Dear Charles Dear Janet: Frame and Brasch in Correspondence, selected and edited by Pamela Gordon and Denis Harold (The Holloway Press, 2010), 61 pp., $250 (edition of 150).
Frame would have grinned and Brasch more likely grimaced, but both would have noted the gentle ironies surrounding this small book of short but often intensely interesting writings. Their letters, including email-sized notes on book loans and afternoon teas, have been preserved in beautiful font on thick cream paper, at a price no pauper writer could afford.
The letters, from 1949 to 1978, are torch-beams only. Readers need to go elsewhere for full biographical details. The book begins with Frame’s note sent to ‘Mr Editor’ from Oamaru (1949, between hospital stays). ‘A story. Crumbly and of poor grade. You probably won’t want it. In that case please burn it quickly – quickly – or crush into tinier pieces for Rat Darkness to sneak in and snaffle.’ Charles did not crush the story for Rat Darkness, nor did he reply to her, but he did tell Denis Glover to save it with her other submissions. In 1954 he asks to print one of her poems, and for more of her work, and their correspondence begins. Frame is outwardly diffident at first: ‘I fight off writing, but it has an overtaking habit, like sleep’.
Other writers and places are also briefly, evocatively, lit up. Frame finds England peaceful compared to the United States during the Vietnam era, and then remembers Dunedin in July: ‘… soon, the hills will be shadowed gold with the budding broom and gorse; it rains now, I suppose, and you light fires.’ Brash’s reply describes 1969 Dunedin with a Piggy Muldoon in the Capping Parade, and Hone Tuwhare, Warren Dibble and Ralph Hotere composing ‘a sort of humming top which now seems the centre of the town’s life’. The letters mention many other writers and artists, such as Ruth Dallas, the Baxters (Jacquie getting the children to work to pay off debts, while ‘Jim was up the Wanganui’), Frank Sargeson, Ted Middleton, Bill Manhire as an Icelandic scholar (‘rather sullen and silent’ but whom Frame liked), and even Grace Paley.
However, it is the writers themselves that fascinate most. Frame and Brasch were united in their passion for writing, respect for each other’s work, and affection, which overcame their differences in age, gender, personality and background. Brasch notes in his diary in 1965, ‘Janet shares my interest in moulding language to greater intensity and richness … She is so quick, receptive, all her antennae alive, aware.’
What differentiates them most is that Frame writes, in general, to explore and to reveal, while Brasch conceals his inwardness behind polite warmth and kind practicalities. Even having taken such care, he still fears posterity’s intrusions: ‘I am appalled at the way people fall like wolves on the letters of writers who are still alive or are barely in their graves; it’s a kind of cannibalism, it’s certainly very indecent.’
If personal exposure upsets Brasch, criticism of her work inspires Frame to passionate analysis. When a Landfall reviewer disparages her ‘weakness for metaphor’, she writes ‘… isn’t the need to compare, to perceive relationships the source of all art? … images … are the basis of my life and my need to write, and they all have meaning. The fact that they impede the path of narrative makes me a bad novelist, but, except in some of my stories, I’m not taking the narrative path.’
The editors have filled out the spaces between the letters with much more of Frame’s other writings than Brasch’s, but these give insights into both. Frame describes Brasch to her beloved friend, the American painter, Bill Brown, as a ‘pure earnest bachelor’ who had led a ‘shatteringly lonely life’ until his mid-fifties. When sitting next to Brasch on a plane, ‘I warned him that I would be likely to grab his arm if the plane were being buffeted and he whom I’m sure has remained ungrabbed all his life, suppressed a slight alarm and gallantly said he did not mind.’
The book has faults. Its price and print-run make it inaccessible to most. The printing is not clear on every page, at least on my copy. A little more contextual information would help many readers, for example, being told early on that ‘Ruth’ was Brasch’s secretary for Landfall. I would also have liked to have read all the letters in their entirety.
Despite such criticism, this book is a valuable addition to our understanding of both writers. Its revelations – of Frame’s witty warm compassion and Brasch’s intense privacy and extreme generosity – entice us back to their more formal work. The man who wrote ‘Separation’ (Home Ground 1974) was not ‘ungrabbed’. He also knew that all people are multiple and intertwined, and to create one voice is piercingly difficult:
To speak in your own words in your own voice –
How easy it sounds and how hard it is
When nothing that is yours is yours alone
To walk singly yourself who are thousands
Through all that made and makes you day by day
To be and to be nothing, not to own
Not owned, but lightly on the sword edge keep
A dancer’s figure – that is the wind’s art
With you who are blood and water, wind and stone.
‘Shoriken’ (Home Ground 1974)
NICKY CHAPMAN is a writer, editor and tutor, who shares Brasch’s and Frame’s strong connections to Otago. She lives in Port Chalmers, near Dunedin.