Friday, May 28, 2010
My Mad Girl
[A Question I am Not the First to Ask: What is it about women and madness? Are they more susceptible to delusion than men are? The subject of many books and hypotheses, we wonder if madness dogs the steps of creative women (eg. Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Perkins Gilman…) Is it a biological coincidence or a recurring phenomenon? Is it socially reinforced? Do men fear the hysterical women? Is it the uterus (Greek “hysteria”) which turns the brain?]
The reclusive writer, the late Janet Frame, winner of all of New Zealand’s literary prizes, spent much time in institutions and in therapy and, as far as I can tell, her novels commonly include themes of estrangement, mental health and madness. Frame considered her 1963 novel Towards Another Summer too personal be published in her lifetime. As she’d already written an autobiography (Angel at My Table, made into a film by Jane Campion) and been this subject of several biographies, this is telling.
Towards Another Summer is about a reclusive New Zealand writer, Grace Cleave, whose invitation to spend a weekend away from her London apartment in the north of England with a New Zealand couple causes her no small amount of anxiety. The novel is the story of that weekend, an immersion in Grace’s thoughts and her experiences, her painful social discomfort.
Early in the novel, Grace discovers her true identity as a migratory bird, the reason behind her feelings of dissimilarity and disconnection with humanity and human warmth. Throughout her visit she worries that if she were to tell Philip or Anne, her hosts, about her identity, they would look at her with polite fear. Grace, Frame says, is one of those unfortunate people who live with “ought,” who is petrified of what she thinks or others think she should be.
What kind of writer is she? she wonders after meeting an American and his girlfriend. She doesn’t wear her hair long and dark, or wear black, or smoke marijuana. She is unable to participate wittily in an interview, and all of the dazzling things she carefully constructs in her head rarely make it past her paralyzed lips. Towards Another Summer offers the reader a deeply empathetic experience, where he can experience Grace’s anxiety from the inside, the torturous social dance she isn’t equipped to play, her awareness that she is separated from humanity as a species.
Frame’s language is exquisite; it is the novel’s success. Perhaps it resonates with me because she uses a pile of things tagged together by commas. I have a natural propensity towards piles (and commas) and this includes verbal piles. The word I want to use to describe her melodic technique is lyrical, but as I’ve eschewed that word for now (it being overused), I will let her language speak for itself:
“The vegetation and geomorphology of the city: natural growths, outcrops of human flesh and spirit, corns, cancers, stone prayers, domes like institutional chamberpots or solitary breasts or cupped hands retaining the vision; these buildings are sighs, statements, denials…I have a passion for the sunlight of memory…”
The book is infused with New Zealand. The title is taken from a poem by the New Zealand poet Charles Brasch – “the godwits vanish towards another summer…” From the first sentence we are aware of Grace Cleave’s attachment to her home: “When she came to this country her body had stopped growing, her bones had accepted enough Antipodean deposit to last until her death, her hair that once flamed ginger in the southern sun was fading and dust-colored in the new hemisphere…”
Though Grace Cleave (and Frame, we assume) dislikes the sentimental remembrances of New Zealand, the chummy compatriotisms of people who ask each other “Do you remember; have you seen?”, she is haunted by her memories and rootlessness. She is homesick for dramatic landscapes and Maori words and flora and fauna. The novel reverts to her memories of her girlhood in Oamaru. In a paragraph that put words to my own relation to home, having grown up in the southern hemisphere myself, she writes:
“And then there was the matter of the Southern Cross, trying to fit shadowy stars into an already crowded northern sky, pushing out Aldebaran, the Bear, dizzy with trying to replace even the swimming city lights with lonely southern stars, but not being able to reach far enough across the earth to capture them; then giving up; forgetting We, there, as back home, where I come from, in my country; reminded now by only one or two things…”
My great-grandmother Edith was born in New Zealand and emigrated to America when she was two. Family legend has her swinging on the bars that rimmed the ship’s deck, dangerously toying with the possibility of going overboard and thereby dooming three successive generations of which I am the third. Deep, deep inside the little two-year old Edith’s body is an egg and that egg contains Phyllis the Wisconsin farmer’s daughter, who contains Dean who will move to South Africa with his guitar, who contains me who will sit in Seattle listening to light rain and birdsong today thinking about my great-grandmother’s birthplace.
Keep a lookout for Frame; she is a writer of considerable talent and vision. There is a reason she was rumored to be in line for a Nobel; this pained and beautiful novel supports that nomination.