Janet Frame – In The Memorial Room

I was recently reminded of this book, and thought I’d share it…

Janet Frame In the Memorial Room

Simply, In the Memorial Room is a story about a writer, Harry Gill, and how he became disassembled because he won the Watercress Armstrong Fellowship—but it’s not that simple.

…I believe a writer is not ‘known’ until his grocer and barber have read his works without astonishment… (From p. 21)

I found this fragment highly hysterical at the time—‘without astonishment’ in particular. It’s such a peculiar sensation when ones writing is read—to have it read ‘without astonishment’ is honestly a relief. Writing is just so…so…oh, dang damn—what am I trying to say here? Well, writing is incredibly personal and can cause huge misunderstandings, emotional dust-ups, senseless jealousies, wary paranoia, and a collection of troubles that can send a writer into an oppressed oblivion and spiraling into depression. Something like that.

As I read the book, I occasionally felt this one was not quite as polished or as fully realized as her other books—there are several sparkles of gems and plenty of potential complexities that were not fully developed, and I immediately thought perhaps it is troubled by its personal nature. Sometimes when one attempts to “veil the truth” that’s when a writer stumbles and stubs their toes. (Ouch.) When I say “It’s not my favorite Janet Frame book” doesn’t mean that I’m foaming at the mouth raving that I want the hours spent reading it back, or that I’m disappointed in some way—not at all. I come to every book with the knowledge that each one will be different—expectations bedevil experiences every time—I enjoy the reading experience too much to spoil it with expectations. In fact, I have gone back through it so many times since, noting all the dog-eared pages of interest, I’m loving it more—that’s part of the magic of Janet Frame, it’s hard to put down the book after you’re done reading it. I always catch myself starting over again…

Funny thing, sometimes a creative person’s undoing is caused by being recognized. Now that I’ve done well for myself, what if I can’t do it anymore? (A frightening thought.) Suddenly the joy is sucked right out of the act of writing, writer’s block sets in, and then the writer starts drinking and…ugh. Between you, me, and the computer screen, I know I’ve turned into an “Aw shucks, it’s just what I do,” shrinking violet as soon as someone turns their praise in my direction. Sometimes I’m so embarrassed, I become almost combative, say “tsk” or “shit” and roll my eyes with the expressed “What’s the big deal? It’s not like I just pulled a rabbit out of my ass, I wrote a book, so what?” (Of course, only moments before I was lurking around Goodreads agonizing that no one has added my books to their To-Read list. Boo-fucking-hoo.) It’s a see-saw of emotions to be sure. I think Doris Lessing’s initial response when she was told that she won the Nobel Prize was— “Oh Christ”—that sums it up in a teacup. (That’s great, go away, leave me alone.)

—You display, he said, the incipient signs of intentional invisibility.
—You mean I want to be blind?
—No, no. No, no. You are trying to make yourself invisible, on the childlike theory that if you can’t see, then you can’t be seen. Like a child who shuts his eyes and thinks no one can see him.
—I don’t believe it, I said, indignantly. —I’m not neurotic, hysterical, or whatever you call it. I’m a matter-of-fact person, my feet on the earth.
—A pied-à-terre only? He smiled. —Monsieur Gill, this disease is real. One would scarcely call it a disease, though. It is what is known as a collaborative condition.
(from page60-61)

—Monsieur Gill, I know nothing of your life but what you have told me. I can do nothing for you. You are not ill, you are not going blind, you are a sane man, I believe. But through a combination of circumstances, through being in a certain place – which must be here, this city, at a certain time, and in the company of certain people, you are on the point of vanishing. (From page 63)

Going blind; going deaf; becoming invisible. Vanishing.

It is a book about being a writer—the discomfort of being a writer and the baggage of being noticed. The status or stature of a writer—what a writer “looks like” (a young Hemingway, of course!)—and the pressure to “perform” as a duty or fulfillment. Being recognized and under the scrutiny of even the most well-meaning person or institution can cause just as much anxiety as remaining undiscovered. The invisibility and uncertainty of belonging is familiar (not quite fitting in.) Then being treated like an object on exhibition, and the plague of expectations that others have for you. These ‘outside others’ who want to possess you and your time in a game of tug o’ war amongst themselves, and then your efforts are scrutinized nearly to the point of being censored as more expectations are imposed “Is it about….?” Then there’s that one person who has to say “I don’t like the name you picked for my character…” (Huh? Who said it was about you? Seriously.) Really, people get weird around writers—

“You should put that in your book.”

“You could write a book about that.”

I know it’s harmless banter, but sorry, when I hear that shit start, I cringe.

Have you sensed the nothingness of my nature, that I am as empty as the carriages of the trains that pass, dusty, used, in the morning sun? A novelist must be that way, I think, and not complain of it, otherwise how shall the characters accommodate themselves in his mind? To this you reply that it is he who must enter the minds of his characters? Certainly, but where shall he house them while he enters their minds, but in those empty used trains that pass and pass forever before his gaze? (Page 116)

The Memorial Room itself is a tomb—the cult of the dead writer—the worship culture that society has cultivated is ridiculous at best—there are those of us who create and those who worship the creators, and then bring their baggage of expectations. Meeting someone you admire can be horribly disappointing—what is it that they say? Meeting your favorite author is like wanting to meet a goose because you love pâté…(I believe Margaret Atwood said this, but I’m sure other’s have too.)

With that said—Janet Frame’s sly sense of humor is deadpan dry—goodness knows if you take her seriously, you will find yourself scratching your head and thinking “Huh?” She always has such an interesting way of looking at everything, each of her books have a twist that sends the reader down the rabbit hole in a manner of speaking. Thankfully, I still have more, older works by Janet Frame to read; I’m slowly building my library collection and will be happy to journey through them all.

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