Kelly Ana Morey
In The Memorial Room, by Janet Frame (Text Publishing, 2013), 202 pp. $35.
That Janet Frame, she’s pretty funny. But I’ve known this about her writing for some time. It’s not a slap your thighs and roar out loud funny, granted, but Frame knows how to hit the sweetest spot when it comes to wry and dry, observational humour. People are ridiculously silly and Frame not only knew that but she is the high priestess of the dark art of conveying it with words. And nowhere in her vast oeuvre is it more evident in her last novel, her final chuckle from the grave, In The Memorial Room.
I don’t know that I’m a huge fan of satire, there seems to be something inherently cruel about the genre, and cruelty is definitely not something I associate with Frame at all, quite the opposite, it’s her warmth and kindness, that magnificent Frame human empathy that makes her such a compelling read for me. This is why In The Memorial Room is such a great piece of satire. The kindness is still there, the bite is mellowed, by experience and life; Frame was 50 when she wrote the novel in 1974. But there is a bite.
In The Memorial Room is about the cult of dead and new authors (which New Zealand seems completely addicted to) and the state of New Zealand Literature in the mid-1970’s. No, that’s a lie. In The Memorial Room is about the state of New Zealand Literature now – as not a great deal appears to have changed in forty years.
Harry Gill, writer of two very well received historical novels, finds himself the happy recipient of the Watercress-Armstrong Literary Residency in Menton in the South of France. For a year Harry, the lucky devil, will get to feel the ‘atmosphere’ of deceased lady poetess Margaret Rose Hurndell. A poet who may be important in years to come, but as she’s only been dead for 13 years (at the ripe old age of 30) it’s impossible to know whether she will stand the test of time. Not that this has stopped the Watercress family or the Armstrongs from endlessly proclaiming her importance and establishing the residency as a memorial to her literary greatness. Put it this way, she’s no Katherine Mansfield or ironically Janet Frame. Harry is convinced to the point of obsession that he is going blind and sees the residency as something of a last hurrah. So off he goes to the awards ceremony to ‘pick up’ his prize, and this is where things start to go awry.
Harry’s a bit unlikely. He is by his own admission an uninspiring academic, nondescript of appearance and not over endowed with personality or confidence. ‘My fellow writers have called me a man of straw. I do not write political articles. I do not march in demonstrations. I do not make my voice heard against tyranny, injustice.’ He just happened to write two novels that people liked. Or at least heard that they should have liked: ‘I’m afraid I haven’t read your last book, Connie said. But I’ve heard so much about it! The New Family. I smiled and murmured, — Yes New Families.’ On the strength of these two novels Harry has quite unexpected, become flavour of the year. And at this point Harry is thrust into the cult of the new author. It’s one of Dante’s Circles of Hell, trust me. The expectations are crushingly huge. Failure is inevitable.
The disappointment of those who gather to gaze upon the new bright young thing in literature is palpable. Harry doesn’t look like a novelist. He’s not right. From the first gathering of the literati in Wellington, begins the process over the course of the residency that is the gradual erasure of Harry Gill, improbable novelist. Possibly even national literary disappointment. In fact when he attends an event in his honour in Menton people keep mistaking the dashing Michael Watercress, an aspiring writer (who has something of the young Hemingway about him), for Harry.
He’s just that implausible as literary hero, unlike Michael Watercress: ‘a handsome, richly-bearded young man, the perfect stereotype of “the young writer”.’ Harry may be convinced he’s going blind, but he can see the disappointment written across the faces of the literary vultures who attach themselves to this thing that is New Zealand literature. The ones who claim to have read, or have read something about, Harry’s two novels. The truth of the matter is no one’s actually read the damn things, but they’ve heard that they’re really good. Hands up every novelist who’s heard this before.
Once in Menton there’s a whole series of disasters, domestic, emotional and financial, which will make every writer cringe, and these derail Harry’s writing plans completely. At first things, though, seem to be working out for Harry, he’s offered a delightful residence (at a price), by the Fosters, Margaret Rose Hurndell’s sister and brother-in-law. It’s the dream writer’s residence; unfortunately the Fosters immediately embark on a grand and completely unnecessary renovation of Harry’s new citadel. ‘We’re doing this all for you, to make youcomfortable so you can write.’ Poor Harry, he can’t work at the Memorial Room, it’s cold, damp and as depressing as a grave and now he can’t work at home because of the racket and mess. So he does what any desperate writer would do and hides in the stairwell and goes completely mad.
If it wasn’t for the ending of the novel, which I believe consists of phrases taken from a French language phrase book and is unexpected in the context of In The Memorial Room — which is otherwise an amazingly traditional novel by Frame’s standards — I might have thought this was a satire penned by the likes of Julian Barnes or Martin Amis. However, the ending ispure Frame and unapologetically modernist, which I liked. Oh there you are Janet, I thought over those last three pages. Because those last three pages are the only part of the novel that have anything to do with Frame. This is not a novel as has been suggested, about how miserable Frame found the Katherine Mansfield Residency, but rather one based on her years of observation; watching and understanding, and I suspect being hugely amused, by the social conventions and expectations of this kind of strangeness that is New Zealand Literature. How it can eat you alive, spit you out again or even attempt to replace you with a person who looks far more the part.
None of Frame’s characters are hateful, or conceived in bile. They’re all likable, even pitiable in the case of Michael Watercress, in the nicest possible way. And her understanding of what it is to be a writer is spot on: ‘In authorship, the author is not the tree scattering his books like leaves; the books are the tree; the author is shed, blown away, dies to make compost for other leaves and other trees.’
There are no true villains in this novel, just some deeply silly people with very good intentions, all effortlessly conveyed by Frame’s tight uncluttered prose and lightening quick dialogues. The writing is beautifully judged, the perimeters and rules of the satirical novel absolutely observed, though with lovely little Frame-isms, such as repetitions — there’s lots of hilarious little bits about what authors should look like — word patterns and literary pastiche, that take In The Memorial Room to the upper echelons of the genre.
I can understand why Frame wanted this novel published after her death. Evidently the characters are based on specific people, though my knowledge of New Zealand literary feuds is fairly sketchy, so I have no idea who is being represented. But I think, more than that, what’s so unsettling about In The Memorial Room is that forty years after Frame wrote the novel nothing much has really changed in New Zealand literature. The cult of expectation is alive and well, as are the literary vultures who never read anything, but always mean to. And not only is the satire still relevant, but the writing hasn’t dated either, and that’s Frame’s true genius. In the Memorial Room could have been written yesterday, it’s just that fresh and relevant in the telling.
KELLY ANA MOREY is an award-winning writer who lives in the Kaipara district. She was the inaugural recipient of a Janet Frame Award for fiction.