Swimming With Books

A writer's reading journal, & sundry other notes.

Patrick Evans: Gifted

with 3 comments

giftedFeb 14th
Below, in my earlier review, you have it: the proof that I was happily persuaded, via a narrative I knew was fictional, that I ‘understood’ Frame more thoroughly than I did before reading Gifted. This type of (in my case willing) delusion is just one of the reasons for the recent outraged and abusive post by Pamela Gordon, Frame’s niece and the executor of her estate.

(2nd May: The part of the post that prompted me to use the adjective ‘abusive’ – a comment Gordon added to it about Fergus Barrowman’s objections to CK Stead’s story ‘Last Season’s Man’ – has been now been taken down, so in regard to the original post, ‘abusive’ no longer stands. )

As a writer and reader, I object to her objections.

I don’t think ‘cultural appropriation’ is a crime, unless the new artefact is devoid of any meaning, for example car manufacturers’ use of Maori designs. What do we now think of any royal objections to Shakespeare’s use of actual kings & princes in his history plays?

Gordon also objects to Frame being ‘only 7 years dead’. I don’t think that makes any difference. Time is a random factor, and apparently much more flexible than we have thought: it’s only time that separates us from ancestors with whom we share nearly all of our genetic code. They are closer to us than we usually consider: does that mean we can’t reinvent them?

Would Gifted be OK if no-one could remember what Frame was ‘really’ like? Would we then be allowed to reinvent her? If yes, then why not now? If no, then what’s the difference between that and being unable to cartoonify the prophet Mohammed?

Gordon accuses Evans of portraying Frame as ‘deceitful, dishonest and inhuman’, which makes me doubt that she has read the book at all. For a start, Evan’s Sargeson is far harder on himself than he is on Janet. He, who knows exactly what he’s writing (a knowingly fallible narrator), shows himself up to be sometimes intellectually and emotionally limited, contradictory, often petty (and despite all that, deeply sympathetic).

What does Frame do, in the novel, that makes Gordon think that Evans has depicted her as such? Hide under the hedge? Give him evasive answers? Tell him that she’s doing something other than going to the shops, then go to the shops? I really fail to see how Gifted is an attack on her integrity. Does Gordon mean that in life, Frame always behaved with utter consistency and reliability? She would have been very boring if that were the case.

And where does ‘inhuman’ come from? Evans’s Frame seems to me much more human than most people: that she knew to her core the difficulties of being human, and that her love of truth often did not allow her to fake normality the way most of us [try to] do. I had the impression, after reading Towards Another Summer, that somehow she knew that if she committed all her energies towards blending into normal society, she would lose the connection to her treasures, as Phillip Thirkettle has. (‘Perhaps he himself had no access to his treasures…’)

And so what if I do feel ‘closer’ to Frame than I did previously, and if my Frame is not the same as the ‘real’ Frame? I *did* realise that Gifted is fiction, and that my ‘understanding’ of Frame is actually in some imaginative world, some kind of mirror city I guess, but (despite the biographical evidence that Frame was keen not to have the facts of her life misrepresented) I do feel that her writer self might have approved of and understood: after all, we all get a deluded idea of who a writer ‘is’ just from reading their books.

Maybe it’s something to do with this: that the ‘self’ of the writer who comes through their novels are generally very different from their day to day ‘selves’; Pamela Gordon knew the day-to-day Janet, and perhaps what Evans has done is to extrapolate from her novels (which he has studied so closely) and has therefore made a Frame from a somewhat different dimension. (My neighbour, who has read Acts of Love, says ‘I never would have guessed that you would have written it…it’s so different from my idea of you.’)

Gordon also states that

‘Actually in an online interview Evans claims his novel is the “culmination” of all that Frame never really achieved (in his opinion)… He calls this her “last novel” and claims to have channeled her in writing it.’

If this is true, then it is a weird claim, but not one worth getting upset about. A work of art stands apart from its maker and the maker’s ego. I reckon it has a separate consciousness and cannot be discussed in relation to the maker himself (which is why interviews with writers of fiction are often such a diverting nonsense).

I do believe that the ego is not very much concerned with creating. If it is, the art it creates usually doesn’t work very well, and / or isn’t very interesting or longlasting. In any case, whatever Evans says about Gifted, and whatever his motives were in writing it, has nothing to do with the merits of the book.

However, if Gordon’s talking about Margo White’s excellent review / interview in the Listener, what Evans actually said there was

“You’re listening to a voice and thinking, ‘What’s the next line?’ It’s the writing that’s doing this … it’s coming out of a part of your brain than is not normally accessible.” After Evans’s decades of teaching and reading “the father of New Zealand fiction”, it seems the man was lurking in his subconscious, just waiting to be channelled. “Yeah, a friend of mine has said, ‘It’s your life’s work. This is what you were put on this planet to do’”

It’s White who uses the word ‘channelled’, and it’s in relation to the Sargeson character, not Frame. I couldn’t find any other online interviews that referred to channeling.


I’m loving being tangled up in this book. It’s as though, even when I’m not reading it, Frank Sargeson is at my side, gossiping and philosophising into my ear. I have to keep reminding myself that it’s fiction (though actually I don’t very often, as I love the delusion) because, probably aided by the knowledge that Frank and Janet were ‘real’, part of my brain does believe the book contains Frank’s memoir.

I’m struck by the difference in my enjoyment of Gifted, and my recent consumption by Franzen’s ‘Freedom’. I haven’t worked through the following thought, but it seems to me something to do with Franzen’s more obvious manipulation of his readers. I’d love to be able to do what he does, but Freedom left me feeling bloated and weighed down. Reading Gifted, I feel light, fizzing with the excitement of such a well-wrought fiction. I suppose it’s not as manic as Freedom’s accumulation of detail. (And as said before, I couldn’t forget about the characters while I was reading Franzen’s book, but they haven’t stayed with me.)


Written by Susan Pearce

March 27, 2011 at 3:48 am

3 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. I see I already noted that this was interesting, a little light on detail as a comment. I like your writing and I hope you are being better rewarded for the time you spend on criticism than merely being read by us idlers on Goodreads. A shining if controversial future awaits.

    You have made me want to read Gifted if only to find out if there can be any merit in the use of ‘channelling’ outside the pages of tawdry and sensational journals like the Listener. I’m never patient with writers who say ‘the character decided this’ but maybe its a useful self delusion and far sexier than the truth which ( it seems to me) is that we are being pushed around by the words themselves.

    The gist of your comment on Gifted kept throwing me back to your other great review, on Bovary – the fury (and I must use that word) of which seemed largely derived from the fact that Flaubert’s travesty has been around for so long and has presumably done such vast damage to the representation and self-representation of women.

    If it had been written last year, and a critic had attacked it for telling lies about the ‘real’ Emma Bovary, (or the ‘real’ condition of imaginative women living dead end lives in little towns) I can imagine a reader defending it on much the same grounds as you are defending Evans.

    As it is, the book has been around for so long I have even seen it used to give rise to a noun, Bovarism (used by the gay writer Quentin Crisp and not, I note, in the OED as yet). Suppose a hundred years from now there was a noun Frameism, derived from Evans’s version and having supplanted the last traces of the ‘real’Frame as preserved by the people who knew her.

    To the extent that his appropriation (which might be wrong) had taken over from every other version (which might all be wrong too) couldn’t we imagine some ‘real Frame’ zealot making the point that the persuasiveness of his book was only a part and proof of his evil design.

    Such, I hope, is the power of fiction. I am doing exactly that now to living people who will have no right of reply in a hundred years.

    Finally,as regards appropriation, is it trivial to make the point that Frame’s relative might be resisting Evans’s ‘right’ to write about Frame, implicitly at least, on the basis of his gender?

    I only mention it because I can’t help thinking that your fury with Flaubert, and something like an assumption that the rage will find an easy welcome in a constituency of other and related rages, derives from the fact that this ancient and disastrous calumny began when a male writer appropriated to himself the right to describe a woman.

    Geoff Cush

    March 31, 2011 at 12:18 pm

  2. Thanks for your comment, Geoff.

    My anger towards Flaubert is not, as you suggest, because Madame Bovary has been around for so long, and has damaged the representation of women, or because a man took it upon himself to describe a woman. I won’t bother to list all the male writers who I believe have done an excellent job with their female characters.

    Apparently Flaubert hated all his characters. But I believe he hated Emma the most, and he made her into an easy target. He set her up in order to horribly punish her, while pretending (in order to claim realism) that she was a free agent. His writing is therefore manipulative and hypocritical. Despite the beauty of his imagery, hatred is at the core of his book, and that’s what I reacted to. He assumed that he could set Emma up and crucify her without consequences to his reputation. That assumption, I’d argue, is related to the historic inequality between men and women.

    You really can’t compare Flaubert with Evans. Evans doesn’t set Frame up for condemnation. Perhaps you’ll see that when you read Gifted. Flaubert establishes himself as an omniscient, infallible narrator with the ultimate power to sentence, whereas Evans’s Frame is narrated by an uncertain, flawed Sargeson. As you say, it would have to be a zealot who would even attempt to make the case that Evans had ‘evil designs’, and it wouldn’t be a good case at all.

    You may be right that Evans’s view of Frame may supplant the ‘real’ Frame. But what chance of survival does the ‘real’ essence of a dead person have? Isn’t that a contradiction? Some element of Frame will survive through her novels and poems, her trilogy of autobiography, Stead’s and Evans’s books, Michael King’s biography and the post-humous collections to be shortly published by Penguin. Future readers may feel they know her, and of course that experience of ‘knowing’ will not be the same as if they had known the day-to-day Frame.

    Your comment about my supposed ‘assumption that the rage will find an easy welcome in a constituency of other and related rages’ is interesting (attached as it is to your supposition discussed above, that my objection to Flaubert derives from the fact that a man ‘appropriated…the right to describe a woman’).

    I suppose, given the clause that closes that sentence, ‘other and related rages’ might be those generally linked to feminist ideas? Why should the existence of such rage be an issue? Human rights abuses against women are well documented and far from being resolved. True feminism is part of a much greater movement, which seeks compassion and respect for all beings. Why should opposition to the abuse of women be any more questionable than opposition to child abuse, cruelty to animals, or resistance to the prevailing Kiwi culture which imposes such limited options for self-expression on our boys?

    In my discussion of Madame Bovary I did confuse Flaubert’s manipulation of Emma with her lack of free will in the book. To clarify, I am not a writer who believes that, in some semi-supernatural way, characters develop ideas of their own and thus have a ‘will’ that is separate from their writer. (You would know, though, how what arises after regular and determined applications to the imagination can surprise the writer.)

    I read somewhere that Flaubert claimed he ‘was’ Emma Bovary. That, plus the story of his repeated vomiting when he wrote her poisoning scene, convinces me that I would need to read much more about Flaubert to figure out what was in his head when he wrote the novel. But if I ever do, I’d be expecting a pretty twisted picture.

    Susan Pearce

    April 6, 2011 at 3:44 pm

  3. […] a comment » Back in February, I  commented that I had felt ‘consumed by’ Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s