'This story came last night. Everything is always a story, but the loveliest ones are those that get written and are not torn up and are taken to a friend as payment for listening, for putting a wise keyhole to the ear of my mind.'
The fate that awaited Janet Frame really doesn't bear contemplation when you read lines like that does it?
My recent experience with Towards Another Summer and a good egging on from Linda Grant and Stella Duffy in comments sent me a-hunting and I didn't have to go too far, to Bloomsbury in fact for these most perfect of editions from the Classics Collection, which at £10.99 back in the 1990s I'll admit I by-passed. However they seem to be readily available second-hand and still very covetable indeed.
The Lagoon is the book that saved Janet Frame's mind and most probably her life given that prior to its publication and subsequent garnering of literary accolades Janet was scheduled to undergo a lobotomy having been admitted to a mental hospital for depression.
This knowledge alone ensures that I will probably always read Janet Frame with that sort of reverence for a prodigious talent that could have been so tragically wiped out, lost forever and with utter gratitude for what still awaits for me to read, and the tears consequently well up in my eyes especially over stories like The Bedjacket.
'It was almost Christmas time and everybody in the mental hospital was wanting to go home.Some had homes and some didn't but that made not much difference, they all wanted to go to a place that could be called home where there were no locked doors...'
But setting the overt emotion aside what follows, as Nan one of the patients decides to knit her favourite nurse a bedjacket as a gift, is a little triumph. Poor Nan, and in a complicated shell pattern when she hasn't even knitted before. Determined and focused suddenly Nan's life has meaning as normal emotions invade her life in full measure, love, frustration, resentment, perseverance and achievement, sensations she probably hasn't experienced for real in years.
'blue and soft and beautiful...Nan wrapped it in tissue paper and the whole ward was allowed to unwrap the paper and fondle the jacket and say how lovely, Nan, it's lovely.'
With the completion and the new experience comes a whole new dilemma for Nan to resolve,
'...now I've made it I don't want to give it away, because it's mine, I made it.It belongs to me. Nothing's ever belonged to me before. I made it. It belongs to me.'
For a succinct assessment of the disempowering effects of mental illness look not an inch further, it's all here.
Many of these stories are about a subject I'm sensing is a Janet Frame speciality, childhood.
I get the impression that here is a writer quite uniquely barely a feather's breath away from her 'inner child' and readily able to recall the very essence of childhood memory, those treasure basket five senses of babyhood so gloriously unsullied, sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. Delving back on dovegreyreader scribbles I unearth this and it's been quite a revelation to read and I'll say no more on that subject beyond 'those were the days.'
Little microcosms of childhood experience captured and distilled by Janet Frame as of the moment and in a childlike stream of consciousness that feels so real I was instantly connected to my own.Threads run through, moments of real affinity with anyone's childhood and they are readily picked up in Janet Frame's writing.
'Breathe in slowly and quietly Miss Richardson said. The class breathed in slowly and quietly all except Ivan Calcott who made a noise breathing in. On purpose...
Breathe in, class, slowly and quietly and breathe out, counting up to ten...except Minnie Passmore and me who got as far as fifteen. We didn't mean it, it just happened we had more breath left...'
or this as Jan and Minnie walk home from school having decided they are now 'best friends'.
'Come up to our place and see the kite Grandad's making.
- I have to tell Mum first I said, in case she thinks I've been kidnapped and she doesn't know.'
I had begun to think that Penelope Fitzgerald might be forever lonely, enshrined as my greatest contemporary woman writer forever. Others have come close but never quite reached that top stair but I've extended the pedestal and put a throne alongside and Janet and Penelope are getting along like a house on fire. Now I consider, and of course perhaps there's a link because I've always felt Penelope Fitzgerald understands her child characters with empathy and precision.
I need no convincing whatsoever to read as much of Janet Frame as I can lay hands on. As per Linda Grant's 'superb' accolade I have Michael King's biography Wrestling With the Angel en route, and having started Owls Do Cry I know I'm going to need to ration and pace myself because a feast of great magnificence beckons.