2 October 2012

Janet Frame: An Angel at My Table (1982–85)

An Angel at My Table, the autobiography of New Zealand writer Janet Frame (1924–2004), consists of three books: To the Is-Land (1982), An Angel at My Table (1984), and The Envoy from Mirror City (1985). The first book describes Frame's childhood in Oamaru, South Island; the second book covers the beginning of her aborted college days in Dunedin, through the years of her incarceration in mental hospitals, to a kind of rebirth with mentor Frank Sargeson in Takapuna, Auckland; and the third describes Frame's days in Europe, through her discovery that she never suffered from schizophrenia to her return to New Zealand after seven years abroad.

The autobiography covers much of the ground that Michael King covered in Wrestling with the Angel: A Life of Janet Frame (2000), although Frame's trilogy ends 1964–65, whereas King's book ends in 1999, five years before her death. And whereas King's book is scholarly with extensive endnotes and Index, Frame's is emotional and poetic, occasionally impressionistic, without any textual apparatus. Also, unlike King (who – it is worth noting – received the full cooperation of his subject), Frame changes the names of some of the characters: her brother George (or Geordie) becomes 'Bruddie' or (on at least one occasion) 'Robert'; the psychologist John Money becomes 'John Forrest'; her friend Elizabeth Pudsey Dawson (or 'Peter') becomes 'P. T. Lincoln' (or 'Paul'); and in Ibiza the American painter Harvey Cohen becomes 'Edwin Mather', and her lover George Parlette she simply refers to as 'Bernard'.

The book titles are instructive: Frame used to say 'is-land' as a child because that pronunciation is logical, but the expression – clearly – also represents Frame's early existential trajectory; her mother used to believe in angels although (as I noted in my review of King's book) she took the title from a line in Rilke's 'Les Vergers'; and The Envoy from Mirror City refers to the self and the imagination.

There are many insights in this book, and many clues as to how Frame's mind worked in the process of becoming a writer from her early attempts through to the mid-sixties, sometimes from the words of poems or expressions that she carried in her mind since a child, sometimes by assimilating the words of poets in her youth and adulthood, sometimes simply by letting her imagination become swept up by the beauty of individual words, often placenames. Obviously, though, her childlike wonder never left her.

An electroencephalograph reading suggested that Frame's brain functioning was 'more normal than normal', and indeed she comes over as saner than the vast majority of people, although at the same time of course with far more intelligence, sensitivity and creativity than most. This is a compelling read by an extraordinary writer.

Below are links to other blog posts of mine:

Janet Frame in Oamaru, New Zealand
Michael King: Wrestling with the Angel: A Life of Janet Frame

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