Janet (Paterson) Frame (Clutha) 1924–
New Zealand novelist, short story writer, and poet.
After years of intermittent mental care and hospitalization, Frame was at last able to confront directly her great need to be "an apprentice to solitude and silence," to pursue salvation by "making designs from my dreams." Her first novel, Owls Do Cry, was considered the first important novel by a New Zealander; this work and her subsequent fiction has secured for her an important place in contemporary letters.
(See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
This first novel ["Owls Do Cry"] is very promising, full of the beginner's desire to get everything in, and full of good things mixed up with blunders. Through a fog of deliberately overwritten prose, one gets glimpses of a well-understood working-class New Zealand family muddling along through more than its share of trouble. It is possible to pick up enough of the family's story to realize that Miss Frame is a very sharp judge of character and a writer with a real narrative gift. However, somewhere along the line she has acquired the idea that these are old-fashioned and unaesthetic things to be, and that writing, to be good, ought to be difficult. The result is a tantalizing mess—a book that would have been genuinely impressive if it had been handled simply, instead of being swamped in faked profundity and complexity. (pp. 103-04)
"Briefly Noted: 'Owls Do Cry'," in The New Yorker (© 1960 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. 36, No. 26, August 13, 1960, pp. 103-04.
[In "The Reservoir," the first volume of a collection of Miss Frame's shorter works], the inference is that the Welfare State has lighted up the dark places of the soul without filling the emptiness. People die without having really lived, and those who make a try at life are usually disappointed….
People pursue a dream and then, when it is within reach, are afraid to grasp it. A middle-class timidity rules, but since the author does not connect the failures of society with the failures of people, the modern idiom is missing and many of the stories stop just when you wish they would start making ripples. Perhaps half of them are not true short stories so much as incidents and character sketches in which the saturnine mood becomes a cliché….
Death fascinates Miss Frame. Almost a third of the stories include the word in the final paragraph, where it is usually capitalized. These paragraphs are often little sermons tacked on to the finished story to make sure we get the message. The self-hating must hate others; the lonely neurotic wishes his fate on those who are normal; escape from the human condition is a will o'wisp that beckons only to betray us….
Miss Frame is at her best with children, perhaps because they are not old enough to be really unhappy, yet still young enough to find disenchantment exciting. Childhood is the lost Eden not because it is carefree and lacks the crushing responsibilities of the adult world, but because it compels discoveries—often moral discoveries—which the adult shuns…. And unlike so many of Miss Frame's adult characters, her children are involved with life rather than simply the pathology of living.
"Snowman, Snowman," the second volume of the set is subtitled "Fables and Fantasies."… Not all of Miss Frame's free-wheeling efforts come off, yet the form is well suited to her questing imagination, which tends to move from the concrete to the general. Truth, Honor, Deceit, Myth, Breath, etc., butt each other about like playful sheep, without fear of being sheared by the formal requirements...
(This entire section contains 505 words.)
of the short story….
These are personal statements by an enormously gifted writer who sometimes lets her talent run away with her….
The title piece is a 102-page dialogue between an existentialist snowman and a Platonic "Perpetual Snowflake." It is difficult to pin down the quality that makes this such a memorable piece of work; for one thing, it is free from Miss Frame's customary morbidity, and for another it dares to elevate the fundamental questions of Being and Reality to the level of poetic contemplation…. If I read Miss Frame correctly, she is saying that our fragility is in essence our strength; we "become what we have tried to conquer" and thus survive. For this old snowman never really dies; he simply melts away. What remains is the wisdom of having lived.
David Dempsey, "Only Death Will Solve Everything," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1963 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 18, 1963, p. 4.
The only obligation, said Henry James, to which in advance we may hold a novel is that it be interesting; and if this is true The Adaptable Man is very good indeed. The reader must plough through, or skip, an old-fashioned Prologue and three little chapters of portentous rhetoric, aggravated by lyrical prose; but thereafter the book becomes extraordinarily interesting, indeed bewitching, and remains so to the very last page.
The theme is Past and Present and the struggle between them in the human mind, a ceaseless interaction which may be likened perhaps to that of ocean and land….
[Miss Frame's characters] are not alive. Each is in part an idea, in part a mouthpiece for the author: Their peculiarities do not well up from their innermost being but hang limply on them like an identification tag. For this reason, absorbing as the book is, it does not in retrospect altogether satisfy…. Alwyn murders an Italian farmhand and throws his body in a pool: This is to point up an image of the ancient closed community rejecting an outsider, and to reflect the casual acceptance of bloodshed by 20th-Century man. But we cannot believe Alwyn ever did this deed, any more than we believe in the incest with his mother, because we cannot believe in Alwyn at all.
Miss Frame, moreover, shows the disregard of reality, of hard fact, often met in writers of her philosophical and contemplative mind. She will have us believe that, when the body is fished out of the water, no one even suspects foul play. Later on, without telling us how or why, she lets the Reverend Aisley Maude into the secret and wants us to believe he did nothing whatever about it….
We may wonder really why Miss Frame, a New Zealander, should have chosen to place her novel in Suffolk. She clearly knows the country, the externals are keenly observed and beautifully described, but to write of an alien people in any depth is well-nigh impossible. Even in detail things are slightly but wonderfully wrong, with class patterns awry, landed ladies talking American and village children using middle-class slang…. (p. 20)
But let us turn to Miss Frame's many, and remarkable, qualities. At sea with human character, she is very much at home with a human situation. We shall never know Aisley Maude, with his obsessive archaism, his Anglo-Saxon lore and his mania for St. Cuthbert, as we know stronger fictional clergymen; but his predicament both as a fastidious man in the era of pop religion and as a priest losing sight of God, we both recognize and intensely feel. Here Miss Frame is profound, original and at times delightfully funny: Her eye for the vulgarities and inanities of our time is diabolically sharp….
Freshness is the keynote—freshness of thought, approach, style. And of ear and eye….
If to the impressive range of her gifts Miss Frame now can add the accuracy of touch, the authority, that makes a reader say at the end of a novel, Yes, that was it, so it happened and could not have happened in any other way, she will assuredly rank as a novelist among the very best. (p. 21)
Honor Tracy, "Amid the Alien Corn," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1965 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 153, No. 11, September 11, 1965, pp. 20-1.
There are themes that may be ultimately inimical to fiction. Too absolute a despair about meaningful connection between events is the death of plot. Too great a reluctance to find coherence in personality prohibits the presentation of character. Too feeble a hope of human communication is the withering, ultimately, of style. Janet Frame has sought, in six novels, to express these negative convictions with such brilliance and earnestness that she makes something, if not always a story, of them.
Still, one cannot help feeling that what she makes—call it what you will—is somehow less than her talents entitle her to. What a novelist she might be, I have felt after reading each of her books, if only her imagination were not so severely confined by her views, or, more correctly, her lack of views….
[In] "A State of Siege," the desire to see truly is, as a matter of fact, the compelling force that drives a retired art teacher to leave her southern New Zealand birthplace for an island in the subtropical north. Malfred Signal hopes to be alone with nature and the "room two inches behind the eyes"—free of the dominating presences of her family, free of the long habit of attaching "correct" shadows to coal scuttles, milk pitchers and other humdrum objects. She makes her journey, moves into her beach cottage, and—? Well, what happens is not clearly evident in the bright outer air of the sunny island.
It is somewhere within our heroine that one stormy night a week (or a month?) after her arrival, the drama of her existence seems to stage itself. She hears (or dreams?) a midnight-to-dawn pounding on her door. And while she wakes and sleeps and gets on the disconnected telephone to neighbor, priest, police and doctor, the phantasms of her past rise within her, and those she has loved or hated seek entrance into her present life. When morning comes she is dead, her intruders repelled, though a stone, perhaps proof of some outer reality, has been cast through the window and is found clutched in her cold grasp. What has happened? Where have we been? On a night-journey of the soul, obviously; on a failed spiritual quest and trial enacted in the buried consciousness.
"A State of Siege" is, it can be seen, a study of the isolated and stagnant spirit struggling unsuccessfully for definition and expression. It is related to the author's earlier explorations of lives cut off from outer relationship….
In her current book, Miss Frame sets herself no easy task in seeking our interest in the drab stuff of a spinster's dreams and gropings. And it is not merely the insubstantiality of her material that leaves us without even a stone in hand to prove that something has "happened." Miss Frame's gifts are unquestionably poetic—the description of personal mood and of nature. These, and a verbal wit, are at her command. But she is not, as I think she would like to be, a metaphysical poet; ideas and images do not fuse in her pages. Her style tends to dissolve in mere obscurity. Her poetic voice croons and haunts, she summons wraiths upon the dark heath, but the night passes without revelation. And yet, her fragmented visions are true nightmares, raising authentic goose-pimples upon the skin.
Millicent Bell, "Night-Journey of the Soul," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1966 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 11, 1966, p. 5.
The poems in Janet Frame's The Pocket Mirror abound in neat, topographical observations, rendered sensitively and often given a sophisticated twist. She writes easily about the flora and fauna of her New Zealand landscape, with an occasional more interesting note of reservation and disquiet…. But the ease quickly turns into facility and garrulousness, leaving a finished, but hollow, quality in her diction…. There are too many trivia in the collection—poems of embarrassing word-play or clumsy jabberwocky—and the general effect is of an agreeable, if sentimental, talent given too relaxed a rein.
"Topography and Triviality," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1968; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3442, February 15, 1968, p. 155.∗
The intention of this paper is to examine Janet Frame's two worlds, the people who inhabit them and the forces that have created them. This in turn will involve a discussion of the Life/Death, False/Real, Seeing/Blind, Sane/Insane, Treasure/Rubbish dichotomies that occur in all her works.
"This" world, the one inhabited by most of us, is one where "no one must be out of tune" …, a place where man has been robbed of his individuality and reduced to nothing more than an "empty blackened little column of cardboard" …, a puppet to be manipulated as the paper dolls are made to dance by the old lady in The Edge of the Alphabet….
In "this" world individuality is an affliction rather than a blessing, for "life" necessitates suppression of all that falls outside the accepted pattern; conform or be annihilated…. It is this destruction of the inner life that most horrifies Janet Frame and which has led her to prophesy … that "it is not the birth explosion but the death explosion that threatens to bankrupt man of all that makes him human." What we are all confronted with is a society "determined to drive in the rivets of conformity."… But this need give no cause for alarm. Conformity does not demand agreement. Greta tells Russell in The Adaptable Man, "But you don't have to agree with the age in which you live. It's not there to argue with you; neither you nor it will win an argument. It's there to be adapted to…. You've got to adapt."…
Failure to adapt leads of course to persecution, ostracism, and in some cases destruction, for "No one is different without they have something wrong with them." When reading Janet Frame we are constantly reminded of Patrick White…. Both writers attack societies which are characterized by their prejudice and superstition and their willingness on all occasions to accept "the general judgement." (p. 52)
Both writers are concerned with the plight of the individual in a conformist society. Janet Frame's heroes and heroines are, like Patrick White's visionaries, isolated and alienated in a society which not only scorns and mocks them but also fears them, for it senses in their difference a danger. (p. 53)
The solution of Janet Frame's society to those who fail to conform is, in their own way, the same as that of Kurtz and the Belgian imperialists in Heart of Darkness: "Exterminate the brutes." (p. 54)
What distresses both [Janet Frame and Patrick White] is the antipodean "exaltation of the average," the constant reiteration that "Jack's as good as his master."… I am not for one moment suggesting that the world that Janet Frame describes is peculiar to New Zealand…. One would never question her ability to transcend the local, and she can be equally critical of other societies, e.g., American in Daughter Buffalo. But I would suggest that her problems could be accentuated in a society where "herbacious borders are more precious than a display of bright ideas in the head."… (pp. 55-6)
There are some who dare "to believe what few others are even half afraid to suspect; that things are not what they seem."… In Janet Frame's novels these are the inhabitants of "that" world, the inmates of mental asylums, the epileptics, the mongoloid children, the discarded, eccentric, odd; all those people who live at the edge of the alphabet and who, like Istina Mavet, have "traded their safety for the glass beads of fantasy."…
Society has its own way of dealing with such people…. To contravene the accepted norm is not merely anti-social, it is a criminal act, and those who do so must be locked away until they learn to "adapt."… For "their own good" the patients are persuaded to be divested of their personality; through the lobotomy they can "choose to be changed."… (p. 56)
I find it of interest to draw parallels between Janet Frame's picture of society and that presented by Erich Fromm. Both writers discuss the alienating function of money and the human problem of modern capitalism. (pp. 56-7)
[The] world of Janet Frame [is] the world of the lonely alienated people, "the attentive, abundant yet excluding world of things" … inhabited by automatons robbed of their inner selves, prey to the forces of capitalism as the factory girls in Owls Do Cry are prey to the mill.
The job is the determining subject, the workers mere objects to be moulded to its needs. (p. 58)
Chicks in Owls Do Cry provides the most obvious manifestation of this phenomenon. As a child she was always trying "to catch up." It is a characteristic that she carries with her into adult life, where she becomes a social climber, only interested in people for their profitable exchange value.
For Chicks and others like her, human values are determined by economic values and love is replaced by a number of forms of pseudo-love which are in reality so many forms of disintegration of love. In a world which believes that the most valuable possessions are material possessions love is expressed in the giving of material objects, with the obvious correlation that the more expensive the present the greater the love. The proof of Chicks' love for her daughter is that she will buy her "everything her heart may desire."… The treasure that this society seeks is the one that will "set you up for life"; it entertains the naive belief that in multiplying riches one multiplies life. What Janet Frame shows is that for all its talk of treasure it is in reality an impoverished society, a world not rich in life but "Bankrupt in death."… It has taken hold "of the wrong magic and the wrong fairy-tale" …; the real treasure, "the coins of fantasy mean nothing, have no rate of exchange or any value."… (p. 60)
If these people communicate at all it is through clichés and platitudes plucked, like Beatrice Rainbird's, from a "small garden of prejudice and borrowed ideas."… They cling to the accepted word or phrases just as they cling to the accepted customs.
The paucity of language of these people is in sharp opposition to the rich imaginative language of those who belong to that other world, to those who live at the edge of the alphabet and who see the lining of the word. We only have to compare the language of Daphne and Chicks to realise this. Chicks longs to be able to write in an imaginative fashion but, for obvious reasons, fails to do so. There is one exception and that is when she thinks about her mother…. (p. 61)
Janet Frame constantly stresses the difficulty of communication, particularly for those who inhabit that other world, who live on the "outskirts of communication."… This of course presents technical problems—how can one communicate the inability to communicate? A blank page. How can these people reveal the truth? The italicized sections in Owls Do Cry is one attempt to solve the problem. What seems to me to be an even more ingenious solution is the deliberate misspelling which we find in The Rainbirds. Inability to spell is of course not a sign of anything. The reason why Janet Frame uses it as a sign or symbol of contact with "that" world is I believe one possible means of indicating that contact to the reader….
Whilst there is no doubt that Janet Frame considers life in "that" world infinitely superior to "life" in "this" world she in no way attempts to hide the terror, pain and loneliness of living there. (p. 62)
I dare say there are few of us who, after having read Faces in the Water, would trade our life for Istina Mavet's. We understand why many, unable to bear the isolation, either give up and conform or commit suicide. There is another alternative, to don a mask, a uniform. We are made to understand Sister Bridge's dilemma and why she found it necessary to camouflage her true feelings "in order to protect her and give her prestige among her species and safeguard her own sensitivity."… (p. 63)
In the case of Sister Bridge and Godfrey Rainbird the donning of a mask, a "uniform smile" is a protective device, a camouflage. For other Janet Frame characters the mask can fulfill a slightly different function…. The inhabitants of "this" world resemble … inanimate objects; stripped of an individual identity they too must have a new face painted on. One of the signs that Francie is growing up was her use of make-up; there must be some substitute for the loss of identity. It is perfectly obvious why Chicks who thinks how terrible it would be to be "deprived of one's personality" should become an expert in make-up…. Make-up not only indicates the lack of identity; false eyebrows, false colour, false hair also suggests the fraud-like nature of the new identity and symbolizes the false values of a dead and blind society.
I referred earlier to the blinding effects of work in the mill. Perhaps one of the most frightening aspects of this is our unawareness of the destructive process. Chicks thinks how terrible it would be to be blind, unaware that this is the predicament that she and all others like her are in. These are the people who in Wilson Harris' terms have changed their "living spiritual eye" into a "dead seeing material eye." And not content with their own destruction they quickly learn "to scissor people's eyes out" … to destroy the sight of the inhabitants of "that" world….
We think of Lear … in The Rainbirds when Godfrey Rainbird considers his new situation: "Yet we're naked now, we have no fur, we have nylon underwear, false teeth, time has stolen our third eye, our two remaining eyes grow dim early."… This raises the question of the "third eye." In A State of Siege, Malfred Signal sets out to develop "the room two inches behind the eyes." Monique Malterre has pointed out that
The "dream-room or the room-two-inches-behind-the-eye" in which Malfred's meditation is supposed to take place, calls up eastern cults and religions. The room two inches behind the eye is the very place where Buddhism and Hinduism, particularly taoist and tantric sects, situate the "Third Eye," a sort of superior sense which once it has been properly awakened, allows communication with occult forces.
From this we can understand the importance of the "third eye" for Janet Frame and why it is a recurring symbol in her novels. In The Adaptable Man she points out what a vital role it can play…. In the same novel Janet Frame ironically includes it in the slow evolutionary "advances" of the body "(a castoff appendix here, a shrivelled gland there, a forever sealed third eye, skin-enclosed flightless wing)."… She repeats this notion in Daughter Buffalo emphasizing the fossilization process that must occur through our continuous neglect and unwillingness to use this most vital of all sense organs. (pp. 65-6)
At the conclusion of The Edge of the Alphabet Janet Frame compares the fate of the inhabitants of "that" world to "those yellow birds that are kept apart from their kind—you see their cages hanging in windows, in the sun—because otherwise they would never learn the language of their captors."… But it is not only these people who have been captured. They are in fact "captives of the captive dead" …, of those who have lost "the impulse to fly." What Janet Frame shows is that both groups are imprisoned, not only the inmates of the mental hospitals, and other victims of "this" world. Those on the outside are "caged by custom" …, trapped in a suburban existence, an imprisonment which is symbolized by the fences they erect around their homes; the iron gate of the mental hospital is paralleled by the front gates to the "dens."… (p. 66)
The picture she presents us with is a terrifying one of the shipwreck of civilization. Pervading all her work is a "fear of strangeness and catastrophe in a destitute world." (p. 67)
Anna Rutherford, "Janet Frame's Divided and Distinguished Worlds" (© copyright 1975 WLWE-World Literature Written in English; reprinted by permission of the author), in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 14, No. 1, April, 1975, pp. 51-68.
The theme of the journey has undergone several developments in the literatures of Australia and New Zealand. In both countries (particularly Australia) the concept has been grounded in the mythologies of landscape and history, and in both, the peripatetic movement between 'Home' and colony has registered a deeply embedded sense of cultural schizophrenia. The novels of Janet Frame constitute the most explicit statement in either country of the journey through the contours of the consciousness as a specific psychological imperative.
All Frame's novels are firmly anchored to a central desire to explore the possibilities open to a consciousness willing to break through the accepted limitations of modern society. (p. 12)
Owls Do Cry, Frame's first novel, is important to an understanding of her work, because it introduces the major types which are to populate her novels, and if the characterization seems at times vaguely defined, it is because she sees these characters less as members of a social inter-action than as varying possibilities of human experience. The most common and superficial type in the society is represented by those people who have become so much a part of the social crust of human experience that they cannot even conceive of a journey beyond the known, and make what they can of their existence until a momentary sight of their nothingness destroys them. They are the members of the all too recognizable world of the Waimaru Council with its typically frantic sense that it is being left behind by 'progress'; it is a world of crippling insecurity…. It is a world perhaps best described by Francie, who explains the array of uneaten Easter eggs in Mawhinney's front room by suggesting: 'When you'r grown up you'r frightened to taste the nice things, like Easter eggs, in case you never get them again.' In a novel which seems intensely symbolic, even self-sufficiently allegorical, the most effective feature is perhaps that it becomes social comment by undermining some of the human premises of modern Western culture.
By far the most important types in Frame's work are those represented by Toby and Daphne, the one hovering upon, the other realizing, a capacity to journey past existential boundaries such as those regarded as the edges of sanity. In the terms of Frame's novels these edges are indicative of the always avoided boundaries of true being…. The edges are the beginning of true being because everything within them is the common property of humanity. The novels demand that we see the real discovery of Being as lying beyond the edge, not just of sanity but of all those human limitations that are accepted without question.
The theme of the visionary capacity of madness is an old one, held usually with philosophical or mystical overtones in both Western and Eastern cultures. (pp. 12-13)
In Janet Frame, however, we may detect a peculiarly modern, peculiarly existential development of this tendency that reaches some better known triumphs in Doris Lessing's work. It belongs to that school of thought of which R. D. Laing was the chief spokesman, and suggests that the journey through madness was for some (possibly for all) the only way to an integration of the self. It is a new development of the madness myth, because it makes a more direct connection between what human beings are in their innermost selves and how they behave collectively.
Though in no way influential on Frame (his first work was published eight years after Owls Do Cry), Laing is important because he best synthesizes this particular aspect of liberationist thought in what has come to be known as the intellectual revolution of the sixties. In Laing's view, madness functions in two ways to reveal society to itself. First, the 'mad' person embodies in various forms the society's self-division; second, and more importantly, in the heights and depths of his nature the schizoid individual participates in those realms of existence which conventional society has either denied or never known. Frame is not necessarily concerned with schizophrenia or madness per se, but self-division as it reflects the dilemma of modern society. (p. 14)
The journey Daphne undergoes, and the consistent presence of her italicized commentary, make her the most important voice of the consciousness in the text, and the poem contained in Chapter One is one of the novel's most evocative pictures of her attempt to travel toward the centre. Most interesting is the way in which her attempts to break out of the skin of her existence are thwarted, not merely by the constraint of human society but by the restriction of human existence itself—time and death…. The quest for inner knowledge underlies Daphne's journey beyond the borders of sanity…. She might, and does, find the lush growth of a summer within her, but what use is the find if the parameters of her existence cannot accommodate the truth towards which she is journeying…. [At] the very beginning the novel states a question to be explored—how can man realize a transcendent centrality of being if there are limitations still pinned to him. (pp. 15-16)
Daphne is the mad one. She is the only one who fully accepts the responsibility for the journey into self. Yet at the beginning the desire for treasure and the choice to search for it is offered to all the children, and the obsession with treasure in the dump is a metaphor for the human need for discovery. The children are certain they will find their treasure 'the same way that grown-up people (they thought) go to shops and offices and factories, what they call their work, to find their grown-up treasure'…. At first, all are involved in the world of fairy-tale and freedom, of imagination and 'Intelligence' represented by the chorus-like repetition of Ariel's song from which the novel takes its name. But all engage in a death brought about by, and accentuating among other things, the passage of time. Francie dies at the very edge of possibility, the edge of love, sexuality, and life, burnt by a fire in the dump, consumed by the world of her dream. Daphne dies to society and normality and henceforth speaks from the 'dead-room' of her chosen silence. In contrast, Chicks chooses the death of normality and materialism, while Toby becomes locked into the living death of his own particular half-world. (pp. 16-17)
The children presented in the opening chapters are far more than the members of a family. Each is a formalization of human consciousness exploring the potentialities of its existence in different modes. By extending their lives into an historical and temporal scheme, the novel is able to examine the varieties of possibilities open to an individual within a specific culture, thus developing issues which are purely ontological in kind. This fact, like many others in the novel, is elucidated by the omniscient mode of being and knowledge represented by Daphne…. (p. 17)
[A] reference to the sun travelling from 'dark to dark' is central to the development of the novel and becomes clearer when we see the relationship between Francie and Daphne as modes of being (Daseins) of the same consciousness. On the last day of school Francie is dressed as Joan of Arc in the school play, 'in a silver helmet and breastplate waiting to be burned', and enacts the sacrifice that she is to make in reality later at the dump, the sacrifice necessitated by the search for treasure. Francie is the burnt one because 'in all her knowing she had not learnt of the time of being, the unseen always'. This unseen, this timeless sense of Being (Sein), is what the treasure always represents because it is a wholeness so far beyond the multiplicity of society. At one level, Francie's conflagration reveals the destructive power of the dream, and at another signals an embarkation out of the world of class hatred and wealth discrimination in which she lives. But most important to the symbolic structure of the novel, as a mode of being in the world, Francie is transmogrified into Daphne. Her actual death precipitates Daphne's plunge through the borders of sanity, which demonstrates the path that the consciousness must take when it goes beyond the safety of the 'flags' in search of the 'unseen always' within the self. (pp. 19-20)
Frame couches Daphne's intermittent commentary in a peculiarly intense poetic language, which sometimes seems to be the language of insanity, because the experience she is trying to suggest is beyond language, the product of a journey into a world of silence. The barriers of language, as one example of the barriers of 'reality', are a persistent concern in Frame's novels…. [It is] interesting to consider the logical positivist view of language found in Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico Philosophicus. He says simply that attempts to say anything about the limits of language end in senseless propositions, and attempts to say anything about what lies on the other side of language (e.g. metaphysics) end in nonsense. He is not saying that nothing exists on the other side of language, only that it cannot be spoken about, but 'shown'. Daphne's silence is all she can communicate to those about her because she has progressed beyond the limits of what language can state. But the novel can 'show' her journey in the 'nonsense' propositions of poetry.
The conflict between the compulsion to search for Being and the inability to know how to start gets to the centre of Frame's view of society in the novel, and is a conflict focussed in the person of Toby. His is the type of existence which achieves increasing prominence in Frame's novels, because like most individuals who can see into a realm of possibilities, he is trapped by inadequacy and inaction in a half-world on the fringe of being. Toby's epilepsy is enough to open up a private and lonely world, but not enough to help him journey into it. The indecision of his half-world is focussed in his imaginative relationship with the sea. When he discovers that his hope of marriage to Fay Chalklin has been dashed in favour of Albert Crudge, he dreams of sitting beside the sea watching with Fay and floating her hair on it. The passivity of his relationship with the sea captures the impotence of his state. On his return home from Fay's, his mother 'greeted him with her old love-invitation of food, as if he had starved on his voyaging'. And indeed he has starved, and will starve, because his voyaging cannot penetrate the periphery of possibility.
The metaphor of the sea becomes more insistent later when Toby drives down to the new dump near the river mouth:
Sometimes Toby would drive out to the tip and sit at the wheel and watch the sea and river meet, the trout-brown water spread out like a lap across the smooth ivory stones; and the hesitant sea, reinforced with tide, saying hush, hush to its own talking….
The dump, which is the place of treasure, even now to the grown Toby, has been moved so that he can look beyond it to the symbol of his unaccepted challenge, the sea. The treasure lies out on the inner sea which will not stop its insistent beckoning, yet the kind of journey Daphne has made, the journey beyond accepted restrictions, remains impossible for Toby. (pp. 21-2)
Toby's attempts to make the journey will take him, in The Edge Of The Alphabet, back to England, as if he might accomplish geographically or culturally what he has been unable to achieve existentially. For Frame, whose personal history has taken her some distance along this path, the path from 'this' world into 'that' world, true discovery, lies out beyond the fringes of mundane possibility and it is in these terms that her work must be understood. (p. 22)
W. D. Ashcroft, "Beyond the Alphabet: Janet Frame's 'Owls Do Cry'" (copyright W. D. Ashcroft; by permission of Hans Zell Publishers, an imprint of K. G. Saur Verlag), in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. 12, No. 1, August, 1977, pp. 12-23.
"Living in the Maniototo" could hardly be more different from the fiction that readers may have come to expect from [Janet Frame's] part of the world. Its subject is New Zealanders when they're at home, not in a Maori tourist paradise but in a horrible suburb called Glenheim, where the suicide rate is high and the windowless shopping mall is named Heavenfield….
"Living in the Maniototo" is held together by the consciousness of its narrator, a consciousness as elastic and snappy as a handful of rubber bands. This is no mere double heroine: on the first page we're given the choice of no fewer than 12 possible identities. True, only about four of them are explored in any depth, but the others remain as shadowy potentials. Who can tell what rabbit may pop next from the hat?
The heroine is, simultaneously: Mavis, an ordinary woman who uses the fact that she's "buried two husbands" as tender in her ghoulish conversations with other women at bus stations; a ventriloquist named Violet; and Alice Thumb, a mute observer and riddle-maker. In other words, she's a writer, and this fact has something to do with the novel's many directions.
For Mavis (or Alice, or Violet) is obsessed with words, puzzles, trends, con men, duplicates and replicas; with the problem of distinguishing the real from the imitation; with the implausibility of "real life."…
"Living in the Maniototo" is filled with things that don't happen. It's also full of things that do happen: loving attention is paid to the heroine's two grisly marriages, the grisly interior decorations favored by the inhabitants of Glenheim, the grisliness of a different sort that pervades downtown Baltimore or the quite different ambience of Grizzley Peak Road in Berkeley, Calif. Both sets of data, the believable and the unbelievable, are reported with equal emphasis…. If the effect is to confuse the reader as to the nature of reality, it helps to learn that Mavis herself is equally confused.
The Maniototo is a real place in New Zealand; the word means "bloody plain." It is also a metaphor for the exacting life led by the heroine, for whom Lot's wife is a comforting image: at least she paid attention to what was behind her. Paying this sort of attention is important to the somewhat distracted Mavis.
"Living in the Maniototo" reminds us that the novel is, ultimately, a voice, and it's one of Janet Frame's strengths that the voice she has created holds the reader even though it rarely occupies itself with the complicated plot. The voice is quirky, rich, eccentric, nervous and sometimes naïve, like a cross between Patrick White's novels and Stevie Smith's poems. It is also, in its own terms, authentic. This is not smooth writing, the sort favored by the novel's oily creative-writing teacher, who tells Mavis never to use the first person. The success of "Living in the Maniototo" is that it leaves the reader feeling that the author has pulled it off, though uncertain what "it" is. If the book is a riddle, it is one with several solutions, which is surely a virtue in riddles.
Margaret Atwood, "Split-Level Life in New Zealand," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 16, 1979, p. 13.
Janet Frame may be the most important novelist to come out of New Zealand, but her books are so unlike what we expect a novel to be that they almost evanesce into their own mysticism….
Nevertheless, she's been compared to Woolf for her impressionistic sensibility, to Rilke for her deliberate obscurity—and I'm tempted to add the names of Barnes, Nin, Mansfield, if only to suggest the rarefied atmosphere one encounters while living in the Maniototo.
The Maniototo, in essence, represents the farthest, most inaccessible reaches of personal imagination. Geography and language stand in for plot as Mavis buries two husbands in Blenheim, visits Baltimore, copes with an unexpected inheritance in the magic city of Berkeley. Coincidences and "replicas," in twos and threes, are intrinsic to these gambols among symbols….
[One] can read Living in the Maniototo as a culminating parable for Janet Frame's life in art, paying attention to the fact that she writes novels like spiders make lace—almost instinctively, without looking back.
Carole Cook, "Books in Brief: 'Living in the Maniototo'," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1979 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 6, No. 21, October 27, 1979, p. 43.