Frame, Ronald 1953–
Frame, Ronald 1953–
(Ronald William Sutherland Frame)
PERSONAL: Born May 23, 1953, in Glasgow, Scotland; son of Alexander (an advertising agent) and Isobel D. Frame. Ethnicity: "Caucasian." Education: University of Glasgow, M.A., 1975; Jesus College, Oxford, B.Litt., 1979.
ADDRESSES: Agent—Curtis Brown Ltd., 28-29 Haymarket, London SW1Y 4SP, England. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Writer, 1981–. Edinburgh International Book Festival, Saltire Lecturer, 2001.
AWARDS, HONORS: Betty Trask Award for first novel, Society of Authors, 1984, for Winter Journey; Television Industries Award and Samuel Beckett Prize, both 1986, both for Paris: A Television Play; Scottish Arts Council Spring Book Award, 1987, for A Long Weekend with Marcel Proust; citation for Scottish book of the year, Saltire Society, 2000, and Barbara Gittings Honor Prize, American Library Association, 2003, both for The Lantern Bearers.
Winter Journey (novel), Beaufort (New York, NY), 1984.
Watching Mrs. Gordon and Other Stories, Bodley Head (London, England), 1985.
A Long Weekend with Marcel Proust: Seven Stories and a Novel, Bodley Head (London, England), 1986.
Sandmouth People (novel), Bodley Head (London, England), 1987, published as Sandmouth, Knopf (New York, NY), 1988.
A Woman of Judah: A Novel and Fifteen Stories, Bodley Head (London, England), 1987, Norton (New York, NY), 1989.
Penelope's Hat (novel), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1989.
Bluette (novel), Hodder & Stoughton (London, England), 1990.
Underwood and After (novel), Hodder & Stoughton (London, England), 1991.
Walking My Mistress in Deauville: A Novella and Nine Stories, Hodder & Stoughton (London, England), 1992.
The Sun on the Wall: Three Novels, Hodder & Stoughton (London, England), 1994.
The Lantern Bearers (novel), Duckbacks (London, England), 1999, Counterpoint (Washington, DC), 2001.
Permanent Violet (novel), Polygon (Edinburgh, Scotland), 2002.
Time in Carnbeg: Short Stories, Polygon (Edinburgh, Scotland), 2004.
Contributor to short story anthologies, including Seven Deadly Sins, Severn, 1985; Winter's Tales 3, edited by Robin Baird-Smith, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1987; Scottish Short Stories, HarperCollins, 1993; Telling Stories 2, Hodder & Stoughton (London, England), 1993; and Sudden New Fiction, Norton (New York, NY), 2007. Contributor to periodicals, including short stories to Antioch Review, Sewanee Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Literary Review, Louisiana Review, South Carolina Review, Northwest Review, North American Review, Agni Online, Dalhousie Review, Xavier Review, Riversedge, WORDS, Great River Review, India Currents and Wascana Review.
Frame's papers are located at the National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh.
Winter Journey (adapted from his novel), BBC (British Broadcasting Corp.) Radio 4, 1985.
Twister, BBC Radio 4, 1986.
Rendezvous, BBC Radio 4, 1987.
Cara, BBC Radio 3, 1988.
Marina Bray, BBC Radio 3, 1989.
A Woman of Judah (adapted from his novel), BBC Radio 4, 1993.
Ghost City (memoir), BBC Radio 4, 1994.
The Lantern Bearers (based on his novel), BBC Radio 4, 1997.
The Hydro (series), BBC Radio 4, 1997–98.
Havisham, BBC Radio 3, 1998.
Maestro, BBC Radio 3, 1999.
Pharos, BBC Radio 4, 2000.
Don't Look Now based on a novella by Daphne du Maurier, BBC Radio 4, 2001.
Sunday at Sant' Agata, BBC Radio 3, 2001.
Greyfriars, BBC Radio 4, 2002.
The Servant (based on a novel by Somerset Maugham), BBC Radio 4, 2005.
Raja and the Master (based on the novel A Tiger for Malgudi by R.K. Narayan), BBC Radio 4, 2006.
The Blue Room (based on the novel by Georges Simenon), 2007.
Paris: A Television Play; with Privateers (broadcast on BBC-1 Television, 1985), Faber (London, England), 1987.
Out of Time, Channel 4, 1987.
A Modern Man, BBC, 1996.
M.R. James, BBC, 2000.
Darien: Disaster in Paradise, BBC, 2003.
Cromwell, BBC, 2003.
Contributor to the script for The Two Loves of Anthony Trollope, BBC, 2004.
ADAPTATIONS: Several of Frame's short stories have been adapted for radio and broadcast by BBC-Radio 3 and BBC-Radio 4. His novel Permanent Violet was broadcast as a ten-episode reading on the series Book at Bedtime, BBC Radio 4, 2002. Adaptations of some novels are also in development as screenplays.
SIDELIGHTS: Scottish writer Ronald Frame chronicles the dysfunctional side of postwar middle-class Britain in his works of fiction. Many characters in his novels and short stories are troubled by certain facets of their past and wrestle to keep parts of it concealed, while other characters strive to decipher the motivations behind the behavior of those around them. In his body of work, Frame relies heavily on eliciting a period mood to set the tone. Critics have often commented favorably on the author's talent in evoking the era of postwar Britain, a country ravaged by the long war years and unsettled by the resulting changes in national identity. Frame had penned numerous short stories, some of which he also adapted into radio and television plays, before writing his first novel, Winter Journey.
Winter Journey is an acclaimed work of fiction that won the Betty Trask Award in 1984, an honor bestowed upon an inaugural novel by a writer under the age of thirty-five. The novel's plot blends the melodrama of an unhappy family with political intrigue and is told in flashback from a child's point of view. The narrator, Annoele Tomlinson, is the offspring of a chic but duplicitous mother, Laura, and Simon, an equally devious diplomat father. In recollections about her family, Annoele remembers little of Simon, forever overseas on assignment, but revels in the details of her mother's spoiled and tempestuous persona. She is entranced by Laura's glamorous clothes and lifestyle, yet as a mother she remains to Annoele as distant as the girl's faraway father.
The journey of the title takes place as the ten-year-old Annoele and Laura travel to Prague to visit Simon, who has been posted there. The three motor through Europe during the holiday season and the acrimonious marriage between Annoele's parents reaches a crisis point as they kick up rancorous scenes that result in evictions from various hostelries. Critics have noted how this chain of events mirrors the biblical flight of the Holy Family, and it culminates in an automobile accident resulting in the death of one parent. The ensuing investigation into Simon's career reveals a dark secret about his postwar diplomatic activities. Annoele's search into the mystery behind her parents' disastrous lives forms the basis for the novel's structure. Winter Journey was well received by critics. A reviewer of the work for the New Yorker observed that Frame's novel "requires and rewards close attention." Christopher Hawtree of the Times Literary Supplement described the slim volume as "a decidedly individual creation, and makes one impatient for something on a larger scale."
The follow-up to Frame's celebrated first novel is Watching Mrs. Gordon and Other Stories. Like many of Frame's other works, the selections in Watching Mrs. Gordon take place in the milieu of a rigid British middle class and involve a cast of characters who have paid a dear price in order to maintain the appearance of a civilized life. Many of the stories revolve around themes of deception and hidden identities, and the true nature of the characters is often revealed by an unusual secret that looms somewhere within the structure of each plot. In the title work, an older man is locked into a marriage with a younger beauty with a concealed past. Another piece unfolds as a woman nervously anticipates a biography of her deceased husband, a noted archaeologist. The volume, titled Feet of Clay, will expose his long-hidden homosexuality. Times Literary Supplement contributor Gerald Mangan noted the dismal ambiance of the stories but granted that Frame "draws some cool moments of comedy from them."
Another collection of fiction appeared the following year under the title A Long Weekend with Marcel Proust: Seven Stories and a Novel. The shorter works, which lead the reader to the novella at the end, are reminiscent in some ways of the nineteenth-century French writer immortalized in its title. They rely on the minutiae of surfaces and objects, and time and place, to set the tone for the drama behind the characters' seemingly placid lives. In "The Lunch Table," two affluent married women, nearing middle age, meet regularly to reminisce fondly about their youth, refusing to discuss anything that might give away a hint of dissatisfaction about their present lives. Another work, "The Blue Jug," portrays a now-aged femme fatale, former muse of a celebrated artist, as she looks back on her life through the visual incantations of his paintings. The final piece, "Prelude and Fugue," is set in wartime London and told from multiple viewpoints of several narrators. Its protagonist is Helen Wilmot, a young girl traumatized by both her earlier childhood and the ongoing Blitzkrieg. The story is unusually structured with Helen's discourse in one column of text and those of other voices running parallel on the same page. As the aerial bombardment reaches a crescendo, Helen thinks back to her odd relationship with her father and the treatment suffered in the care of a sadistic nanny. Helen strives to maintain a sense of self, but begins to think she may have already been killed, and that those around her are also the walking dead.
In reviewing A Long Weekend with Marcel Proust, Valentine Cunningham of the Observer, although com-mending the prose in "The Blue Jug" as "finely tactile writing," summarized the volume's overall effect as "marginalia [that] reads as over-contrived and coldly mannered." In a critique of the work for the New Statesman, Michelene Wandor commented that "Frame is a writer who relies on care, logic and distance, creating unsettling patterns with aplomb." Mark Casserley wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that "Frame's prose is astringent, careful and clear," and he especially noted the effect of "Prelude and Fugue." The depiction of the heroine's distress in the novella, Casserley remarked, is "a powerful testimony to Frame's psychological depth, his awareness of interpersonal tensions, and the special dimension of the continued everyday existence within which his protagonist strives to remain."
Frame returned to the format of the full-length novel with the publication of Sandmouth People. The work takes place on St. George's Day in April, 1953, in the seaside town of Sandmouth, England. Like many of Frame's previous works, its multitudinous cast of characters lead corrupt lives, each driven by a shameful past or a duplicitous present. In their diversity they represent the nuanced class levels of postwar British society: bank clerks, aristocrats, and artists remain on equally decadent footing in the vacation resort. Through the characters and their actions Sandmouth People provides a detailed, frozen-in-time snapshot of one day of this era, depicting the nation's changing moral standards, newly formed class structure, and stultifying reliance on ritual and custom to somehow hold it all together.
The work, although essentially devoid of a formal plot, begins and ends with an excerpt from a detective novel that sets the stage for the unsolved death of Sandmouth's resident madwoman, Tilly. The mute daughter of a wealthy family, her presence at every stage of the narrative is her downfall when she is witness to one of the many depraved escapades that take place during the course of the day. Sandmouth People received mixed reviews. Stevenson Swanson, critiquing the volume for the Chicago Tribune Books, maintained that "it is difficult to work up much concern for any of the characters," and further noted that the absence of plot "also keeps the reader at a distance." Times Literary Supplement critic Cunningham faulted the novel for relying too heavily on the sins of the flesh as motivation for its characters. The reviewer remarked that "for all its mass of occasional delights … Sandmouth People disappoints." London Times critic Stuart Evans, on the other hand, praised Frame's treacherous characters, remarking that the author "is adept at creating monsters," and complimented the final sum of its parts as "inventive throughout its considerable length."
A Woman of Judah: A Novel and Fifteen Stories contains smaller works that are typical of the author's previous short stories. In "Rendezvous," an adulterous affair continues for over two decades, shadowed by the unasked question of whether or not the woman had aborted a pregnancy years earlier. In the title work, an aged judge recalls for the narrator his sojourn in a small English town in the 1930s. The locale's most intriguing character was the doctor's wife, with whom the young lawyer became infatuated. Although the townspeople were themselves no paragons of virtue, the attractive and enigmatic woman became the focus of their righteous venom. Anthony Sattin of the Times Literary Supplement described the characters of Frame's volume as "well conceived," and stated that as an author "one of his greatest strengths is the use of significant detail to create atmosphere and character."
Penelope's Hat is the title of another full-length work of fiction. In it Frame again utilizes a story-within-a-story structure, relating the reminiscences of acclaimed writer Penelope Milne in autobiographical form. The hat of the title is a metaphoric reference to the phases of Penelope's life, as she donned distinctive headgear to both signify her current state as well as to safeguard against her notoriety. The aging writer recalls the events in her past and the manner through which she transformed them into her fiction. She recounts the saga of her deceptive husband, who is thought to have perished in an automobile accident after six years of marriage. Penelope later discovers that she had been instead married to a man who had successfully duped her with a fictional persona. He reappears at various points in the course of her life, and the reader is left wondering which of her recollections are true and which exist only in Penelope's imagination.
In a review of Penelope's Hat for the New York Times Book Review, critic Linda Barrett Osborne reported that Frame "writes with a quiet intelligence, grace of language and eye for manners." Times Literary Supplement contributor Patricia Craig cited the author's descriptive powers, remarking that "all the different eras of Penelope's life are evoked with conviction." Yet Craig also questioned the scope of the novel, musing that "we can't help feeling that it might have benefited from being quite ruthlessly compressed." Rita Kashner of the Tribune Books wrote that the novel "begins promisingly," but its "relentless unrolling of tales … and the rather flat, thematic characters who people them" prevent the reader from becoming engaged. Kashner suggested that perhaps the volume would have been better constructed as a series of shorter works, noting that "Frame's real strength is as a writer of short fiction."
The novel Bluette evoked comparisons with Penelope's Hat from critics. Both share an indefatigable heroine who moves through the fast-paced and gilded chapters of her life yet remains an enigma. Frame again places Bluette's protagonist, Catherine Hammond, in a postwar British milieu of questionable morals and sometimes-degenerate sexuality. Catherine flits through the rarefied circles of fashion magazines, 1950s London nightlife, and the show-business enchantment of Hollywood. Her arduous journeys across continents and through the decades is driven by the search for the father of her illegitimate child. Frame again fills in the elements of his characters' lives with descriptive detail of expensive apparel and posh interiors. Hawtree of the Times Literary Supplement described Bluette as "fantasy gone mad," condemning it as "a perplexing, sad development in a writer who began with some rewarding stories." London Times reviewer Sally Edworthy noted that, although the reader "is left admiring the inexhaustible display of crisp phrases," the presentation of the protagonist was less than ideal. "Catherine," the critic wrote, "is kept at a remove, on display as it were, behind the glass of distancing, deflecting prose." Other reviewers found Frame's experimental approach more rewarding. Trevor Royle, in an essay about Frame's work for the book Contemporary Novelists, praised Bluette as "vast, sprawling, and eclectic," and a work "that marks Frame as one of the most innovative writers of his generation."
In the novel Underwood and After, Frame again reconstructs a saga around the reminiscences of a bewildered narrative voice. In this work the middle-aged Ralph recollects the charmed life he led as a youth when he became a chauffeur for a wealthy and well-connected man. Ralph was mystified by the source of Mr. Chetwynd's riches and for years afterward remained intrigued by the memories of the dissipated yet glamorous characters that comprised his boss's social set. His recollections are renewed by the appearance of a daughter of one of the circle's now-deceased denizens, a young woman who has sought Ralph out to provide him with her mother's diaries. The memoirs help to reconstruct some of the strange events of the time and the motivations behind their instigators. Candace Rodd of the Times Literary Supplement described the work as "a bizarre blend of period melodrama and postmodernist flourish, the point of which, concealed in serpentine coils of plot and gnomic authorial speculation, remains resolutely knotted."
Frame told CA: "You write the fiction only you can write—because, to state the obvious, no one else has had precisely your experience of life. There's increasing pressure these days to fit into literary niches, to regularize, so that more than ever you have to fight your corner if you want to speak in your own voice.
"Fiction, I believe, has to be written in a kind of isolation: aside and apart from other people's expectations, and if it's out of the fashion, then so be it.
"I've always found short fiction more enjoyable to write, both stories and the longer novellas. (The few novels I read, and those I read about, often strike me as too programmed.) The 'best' stories bubble up from who knows where and seem to write themselves. These can be very eccentric, obeying their own obscure rationale. Ultimately, to me, that's very satisfying, because I've functioned as an amanuensis of my subconscious.
"For the past few years I've been concentrating my energies on a fictional Scottish town called Carnbeg, an inland resort in the Perthshire hills. I feel it's material that has always been staring me in the face—except that, inexplicably, I'd failed to notice. Anything—but anything—can go into Carnbeg. Stories can be about the town and its inhabitants, and yet they can be set somewhere quite different—Buenos Aires, Mysore, Nice in the 1920s, Baba Yaga's forest in Russia, the backwoods of North Carolina, Xian in China, Piranesi's Rome. I feel there's no case of being right or wrong about Carnbeg. Carnbeg just is. (Melville said in Moby Dick, 'It isn't down on any map, true places never are.')
"Fiction writing is my sole occupation and livelihood. I write every day. I can only write—think—in longhand. I try to type up as soon as I can; after just a few days, there's a distinct risk that I won't be able to read my own handwriting. Unlike most writers, I find that putting the results on screen makes me less inclined to be prolix. The 'delete' button is very useful.
"There comes a point when prose may be just too polished to be credible—it loses its transparency, shall we say—and the trick is in knowing to stop just before that stage. Stories as a rule—for writers generally—very easily become overworked and self-admiring. I shy away from exercises in style. I write story-stories, narrative-driven, even though the action may be viewed through one character, with her/his capacity for self-delusion.
"My fiction depends, I think, on continual counterpoising: essentially between what I 'tell' and what I leave the reader to work out. We shouldn't know absolutely everything about characters. A story only properly exists when someone reads it, rescues it from the page, and how a story is read is always going to be different. Therefore there's no final interpretation of a story. (How can there be, when I may not understand it myself?)
"There are very few rules about writing, it seems to me. Your ambition is somehow to reach a reader and (a selfish wish) to hope that the experience isn't entirely forgotten, that next day something will occur to the person who's given you his precious time. 'Ah, yes, I see now. So that was why …'
"Only a few books are capable of changing basic perceptions about life or literature. (Borges? Cervantes? Thomas Bernhard?) We learn about the world from the chaotic accumulation of our past reading. In my own writing I try—in the lightest way I can—to suggest that what I've put on the page has been filtered through fifty years of magpie-like reading and thinking about it, as well as all the time I've spent watching and listening to people going about their ordinary but also extraordinarily individual lives."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Novelists, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Library Journal, April 1, 1986, review of Winter Journey, p. 160.
New Statesman, November 21, 1986, Micheline Wandor, review of A Long Weekend with Marcel Proust: Seven Stories and a Novel, pp. 28-29.
New Yorker, July 14, 1986, review of Winter Journey, p. 83; July 4, 1988, review of Sandmouth People, p. 84.
New York Times Book Review, February 14, 1988, Jay Parini, review of Sandmouth People, p. 24; October 13, 1991, Linda Barrett Osborne, review of Penelope's Hat, p. 22.
Observer (London, England) December 14, 1986, Valentine Cunningham, review of A Long Weekend with Marcel Proust, p. 23.
Publishers Weekly, January 17, 1986, Sybil Steinberg, review of Winter Journey, p. 61; April 7, 1989, Sybil Steinberg, review of A Woman of Judah: A Novel and Fifteen Stories, p. 125.
Times (London, England), September 4, 1986; April 2, 1987; July 5, 1990, Sally Edworthy, review of Bluette.
Times Literary Supplement, September 21, 1984, Christopher Hawtree, review of Winter Journey, p. 1065; July 5, 1985, Gerald Mangan, review of Watching Mrs. Gordon and Other Stories, p. 747; July 26, 1985, Christopher Hawtree, review of Seven Deadly Sins, p. 833; October 17, 1986, Mark Casserley, review of A Long Weekend with Marcel Proust, p. 1169; May 15, 1987, Valentine Cunningham, review of Sandmouth People, p. 515; December 11, 1987, Anthony Sattin, review of A Woman of Judah, p. 1374; August 11, 1989, Patricia Craig, review of Penelope's Hat, p. 878; July 6, 1990, Christopher Hawtree, review of Bluette, p. 731; August 2, 1991, Candice Rodd, review of Underwood and After, p. 18; May 27, 1994, review of The Sun on the Wall: Three Novels, p. 21.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), February 21, 1988, Stevenson Swanson, review of Sandmouth People, p. 7; October 20, 1991, Rita Kashner, review of Penelope's Hat, pp. 8, 10.