BOOK REVIEW / Awful memories of disagreeably familiar times: 'The Sun on the Wall' - Ronald Frame: Hodder & Stoughton, 15.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
THERE is something photographic, even cinematic, about Ronald Frame's tricksy metafictional stories. The Sun on the Wall, a collection of three novels, is littered with references to the filmic. 'I've Been Here Before' is set in the British film industry in the Fifties and is studded with italicised notations such as 'Freeze Frame' and 'The script is all used up'. The heroine of The Sun on the Wall describes her primal scene as a 'melodramatic business . . . Like a B-movie, a second feature'. And the longest (and dullest) piece in this collection, 'The Broch', reads more like a screenwriter's notes than a completed novel.

But characters in a movie are not the same as characters in a book. For one thing, film characters tend to be played by stars who spirit something of themselves into their creations. Characters in novels need a little more shading in: a backdrop is not the same thing as a background. The only moment one of Frame's protagonists comes to life is when she tries to stop time by pouring custard into a cuckoo clock. Mostly Frame keeps his distance. 'The best we can want to do is to try to understand,' he writes; that noble sentiment is at the heart of all artistic creation, but Frame hardly practises what he preaches. At one point he all but admits that the game is up when he says that one of his characters 'knows more, much more than novelists do'. Well, thanks for telling us.

Despite their reliance on the cinematic, these stories are all but devoid of dialogue. Instead, everything is told in small chunks of interior recollection. The pages are punctuated with double line spaces that allow the paper to breathe through - as if things were too painful to relate at one go. For these are stories about memories, and the memories are awful ones. One of Frame's earlier books was entitled A Long Weekend with Marcel Proust and, like Marcel, Frame is obsessed with matters temporal.

All three novels (if a story of less than 60 pages can be considered a novel) are concerned with time; the way the past becomes the present through our recollection; the way minor incidents in the dim and distant can result in far from short sharp shocks. The Sun on the Wall is about a (now dead) classics don who abused his (now miserable) daughter. Trawling through her past, she discovers that her father's research into Greek and Roman civilisation centred on the incest taboo: was he, too, trapped in a time not of his own making, a time with which he did not agree and which certainly did not agree with him?

At one point in this story, De Chirico's painting The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street - that image of a little girl racing towards a portentous phallic shadow - is referred to as a visual echo of her predicament. Yes, I'm afraid we are dealing here with yet more art about art. Each story is about the problems inherent within narration. As 20th-century fiction goes, this is pretty much of an old chestnut, and matters aren't helped by the fact that Frame's prose style has all the excitement of a knitting pattern. To write that 'It had only been a few seconds of mischief, but the effects were going to last all my life' is merely to resort to the hackneyed and novelettish. But to write that 'She half wanted to visit him, but she wanted just as much not to' is plain clumsy.

The book's main problem, indeed, is that it is all a bit familiar. One grants an artist a favourite theme, so it hardly matters that we are used to Frame's concern with the past's effect on the present. On the other hand, one of the stories in A Long Weekend with Marcel Proust dealt with incest and its reverberations. Closing the book, one concurs too readily with the title of its first story: 'I've been here before'.

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