'I like reading. Once the words are on the page they never change; when you open a book the print never falls out.'
It's official, Janet Frame and I are now friends and it's been a friendship waiting a very long time to be forged.
The Janet Frame Reader has been sitting unread on my shelves for years, patiently trying to catch my eye and I'll own up, it was the cover of that 1995 Women's Press edition that unnerved me slightly. Janet peers at me through half-closed eyes, almost as if she is squinting into the sun, as if looking at another person wide-eyed is almost too dazzling and disconcerting for her to manage, but at the same time it's challenging, direct, almost uncomfortably so, demanding something from me and I was never quite sure what. Corkscrew curly grey hair frames a face that always seemed to me to be etched with past pain and life-experience, it's an uncompromising photograph but one that I'm now beginning to understand.
What little I knew of Janet Frame... from New Zealand, that her autobiography An Angel at My Table was a very rewarding read, a history of mental illness, years in a mental hospital and depression treated with insulin and over two hundred sessions of electro-convulsive therapy, much-loved and respected writer, unbridled elation from Stella Duffy at the Du Maurier festival in Fowey when it was announced, during the Virago 30th anniversary event that Virago are bringing Janet Frame's books back into print and I made a note to myself, it was time to make her acquaintance.
Well, it's none of these books that have set me on the trail but a novel, recently published by Virago and considered by Janet Frame to be too personal to publish in her own lifetime. Two copies of the typescript of Towards Another Summer were nevertheless left bound and preserved in seperate locations in what has now been deemed an assumption of post-humous publication, and after careful consideration the board of the Janet Frame Literary Trust agreed. I for one am most grateful they did.
Writer Grace Cleave is thirty, unmarried, a native New Zealander, exiled and homesick, living in a cold wintery London and sees herself as a migratory bird 'it is time for me to fly towards another summer',
'How had she ever become used to living in Great Britain, she wondered. How had she ever been able to exchange the sun, the beach, the shimmering tent of light, the dramatic landscape, mountains, rivers, gullies, glaciers, for the brick bleeding wound that seemed so much part of this country.'
Not a difficult sentiment to identify with when you realize this book was written in 1963, the year of Sylvia Plath's death; London hasn't been as cold and wintery since and surely the presence of a Sylvia in the book no coincidence? A bout of writer's block prompts Grace unusually to accept an invitation to stay with friends for the weekend,
'She... was a writer, self-styled, and it was in between the second and third parts of her novel 'in progress' that the weekend intruded itself; it stuck in the gullet of her novel; nothing could move out or in, her book was in danger of becoming a 'foster-child of silence'.
It is the writing of the account of the weekend that Grace feels might 'free her characters for their impelled dance or flight' and what follows is an intricate, part stream-of-consciousness insight into the workings of a mind that is struggling to fit into a world where it feels it just doesn't belong.The perceived awkardness of her every move at Philip and Anne's home honed to a sharpness and vividness of detail by that heightened awareness of the acutely introspective mind.The mind that analyses ever last interaction, every word, every glance, every single moment and considers itself in judgement both wanting and lacking, all so finely pinned down on the page that here is a book that offers real understanding of the tortures and insecurities that can actually stalk anyone who finds themselves in that position of low self-esteem for whatever reason.
The succession of everyday events, so often taken for granted, that ambush unexpectedly and become the stuff of nightmares
'Now journeys were not simple matters for Grace; nothing is simple if your mind is a fetch-and-carry wanderer from sliced perilous outer world to secret safe inner world.'
'It was taking so long to get used to the ways of the world;Grace did not think she would ever learn.'
'Do they mean me to say Yes or No, Grace wondered. I have no social intuition.'
It is too easy to leap to the assumption that this is a purely autobiographical novel, and reading up briefly on Janet Frame's life and her mis-diagnosis of schizophrenia, it's almost inevitable that readers might. Janet Frame avoided a lobotomy only after winning a prestigious literary prize and then spent many years resisting that labelled portrayal of herself as "crazy". She lived the life she chose as a writer not the teacher her family had wanted her to be.
I've gleaned just a fraction of a potted resume which I think only hints at the trauma and I now want to read much more by and about this astonishing writer, but it served me well to remember that Grace Cleave was a fictional character despite the background and even the significance of the name. The multiple interpretations of 'cleave' as both to split asunder and to adhere and attach suggest the dilemmas that beset Grace's mind as she strives both to be herself, an individual with an identity yet to feel she belongs. Very clever, this book is pure poetry and offers rich reading rewards, I have savoured every line, just about every word.
It's interesting to note, there is little as I recall about physical appearance yet Grace's mind and personality are so intricately and carefully fleshed out on the page that Towards Another Summer has survived the first half being read pre-Dartington in July and pre-Booker longlist and the second half afterwards, I don't think many books would have managed that.
Now I discover that Pamela Gordon, Janet's niece and literary executor writes a blog, Slightly Framous and there is a great deal more fascinating primary source information there as well as wonderful photographs.
Thank heavens Janet and I are now friends, I like her a lot.