A while back, we made a a funny little video about the power of books to save lives. The film was firmly tongue in cheek—no-one has ever literally been rescued from the jaws of death by an actual physical book (we think?*)—but the idea behind it was utterly sincere. Literature is transformative and redemptive. It has saved many readers and writers from depression, loneliness, isolation, and ennui (not to mention boredom). There’s no greater example of its power than Janet Frame (1924-2004), whose story “My Last Story” was selected by Etgar Keret as this week’s Recommended Reading.
Frame’s life was tragic and extraordinary. She was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia in her early twenties and spent eight years in psychiatric institutions in her native New Zealand, where she received over 200 rounds of electroshock therapy. She was scheduled to undergo a lobotomy when her first book, The Lagoon and Other Stories, won one of the biggest, most prestigious literary prizes in New Zealand. The lobotomy was cancelled, and Frame went on to live independently, travel the world, and write twelve novels and four short story collections before her death in 2004. Writing wasn’t simply fundamental to her happiness—it ensured her survival, both psychically and physically. In her biography she wrote, “Writing is analgesic. I think it’s all that matters to me. I dread emerging from it each day.”
We’re delighted to introduce you to this extraordinary writer. Enjoy.
* Let us know if we’re wrong!
“I’m never going to write another story. I don’t like writing stories. I don’t like putting he said she said he did she did, and telling about people, the small dark woman who coughs into a silk handkerchief and says excuse me would you like another soda cracker Mary, and the men with grease all over their clothes and lunch tins in their hands, the Hillside men who get into the tram at four forty-five, and hang on to the straps so the ladies can sit down comfortably, and stare out of the window and you never know what they’re thinking….”
—from “My Last Story” by Janet Frame
From guest editor Etgar Keret:
I have always been interested in stories that have to do with writing. Stories that remove the insoluble question of the nature of creativity from its permanent blind spot and place it front and center.
The problem with texts of that kind is that, in many cases, they are clever, but almost never moving. As if that reflexive sort of writing moves writers to their mind and away from their heart. There are, of course, exceptions, and Janet Frame’s “My Last Story” is one of them.
I don’t know what makes it work so intensely. Maybe it’s the refusal to write what stands at its center; maybe it’s the fact that despite its title, it isn’t really a story in the fictional sense of the word, but rather a compilation of apparently actual events in Frame’s life: a collection of experiences, memories and emotions, and not of invented happenings she could have created from the same raw materials.
In the 1940s, Frame was institutionalized in mental hospitals, diagnosed with schizophrenia. When her first collection of stories, which ends with this one, was published in New Zealand, its great success saved her from having to undergo a lobotomy.
Like all writers, Frame had no pragmatic reason for making up stories, but the fiction she created had a clear and pragmatic effect on her life: writing kept her complex, sensitive mind whole.