'A word which is exciting to look at and say and doesn't slop its meaning over the side is good; a word which comes up from the well is good; a word which clusters like last year's bee around last year's flower is bad if the flower is already dead, but good if the flower is surviving, beautiful, and alone in a place where flowers have not been known to grow and where bees have never swarmed before nor gathered nectar.'
Haberdashery....harbinger... I've been trying to think of them, words which don't slop their meaning over the side, though who can know which words Janet Frame had in mind when she wrote that.
Pamela Gordon, Janet Frame's niece and literary executor, made contact when I first mentioned Janet Frame on here last year and it was a lovely and unexpected e mail from Pamela recently which sent me scooting off to the Janet shelf to pick up another of her books to add to the Easter reading pile.
Pamela had seen coverage of the Kayaker's whale moment on New Zealand TV and kindly wrote to let me know. The upshot of that whale meeting that dolphin might be that I think I have just read my best Janet Frame novel to date, even if I do love Owls Do Cry as much as...as.. a lot.
Living in the Maniototo is probably the perfect book to read right after a Muriel Spark, not only for its wonderfully quirky sense of humour but also for the way that Janet Frame, like Muriel Spark, playfully exposes the art of the writer.
In fact if you are a writer and happen to be reading this...well thank you kindly and very much for visiting (but don't you think you really should be knuckling down to that latest book that we're all waiting for...and you've already spent a while on Twitter and Facebook today) and far be it from me to teach you to suck eggs because you're all probably brilliant at this novel-writing lark already and don't need any help from me who wouldn't have the first clue, but can I suggest that Living in the Maniototo might be well worth the read.
The Maniototo is Maori for 'plain of blood' and does exist, a hot, dry plain in the very south of New Zealand's South Island and could equally be hobbled into the Latin for 'total madness', but thanks to Linda Grant's preface I know it's also,
'the place where the novelist writes. It is the faraway look in a writer's eyes... the place inside the novelist's head to which she retreats.'
Janet Frame does something so clever here, choreographs something so complex and does it so capably that I had to keep stopping to figure out exactly what she had done and quite how she'd done it.
This is a book about the life of the novelist and the writing process; the power and control the writer has at their fingertips to create people and situations, combined with that canny knack Janet Frame has of blurring the boundaries of fiction and reality, as her narrator teasingly tells us
' commuting between 'real life' and 'fiction!' '
And my thanks to Pamela Gordon for permission to use this wonderful picture of Janet Frame, taken in Baltimore by John Money...and Pamela also tells me Janet made no secret of the fact that her friend John was the inspiration for 'Brian' in this novel.
Eventually I was so deeply tangled up in Living in the Maniototo that I hardly knew where I was and it became the most amazing reading experience.
A bit like sitting in a bookish version of the hairdressers and looking into an infinity of mirrors, a constant repetition of self but slightly further removed and more distant each time...sorry that probably doesn't make sense, it's quite a difficult reading sensation to cut and blow-dry into words...perhaps I'll stop that analogy now.
Linda Grant in her introduction to the new Virago edition writes a wonderful homage to the experimental novel and its power to either enthrall or depress. As readers we naturally seek obvious plot, and when it doesn't emerge quite as readily as we'd like, books can fly across the room.
All I can suggest is please don't cast this one aside, it's worth persevering or you'll miss some of the most wonderful words in the most perfect order,
'...a prose sentence which touches like a branding iron is good. A sentence which keeps its feet clean from beginning to end is good. A sentence which, travelling, looks out of portholes as far as horizons and beyond is good. A sentence which goes to sleep is good, if the season is winter; bad if it is early spring...'
or this on the art of writing,
'I'd imagined that it would be like watching a fire running along a fuse, against time and life, to explode a once-buried seam of meaning along a disused word-face...'
Janet Frame says this much and then reveals it over and again in so many different ways,
'I have to cry out here that language is all we have for the delicacy and truth of telling, that words are the sole heroes and heroines of fiction.'
People indulge in 'vacuuming glances' and are at risk of losing 'life's parcel of prestige and confidence' when illness strikes. Their talk 'darns a hole in the silence' and page after page had me stopping and glorying in Janet Frame's exquisite word mastery.
Gina Mercer writing in Janet Frame - Subversive Fictions picks up on the word 'manifold' which features frequently, suggesting that Living in the Maniototo is a 'maze of many folds' , a maze full of pitfalls designed to subvert expectations, mirrors which will distort the smooth reading path (Gina's obviously been to Vaughan's hairdressers too) which is suddenly littered with obstacles, this is circus reading with Janet Frame as the ring mistress, completely in control of her material and her reader.
'She plays a marvellous ring-mistress, out to show that her fiction, all fiction, is an elaborate game performance where the author pits her wits against those of the reader. She puts all the fictional devices through their paces in the ring, revealing the masks, the greasepaint, the tricks of lighting, the costumes and the stilts - all the equipment needed to create illusion and still she manages to create illusions. While teasing and wickedly playing with the reader, she still provides entertainment and delight.'
Loved every word.