Saturday, May 31, 2008

The New Yorker: "A Night at the Opera" by Janet Frame

This story, the contributor note tells us, was found among Janet Frame’s papers after her death in 2004. I have not read other work by this New Zealander, but the language in this story tells me she was a great talent. The story itself is nothing much. The narrator recalls laughing herself silly as a child watching the famed Marx Brothers movie. Years later she is institutionalized (she describes herself as “butcher-frocked and hallucinated, with my name on a list called Prefrontal Leukotomy,” leukotomy being the British term for lobotomy) and the administrators of her hospital decide it might be nice to show films to the patients. It is the Marx Brothers film they show, which incites all kinds of odd behavior in the others, but a distant memory in the narrator. So not very much happens in the story, but along the way the language is amazing. Which itself is amazing, because the narrator is supposed to be crazy and is going to be lobotomized. And yet here we have this perfectly rational discourse—a childhood memory, a thorough description of the hospital and grounds, and of the other patients. This suggests that the narrator is on the list for a lobotomy, but that the operation will be tragic when it happens because it will likely erase all this beauty. (I usually don’t comment on the illustrations that accompany the stories in The New Yorker, but this one, taken from the movie, is apropos be cause it shows Harpo [I think] about to give someone a bonk to the head with a rubber mallet—a Marxian lobotomy.)

So, back to the language. You can read it for yourself, of course, but here’s a snippet:
“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.”
If there is no other reason to read this story, there is at least this amazing language.

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


steven gillis said...

A wonderful story. I had the same reaction as Cliff, electrifying language in the piece. I was skeptical at first when the New Yorker started publishing pieces by long gone writers - given how the New Yorker rarely gives us more than Updike lite these days and other older authors but I digress - but this piece is a great read.

Anonymous said...

An interesting fact is that Frame herself was institutionalised as a young woman and was rescued from the operation when one of her short stories was published and won an award. Some smart doctor though: hang on, maybe she's not crazy, just creative.

You can read more in her excellent biography, Wrestling with Angel, by Michael King and published by Counterpoint, or in her own memoirs.

Clifford Garstang said...

anon, obviously I did NOT know that and you're right--very interesting fact. Thanks also for the tip on the biography.

Maryanne Stahl said...

Indeed, and did you know her biographer is (was) Zoetroper and author Rachael King's dad, himself tragically killed (along with his wife) in an automobile accident a few years ago.