on 27 December 2013
This is the posthumous publication of a book written forty years ago in 1973. Janet Frame did not allow publication of this roman a clef novel as she was worried that the people of the city Menton in France, where the book is set, may have recognized themselves and taken offence.
Like Janet Frame, the novel's protagonist Harry Gill, is awarded a fellowship. The fellowship, Janet's and Harrys, allows them to live and work for six months in the city of Menton on the Cote d'Azur. While Janet received the Katherine Mansfield fellowship, Harry is awarded the fictitious Margaret Rose Hurndell fellowship.
In this epistolary novel Harry Gill is a self loathing, self-pitying psychosomatic novelist. He has written two historical novels which have been fairly well received but Harry now wants to write something completely different in an attempt to be taken more seriously. He is attempting to write a picaresque novel which is in complete contrast to how he perceives himself;
"dull personality, almost humdrum, a plodder from day to day"
In the memorial Room has no conventional plot line. Much of the novel is a stream of consciousness and as such could be seen by many as a difficult read. But this is not a negative criticism. Why should all novels be as dumb, asinine and empty as the Fifty Shades series of books? (see my review of Fifty Shades of Grey on this site) Janet Frame's novel will stay in the memory long after Fifty Shades has receded to that dark space at the back of the memory's filing cabinet.
Her novel is a beautiful, rich, dark essay on the human psyche. It opens the curtain of our minds to shed light on the human fear of being invisible, of no longer being noticed or having our opinions matter or being forgotten by a society that takes no interest in a person once they have hit old age.
Writers too become invisible. A writer is only visible when being read. When people stop reading a writer's work then the author becomes invisible, they cease to exist.
Many of Menton's inhabitants that Harry Gill encounters are elderly and on finding themselves invisible have utilised the death and memory of the writer Margaret Rose Hurndell to make themselves visible again. This is especially true of the Margaret Rose Hurndell fellowship's principal donors Connie Watercress and Grace Armstrong who having been denied fame in their own career now bask in the reflected light and glory of Rose Hurndell's fame.
Harry believes that his sight is degenerating to the point where he will be completely blind within five years. Harry begins to suffer debilitating headaches and so visits Dr Rumor in the city of Menton. Dr Rumor disagrees with Harry's doctor on his diagnosis of his oncoming blindness. Dr Rumor explains that Harry "is trying to make (himself) invisible, on the childlike theory that if you can't see, then you can't be seen."
The title of the book refers to the room in Menton where Harry is expected to write in. The memorial room lies beneath departed Ms Hurndell's residence Isola Bella. It is a stone tomb like room which has no toilet or running water and little light or warmth,
"I thought, had Rose Hurndell been buried here and not in London."
This brings us to The Memorial Room's other main theme, one of being buried alive: buried in the shrouds of old age, illness or retirement. As these three events occur, many people dig their own graves by allowing these events to define who they are and wallowing in the preconceived injustice of it all. Using that feeling of injustice as a spade people tend to dig deeper and deeper into a permanent black hole.
Like so many of Frame's novels, In the Memorial Room has an autobiographical undertow. Both Harry Gill and Janet Frame craved both fame and anonymity. Both wanted to communicate with the world but not in any conventional way. Both feel alone in the world and but have people looking to seek their company.
This novel will halt any chance of Janet Frame becoming invisible and hopefully will result in her being an angel at all our reading tables.