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Dualities and differences revisited: recent books on Janet Frame.

Reviewing these five books offers an opportunity to discuss the past and current state of criticism of the work of Janet Frame. Jeanne Delbaere's The Ring of Fire is an expanded and updated edition of a collection of critical essays first published in 1978 as Bird, Hawk, Bogie (and includes nearly a hundred pages of very useful bibliography to 1990), while the Journal of New Zealand Literature, No. 11, is the proceedings of a conference on Frame at Otago University on 28-30 August 1992. The Inward Sun is mainly tributes to Frame's work by other creative writers, the editor's brief to them being "a personal response" (1). Judith Dell Panny's book adopts a relatively traditional approach, and sets out to "unfold allegorical dimensions" of Frame's writing. This is done largely through close reading both of Frame's uses and transformations of other texts, and the ways in which she produces a new mythology. Gina Mercer's Subversive Fictions is the first extended feminist treatment of Frame's work; it draws on Irigaray and Cixous but is not "uni-formed by their methodologies" (6).

An explicit shift in dominant approaches to Frame's writing is apparent on reading through these texts. The reprinted articles in A Ring of Fire exemplify what might be called an earlier orthodoxy; repeatedly, Frame's challenging of dominance through the inversion of binary oppositions is documented in detail. In much of the more recent work such oppositions are dismantled using approaches influenced by, in particular, Kristeva, Barthes and Foucault. Some of the most interesting essays in the JNZL collection explore the ways in which Frame could be placed in relation to modernism and postmodernism, and a number of the critics take up the question of whether Frame should be called modernist, postmodernist, something in between, or something else again.

The re-issue of Delbaere's collection in 1992 allows for some incorporation of new critics and approaches, but it does not include some of the most substantial of the newer critics of Frame. Delbaere's new Foreword comments upon how Frame is "so difficult to place on the contemporary literary scene . . . because she puts all the experimental resources of postmodernism at the service of a modernist search for reconciliation" (10).

Because of the apparent artlessness of her work, Frame was often constructed in earlier criticism as an untutored primitive, achieving depth in the reading effects of her work through the mobilisation of a naive (feminine) intuition. This despite warnings such as that in 'Beginnings' that she felt it necessary to read Kant in order to become a poet.(1) Some of the more recent approaches by-pass this construction and engage with Frame as a conscious artist, aware of her own playing with language.

However, Delbaere wants to insist on a continuity of approaches;

even if today's growing concern with feminine writing and with the problematical relationship between reader and text has drawn attention to Janet Frame as an experimental writer of international stature, she still owes her uniqueness to the painful experiences of death and alienation that marked the first half of her life. (9)

Her own new article constructs Frame as an object of critical contestation; suggests, even, that a battle is being waged for the body of Frame('s work). It ends by implying that there may be some likelihood of postmodernism taking Frame over: "The danger is now that she may be appropriated by the critical establishment and affixed a label which despite (or because of?) all that goes into the postmodern basket, could only reduce the scope of her achievement" (207).

The "critical establishment" is not as uniformly wedded to postmodernist methodologies as Delbaere suggests. But it would be true to say that the political effects of particular reading practices are a less central concern than they were. In the 1970s many of us read Frame as offering a critique of psychiatry like that of R D Laing, of institutions like that of Erving Golfman, or of the family like that of David Cooper. In 1976, I read Owls Do Cry as a feminist expose of the family analogous to those offered by earlier feminists like Simone de Beauvoir or Betty Friedan;(2) recently Frame herself would seem to offer some authority to feminist readings, commenting for example in an interview with Mercer in 1985, when asked if she minded being taken up by contemporary feminist criticism: "I think, I myself, that they have converted me. I myself have become more conscious of the problems of women" (Mercer, 237). Mercer is very much of current deconstructive feminist theory, offering an innovative reading of Frame's pervasive metaphors of cracks and crevices, moving between the nurturing pockets of Owls Do Cry, the decaying or sutured slit of Faces in the Water, the dangerous crevasse in the ice of The Rainbirds and the "solitary pink anemone flowering in the rock pool" of A State of Siege. All this feeds into the further image of the manifold, another vulval metaphor - "with its many folds and end-less capacities, it too is suggestive of female sexual and reproductive anatomy . . . these sources of pleasure and creative power are repressed and denied by those outside the gaps, cracks and crevices, those who lack such sanctuaries, who seek to stitch them up and prevent them functioning productively" (217). Here to some extent Mercer returns to the analysis of institutional power that was characteristic of the earlier approaches, but retains poststructuralism's central preoccupation with language.

It is in The Carpathians that Frame's (and recent criticism's) preoccupation with language is read (reads) as most explicit; as a way of discussing the texts under review, I will compare the accounts that they give of The Carpathians, Frame's most recent novel, published in 1988.(3)

Delbaere's new essay in The Ring of Fire sees the metaphors of the Memory Flower and the Gravity Star as juxtaposing legend and scientific discovery, as "belonging respectively to the world of imagination and the world of facts."(4) She describes the mode of the third part of the novel, "The Memory Flower," as "magic realism, in which reality and dream exist in unresolved tension" (202), and the method of the whole book as a "Chinese-box structure" of replication and repetition (206).

Marc Delrez, also in The Ring of Fire,(5) discusses Frame's "frontier sensibility", particularly in relation to the "sea of dream" mentioned in the earlier novel, The Edge of the Alphabet.(6) Delrez reads Frame's use of the motif of the Memory Flower as mobilising notions both of the "pretence of memory affected by those who exploit the legend for commercial purposes, and the plague of amnesia" (211), and then further explores Frame's almost gothic transformations of the language of flowers. Delrez' reading is marked by close attention to pun, he suggests that Hanuere (the name of the Maori family in the text) is also January, and hence they, like Mattina, stand at some beginning or dawn. He concludes that Frame's "patient scanning of the accustomed cleavages of despair allows her to uncover . . . a so-far untouched vein of optimism, even on the brink of imagined catastrophe" (219).

Panny's reading of The Carpathians is that it "parodies the biblical myth that has appeared in so many guises in Frame's work . . . celebrating a woman who willingly tastes new knowledge" (159); subsequently Mattina "journeys to the antipodes of her own being, and 'remembered that Dante had entered Hell through a doorway of the Antipodes - or had that been the exit?'" (162). She sees Mattina as conducting research into the life-in-death existence of the inhabitants of Kowhai Street. Racial difference is glossed over in Panny's reading of Mattina's visit to the marae - "The concept of heritage in this novel is not limited to the forebears of just one race but is concerned with the heritage of the human family" (165). The universalising that mythic criticism tends to encourage leaves little scope for foregrounding racial difference, or what has been read in this episode by some other commentators as irony on Frame's part. Powhiri Rika-Heke has commented on how:

To date, literary texts show clearly that we, the Maori, remain part of the tension of an indigenous consciousness for the Pakeha. But it is neither the contemporary Maori nor a truly historical one that remains, but rather a romanticised historical artefact. Thus the white culture attempted to incorporate the Other, rather superficially, through referring to Maori place names, to Maori legends, ceremonies, "putting kowhai, puarangitoto, manuka, rata, tarapunga on postage stamps," or selling Maori carvings, faked or genuine.(7)

Rika-Heke's argument is made with specific reference to the earlier novel, A State of Siege, but can be seen as relevant to Frame's representation of the relationship of Pakeha to Maori in The Carpathians also. Her conscious politics of race, like those of gender, could be read as having undergone some transformation, in both cases under the impact of activist movements.(8)

The allegorical imaginary again becomes rather strained in Panny's assertion: "In Owls Do Cry, the imaginations of children transform a rubbish dump into a paradise: The Carpathians, the most positive of Frame's novels, suggests that the memory and creative imagination of adults can recover a paradise" (171). Like Delrez' conclusion, this remains rather unconvincingly argued.

Gina Mercer reads The Carpathians as "a kind of 'coming-out' novel" (238), and "a veritable maze of points of view within points of view within . . ." (her ellipsis, 24). She develops the innovative - within Frame criticism - feminist analysis that marks her book; reading, for example, a radical female specificity into the motif of the "Housekeepers of Ancient Springtime" (which was Frame's original working title for the book "until it decayed like an old peachstone and fell apart and took root").(9) Like Delrez and Panny, Mercer produces a reading that suggests a newly optimistic ideological orientation:

In one brief storm, Frame demolishes our current language, and literally sends it gurgling down the drains of Kowhai Street. At the same time she suggests that new forms of language, nourished by this literary rain . . . may spring up, bringing about the renaissance or cultural spring. (248).

However, Mercer does not conveniently end her discussion of the novel on this note of reassuring relative closure, as did Delrez and Panny. She revisits her impressions by juxtaposing them to various reviews of the book, saying that she particularly wants to do this because of "recent shifts in critical approaches" (250). Her scrutiny of the reviews however, suggests to her that with regard to the overall reception of Frame's work in this area, despite some exceptions: "Perhaps nothing has changed, or perhaps there has been a slight shift in the points of view" (250).

The Otago Conference papers collection contains two on The Carpathians. Valerie Sutherland argues that in several of Frame's novels can be found "a pivotal conflict . . . between a modernist sensibility and postmodern experimentation with narrative structures and the identity of the speaking subject."(10) There is something of a slippage occurring here between the staple of earlier criticism, identification of binary oppositions, and the staple of much of the recent work, the opposition of the supposed certainties (of a kind) of modernism and the radical uncertainty of postmodernism. Sutherland suggests that modernism posits a unified and relatively stable self whereas postmodernism "understands the human individual as a diffused being constructed by infinitely variable and arbitrary social, historical and psychic conditions" (106).

The Gravity Star and the Memory Flower - physics and the imaginary "collapse the distinction between time and space, but in different ways" (108); this can also occur through the operation of human memory. In The Carpathians, Sutherland argues, "identity is synonymous with a definite point of view" (109); since the novelist Dinny Wheatstone has neither she can, as Barthes suggests, engage in that activity of writing that is "the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin" (109), enact the Death of the Author. Wheatstone explains to Mattina "I know quite a lot - I get it from the air - yet it really comes from the core of my being as I'm not cluttered up with my own being and can admit quite a fund of impressions" (Carpathians 44). Sutherland locates a nostalgia for "the 'old' forms of language and meaning" (112) in the implied authorial ideology of what is paradoxically, she says, Frame's "most thoroughly metafictional and postmodern" novel. "Ultimately Frame's challenge to the power structures of modern capitalism, a challenge implicit in the subversive nature of her metafictional writing, is contested by her dismay at the perceived destruction of former values and concepts which had created a seemingly stable and knowable world" (113). Sutherland concludes that The Carpathians "while conceding that a plurality of truths is inevitable, resists the postmodern outlook which destablises all that was formerly fixed" (113).

Janet Wilson,(11) also in JNZL, moblises aspects of a postcolonial methodology in discussing notions of centre and periphery, in relation to Frame's self-positioning in "that" world, on the margins. For New Zealand writers in general, she suggests, marginality was expressed through geographical location - with ideological effects - but for writers such as Frame a psychological marginality within their own culture also obtained. Wilson reads Mattina's journey from the US to New Zealand explicitly as leading to "a celebration of humanist modernist values rather than to a postmodernist deconstruction of binary oppositions" (116). She suggests that in the apocalyptic night, the abject are saved, while the middle class are swept away by the Gravity Star - apart from Mattina, who seems to take on the role of artist and for whom: "The orchards, the Fountains of Ancient Springtime, the Memory Flower, had merged to banish the painful opposites and contradictions of everyday life" (Carpathians, 114). But, Wilson argues, a "dialogue between the perspectives of centre and periphery" that she sees Frame as setting up, "is not the same as a postmodern deconstruction of them" (118).

Wilson's thesis is "that Frame is principally a postcolonial writer, archly playing with postcolonial issues . . . hostile to postmodernist values" (119). The "succession of vanishing 'fictive' narrators," is apparently "finally replaced by a 'real' narrator whose fiction-making creates a release from grief" (124), Mattina's son John Henry. The Hanueres have lost their language but are attempting to recover and sustain it through Kohanga Reo (Carpathians, 83). The Pakeha middle class are punished for their lack of awareness by being deprived of language by the Gravity Star. Through "Mattina's fleeting acquaintance with maoritanga" (128) the Memory Flower takes on an extra aspect for her not recognised by the Puamaharans. Wilson suggests that Frame does not, unlike Hulme, show Maori characters "as a source of compensating spirituality, for they are no less strangers to the land and their own cultural inheritance than the Pakeha" (128-29). This avoids giving attention to the figure of Rua who "knew the secrets of flax."

Wilson argues of the multiple narrators The Carpathians: "The deconstructed authors, whose authority is manifestly absent . . . show the signs of marginality . . . to become the site for the construction of an intangible, 'decentred' model of reality" (129). As Sutherland did in referring to a 'closure' effect, she suggests that Frame anticipates a reading of her novel "as a modernist text, as a manifesto disguised as fiction" (129).

My focus upon discussions of The Carpathians has not allowed me to say anything much about Alley's The Inward Sun for this is a collection of largely personal responses, many from writers talking about Frame's influence upon their own work. Since C.K. Stead is refused a heating in Gina Mercer's fantasy nightmare of presenting her research to an audience of writers including Frame herself, I will allow him to retell his joke from his contribution to Alley's book: "Theorists are Saussure they know everything, but they know Foucault about anything."(12)

Stead's intended reading effect here is undoubtedly a snide dismissal of poststructuralist or other recent approaches, but it is also relevant to the challenges that Frame's work has posed to theorists and critics grappling with its complexity over the past fifty years. The degree of postmodernity attributed to Frame has more to do with the speaking position of the critic than anything else. But the conflicts between the different currents are stimulating, and examining them throws into relief the fact that Frame's work is likely to be read and re-read for a long time, not least for its refusal to be placed by any one approach.


1. "Beginnings," Landfall, 19/1 (1965): 44.

2. "The 'Death of the Family' in Some Novels by Women of the Forties and Fifties," Hecate II, ii (1976): 48-61.

3. The Carpathians (London: Bloomsbury, 1988).

4. "The Carpathians: Memory and Survival in the Global Village," 199.

5. "'Boundaries and Beyond': Memory as Quest in The Carpathians," Delbaere: 209-220.

6. In my Introduction to an anthology of Frame's writing, forthcoming from the Women's Press in mid-1995, I have developed an analogy with Christina Stead's "Ocean of Story."

7. Powhiri Rika-Heke, "Second World Margin: Indigenous Writing in Aotearoa. 'Don't tell Us Who We Are': Maori Women Define Themselves Through Their Writing," NZWSA Conference papers, 1993, 91.

8. Her own recent comments on this are as follows:

Frame has bought some books on the Maori language and is very interested in the immersion courses that are now available. She's encouraged by the resurgence of interest in Maori language and legends. 'There has always been interest, yet too often it has been the interest of the living directed towards the presumed dead. I think it is marvellous and good that, however slowly - too slowly - the people banished to sleep, to a silence that equates with death, are alive, speaking and writing their own language and sharing its riches.'

Interview with Marion McLeod, "Janet Frame in Reality Mode," NZ Listener (24 September 1988): 26.

9. Interview with Marion MeLeod cited in Delbaere, 207.

10. Valerie Sutherland, "A Ventriloquist in the House of Replicas", Journal of New Zealand Literature (Department of English, University of Otago): 106.

11. "Postmodernism or Postcolonialism? Fictive Strategies in Living in the Maniototo and The Carpathians," JNZL, 114-131.

12. C.K. Stead, "Of Angels and Oystercatchers - A Diary in the Third Person for Janet Frame," Alley, 49.
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Title Annotation:Special Aotearoa/New Zealand Issue; author
Author:Ferrier, Carole
Date:Oct 1, 1994
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