Janet Frame's Songs of Innocence and Experience: 'A Note on the Russian War'

Ian Richards

Return to No Frills NZ Literature home page.


'I shall never forget being in Russia.'

As every reader of Janet Frame's autobiography knows, in 1952 she was saved from the worst possible experience, a leucotomy operation, by the success of her first book. That book was The Lagoon and Other Stories, and when it won the Hubert Church Memorial Award the operation that would have destroyed Frame's mind was called off. But in fact The Lagoon is so packed with precocious masterpieces that, even if the operation had gone ahead, Frame could today be classed among the top rank of New Zealand short-story writers on the basis of that early work alone. Nevertheless, Frame's long incarceration in mental hospitals after writing the stories in The Lagoon--during her hospitalisation she wrote nothing--has meant that her first book occupies an unusual position in her oeuvre, almost like a false start. As will be shown here, though, its themes are of a piece and even reappear in her later work.

Much of Frame's early writing seems imbued with William Blake's notions of innocence and experience, and these concepts are everywhere in The Lagoon. For Frame, as with Blake, innocence is linked with the active use of the imagination, and experience, in contrast, with the bitter knowledge of death. Thus one feature of Frame's early writing, exemplified in 'Swans', is that experienced children can often appear to behave like adults and innocent adults behave like children.[1] Characters in Frame's early writing aspire to the innocent freedoms of the imagination (as Jan does by securing a disturbingly Blakean gift in 'Tiger, Tiger'), or are aware, through the trauma of experience, of the corrosive power of death (as Winnie is in her grief in 'Keel and Kool'); but characters with an artistic sensibility--and such characters are almost always alone within each story--seek to maintain both positions at once. They cannot accept the Blakean distinction that the states of innocent imaginativeness and of experience through the knowledge of death are a mutually exclusive dichotomy. From this desire to achieve both states, they suffer torments and even a facture of identity. For the stories in The Lagoon also display everywhere the signs of intense, artistic sensibilities--only just contained within fictional characters--that are in trouble. Such is the case in 'Jan Godfrey', which Michael King's life of Frame revealed to be frighteningly autobiographical, and where the mysterious intrusion: 'Hell me me me' even reads aloud somewhat like the cry: 'help me'. It is also explicit in the final words of 'My Last Story': 'I think I've got the wrong way of looking at Life.'

In the midst of all this 'A Note on the Russian War' reads at first as if it were something incoherent, the product of a troubled author, though in 1983 Frame saw fit to include it in her volume of selected short stories, You Are Now Entering the Human Heart. Typically of much of Frame's short fiction, 'A Note on the Russian War' appears strange because it is organised spatially--more like a meditative lyric poem than a plot-driven story. And yet it is not quite a lyric poem either. Events happen and characters appear in a setting. Thus it is quite accurately described in Frame's title: not as a conventional story or poem, but as a 'Note'.

The basic action of 'A Note on the Russian War' is so simple that it can be outlined in a sentence or two: the narrator recalls her childhood on a New Zealand farm and how her mother, for a time, convinced the children of the family that they were all living in Russia. The mother manages this by taking advantage of some sunflowers growing on the property. Modern sunflowers come from Russia, the home of commercial sunflower cultivation, and this connection is the sole link between the children's belief that they are in Russia and the reality of their being in rural New Zealand.[2] Thus, through the transforming power of the imagination, the normal field of relationships among an observer, an object and its background has been perverted. The children do not see a flower and conclude from their relationship with the surroundings that it exists in an unusual context, namely a New Zealand farm; rather, the children see a flower and from its relationship with the surroundings conclude that they exist in an unusual context: the Russian Steppes.

The compressed opening sentence, which makes up the entire first paragraph, begins with a statement of capture, 'The sunflowers got us'. The flowers have caught the children's imaginations and transported them to another realm. Indeed, as the paragraph progresses the sunflowers seem to have become bizarrely capable of action, as if reaching out with black seeds and somehow fertilizing the children's minds by getting stuck in their hair. But this almost-literal capture of the children has been essentially brought about through the persuasive efforts of the mother, who parades around repeating to the children: 'sunflowers, kiddies, ah sunflowers.' Her voice is described as 'high'--the epithet could mean childish, intoxicated or elevated--and it is compared to the wind, as if it were a force of nature.

The expression 'ah sunflowers' contains an obvious reference to Blake's poem of the same name in the Songs of Experience, a poem in which the sunflower, turning its head to follow the sun's movement in an apparent desire to leave behind its earthly existence, acts as a symbol for endless yearning.[3] However, beyond a somewhat facile connection with the mother's innocently imaginative aspirations, this opening allusion seems to lead nowhere. Yet the spirit of Blake does indeed pervade Frame's story: not only the Blake who crucially thought of progress from childhood innocence to adult experience as a balance of growth and loss, but also the Blake who objected to the philosopher John Locke's famous statement on empiricism in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Locke claimed that the still fresh mind of a child is a tabula rasa. In contrast to Locke's view, Blake argued that 'Man Brings all that he has or Can have Into the World with him. Man is Born Like a Garden ready Planted & Sown.'[4] Thus, in the same way as Blake proposes, when the educated reader registers the brief sense of a literary allusion at the opening of 'A Note on the Russian War' then the reader's mind is no tabula rasa but is instead bringing something along with it to its first, fresh act of reading the story.

The next paragraph assumes the children's imaginative translation to Russia is an established fact, just as it would appear from the children's point of view. But of everyone in the family it is the mother who lives on the Steppes 'mostly' because her conviction seems the strongest. The narrator, calling up her own life and ideas as a child, thus reasons that her mother 'was bigger than the rest.' She is referring to the magnitude of the mother's persuasive force of personality and also referring to her in the way that a child might speak of a group's leader--a leader who is also a child. For there is something of arrested development about the mother's eccentric and excited behaviour, standing in the sun with the largest sunflower she can find and repeating her visionary expression 'ah sunflowers,' this time with the word 'kiddies' removed so as to blur her relationship with the children. To the reader, her behaviour seems childish precisely because it is the behaviour of an innocent.

What is the children's Russia like? In an extended sentence that makes up most of the next paragraph, the narrator offers some examples--more and more of them in an attempt to pin Russia down--although unsurprisingly her childish Russia seems more like a New Zealand farm than somewhere actually on the Steppes. She says that in the winter the children wear 'big high boots,' but these are plainly New Zealand gumboots. Next, in the summer the children wriggle their toes in the mud 'whenever it rained,' though a Steppe-like climate is characterised by its extreme dryness. Thirdly, and finally, the narrator mentions going out under the trees to sing, although there are usually no trees on the grassy plains of the Steppes. With each new example the description of Russia has become less credible.

The narrator says the children sang a Russian song. Possession of the song here appears in the narrator's eyes to confirm proof of identity, much as James Joyce's infant Stephen Dedalus, establishing his identity at the opening of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, sings of a wild Irish rose and concludes: 'He sang that song. That was his song.'[5] However, for the narrator, now slipping deeper into the tone and point of view of a child, genuinely reproducing any of the Russian song will require displaying expert knowledge, both of a Russian melody and of the Russian language, and so instead the narrator offers an excuse for not doing so: 'I'm singing it to myself so you can't hear.' This excuse is transparently, and it might even be said successfully, childish, as is the childish 'tra-tra-tra' which disguises the tune. In addition, the shift towards a childish tone has been further emphasised through the increased sense of immediacy gained from momentarily moving into the present tense. But the reader has been shut out. Of course, any song about the narrator's Russian world must remain hermetically sealed if it is to stay true to the viewpoint of a credulous New Zealand child.

In compensation for shutting the reader out from any recital of the Russian song, the narrator attempts to supply an edited summary of the song's contents and even a possible reaction for listeners, that 'It was a very nice song.' The narrator's childish demand for the reader's trust concerning the song may mimic an artist's demand for the willing suspension of disbelief but it is, essentially, a failure. The reader is not going to accept 'tra-tra-tra' as a Russian melody. This is because the reader is a grown-up and, as this paragraph's first framing sentence ('I shall never forget being in Russia') has made clear, this Russian world is also being remembered by a now grown-up narrator. Operating in recall, it is impossible for the narrator to recapture and convey completely the innocent wonder with which, as a child, she could see gumboots as Russian footwear and credit singing wordlessly under trees as cavorting on the Steppes. Thus, significantly, the narrator's brief attempt to recreate here the nature of her imagined world in its totality fails, as it must, because of the narrator's own adult limitations to her powers of imaginative persuasion--just as the grown-up reader must also, ultimately, be shut out from any perfect immersion in that childhood world through the act of imaginative empathy.

The next paragraph consists of one short comment, 'In space and time.' It is made by the grown-up narrator, though the claim that these childhood fantasies took place within a spatio-temporal framework, with its clear reference to the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, has almost the cheekiness of an authorial intrusion. In his Critique of Pure Reason Kant argued that the human mind arranges the many confusing sense-experiences that come to it by observing the connections among them to make a sensory unity, a unity which he called the 'synthesis of a manifold.'[6] This sensory unity is perceived as located in space and time, 'pure forms of sensible intuition' that provide a framework for the human understanding of reality.[7] But to the extent that the children perceive a sunflower and believe that they are in Russia, then with the aid of the imagination they have made nonsense of Kantian views of space, time and the manifold.

Frame had a lifelong interest in Kant's philosophy, and the imaginative artist in her late novel, Living in the Maniototo, plainly reverses the mental processes outlined by Kant. On the one hand, Kant has normal human minds, by means of the sensory manifold, absorb discreet sensory stimuli and find connections to build a synthetic unity which is perceived as reality, located in space and time. An artist, on the other hand, like the novel's Mavis-Alice Thumb-Violet Pansy Proudlock character (herself a fascinatingly fractured identity), has instead a mental space she calls the 'manifold' from which emerge discreet sensory stimuli, freed from conventional connections, which then take on life of their own as they are reconfigured into autonomous creations that fend for themselves independently of space and time. The artist's mind, as it were, pulls up startling bits of thought and creates them into a new something that is then projected out onto the world with its own solid existence. As a result, to Frame, reality is merely a convenient social construct. Thus any grown-up artist figure, working imaginatively from a position of adult experience, is not simply getting in touch with the imaginative innocence of her inner child but is also playing dangerously destabilising games with the nature of perceived reality, and even risking her own sense within it of a unified identity.

Kant's explanation of the field of relationships which include a material object, the observer's mental manifold and the framework of space and time--all of which are reversed in Frame's work by the imaginative artist--corresponds roughly to the earlier-mentioned relationships of object (sunflower), observer (children) and background context (New Zealand-Russia) which are perverted by the mother's extraordinary powers of imaginative persuasion in 'A Note on the Russian War.' The mother achieves this when she successfully argues that her family is living on the Steppes. How does the mother manage this remarkable feat of persuasion? Not in the liberating manner of a truly creative artist, like Mavis-Alice Thumb-Violet Pansy Proudlock, but rather through an appeal to solipsism. The story's next paragraph presents the mother emphasising the farming family's isolation, with her insistence that any notion of the outside world can exist only 'inside us' so that we form our own boundaries to existence.[8] Thus, concludes the mother, 'we are the world.' This essentially circular argument--we are everything, because everything here is all we can see--is geographically disorienting. Certainly, the mother takes advantage of the children's natural naivety about their environment. Elsewhere, V.S. Naipaul has similarly described this confusion over one's relationship to the wider world when he wrote about his familial home in Trinidad: 'One of my earliest ideas--when I was six or seven--was that there were two worlds: the world within, the world without. To go out of that gate was to be in a world quite different from the one in the house; to go back through that gate at the end of the school day was to shed the ideas of the world outside.'[9]

Even more important than geography, however, is the psychological disorientation all this entails, since the mother's ruthless logic also rejects the outside world's external stimuli by giving primacy to an inner, mental world. A similarly sophistic challenge to the spatio-temporal framework occurs in a Chekhov story where a man named Kovrin is visited by a hallucination in the form of a monk. When Kovrin asks the ghostly monk if he can really exist, the monk cleverly responds: '"Think as you like [...] I exist in your imagination, and your imagination is part of nature, which means that I, too, exist in nature."'[10] Kovrin's case ends badly, with his descent into madness. But in any event, isolationism and ruthless argumentativeness are the techniques of cult-leaders, used to spell-bind their followers, and in the same fashion there is something unhealthy and even sinister about the mother's brand of imaginative innocence.

Finally, the mother's stubborn statement, 'we are Russian because we have this sunflower in our garden,' closes the first half of the story. Her statement also supplies the reader, at last, with the necessary information to grasp properly what has been happening. Up until this point the story has been disorienting for the reader, too. It has been presented mostly from the innocent, impressionistic point of view of a credulous child who is deeply involved in being in Russia, thus leading the reader to feel a little of the same wonder and surprise that characterised the child's view of her conjured environment. But the second half of the story is very much the distanced reminiscence of the narrator speaking as an adult--it is a view based on experience, and predominantly it offers the reader images of children growing up and into experience.

The second half begins by describing the sunflower as it was 'in those days near the cow-byre and the potato patch,' setting up the sunflower in space and time in the manner with which a more conventional story might actually commence. Indeed, the story's tone has altered from its opening paragraph's reverence for sunflowers, and even its fear of them. The narrator is now presenting the plant in a lengthy sentence as only 'little' and--repeating the epithet--'with a few little black seeds sometimes.' This descriptive sentence then runs on and becomes judgemental, calling the flower 'scraggy' and noting that the seeds form an unpleasant 'black heart.' It then goes on still further to describe the flower as an adult might, through comparison with prior experience, as 'like a big daisy only yellow and black.' Back in her childhood, the narrator says, she could not see the sunflower 'properly' because of its height, implying with this that her now belittling description of the flower is more accurate than anything earlier in the story. She claims the children used to concentrate on the daisies instead. In recollecting that 'the daisies were nearer our size,' moreover, the narrator focuses on how the children may have offered some resistance to the power of imaginative capture exercised by the mother and her Mammoth Russian.

Instead of hanging about near the cow-byre and potato patch with the sunflower, or even singing Russian songs under trees, in the grown-up narrator's reminiscence as now presented the children spend all their days near the homestead on 'the lawn', playing at making chains with daisies and buttercups. Perhaps the daisies and buttercups first began to fascinate the children as necessarily smaller-scale substitutes for the grand sunflower, so that their stems taste 'bitter' with displaced aspirations. However, 'chains' made of flowers, in imitation of grown-up bracelets and necklaces, have a binding and acquisitive fascination of their own. Put in Blakean terms, the children, as recollected herem prefer the daisies of reality to the sunflowers of imagination. Thus if the children feel their childish flower-chains are bitter it is mostly because the children seem in a hurry to grow up and, for now, they can only play at the part of jewel-bedecked adults. This mode of thinking, moreover, must place them in some conflict with their mother, who feels the opposite.

The next paragraph also opens with 'All day on the lawn,' emphasising that the children are totally absorbed by the daisies and buttercups. Sunflowers have been left behind somewhere in the background. The children smell the daisies and push their faces into them, enjoying a more direct and sensual relationship with nature than the essentially abstract, escapist pleasure offered by the sunflower as catalyst to the imagination. They play the game of putting a buttercup under one's chin to observe a possible yellow glow that indicates a love of butter. This game, which through the agency of a flower involves a transforming vision and its interpretation, is in fact a small-scale and materialist version of the mother's more fanciful behaviour with the sunflower--but in any case, the children soon reject all this. They defer instead to their experience of reality, because they know objectively that 'you do love butter anyway so what's the use.' Next the children even appear to mock the simplistic, imaginative sense of belief offered by the buttercups' glow, suggesting--with a capitalization that supplies a distinct note of sarcasm--'the yellow shadow is Real Proof.' In the second half of the story, then, the family's children are presented as growing up and away from a merely childish interest in the effects of yellow flowers. And thus, surrounded always by the sensual pleasures of the buttercups and daisies, the children move quickly from any displaced, romantic interest in the grown-up experience of love (such as loving butter), to a new hunger for the most direct, physical form of love among the 'wet painted' flowers.

Into this now sexualised mindset the narrator says 'the War came.' Indeed, the image of war was first mentioned and anticipated in the children's Russian song in the story's first half, more innocently then and somehow latent, as 'the war rolling through the grass.' But in the story's second half war, the agent of death, now appears in the high-growth seasons of spring and summer, traditionally associated with puberty and personal development. (Frame would have been aware that the French refer to an orgasm as 'the little death.') As an emblem of adolescence, and of the loss of childhood's imaginative innocence and all the subsequent conflict this brings on, war is both 'ordinary' and commonplace and a cataclysm which shatters the past. This was also the case with the famously bloody examples supplied by the narrator as comparisons from history: the Hundred Years War, the Wars of the Roses and the Great War (World War One). The first half the story described childhood innocence by focusing on the children's mother, and the second half of the story centres on the father. The father has experienced war.[11] Just as the children in their innocence asserted their Russian identity by singing a Russian song, in World War One the father and his comrades sang the popular marching tune 'It's a Long Way to Tipperary' to bolster their courage and to feel the part as soldiers.

The narrator says her father and the others sang Tipperary 'to show they were getting somewhere.' Unfortunately, convincing oneself that one is a brave soldier is no easier than believing one is Russian, and so the father's Tipperary requires singing often, and ever more loudly, to feel sure 'about getting there.' But 'It's a Long Way to Tipperary' is really a song of farewell, and necessary feelings like courage are not easily manufactured in the world of experience. Though the children's innocent Russian song may have supplied them with a sealed-off ignorance, the father's song of experience supplies him only with a terrible knowledge: the danger of imminent death. Thus singing a song of departure louder will not help. It can only expand this knowledge to the awful understanding that all movement in life is towards death, and that this is inevitable. Singing actually intensifies the soldiers' natural fear and so the louder they sang 'the more scared they felt inside.'

Significantly, the narrator then comments in a paragraph that she and the other children had no song of identity for themselves during her own 'Russian War', the period when both Russian-innocence and War-experience came together, like matter and anti-matter. The narrator does not elaborate further--this story is only a 'Note'--except to offer two more examples of songs that she and her siblings did not have: 'Pack up your troubles' (a song of refuge) and 'There's a long long trail a-winding' (a song of escape). For the narrator there is no refuge, no escape, much as during any Russian war from history. The character Mavis-Alice Thumb-Violet Pansy Proudlock in Living in the Maniototo may have a fractured identity, but she can be serene in her acceptance of this as part and parcel of the role of a creative artist. Artists lose their sense of identity and suffer while they create the reality that they and others live in: but that is because they are artists, as the others can confirm. But no such comforting third way through art seems to exist for the narrator in 'A Note on the Russian War.'

Instead, the story ends with two paragraphs that describe forms of failure and loss: the first concerning the life of experience and the second concerning the life of innocence. In the first paragraph, the narrator as a grown-up simply recalls her childhood again with its 'sunflowers by the fence,''the fat white cow' and her 'big high boots in winter.' But is this even an accurate picture? It has never really been clear in the story whether one or many sunflowers have been growing on the farm. In fact, it was at the start of the story's second half, linked with experience, that the narrator speaking as an adult specifically recalled a single sunflower. This contradiction here suggests that she can no longer recall the past with any certainty. Furthermore, at the start of the story's second half the grown-up narrator described the location of the sunflower as 'near the cow-byre,' where several cows would be taken care of, but now she recalls only a fence where a single cow is milked. Thus the number of sunflowers the narrator remembers at the story's close has increased and the number of cows has decreased. All she is really sure of is the 'big high boots,' the gumboots which formed one of the less-than-convincing examples of being in Russia from the child-narrator's list in the story's third paragraph. Try as we might, we can only remember our childhood as adults; the grown-up mindset of experience cannot return us completely to the childhood world of innocence.

But if problems of space, and what-was-where and how-many, defeat any remembrance by adult experience, then time is the enemy of childhood innocence. In the last paragraph the child-narrator returns to describe once more singing her hermetically sealed 'tra-tra-tra', singing it 'quietly' as if to herself, though together with her siblings and parents. However, children must grow up and put away childish things, and even if we try with a song to separate ourselves from the real world, a 'war comes whatever you sing.' There is no refuge, there is no escape. This is a bleak vision from which, unlike in the work of the later Frame, imaginative achievement through art offers no effective way out. In The Lagoon's 'My Last Story' the adult narrator-artist laments that she 'must be frozen inside with no heart to speak of,' as she vainly attempts to think her way back into the warm feelings of innocent childhood and manages to write only the 'three dots' of an ellipsis. As a would-be author, she cannot stand the fatal knowledge of experience and it is impossible to recreate the imaginative freedom of innocence. 'A Note on the Russian War' is organised spatially precisely so that each option of innocence and experience can be explored and each closed off.

In 1803 William Blake physically ejected a drunken soldier from his garden in Felpham and was later tried for treason because of it--causing him great distress before he was acquitted. A visionary, haunted by his brother Robert's early death and prone to what he called 'Nervous Fear', Blake had problems with the intruding world and was much attracted by the appeal of the inner life. He was certainly a suitable figure in literary history for the young Janet Frame to attach herself to. In 1790 Blake famously wrote in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that 'Without Contraries is no progression'; but until Frame's artistic life was to become properly sustainable in Frank Sargeson's garden hut in 1955, a halcyon space and time where her position as an artist was at last to be acknowledged and validated by others, then the dichotomy between innocence and experience could offer Janet Frame and her fictional creations only a universe of pain.


Notes

1. For this reading of 'Swans', see: Richards, Ian. Dark Sneaks In: Essays on the Short Fiction of Janet Frame. Lonely Arts Publishing, Auckland, 2004: 37-55.

2. As is often the case with manipulators of the imagination, the children's mother is cavalier with the facts. Although modern sunflower seeds come from Russia, and the 'Mammoth Russian' sunflower was commonly grown outside Russia from the late 19th century, sunflowers actually originated in North America. The Russian Orthodox Church accidentally started the commercialization of sunflower cultivation in Russia by banning most oil foods from being consumed during Lent. Sunflower seeds were not on the proscribed list and soon they became popular, and so Russian growers bred sunflowers of ever-larger size. The 'Mammoth Russian' is characterized by its straight trunk and single, massive flower. It seems to be the type held by the mother in Frame's story.

3. Blake, William. Songs of Innocence and of Experience, 1794. Frame's mother was a Christadelphian, believing that 'when you died, you died, staying in your grave until the Second Coming and the Resurrection and Judgment Day.' [Frame, Janet. To the Is-land: An Autobiography: Volume One. Auckland, Century Hutchinson, 1982: (chap 15) 123.] The emphasis in the second stanza of 'Ah Sunflower' on physical resurrection may have given the poem a special attraction for Frame and brought it readily to mind.

4. Quoted in Ackroyd, Peter. Blake. Vintage, London, 1999: 299. John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding was published in 1690.

5. Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. 1916. Chapter 1.

6. Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. (Analytic of Concepts. The Pure Concepts of the Understanding, or Categories.) 1781.

7. Kant, Immanuel. Op. cit. (Aesthetic. Transcendental Doctrine of Elements.)

8. In Living in the Maniototo a New Zealand boy, visiting his uncle in Baltimore complains of the house: 'there's no real outside,' suggesting that the imagination cannot operate in such an environment. [Frame, Janet. Living in the Maniototo. Women's Press, London, 1981: 100.]

9. Naipaul, V.S.. A Turn in the South. Vintage, New York, 1989: 158.

10. Chekhov, Anton. 'The Black Monk.' Stories. Trans. Pevear, Richard and Volokhonsky, Larissa. Bantam Books, New York, 2000: 237.

11. During the First World War Frame's father, George Frame, served on the Western Front with the New Zealand engineers corps. [King, Michael. Wrestling with the Angel: A Life of Janet Frame. Counterpoint, Washington, 2000: 16.]

Copyright Ian Richards, 2008

Return to No Frills NZ Literature home page.