Writer’s cell block

In the Me­mo­rial Room

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - An­gela Meyer

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

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