Friday, 15 January 2010

Janet Frame: A Note on the Russian War

Well, nobody did request this story, but I thought I'd type it out anyway - the title is a little off-putting, but if you find this at all striking, then you'll probably want to read more of Janet Frame's work. I must confess its brevity appeals as much as its other qualities, when it comes to typing it out...

A Note on the Russian War

The sunflowers got us, the black seeds stuck in our hair, my mother went about saying in a high voice like the wind, sunflowers, kiddies, ah sunflowers.

We lived on the Steppes, my mother and the rest of my family and I, but mostly my mother because she was bigger than the rest. She stood outside in the sun. She held a sunflower in her hand. It was the biggest, blackest sunflower in Russia, and my mother said over and over again, ah sunflowers.

I shall never forget being in Russia. We wore big high boots in the winter, and in the summer we went bare-foot and wriggled our toes in the mud whenever it rained, and when there was snow on the ground we went outside under the trees to sing a Russian song, it went like this, I'm singing it to myself so you can't hear, tra-tra-tra, something about sunflowers and a tall sky and the war rolling through the grass, tra-tra-tra, it was a very nice song that we sang.

In space and time.

There are no lands outside, they are fenced inside us, a fence of being and we are the world, my mother told, we are Russian because we have this sunflower in our garden.

It grew in those days near the cow-byre and the potato patch. It was a little plant with a few little black seeds sometimes, and a scraggy flower with a black heart, like a big daisy only yellow and black, but it was too tall for us to see properly, the daisies were nearer our size.

All day on the lawn we made daisy chains and buttercup chains, sticking our teeth through the bitter stems.

All day on the lawn, don't you remember the smell of them, the new white daisies, you stuff your face amongst them and you put the buttercups under your chin to see if you love butter, and you do love butter anyway so what's the use, but the yellow shadow is Real Proof, Oh you love early, sitting amongst the wet painted buttercups.

And then out of the spring and summer days the War came. An ordinary war like the Hundred Years or the Wars of the Roses or the Great War where my father went and sang Tipperary. All of the soldiers on my father's side sang Tipperary, it was to show they were getting somewhere, and the louder they sang it the more sure they felt about getting there.

And the louder they sang it the more scared they felt inside.

Well in the Russian War we didn't sing Tipperary or Pack up your troubles or There's a long long trail a-winding.

We had sunflowers by the fence near where the fat white cow got milked. We had big high boots in winter.

We were just Russian children on the Steppes, singing tra-tra-tra, quietly with our mother and father, but war comes whatever you sing.


  1. Simon Thanks for taking time to type this out for us. In general I don't read short stories* but this is one I will print out and re-read again.

    *except that my favorite book of all time is a collection of short stories: Country of the Pointed Firs

  2. This is very lyrical; thank you for posting it. I am intrigued by Janet Frame firstly because she is a VMC author and because she is from NZ.

    Will there be a return of Simon's Weekend Miscellany at any point? I enjoyed it so and miss the feature.

  3. To type that all up for is is very kind Simon. It has also meant I will now definately be looking for Frame at the library today.

  4. Oh, Claire, there will be a return! I'm glad you enjoyed it, I enjoy doing it. My problem is that I only seem to remember about it in the middle of the week... Perhaps I'll do it tonight, as it'll still be the weekend...

  5. "Linda", (and of course Simon!)perhaps I could recommend Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by Z Z Packer as an excellent example of modern short story writing from an exciting new voice.

  6. Simon, reading that wonderful quote has inspired me to hurry up on reading the one Janet Frame novel I've been able to acquire (she is unknown on this side of the pond), Owls Do Cry. I also have her autobiographical trilogy, of which I've read the first volume, To the Is-land. It is amazing what that woman has been through. Have you seen the movie based on her life? I am not one to cry during a film, but her life story was so touching... I am in awe of her fortitude.

  7. If people are recommending modern short story writers, may I direct you to ? The story up today isn't all that, but browse through - their 2008 anthology contains some amazing pieces, better than Janet Frame (and any other 'professional' short story writers I've read), if I may be so bold... :)

  8. I need to get you reading Katherine Mansfield - I'd be impressed if any of them are better than her! I've yet to read anyone I think is better.

  9. Deal. Gimme.
    I'm just saying, short-story talent is very much still alive and out there.... hurray!


I've now moved to, and all my old posts are over there too - do come and say hello :)

I probably won't see your comment here, I'm afraid, but all my archive posts can also be found at