An Angel at my Table – Andy has a cup of tea with Janet

June 30, 2013

Ah yeah. Janet Frame. She was that crazy Kiwi bitch who just missed out on a lobotomy cos some doctor realised she could write good. Yep. Her. She’s awesome, they reckon.

Isn’t she just.

Most people will realise this. Janet Frame’s autobiography is made up of three volumes – To the Is-Land, An Angel at my Table, and The Envoy from Mirror City. In the late ’80s Jane Campion made a TV series that was repackaged as a film, screened at Cannes, and won the Silver Lion. People cheered. People cried. People loved it.

I’m guessing Campion looked at the three titles of Frame’s biographies and settled on the only one that worked for a movie.

I like To the Is-Land as a title. Who didn’t mispronounce island as a kid? And who can’t embrace the idea of misinterpreting the concept of “is-landness” as being the idea of being, and thus making a story of childhood a journey towards being the adult we are to become? This is an outrageous misrepresentation of what Frame meant by the title of her first volume, I suspect, but it was something like that.

And The Envoy from Mirror City? The mirror city, our lives re-imagined through the prism of the envoy, the envoy being our imagination. Or something like that. Actually, again, I have almost certainly misinterpreted Frame. But there you go.

But still. As good as To the Is-land and The Envoy from Mirror City might be as potential titles, with as much subtext as they may be laden, a film with those titles? Maybe not. An Angel at my Table? That works. Everybody can imagine an angel sitting at a table with them. Even if you don’t believe in angels.

There’s just the slight problem that I have no idea what Frame intended with that title. Thanks to Campion’s film it’s how Frame’s combined autobiography has come to be known. But what it means – Gone. I’m sure she did write about it at some stage…

an-angel-at-my-tableCentral to that second volume is Frame’s misdiagnosed schizophrenia. Notoriously, she spent eight years in and out of mental institutions and was subjected to elecroshock therapy on countless occasions, the effects of which destroyed much of her memory of those years – although she remembers the point at which her doctor informs her her collection of short stories has won an award, enough to convince him the lobotomy she’s scheduled for is inappropriate.

Also central to that second volume, if two things can be central to a book, is Frame’s growing maturity as a writer. She had started writing during the first volume, which is the story of her childhood before leaving home for college. But An Angel at my Table is the volume in which A) she goes “mad”, and B) her writing gets serious .

Her “madness”, incidentally, seems to have been how people interpreted her shyness, and her awkwardness in the presence of others and her comfort with her own company, and her oddness. How many of us, I wonder, would end up lobotomised because we were shy and awkward and odd and happy to sit by ourselves with a book?

The first volume is a wondrous depiction of an oft-uprooted childhood. There were a number of homes in Frame’s early life. There was poverty, too, and the shame of poverty, and the shame of childhood – she is forced to give up a friend, at one stage, in circumstances for which neither Janet nor her friend are to blame. Her older sister drowns. She oscillates between hating school and loving it (or at least bits of it). Her older brother has a fit and is diagnosed epileptic. This is perhaps grimmer than many Depression era childhoods – and yet it’s shot through with a strange light, or lightness, perhaps. There is an almost surreal detachment at work – Frame emotionally involves her readers in her story, while at the same time, inexplicably, removing herself from that emotional involvement. Got no idea what I mean? Fair enough.

The final volume is my favourite, and for selfish reasons. In it Frame recalls her time in Europe – London mostly, but on the continent as well. She spent seven years away from New Zealand. I spent a third of that away from Australia, almost forty years after her; her London was still dragging itself out of the rubble of the Second World War, my London was prepping itself to throw off more than a decade of joyless Tory rule. Nevertheless, reading about her time in the city, as well as her time on Ibiza – then a backwater, today a glitzy hellhole  – and in the mountains of Spain, still struggling with the horror of the Civil War – all of this is glorious. Her adoption of a life as a “serious” writer, the realisation that schizophrenia is non-existent, her acquaintance with the slightly rather Patrick and her eventual estrangement from him, her love affairs in Ibiza and Spain, her weirdly triumphant return to New Zealand – all of this made The Envoy from Mirror City more compulsive, for me, than the earlier volumes.

This book is amazing. The writing is bewitching, and yet sometimes, somehow, alienating. It’s as easy to read as a fairytale and then inexplicably almost impenetrable. It’s beautiful and strange and wonderful, and I’ll be reading more of Janet Frame soon. Guaranteed.

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