In the Memorial Room

By Janet Frame

(Counterpoint, $24, 208 pages)

Who is this author?

The world came close to losing the talents of Janet Frame, the writer now considered to be one of New Zealand’s (and the world’s) finest authors. As a young woman, Frame had schizophrenia and underwent electroshock therapy. Then her doctors recommended a lobotomy as the cure.  Luckily for Frame – and readers everywhere – the publication in 1951 of her first story collection, “The Lagoon and Other Stories, at age 27, caused her doctors to drop that drastic idea, and Frame went on to publish 21 books (some posthumously.) Her autobiographical “An Angel at My Table” became a TV series by Jane Campion in 1990. Frame died in 2004. Praised as a worthy compatriot of the great Katherine Mansfield (for whom Frame’s mother worked), she requested that “In the Memorial Room” not be published in her lifetime. Now, here it is at last.

What is this book about?

At once a satire on the way some readers make plaster saints out of certain authors after their death and a witty and poignant exploration of what one gives up and gains by becoming a writer, this book tells the story of a author of historical fiction who wins a fellowship that is “a living memorial” to a poet, Margaret Rose Hurndell. Off Harry Gill goes to Europe,  to live and work in a tiny French town where Hurndell  lived and worked.  But the Memorial Room is hardly suitable – no plumbing, no electricity – and even the beloved poet did not actually write in it. But Harry is expected to, and finds that his eyesight and hearing are dimming and he is losing his sense of self as earnest but irritating Hurndell fans plague him. His fictional dilemma echoes Frame’s own experience as a Katherine Mansfield Fellow in 1973.

Why you’ll like it:

Frame’s novel is clever and cutting, a brilliant sendup of writers, readers and the cult of personality that sometimes springs up around certain authors, obscuring their true talents and humanity. But it has something more: a loving and deep analysis of the nature of writing and the beauty and malleability of words. Though 40 years old, this book feels fresh and contemporary. Readers are doubly lucky that Frame’s abilities were not snuffed out by needless surgery and that this book has finally been published. If you have not yet read Frame, here is a good place to start.

What others are saying:

Library Journal says: “One of New Zealand’s most distinguished writers, Frame (1924–2004) draws upon her own experiences living in Menton, France, to satirize the excessive devotion to or fetishizing of famous authors in this posthumously published novel. Written in 1974, the work is a social commentary and comedy about the fandom surrounding deceased poet Margaret Rose Hurndell, who is meant to represent New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923). For this reason, Frame insisted the book not be published until after her death. The experiences of protagonist Harry Gill, a historical fiction writer, parallel the time Frame spent as a Mansfield Fellow in 1973. Gill’s keen observations of the well-intentioned but annoying Hurndell devotees are thoroughly enjoyable, cutting-edge social satire. However, the story is also a beautifully crafted artistic and philosophical creation that explores the nature of communication and exposes Frame’s love of language. VERDICT The author’s literary achievements may not be familiar to American readers, and this is a terrific introduction to an original writer who deserves her own serious league of fans.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “ A strange, resonant, Nabokov-ian novel about the plight of Harry Gill, a New Zealand writer on a six-month fellowship in France, struggling to write his first imaginative fiction. Works by Frame (1924-2004), the New Zealand novelist and autobiographer, continue to appear. Never published during her lifetime, this book is marvelous experimental fiction. Up until now, Harry (his name comes from the title of a William Wordsworth poem) has written historical novels. Receiving the Watercress-Armstrong Fellowship, and admitting he is not funny or adventurous, he sets out to write a “comic novel in the picaresque tradition.” In fact, he is so shy and compliant as to be almost anonymous. Arriving in Menton, expatriates besiege him; they want to possess the recipient of their little fellowship, created to honor a dead writer who worked in the town. The book Harry writes is this one, a journal about trying to find peace and quiet and time to write a book, a comedy of errors both physical and metaphysical. The local doctor Harry visits, afraid that he is going blind and, again, when he goes deaf, is Dr. Rumor. The good doctor opines that Harry’s symptoms are a species of hysteria: He fears going blind because he’s afraid he is invisible. The humor is bone-dry and crackling.  . . . Frame’s sentences are marvels, winding like narrow alleys through hill towns: They open spectacular vistas. Brilliant.”

From the New York Times Sunday Book Review: “This short, funny and often beautifully written novel — completed in the early 1970s but just now being published — provides an excellent occasion for remembering the weird wisdom and genuine talent of Janet Frame, who died in 2004 after a startlingly diverse life. . . . Harry Gill, the protagonist of “In the Memorial Room,” shares many characteristics with Frame: He is awarded an international literary fellowship that takes him to Europe and the dreary, cold and poorly plumbed former home of a deceased writer; he seems glad to leave New Zealand for France; he devotes himself so thoroughly to the writing of his new book that he often ignores the rest of his life. Eventually, he even starts to feel as if that life is vanishing out from under him — or he is vanishing from it. (Possibly both.) He begins to lose contact with the outside world. His sight dims, his hearing fades. In a way, he becomes a world unto himself. . . ..“In the Memorial Room” is filled with terrifyingly beautiful reflections on how writing books (and even reading them) can feel like digging your own grave. It also serves as a sly warning to those of us who obsessively cherish the works of dead writers — even writers as good as Janet Frame. Watch out! The death you memorialize may well be your own.”

When is it available?

It’s on the shelves at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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