Janet Frame Essay - Frame, Janet (Vol. 2)

Frame, Janet (Vol. 2)

Frame, Janet 1924–

Miss Frame, a New Zealander, has published novels, short stories, and poems. Her novels such as Faces in the Water and Owls Do Cry, explore the fine line between sanity and madness, reality and deceitful illusion. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Scented Gardens for the Blind, by the New Zealand writer Janet Frame, is the most remarkable novel that I have read in many years. If it is not a work of genius (I feel that all such heady possibilities should be kept in pickle for a few years), it is surely a brilliant and overwhelming tour de force. I was held captive by it from the first page to the last, as they lightly say of thrillers. Although it is certainly not a novel for everybody, it is assuredly for anybody who values in the novel the qualities more often associated, in our diminished time, with poetry: intellectual complexity, ornate and figurative language, and intense moral seriousness….

So much of Scented Gardens for the Blind is truly, marvelously, imagined. One great theme is a vision of terror embracing the meekest creatures. The danger is from "moth grubs which chew your face in the dark and spit out the wishbones behind your eyes"; pigeons cry "Failcurdle" as rooks cry "Flaw"; the fate of Icarus today is not melting in the sun but being "forced down into a paddock full of strange cattle who have devoured him, flesh, bone, skin, and left only one torn paper-and-paste wing."…

It is hard to guess at the influences behind this amazing book. Lewis Carroll, primarily. Certainly Golding, probably Djuna Barnes (if Dr. O'Connor wrote a novel, this would be it), possibly Virginia Woolf, perhaps William Faulkner, maybe even John Hawkes. It remains a unique and unclassifiable work. I have not read Miss Frame's earlier books, and I am almost afraid to start.

Stanley Edgar Hyman, "Reason in Madness," in his Standards: A Chronicle of Books for Our Time (© 1966; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1966, pp. 239-43.

Janet Frame is a poet, though to my knowledge she has published no book of poetry. Her novels exist for the purpose of illuminating certain mysteries for us—Miss Frame is obsessed with the mysteries of madness and death—but the illumination is attempted through language, not through dramatic tension of one kind or another….

Janet Frame … suffers from an inability to create a fable strong enough to bear the weight of her thematic obsessions. Apart from "Faces in the Water," which dealt impressionistically with madness, her novels begin by delighting and promising much, then undergo a peculiar flattening-out as the reader catches onto the point that will be made. In "Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room" the "idea" is that normal men so abhor death and the mere thought of death that they hate anyone who has knowledge of death, and that death itself, the near-experience of it, renders us afterward incapable of normal life….

[Much] of the novel is finely written, in a peculiar limpid style that seems a cross between Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett. Miss Frame takes her time with writing. Time yawns in her works while people think, have impressions, come to tentative conclusions about the meaning of life. When something does happen—an act of violence, perhaps—it is almost too late dramatically for by then we are convinced that nothing much can happen to surprise a character who has thought about so much, who has analyzed his own predicament and the universal predicament with such compulsive thoroughness. Miss Frame's works deal typically with people who have become inhabited by strangeness, who metamorphose into their "fate," turning transparent and helpless before the inevitability of madness or death.

"Faces in the Water" remains her best book, for here Miss Frame dealt with the fluid boundary between sanity and madness, the watery depths of madness in which the normal "see" their own faces. If they recoil in horror, is it not because they are themselves partly mad?…

But while "Faces in the Water" succeeded brilliantly in its poetic evocation of a world of mad details, "Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room" fails. Where one novel made no special attempt to be a novel, with no devotion to a realistic society or to the tyranny of plot and chronology, the other sticks doggedly to a chapter-by-chapter advancement of the fate of a "dead man" in a real world.

Joyce Carol Oates, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1969 by the New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 9, 1969, pp. 5, 46.

Writing at the very edge of the grotesque [in Daughter Buffalo], Miss Frame reaches for those back alleys of the mind that shelter absolute need. Her characters come alive as obsessions…. She makes morbidity a spectacle, a brilliant mutilating feast….

Like a surreal cartoonist, Miss Frame renders personality as a set of gestures. Her characters' passions are their deeds, their inner lives are their behavior. They are precisely what they do….

Miss Frame is obsessed with the moment of recoil—the time of turning, for Edelman, from embryology to abortion, for Turnlung, from breathing to not breathing, for the buffalo, that moment when she chose death. Each turn amounts to an abandonment of living, an abandonment of any attempt to see oneself in life. Miss Frame sees turning as a tender act, a reaching out, as Edelman does for Turnlung, across the recognition of one's own paucity. Her novel is a poem to the union of the living dead, a Liebestod based on common mutilation and common need. Pathetic and ugly, sad and destructive, it has the grim power of life drawn up as a suicide pact….

She writes with a lyrical brilliance, with a genius for the narrowest, the darkest corners of human need. In this novel, her vision is no wider than a coffin, no deeper than a grave. But she writes with a beauty that confers a morbid grandeur, that makes poetry of the particular, the private, the enclosed. And she has written a novel as gleaming as pure, black, shattered glass.

Josephine Hendin, "Dark Human Corners," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by the New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 27, 1972, pp. 3, 26.

Janet Frame's new novel [Daughter Buffalo] is to be recommended to anyone with a plain healthy interest in death, or in language, or in Janet Frame. It is a curious brew, both tale and argument. The problem is not so much death as it's American solution: the home for the aged, the funeral parlor, the euphemism, the disposal….

Daughter Buffalo belongs to that class of novels which are a writer's statement of complete scepticism. "I know nothing, so I've written a book about it". This one however does go on to tell us something. Of course the riddle of death is not solved. But there is a reply: the strength and grace of Janet Frame's will. The art is not perfect. Frame's writing is uneven, sometimes lame, particularly after she had done something stunningly good, without knowing just where to end it. But considering the ambition of her proposal: to tackle such a monumental subject as death, without morbidity, and to make an answer to so pervasive a fear as the American's at death's inconvenience, without moralizing, the few imperfections of her style are slight. This is a book with scope. For that, Ms. Frame may scatter her patches of beauty as randomly as she pleases, and I will almost be willing to believe it was by design.

Alice van Buren, in Harvard Advocate, Winter, 1973, pp. 84-5.