March 01, 2009

Prizes and Short Shrifts

Filed under: Archive,Books

Janet Frame, Prizes: Selected Short Stories
Vintage, $34.99
ISBN 9781869791131
Witi Ihimaera, His Best Stories,
Raupo, $ 30.00.
ISBN 9780143010906
Owen Marshall (ed), Essential New Zealand Short Stories
Vintage, $40.00.
ISBN 97818697791285

Murray Bramwell

There is something unexpectedly, but suitably, upbeat about the title of this Vintage selection of Janet Frame short stories. Prizes, draws from all four of Frame’s previous collections, but unlike those ominous location titles, The Lagoon and The Reservoir, here we have the glitter of victory and eminence. Of course, the title story is not about simple triumph, but a sharply satiric account of a young girl whose excellence is clawed away from her by the steady efforts of mediocre and conformist rivals.

Frame, battling not just mental illness, but the possibility of radical, irreversible surgery to remedy it, knew all about the value of prizes in the late 1940s when she wrote the first of her remarkable short fiction. As Ian Fraser observes in his useful introduction to this collection, the success of The Lagoon and Other Stories won her the Hubert Church Award and a reprieve from her surgeons – quoting from her Autobiography, he notes her own words : “my writing saved me.” (p.9)

It is all of sixty years since Janet Frame emerged, as if from a girlish chrysalis in Oamaru. Her eminence in New Zealand letters is second to none but Katherine Mansfield – and in range and maturity, even she is confined to her brief years in a way that Frame is not. There are no prizes that Janet Frame did not receive or deserve, but, it seems, it is only in posthumous publication that her unerring eye and startling prescience is so fully apparent. This collection, bringing together the stories from across her career, builds around the author’s own collection You Are Now Entering the Human Heart (1983) and also includes five splendid uncollected stories ranging from 1954 to 1979.

The first stories from The Lagoon are as fresh and unexpected as ever. It is bizarre to think now of the dismissive early reviews patronizing and bemoaning their semi-competent simplicity. About as simple and artless, you might say, as Eudora Welty or Flannery O’Connor. In “Keel and Kool”, the child, Winnie, struggles with the death of her sister Eva, competing with their friend Joan to mythologise her in memory. But while noting the strange and painful rivalry of grief, it is the heart-loss itself that Frame captures with such keening lyricism :
“But there was no-one to answer her. Only up in the sky there was a seagull as white as chalk, circling and crying Keel Keel Come home Kool, come home Kool. And Kool would never come, ever.” (p.31)

Time only highlights how much, in giving strong voice to her own apparent diffidence, Frame described the unjust invisibility of other women – in “The Day of the Sheep”, a sheep in the washhouse is an epiphany for Nance, trapped in panic and ungainly domestic servitude, and the mother in “Swans” lost in isolated confusion when she takes her children to the wrong beach. Their children watch these mothers, and often it’s the daughters who are coolly critical – like the girl (rather like the author, perhaps) who, in “Miss Gibson and the Lumber Room”, sees beyond the composition clichés of her English teacher, or the narrator of “Child”, watching her mother shake her pinny at her –“as if it were wheat for a little chook” (p.58) Elsewhere, with no mother at all, “Dossy” withdraws richly into compensatory fantasy.

In Snowman, Snowman, (1963) Frame experimented with what she called “Fables and Fantasies” with mixed success. “Solutions” and “The Daylight and the Dusk” are mannered and fey at times, the whimsy fanciful rather than deft. But not so in “The Terrible Screaming” – a Thurberish tale of the Emperor’s Neu-rosis, perhaps ? Or “Two Sheep”, a droll fable about the presentiment of death.

The Reservoir: Stories and Sketches finds Frame in command and with near perfect pitch. The reservoir is the bogey place of parental fears about the World Beyond, where the children roam forbidden – near a jersey bull “polished like a wardrobe” (p.123) and along creek beds in an idyll where trespassers are only prosecuted much much later. In the mysterious castration in “The Bull Calf” the young Olive is confronted with a kind of earthy Lawrentian blood ritual prefigured by “the dusty plums split and dark blue with pearls of jelly on their stalk and a bitter blighted taste at the centre near the stone.” (p.150)

After childhood there is often uncertainty and disappointment – Alan in “The Triumph of Poetry” and Edith (will it be Edie?) becoming more anxious and paranoid as she solicits Bill, Eliotic in his indifferent boredom in “The Teacup”. Life is a long climb with short shrift in Frame’s world, as an aging, infirm Dunedin widow struggles as if in the grave itself in “The Bath” or the elderly American teacher, required to show her Franciscan unconcern in a snake-handling demonstration to her class, in the brilliantly quirky “You Are Now Entering the Human Heart”. Entering the human heart ? In the magnificent stories of Janet Frame we are never out of it.

In the candid, often digressive notes to his own selection of His Best Stories, Witi Ihimaera declares : “ I always like to think of myself as being a witness of my times and my primary witness is as a Maori writer who belongs to the iwi. I’m not the only the one . There’s a whole academy of Maori writers …” (p.185) He goes on to list nine others, including Api Taylor, Briar Grace-Smith, Keri Hulme and Hone Kouka. But at the time he published Pounamu Pounamu in 1972, he was a solitary voice. The dust jacket of the Heinemann edition even proclaims it as “the first collection of short stories by a Maori writer to be published.”

Many of us recall the impact of those stories – so direct and sharply vivid and including what the author himself calls his “calling card,” (p.9) “A Game of Cards”, a vignette of Maori life and its powerful matriarchies, celebrated in bilingual text and with cultural explanations hard to find in either the literature or the education curriculum of that time.

Ihimaera’s stories explained New Zealand to itself and with A New Net for Fishing in 1977 he extended the reach of his writing in keeping with changing times. “The Seahorse and the Reef” is prophetic of the contested foreshore and seabed that was to come, as well as the environmental degradation which besets coastal communities world-wide. After his song, the father’s exhortation – “Sea we have been unkind to you. We have poisoned the land and now we feed our poison into your waters. We have lost our aroha for you and our respect for your life. “ (p.21) – resonates even more strongly in a later century.

In this collection, reprinted from 2003, Ihimaera’s definitive stories stand strongly. “The Halcyon Summer”, when the young city-raised Tama goes to the East Coast to stay with his grandmother, Nani Puti, is a classic childhood memoir but it also effortlessly describes a whole world, both elsewhere and very present, in the New Zealand psyche. Unlike Frame, whose stories are more about immutables than the turbulence of social change, Witi Ihimaera’s stories exist, sometimes overtly programmatically, to register shifting allegiances and identities. “Tent on the Home Ground” describes tensions and divisions as the personal becomes political His stories chart the move from rural life to urban centres – the Yellow Brick Roads to the Emerald City, as Ihimaera characterises them. The theme is freshly explored in the later story, “Dustbins”.

Ihimaera has a deliberate iconoclastic strategy in many stories. The collection Dear Miss Mansfield from 1989, re-imagines the colonial assumptions and social castes of a different era and such intertextual re-writings as “The Washerwoman’s Children” are as intriguing now as when they first appeared. Twenty years on they remind us of the author’s strong commitment to challenge and sometimes perturb his reader, to unhinge and re-frame the national portrait.

Sometimes in His Best Stories Ihimaera has included less satisfactory choices – “Short Features” and “A History of New Zealand Through Selected Texts” for example. The former is frothy, the latter – though, heaven knows, the pretensions of academic writing deserve a cudgelling – is too peevish and laboured to rate inclusion. The best are very good, however and this collection, along with the author’s exuberant commentaries on his selections, is timely both for the new reader and those returning to be surprised and engaged all over again.

Essential New Zealand Short Stories is well-named, not surprising given they are from the safe hands of editor and masterful writer, Owen Marshall. Anthologies are rarely entirely new, rather they are built from the aggregations of their predecessors. In this case The Oxford Anthology of New Zealand Writing Since 1945, the excellent collection from 1983, edited by MacDonald Jackson and Vincent O’Sullivan, prefigures some of the choices, as does Lydia Wevers’ New Zealand Short Stories Fourth Series, also from Oxford, which appeared in 1984.

No anthologist is free of previous obligations and wisely, Marshall does not pretend to be. In his perceptive introduction he discusses attempts to define the genre :
“As soon as we move from an individual story to generalizations about literary form, there is lack of critical precision. The genre itself falls to pieces in our hands: yarn, fantasy, fable, metafiction, romance, psychological realism – the short story, like the molecule, breaks down into smaller and smaller entities when under pressure.” (p.10)

Instead he suggests that the story aspires to the condition of poetry, quoting H.E Bates – “in its finest mould the short story is, in fact, a prose poem. “ (p.10) – and William H. Gass – “it is a poem grafted on to sturdier stock.” (p.10). Reminding us that his brief is to find the essential, not the most popular, and that he has no wish “ to side-step the best known pieces and highlight alternative work” (p.11), Marshall has selected, in useful chronological order and strictly one item per author, a cavalcade of work which would suit both the tutorial room and the bedside table or bach, the casual reader and the literary devotee.

Beginning with Mansfield’s perfect miniature “The Doll’s House”, there are selections from Sargeson, and A.P Gaskell, and anthology favourites Dan Davin’s “The Quiet One” and Maurice Duggan’s “Blues for Miss Laverty”. Joy Cowley’s “The Silk”, the pensive story of a wife sewing Chinese pyjamas for her dying husband, sits beside Phillip Mincher’s “The Mace”, a story of exceptional optimism and warmth in the often bleak parameters of the genre. Maurice Gee’s “A Glorious Morning Comrade” is an evermore apposite portrait of raveling old age and Albert Wendt’s schoolgirl account of her lonely teacher, “Crocodile” is also expertly poised.

Amongst a preference for the everyday, Craig Harrison’s “Broad Sunlit Uplands” combines a futuristic theme which includes rare and welcome excursions into speculative technology. Shonagh Koea’s “Cinnamon Toast” is also a memorable inclusion, as a successful young man returns to his formative origins to find himself completely unremembered. There is a fine array of established names here – the raucous Vincent O’Sullivan story, “Putting Bob Down”, is set in Melbourne, Lloyd Jones’s story describes an anxious boy caught between alienated parents in “Who’s That Dancing with my Mother” and Owen Marshall’s own impressive oeuvre is represented by the mordant geriatric revenges in “The Rule of Jenny Pen”.

This collection, updated from 2002, has five new stories added –including two, “Necropolis” from Eleanor Catton and “Copies” by Craig Cliff from last year’s Best New Zealand Fiction Volume 5 (Vintage) They are both fine stories, but the first features demoralized casual workers in a hardware chain store, the other is about a young man’s fear of replicating his not much admired father. Like many in the anthology -and like much New Zealand short fiction- the stories, are pessimistic and downbeat. That is perhaps another attribute of the genre – poetic, yes, but the mournful, elegiac kind, bitter rather than comic, nibbling at the edges of life but not quite embracing it. These melancholy stories are essential, of course, but maybe not all there is. Perhaps the short story is a house of many mansions, including some with a sunny aspect. Perhaps, if the shrift has to be short, it could also sometimes be sweet.

Murray Bramwell teaches Drama at Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia. He is theatre reviewer for The Adelaide Review and The Australian

New Zealand Books, Volume 19, Number 3, Issue 87, Spring 2009, pp 6-7.

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