Writer’s cell block
In the Memorial Room
By Janet Frame Text Publishing, 202pp, $27.95 (HB)
IN the Memorial Room is not just a brilliant novel but a considered and poignant posthumous literary act, a curtain call by one of the world’s greatest authors, New Zealander Janet Frame, who died in 2004. It’s the story of a young author of historical fiction, Harry Gill, who receives the Watercress-Armstrong Fellowship, allowing him to work in Menton, France. Harry has taken the fellowship despite the fact his sight seems to be failing.
In Menton Harry’s sense of self, his grasp on the world and his ability to be acknowledged, unravel. This is partly due to the bombardment of personalities feeding from the literary corpse of Rose Hurndell, for whom the fellowship and memorial room of the title is set up.
Frame did not allow this novel to be published in her lifetime. She was the recipient of the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship in 1973, and spent the following year in Menton, on the Cote d’Azur. The room in which Harry is supposed to write is inspired by the one provided to the Mansfield fellow — a small stone room with no toilet or running water.
It is mentioned in the preface that Frame did not want to offend anyone involved with the Mansfield Fellowship, or in Menton, but it’s also probable that she enjoyed the idea of a posthumous conversation with the reader, about language, expression, ‘‘ truth’’ and endings: retirement, personal or professional obliteration, and (always there behind it all) death. And here, too, lies Frame’s sharp, knowing wit, her attention to the absurd, and also — as some may think of it — her darkness. Harry observes: There is such intense interest in Rose Hurndell’s works, more so, naturally, now that she is dead, and her last poems have been compared in their purity and otherworldliness, their vision of death, to the Requiem music which Mozart left unfinished, and although they were written before her death they have the effect of being posthumous, of actually being written after death.
One of the themes of In the Memorial Room is that language can prove inadequate in the face of a powerful image or perception (and yet overall there is a belief in the power of language, in the novel’s self-awareness). Harry has published two books but when he meets Michael, son of the benefactors of the Watercress-Armstrong Fellowship, he is embarrassed that Michael looks more like a writer than he does. The mayor even makes a mistake and shakes Michael’s hand, not Harry’s, for a photograph. Harry is ignored, he presumes, because he resembles ‘‘ a clerk, a doctor, a commercial traveller’’. The fact he writes is not enough to make him appear a writer. And, in fact, people seem only to have read about Harry’s books, not the books themselves.
When Harry begins to have serious issues with his sight, he consults Dr Rumor, who tells him he displays ‘‘ the incipient signs of intentional invisibility’’: he is going blind so he cannot be seen. This has significance later when one of Harry’s other senses disappears.
Rose Hurndell is an author who has been given ‘‘ permanence’’ in a cold stone room, her memory and image maintained (and enhanced) by those connected to her. But Harry is vulnerable, alive to the effects of the encroachment of others’ perceptions of him, and of his surroundings (such as renovations going on at his accommodation).
He cannot see well and slowly disappears; he cannot hear at all and is then taken over by polite niceties that one would write in a letter. These elements of the novel are absurdist and also postmodern, in line with authors who dealt in metafiction, such as John Fowles or Muriel Spark; that kind of fiction that still feels fresh in a conservative era of publishing.
In the Memorial Room is a deeply funny book, containing elements of satire: of the literary world, of society and rituals, including much about ageing and the myth of a life as a journey, enhanced by imagery. ‘‘ Attaining middle and old age, feeling that he has ‘ arrived’ somewhere, as if he has taken a lifetrain from one place to another, a man feels entitled to enjoy the prospect of ‘ looking back’, of ‘ surveying’ his supposedly panoramic life.’’
Frame’s character descriptions are wonderfully perceptive. Connie ‘‘ spoke slowly, almost mechanically, with a swaying motion of her body as if she had within her some instrument for winding her words, in sentencecontainers, up from a great depth where they had fallen or been banished’’. But Frame’s books and stories always have moments of lightness, a fact people sometimes forget due to her life being overshadowed by tragedy and, ironically, misunderstanding.
If you’ve read her incredible memoirs or Faces in the Water, which drew from her observations in mental hospitals, you cannot help but seek the author in her work because her voice is strong and insightful (for all its
Janet Frame, pictured in 2002, did not want her novel published during her lifetime