Sunday, October 3, 2010

On Janet Frame's The Lagoon and Other Stories

My review of Janet Frame's post-humously published anthology, Prizes, appears at Gently Read Literature this month. Check it out here.

I found Janet Frame when I was in Germany, actually on a day trip to Hamburg, when I was still living in student housing at the University of Kiel. Pushed beyond my comfort zone and strung out on the continual uncertainty of whether my nouns should be in accusative or dative case, I craved English, although not spoken English...I wanted to glide silently over familiar nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs and not be required to offer any appropriate response, largely because I was beginning to have trouble with English, too. My friends and I used to lose the English words for an object or activity and simply insert the appropriate German word, and we all understood each other. Of course, this method of communication, which we dubbed Germlish, worked less effectively during my telephone calls home, but Mom eventually figured things out based on contextual meaning).

So, in a bookstore in Hamburg, I went to the foreign language section and exhaustedly gazed at all the covers. Not the titles. Not the author names. My tired eyes rested on Frame's first fiction collection, The Lagoon and Other Stories, the slender book that saved her from a lobotomy (although I did not yet know this defining detail). The collection was in paperback form, luring me with its silvery-blue, utterly calming beauty (the exact cover appears above). This mirrored body of water, flanked by a spikey, otherworldly flora that looked simultaneously petrified and alive, caused me to pick up the book and carry it to the register--without so much as flipping to the first page. At that time (I was 22), the cover spoke directly to my projected (and admittedly narrow) understanding of mysticism and its unfathomable nature. (Incidently, that offers a case study on a book cover's power. Sadly, I judged, but happily, I was not disappointed by the contents.) Most importantly, though, the book was in English, and it was just the balm my linguistically fatigued mind needed. (Later, I found Irvine Welsh, whose work was so depressing that it drove me from my apartment to roam the streets of Munich at night....but that's another story.)

This is how I came to know Janet Frame, or at least Janet Frame's work. It was her personal history that fuelled my continued interest in her, especially her statement about the expression "For your own good...", which I made reference to at the beginning of the review. This statement appeals to me every bit as powerfully as Orwell or Huxley's works. It a reminder of the various forms of totalitarian authority I brooked, but survived as an elementary school student, the cruelty of adults and children.

Her evolution as a writer is most evident in Prizes, and it's definitely worth picking up. Her escape from mental death (literally) thanks to her recognized talent informs all her subsequent work. Her wits are honed to a rapier sharpness as she develops and expands her notions of freedom and innocence, subjugation and worldly knowledge.

No comments:

Post a Comment