Thursday, May 29, 2008

A Night at the Opera
by Janet Frame June 2, 2008

We acted the cliché. We melted with laughter. Not the prickly melt that comes from sitting on a hot stove but the cool relaxing melt, in defiance of chemistry, like dropping deep into a liquid feather bed. We did not know or remember the reason for laughing. There was a film, yes: a dumb sad man with hair like wheat and round eyes like paddling pools; another man with a mustache like a toy hearth brush; and many other people and things—blondes, irate managers, stepladders, whitewash, all the stuff of farce. And there was a darkened opera house growing cardboard trees and shining wooden moons.
I shall never know why we laughed so much. Perhaps other films had been as funny, but this one seemed to contain for us a total laughter, a storehouse of laughter, like a hive where we children, spindly-legged as bees, would forever bring our foragings of fun to mellow and replenish this almost unbelievably collapsing mirth.
Nor was it the kind of laughter that cheats by turning in the end to tears, or by needing reinforcement with imagery. It was, simply, like being thrown on a swing into the sky, and the swing staying there, as in one of those trick pictures we had seen so often and marvelled at—divers leaping back to the springboard, horses racing back to the starting barrier. It was like stepping off the swing and promenading the sky.
After the film, we managed somehow to walk home. The afternoon was ragged with leaves and the dreary, hungry untidiness of a child’s half past four. Faces and streets seemed wet and serious. The hem of sky, undone, hung down dirty and gray.
This previously unpublished story is in The New Yorker, June 2 issue.
Thanks to Bill Manhire, presently in London, for bringing this to my attention. I will endeavour to establish when Janet Frame wrote this story.
Further Footnote 30 May, 2008
Janet Frame's niece and literary executor, Pamela Gordon has advised me that the story was written in early 1954, in Dunedin, prior to her moving to Auckland to stay with Frank Sargeson, and is one of a number of unpublished hospital stories. The New Yorker will publish another later in the year. Pamela Gordon told me that during this time in Dunedin Janet Frame worked as a live-in waitress at the Grand Hotel, today the Southern Cross Hotel, home of Dunedin's casino. She said that after showing her hospital stories to Charles Brasch, Frame was advised not to submit them for publication because they were in his opinion "too dark".
And yet another Footnote, 30 May. 5.00pm
Leaf Salon, yes they are up and running again, has also noted the story in The New Yorker and Pamela Gordon has posted the following comment on their site:
" Definitely "our" Janet Frame! The "A Night at the Opera" story was most likely written in 1954 around the same time that she wrote "Gorse is not people", another previously unpublished hospital story. The two have been found in Janet's papers along with some other stories from that era. In her autobiography Janet describes how she submitted "Gorse is not people" to Landfall, but Charles Brasch found it "too dark" to print. I think that this early rejection would have been discouraging enough to have caused Janet to suppress her other powerful hospital stories. She did of course cover some of the same territory years later with Faces in the Water. It is fascinating to compare the "Night at the Opera" story with chapter 16 of Faces in the Water, which briefly draws on the same apparently real life experience, undergone at Avondale Mental Hospital. It shows how Janet Frame was able to use her own life & observations as raw material, to produce two different texts, written years apart, with different rhetorical goals and structure, and coherence, and even different narrators. There is one significant phrase common to both descriptions of the showing of the Marx Brothers film: "the day's thin scenery", which in the short story "toppled over, revealing the true dark", but in the novel it "topples revealing, for those who sleep, the painted props of sleep". We didn't think that this duplicated phrase was enough reason to keep this superb story hidden any longer."

No comments: