Fictional tale a fitting Frame memoir
When New Zealand author Janet Frame died in 2004 after a celebrated literary career, she left behind an intimately personal novel she wrote in 1963 but refused to have published in her lifetime, considering it too revealing.
"Towards Another Summer" is that novel, and to whatever extent the intellectual, emotional, and artistic struggles of its protagonist mirror those of its author, a wrenching portrait of both emerges, fascinating especially in its exploration of nostalgia as well as in its cross-genre experimentation with the novel as memoir.
Author Grace Cleave is battling writer's block, an inability to converse, and an aversion to other people so extreme she is frightened of leaving her London home. She decides to accept an offer from Philip Thirkettle, a magazine writer who had recently interviewed her, to spend a weekend with his family at their home north of London. Grace and Philip are New Zealand natives, as is Philip's wife, Anne.
While there, Grace continually recalls her homeland, prompted by the slightest allusions, from a New Zealand wall map, to a book of native verse, to a toothache that reminds her of having a tooth pulled as a child. "Why did her past life keep erupting and spilling dangerous memories over her weekend?"
Meanwhile, Grace is so terrified of being with Philip, Anne, and their children, Sarah and Noel, that she can barely talk. "Philip was silent, still looking at her, waiting, in that disconcertingly persistent manner, for Grace to speak. Why can't he understand, Grace thought, that all my words are platitudes, that when I juggle and empty out a sentence there's nothing left, no sediment of thought or imagination lies in my speech. Why does Philip wait and wait, like an old peasant at the well, for the bucketful of gold?"
Grace imagines herself to be a migratory bird, longing to fly away to its ancestral home, the New Zealand of her youth, however troubled that time might have been. But as she cannot live in the past nor tolerate the present, she seeks to escape by flying "towards another summer," a phrase from a Charles Brasch poem. Ultimately, she leaves for London earlier than planned, her thoughts swirling.
Frame skillfully depicts the psychological intricacies of nostalgia, using various narrative techniques to express the conflict between a desired past and an undesired present at the heart of this emotion. She is so artful in doing so that it lends credence to the autobiographical nature of the novel, especially as Frame also suffered emotional difficulties, also went on a similar weekend trip in the early 1960s, and also was from New Zealand but lived in London. She even physically resembled Grace.
That Frame would choose to tell her story fictionally and posthumously, seeking artistic shelter in both ways, might be the most intriguing aspect of this novel, very much what Grace herself might have done.
Robert Braile reviews regularly for the Globe.