll be reviewing it soon.

            • I must read some ET. Everyone’s talking about her books!

              • This is Elizabeth Taylor the actress. The book’s argument is an interesting one.

                • LOL I thought you meant the other one. Well, I look forward to seeing the revelations in your review!


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