‘My Last Story’ by Janet Frame

I knew Janet Frame’s work but not well when I appeared at the Auckland Literary Festival, and I appeared on a panel with the writer Damien Wilkins, who read the whole of ‘My Last Story’ to the audience. I have, since then, read the whole of ‘My Last Story’ to my fiction classes. It is a deeply strange story, short enough that, like a poem, you can read it in all directions, back up, run turns of phrase through your finger, and puzzle over its meaning. “I don’t like writing stories,” it begins, and then it goes on, all voice and wry sorrow, to explain why. It has one of the most heart-stopping ends of any story I know, even more heart-stopping when you know that this story was the last in her first book; that the first book won the Hubert Church Memorial Prize; that somebody at the psychiatric hospital where Frame was about to undergo a lobotomy read about the prize, and halted the procedure. Does fiction matter? This seems a definitive answer.

First published in The Lagoon and Other Stories, Caxton Press, 1951; collected in Prizes: The Selected Stories of Janet Frame, Counterpoint 2010; available to read online here

‘Swans’ by Janet Frame

It takes a lot for me to recommend a story in which a cat dies. I hope I’ve not spoiled this one, but I think it is obvious that the cat will die after the first few lines. I would only ever recommend a story in which a cat dies if it were written by a superlative writer, and I consider Janet Frame one of the best writers. Frame’s short stories tend to be more realist than a lot of her other work, although she is best known in the UK for her more realist novels like Owls Do Cry and Faces in the Water as well her memoirs. Personally I prefer her at her most strange such as in Scented Gardens for the Blind and The Edge of the Alphabet. Frame muddles reality in a way that most writers would never dare, she takes what isn’t clear and she pushes through, she won’t coddle you, you have to meet her where she is in her mind. In ‘Swans’ (another gem from a book once owned by my mother, several decades ago) a mother takes her children to the beach, but they end up at the wrong beach. It’s a very short story, but in it Frame gives the reader all the proof and tools needed to dissect, and eviscerate, the mother for the simple mistake of getting off the train at the wrong stop. She sows tiny seeds of doubt in the mother’s ability and possibly sanity throughout and all the while plays with language the way a child might. She has the rare ability to make words on the page reverberate in your brain, sounds playing off one another. I equally admire Frame so much for the way she writes mental illness and also children’s perspectives, which perhaps only possible given her own history.

First published 1951 in The Lagoon and Other Stories and collected in The Secret Self: Short Stories by Women J.M. Dent & Sons 1987

‘The Bull Calf’ by Janet Frame

From a tale of corrupted adult natures to another of childhood innocence. Like many, I first came across Janet Frame after watching Jane Campion’s film, An Angel at My Table. Then read her autobiography published under the same name. If you haven’t read it, why not? My God! And when you discover that she received electroshock therapy in 1940s New Zealand after a diagnosis of schizophrenia, and was then scheduled to have a lobotomy – only to be reprieved at the last minute because her first story collection had won a literary award – well, then you think, at least in this one case fiction actually achieved something. At least this time it really mattered. My favourite novel of hers is The Edge of the Alphabet, which conjures a drab post-war London now long gone. My favourite short story is this one, ‘The Bull Calf’.
Frame not only had to contend with mental illness, but struggle with rural poverty too. It seeps across every page – the fraying clothes, the toe and heel plates fixed to her shoes, the home-made sanitary towels made from torn-up old sheets. Every morning she has to milk the cow before school, and the cow’s usually wandered off, miles away. Resentment seethes inside Olive Blakely, Frame’s stand-in for this story, but it’s never overdone. (That’s one of the best aspects of Janet Frame’s writing – there’s never a feeling that she has to strive for an effect. Nothing’s overcooked, it’s all so natural). One day, in the darkness, she comes across two men attacking the bull calf that lives in a nearby field. At least that’s what they seem to be doing. In fact they’re neutering it but she’s too young to understand. Her father and mother won’t tell her what’s going on and seem embarrassed when she starts crying and telling them that the bull calf’s bleeding to death. Now for the strange and memorable twist: a Chinese family is visiting (and where have they come from? How many Chinese people could there have been in 1930s South Island, NZ?) and the young man of the family hands her a bowl of water containing a narcissus: “You have it. It is for you.” Taking it upstairs, she “touched the petals gently, stroking them, marvelling again at the transparency of the whole flower and the clear water where every fibre of the bulb seemed visible and in motion as if brushed by secret currents and tides.”
Curiously, I was in New Zealand when Janet Frame died. Suddenly portrait shots of this reclusive writer were on the covers of big-circulation magazines, smiling and radiant, as if her story had had its happy ending after all. Yet the feeling I got was that still no-one really knew what to make of her; some part of her awkward personality continued to embarrass them to the end. (By ‘them’, I mean the general public, whoever they might be). Her work was badly stocked in the bookshops and nowhere to be found in the second-hand stores. Despite her success, the books themselves had hardly flooded the market. Well, who wants to read about poverty, about being strapped down for enforced electroshock therapy, and who, above all, wishes to be reminded that we New Zealanders came within a whisker of slicing off a part of a young woman’s brain, a young woman who happened to be our most gifted writer in a hundred years? Easier to just forget it – and her! So said the general public. But long live Janet Frame – says I.

From The Reservoir, The Pegasus Press, 1966. Collected in You Are Now Entering The Human Heart, The Women’s Press, 1984

‘The Linesman’ by Janet Frame

 I looked from my window and saw him already working, twisting, arranging wires, screwing, unscrewing, leaning back from the pole, dependent upon his safety belt, trusting in it, seeming in a position of comfort and security.

Not even a whole page! There are lots of things by Janet Frame that I Iike, but I’ve never worked out how to teach any of them. This nicely worked little story perfectly captures the feeling of being young in summer, and is so neat it near enough teaches itself. Nothing happens, everything seems achingly slow, and the last line is a killer.

A nice thing to do is to ask the kids “what happens next” and have them write their own continuations.

Published in The Reservoir, George Brazillier, 1993

‘Between My Father And The King’ by Janet Frame

This short story hovers around 800 words and manages to destroy me each time I read it. It’s hard to talk about a short story without any spoilers but let’s just say Janet Frame’s stories are a masterclass in everything a short story could do. Like Paley, she travels in time, and like Paley she is here painting a picture both of a child’s relationship – during childhood and looking back as an adult – with her parents, and imagining the parents’ marriage, using the apparently small and specific to tackle the largest issues, from love and death to war and government. I use this short short story in workshops, cutting it up and handing around only one piece at a time, to give students a sense of how a writer sets up expectations and then both fulfils and subverts them brilliantly. And, of course, how few words it can take to do this.

First published in Between My Father And The King: New and Collected Stories (Counterpoint, 2013), and available to read online here

‘A Night at the Opera’, by Janet Frame

The New Zealand author Janet Frame is best known for the autobiographical trilogy published as An Angel at my Table, and the subsequent film by Jane Campion. It was Frame’s stories and novels, though,  which would prove a lifeline and her way out of rural poverty, family tragedy and mental instability. Frame was frequently admitted to psychiatric hospitals in her 20s and underwent electroconvulsive therapy following a diagnosis of schizophrenia. She was scheduled for a lobotomy, which was cancelled when, in 1951, her dreamlike first collection of fiction,The Lagoon, won one of NZ’s most prestigious literary awards, an almost unbelievably fated intervention. In this story, found among Frame’s papers after her death, a screening of the Marx Brothers’ classic film parallels the humdrum yet surreal routine of the residents of Park Lane Hospital, where ‘the weeks had no name, nor the months, nor the years’.

(Published posthumously in the New Yorker, 2008. Available online)