I have an embarrassing confession: I know hardly anything about Janet Frame and Frank Sargeson. This is tough to admit for an English major, but in fact I spent four years taking English Literature at the University of Canterbury where Evans teaches New Zealand Lit and I assiduously avoided all of his classes. (It’s not Evans himself. I’m sure he’s lovely. But I had different interests.) And I’ve hardly read any of their work, either. To the Is-Land, of course, in sixth form. A bunch of F rame’s short stories, mostly during high school; the one that stands out for me (although I have no idea why) is “The Bed Jacket”. And I’ve started, but never finished (I will! I promise!) Owls Do Cry. My record with Sargeson is even more dismal. Once, probably when I was around seventeen, I owned a collection of six New Zealand novellas or long short stories, and Frank Sargeson’s was the only one I did not finish. It put a permanent crimp in my potential affection for him – although, to be honest, I don’t believe I would ever have much enjoyed his work. We share few interests and attitudes.
So I came to this novel, which explores the year and a half where Frame lived and wrote on Sargeson’s property, with very, very little knowledge. In fact I really knew two things: Janet Frame had been in a mental asylum, and Frank Sargeson was gay. And as a friend of mine said after her own experience with the book, that’s all she came away knowing, too. This friend found that experience frustrating; I found it uplifting. I’ve read a number of reviews of Gifted, and they were all – understandably – preoccupied with the historicity of the novel. How much of this portrait of two famous New Zealanders is real? Can we trust it? Will Evans reveal to us some great or shocking mystery? How about sex?
She came into my life heralded by trumpets, or in fact a car horn, two peremptory parps irrupting into my early Saturday afternoon snooze, followed ten or twenty seconds by a rat-a-tat-tat! at the door … And that is how I acquired Miss Janet Frame, promising-writer-in-chrysalis-form, genius-in-the-bud, and for an unspecified period of time my live-in house-or-hut guest. Because, momentarily, I saw her as a fellow-sufferer, a comrade-in-arms in the unsleeping fight against the enemy that, like the Japanese at Singapore, attacks from behind.
Well, no. Hardly any of the novel – at least, so Evans claims – is factual. The set-up is different – Frame shows up more or less unannounced, while in reality Sargeson invited her. Other than Sargeson’s “on-again off-again come-again mate” Harry Doyle, none of the peripheral characters are historical. Absolutely no sex. In fact the fictional Sargeson spends around three pages talking in circles to produce in the reader the impression that old people don’t have sex, and gay people don’t have sex, and old gay men definitely, definitely don’t have sex. Sargeson thinks Frame is having sex, but actually – spoiler – she’s just knitting. And there are no great revelations – at least I didn’t notice any – about either writer. I didn’t learn, in that demanding way we require of certain kinds of historical books, very much from this book.
What I did get from this book was a feast of wonderful writing and two delightful characters, only somewhat familiar to me, who sprang off the page and fought each other all across Takapuna and through the vegetable garden. This book is a wonderful book about writers and writing that manages not to be alienating to those readers who, like me, feel strongly that writers tend often to overdramatise the difficulties of their life’s work. (I’m just reading Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys in which he describes writing as “the midnight disease” which forces writers to do horrible things to the people around them so they have something to write about. If I could only be confident Chabon was joking, I’d be enjoying the novel a lot more.) Instead the fictional Frame and Sargeson treat their writing as a job, a real one, but not mundane or optional: something they must do, but something from which they are capable (certainly in Sargeson’s case; perhaps less in Frame’s case) of gaining a little distance and a critical eye. Their writing may define the shape of their lives, but does not ruin it. Both Frame and Sargeson have external difficulties which are capable of doing that themselves, and perhaps it is those that keep them from cursing their writing as the dark burden so often described by the helplessly Byronic.
Perhaps my favourite thing about the novels was the clash between the fictional Sargeson and Frame’s purposes and businesslike attitudes towards their writing. For Sargeson,
Then you become–I don’t know– an anatomist of folly. You take this world with all its mindless restrictions, its–obsession with other people’s sexual business– and you turn it on its head– … I mean, was your childhood like that? I demanded. Was it like Little Women?
No. No, it wasn’t–
Then there’s your task! I told her. That is what you must do–it’s the task of every serious writer in this country. Tell the truth about puritanism–
… that what we write owes something to society, that it comes out of society–society, life, whatever you want to call it–and goes back into it in an endless cycle …
However magical they might seem now we look back at them, however exotic, in their time they were just plain old words, and most of them, I think you’ll find, bleared and smeared with toil. The two go hand-in-hand, sad to say, talking and trading. Disappointingly prosaic, but that’s the hard fact of it–words and work–
Slowly, I started to set out for her what it was we’re all doing, not just writers but of course those of us who find ourselves fetched up here in a time and a place that culturally speaking are on the dark side of the moon. Introduce the landscape to the land– an excellent phrase one of my friends used in a recent poem: I talked about that, and I used a similar phrase from a review I’d read a few years ago about living with the land. It’s not that I thought completely like that, you understand, I mean I always knew there was something more to our project than just that first accommodation. But I wanted to make it clear to here that is is a project that the writer of today is involved in here, and that because of history we are obliged to work together to find a way of writing about what is around us so that those who come next don’t have to do it, so that they may have what we never had, the beginnings of a local tradition. And I did in fact think in terms of terra firma, the ground we stand on–that cultivated world outside my window where green shade grew green thoughts and for whose continued growth my own generation (such as we were) must provide heroic, willing compost–
For Evans’ Sargeson writing is a matter of social responsibility, a matter of reflecting eloquently and accurately the Real World, the Way Things Are, and also to preserve things that are lost. The fictional Sargeson speaks movingly about a lost New Zealand and his search to immortalise it in the tales of the old men with whom he spent a great deal of time, and also in this passage, he suggests that the task of New Zealand writers of his generation was to get the landscape down, as it were, to create a foundation for a New Zealand literature that would then no longer have to be quite so preoccupied with its own New Zealand-ness. This is writing as a very specific kind of project. It’s interesting to wonder, in the context of the publication of this book, whether the task was completed: does this book, dwelling as it does with the landscape of (Pākehā) fiction in New Zealand, constitute another contribution to the foundation? Or because it does look at these accepted, canonical Greats, does that mean it must have succeeded, there is a New Zealand Literature and NZ books no longer have to introduce the landscape to the land? Because they’re there to be pointed at?
On the other hand, the fictional Frame speaks eloquently of language itself as the point of writing:
You speak a world, she said. Yes, that’s what it is–a language that uncreates–
She’d been working it out in front of me, working it out for herself as she sat there. I waited. She looked at me for a moment and then away–
A language that rolls back the reel of time and reverses the Fall, she said. So there’re no more gaps between us, people aren’t strangers anymore … A language that will heal us and make us whole, she said … Language as utterance–
This is much less obviously writing as work, but it is, if you look at it, and I think that’s probably my favourite thing about this book. Writing as something that gets done while the people doing it are also fighting and knitting and gardening and cooking and missing people and loving people and making wine – and not while they’re drugged to the gills, cheating on their wives, sleeping with teenagers. They certainly aren’t doing those things because they’re writers. At any rate Frame’s idea of fiction is obviously much more modern and more familiar to me because, after all, I know her work better. And it’s just generally charming – she prefaces it with an anecdote about St Cuthbert who was preaching in the sea, to the waves, and the otters came and listened and then dried his feet. This is a very specific kind of magic that’s also familiar to me from, you know, actual fantasy – you speak things, and they occur; because your language is so good, so precise, so complex and close in its understanding of what it’s speaking about that it causes these things to come to pass. (Readers familiar with Diane Duane’s young adult fantasy series, Young Wizards, will also find this concept very familiar.) Anyway, it’s a really lovely explication of the idea.
I know I’m supposed to have a concluding paragraph here, but I’m not really sure what to put in it. The language in this book is lovely, creative without being maddening; the book is lively and juicy in its images, its ideas, and its wordplay. Frame and Sargeson leap off the page rather wonderfully, and it’s an absorbing, delightful read as well as a nice period piece, thoroughly soaked in its 1950s Takapuna setting. Don’t read this book if you’re looking for a great reveal – oh, that‘s what Frame meant when she wrote that – that’s not the purpose of this book or, rather than putting words in Evans’ mouth, I’ll say that’s not what I got out of it. Instead I got out of it a what-if, a wondering. What were they like together? What did they do, how did they play, did they talk to each other about their prose, about their wider relationships? The novel isn’t a definitive answer, but it’s a charming one.
Want to read reviews of Gifted written by people who are actually familiar with the birth and death dates of Frame and Sargeson? Good idea. Try this interview with Evans, the ODT review, and “A new frame for Frame”, the Listener review. Want to buy Gifted? Makes a great Christmas gift! NZ$30 direct from VUP (only $15 for the ebook!) or from your local independent bookshop.