Helen Watson White
Gorse is not People: New and Uncollected Stories, Janet Frame (Penguin Group NZ, 2013), 252pp., $40
This is a gem of a book, or rather a string of gems, each uniquely coloured, cut and crafted. Pamela Gordon and Denis Harold, trustees of the Janet Frame Literary Trust, in gathering twenty-eight Frame stories — including some of those they consider the best she wrote — have given us a surprise present like no other. We may think we know the extent of the oeuvre, but we don’t; more than half of these pieces have never before been published, and now they are.
Of course some of the background, especially to childhood experiences, sounds familiar. But only bits of subject material are the same as in other existing writings; the turning, styling, placing and purposing, and the integrity of each story’s shape, is new.
Many of the stories, as in Frame’s other collections, are short. Their concentrated character makes them more like poems, drawing attention to both the craft of their making and the import of particular phrases and words. Brief as they are, however, they may be an expansion of something even briefer in another piece of writing. It doesn’t really matter which came first; in several cases, going by the dating guide in the editors’ notes, a story seems to have been in existence before the writing of the autobiography in the 1980s, to be gathered in there with other childhood memories. Whatever the subject, the tone is suited to its surroundings, and can change markedly according to the requirements of the intended genre placing.
‘Between My Father and the King’, for instance, presents with a satirical twist the subject of the Frame parents’ postwar loan, neutrally described in one (long) sentence in Chapter 2 of To the Is-Land. The shortest story of all, ‘Letter from Mrs. John Edward Harroway’ is of another kind: a curt response imagined to be written by one of Frame’s characters who objects to her treatment in ‘The Bath’, first published in 1965, and already collected by the author in You Are Now Entering the Human Heart (1983). The editors describe it as a sort of coda; perhaps it’s a bit of a dig at literary criticism; it is also, delightfully, a joke.
Both these stories are based on lists; in the first case, of the household goods bought with the King’s loan, and in the second, of the points at issue — a catalogue of complaints — between the author and her fictional creation. The list provides a backbone for the story’s structure, such that (in the second case at least) not much else is needed: this is just one example of Frame’s concentration of form.
When there is an obvious link between a story and her other writings, there’s always a twist. Although I’ve said it doesn’t matter which came first, sometimes you can sense Frame being bound by fact in the autobiography, and wanting to go in quite another direction with a discrete story set in a world of its own.
In ‘Between My Father and the King’, the twist is a shockingly bitter response that would never have been made by her father as she has portrayed him in her life-writing. She imagines the fictional father having the cheek to write a letter (as her character wrote her a letter about ‘Bath’) asking the King to consider — in view of the ‘wear and tear’ on soldiers’ bodies required to make them eligible for a loan — who, in the end, is indebted to whom.
Shocking, too, is the idea that ‘Dot’ (in the story of that name), to whom children write letters on a newspaper page, might not be the kind spinster/aunty figure they imagine, but a predatory male. The editors use this example as a caution: ‘The second half of ‘Dot’ is easily identifiable as fiction, so this story can act as a useful indicator of the dangers of assuming any of Frame’s fiction has a one-to-one correspondence with her life experiences.’ And they quote Frame herself: ‘It is harder to write in the autobiographical form. Actually it’s awful.All those sticky facts to work in. In fiction, one can just go to town.’
Go to town she does, in, for instance, ‘Gavin Highly’ and ‘The Plum Tree and the Hammock’: two completely independent excursions into social relations that seem to have arisen from the ‘plum tree belonging to the neighbours but leaning into our place’, described by Frame in the Eden Street chapter (7) of To the Island.‘Gavin Highly’ is less about the plums hanging over the fence than about their eccentric (titular) owner; the plums figure more centrally in ‘The Plum Tree and the Hammock’, with the significant twist that: ‘The plum tree had its roots in our place and therefore belonged to us but two thirds of it had chosen to grow into their place’. The sisters’ act of picking the plums on the other side while the neighbours are out is more transgressive than if they were picking the plums on their own side. The drama is heightened, making much more of a tale.
The drama of the short story is further heightened by two characteristic Frame habits: the exaggeration of any contrasts available to be made — this time, between the lifestyles of the two neighbouring families — and the surprise resolution, in this case through another characteristic habit, humour.
Contrasts are everywhere in these stories: in ‘A Night Visitor’, between dark-skinned, silently suffering Bernadine and her hospital-ward neighbour who ‘was always surrounded by handsome men and brave clean beautiful children and flowers…’; between naïve, childish Charles and his worldly big brother Bluey in ‘The Big Money’; between the children’s and adults’ concerns and between the owner’s and the expert’s valuation of the old books in ‘Gavin Highly’.
Sometimes there is humour in these contrasts, a comedy of inequality or misunderstanding; more often, however, there is tragedy, a sense of existential unfairness, of shortfall. ‘Gorse is not People’, the collection’s title story, extends to excruciating length the gap between the dwarf girl Nadia’s expectation of a life-change on her twenty-first birthday, and her prison-like existence as a mental patient. Editor Charles Brasch considered it ‘too painful to print’ when Frame submitted it in 1954 for publication in Landfall.
The editors’ brief but pointed endnotes are invaluable for putting in perspective these wounding critical publication ‘failures’ of Frame’s. For the title story, we read, posthumous publication was achieved in The New Yorker in 2008; for ‘Gavin Highly’ in 2010; ‘The Silkworms’, an outrageously personal portrait of a writer who could be Frank Sargeson, was initially held back by the author herself and finally published posthumously in Granta 105 (2009).
I recommend that you read these comic, tragic and tragicomic pieces of prose theatre as I did, without any aids (for I didn’t look up the note until I finished each one). I defy anyone to discriminate between those which were published early, or never, between those Frame submitted for publication herself, and those submitted on her behalf. You simply cannot tell, and they are selected and presented here just as they should be, to succeed on their own terms.
HELEN WATSON WHITE has degrees in English and theology from the University of Otago. Formerly a university tutor and lecturer, she is now a freelance editor, writer, arts reviewer and photographer.
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