In the Memorial Room is a brilliant black comedy, by the celebrated author of An Angel at My Table.
Harry Gill, a moderately successful writer of historical fiction, has been awarded the annual Watercress-Armstrong Fellowship—a ‘living memorial’ to the poet Margaret Rose Hurndell. He arrives in the French Riviera town of Menton, where Hurndell once lived and worked, to write. But the Memorial Room is not suitable—it has no electricity or water. Hurndell never wrote here, though it is expected of Harry.
Janet Frame’s previously unpublished novel draws on her own experiences in Menton, in the south of France as a Katherine Mansfield Fellow. It is a wonderful social satire, a send-up of the cult of the dead author, and—in the best tradition of Frame—a fascinating exploration of the complexity and the beauty of language.
Janet Frame, New Zealand’s most highly acclaimed author, was born in Dunedin in 1924 and died in 2004. Her first book, The Lagoon and Other Stories, was published in 1952. Frame went on to publish eleven novels, another three short-story collections and a book of poetry during her lifetime, and another novel, a short-story collection and a book of her poems have been published since her death. Janet Frame received numerous awards for her work, including a CBE for services to literature, in 1983. In 1990, she was made a Member of the Order of New Zealand. In that year, the three volumes of her autobiography were made into the film An Angel at My Table.
In 1973, Janet Frame was awarded the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship, and she spent the following year in Menton on the Côte d’Azur. Beneath the villa Isola Bella, where Mansfield lived and wrote for a time, is the Memorial Room, a small stone room commemorating her work and given to the Mansfield Fellow as a place to write. Though she struggled to work in the difficult conditions of the Memorial Room—with no running water or toilet facilities and delays in receiving her fellowship payment— it was in Menton that Janet Frame wrote In the Memorial Room, the story of Harry Gill, writer and recipient of the Watercress-Armstrong Fellowship.
Frame did not allow publication of the manuscript during her lifetime—would certain people see themselves in the characters portrayed and, finding unflattering portraits, be offended? But she always intended the novel to be published posthumously, at the right time. Tucked away, to be looked at later, the Menton novel waited while Frame went on to write Living in the Maniototo, a novel interlaced with some of the same characters, events and places.
Prolific New Zealander Frame (An Angel at My Table) wrote this novel in 1974, but embargoed publication during her lifetime. Frame draws on her time in Menton, France, as a Katherine Mansfield Fellow, in portraying historical fiction writer Harry Gill's travails after being awarded the annual Watercress-Armstrong Fellowship. The award, given in honor of the (fictional) poet Margaret Rose Hurndell, requires him to travel to Menton, where Hurndell once lived. Harry finds himself struggling to turn his good fortune into productivity. He is expected to do his writing in the dilapidated Rose Hurndell Memorial Room, but finds himself unable to complete anything there. Hurndell's admirers interrupt Harry regularly, and the entire town seems more interested in the idea of having a writer around than in the work itself. While Hurndell's memory is complacently worshipped, Harry struggles with his eyesight and his general invisibility among the townspeople. In her signature eclectic style, Frame has crafted both a canny commentary on literary fame and hero worship and a heartfelt meditation on what it means to be a writer.