Janet Frame’s novel, written in 1974 and released this year, is about writer Harry Gill who has been awarded the Watercress-Armstrong Fellowship in Menton where New Zealand poet Margaret Rose Hurndell wrote four of her works. Harry travels to Menton and is greeted by literary hangers-on who had some connection to Hurndell and wish to keep her memory alive through the Fellowship. Harry’s welcoming committee suggest that he write in the Memorial Room which is a shrine to Hurndell. However, Harry prefers not to because he feels like the memorial room is a grave that keeps Hurndell’s death alive rather than her work.
The literary hangers-on want a piece of Harry, each of them offers to house him during his stay. At one point, Harry notes that writers have a sense of nothingness which enables them to accommodate characters in their mind: “To this you reply that it is he [the writer] who must enter the minds of his characters? Certainly, but where shall he house them while he enters their minds.” By playing on the words ‘house’ and ‘accommodate’ it seems that the literary groupies want to enter the mind of the writer, rather than allowing the writer to house his characters.
Harry’s relationship with the local literary community is shown to threaten Harry’s perception and inhibit his ability to write. Harry worries about his sight while on the Fellowship, he fears he is going progressively blind, and then wakes up one morning and discovers he is deaf. The doctor tells Harry that, “in the company of certain people, you are on the point of vanishing”, and then later tells him that his physical afflictions will only last the duration of his Fellowship. The attention Harry receives while on the Fellowship threatens to render him invisible.
While the book satirises literary groupies, the image of the writer is also poked with a big stick. Michael, the son of one of the Fellowship founders, looks more like a writer than Harry does and is talked about as a young Hemingway. Even at the function to celebrate Harry as the next Fellowship recipient it is Michael who is photographed and shakes hands with the mayor rather than Harry. Michael is the mimicry of a writer that appears to be the ‘real’ thing, but Harry doubts whether Michael’s appearance matches his talent.
Language is also a prominent theme in the novel, as you would expect from Frame. Harry relates the story of an Englishman in Menton who vowed to speak “only in nouns and verbs” and “All references to emotion were excluded because they could not be described accurately.” Harry notes that because the Englishman’s speech and writing lacked abstract words “’truth’ was excluded in the search for the truth.” Language is shown to have the potential to hide and reveal reality, or at least an individual’s subjective perspective of reality.
The book is funny, not in a snorting laughter way, but it is a satire with an edge of irony. If Katherine Mansfield, which of course the Menton Fellowship in Frame’s book refers to, is the Grandmother of New Zealand fiction, Janet is potentially the mother. Perhaps releasing the book after her death means that Frame can poke fun at the way writers are remembered, how they are memorialised, and how as readers and literary groupies we try and house writers in our collective imaginations.