Saturday, March 01, 2008

Katherine Mansfield’s Selected Stories

Don’t know what it is, but I’m finding this book impossible to write about. Maybe it covers too much ground to tackle as a whole (extracts from five short story collections, plus critical essays and some letters – it’s the Norton Critical Edition), but it’s genuinely great in quite a lot of places, and always interesting. Could just be the February blues, or this bloody cold. I’ve ended up writing several fragments, which don’t quite go, but anyway: some diary extracts, then a proper bit on ‘The Garden Party’…

27th January

On the top of a big hill they stopped. The driving man turned to Pearl and said ‘Look, look!’ and pointed down with his whip. And down at the bottom of the hill was something perfectly different – a great big piece of blue water was creeping over the land. She screamed and clutched at the big woman. ‘What is it, what is it?’ ‘Why,’ said the woman, ‘it’s the sea.’ ‘Will it hurt us – is it coming?’ (p. 38, from ‘How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped’)

This story felt a bit Kate Chopin-y, for the sun and water, and the carefree vs. staid tension. I bought this book on a whim after hearing a Matthew Parris-presented radio programme, ‘Great Lives’, with Jacqueline Wilson and a Mansfield scholar. It concentrated on the life to the exclusion of the work a bit too much, but they spoke of her as an unfairly neglected early 20th Century / Modernist author. Not neglected by the public, but by the literary establishment, which doesn’t see her as being as important as Forster, Lawrence, Stein etc. Woolf. I must admit, too, that they made her life sound so tragic (chronically ill, and chronically ill-suited to her husband) that that made me want to read her. Is that ghoulish? The stories I’ve read so far are strong on vulnerability, dazzlingly rendered, one can easily imagine their author being too sensitive for this world.

Then again:

Her black satin skirt swished across the scarlet and gold hall, and she stood among the artificial palms, her white neck and powdered face topped with masses of gleaming orange hair – like an over-ripe fungus bursting from a thick, black stem. (p. 47, from ‘Bains Turcs’)

30th January

She had not time to form a consistent attitude to any one finished story: each stood to her as a milestone passed, not as a destination arrived at. Let us say, she reacted to success (if in Katherine Mansfield’s eyes there were such a thing) as others react to failure – there seemed to be nothing left but to try again. (p. 350, from Elizabeth Bowen’s essay)

…which could stand as a definition of Pop.

It had never been so plain to her as it was at this moment. There were all her feelings for him, sharp and defined, one as true as the other. And there was this other, this hatred, just as real as the rest. She could have done her feelings up in little packets and given them to Stanley. She longed to hand him that last one, for a surprise. She could see his eyes as he opened that… (p. 111, from ‘The Prelude’)

Linda Burnell on her prosaic husband. I’m beginning to realise that it’s not just my erratic reading habits over the last few weeks which makes these stories… not a struggle, exactly, but elusive, and tough just to casually dip into. They don’t take care of one’s understanding as most stories do – reading them directly after Trollope (who mollycoddles, and is an effortless read) makes this especially obvious. Mansfield gives the reader only just enough information for the story to make sense, and then only at the last possible moment. Daydreams only gradually appear as such. Ideas are not followed through, but suggested (often brilliantly), leaving the reader to unpack the implications.

3rd Feb

‘The Man Without a Temperament’ an awfully sad KM story, clearly based on her illness (TB) and her husband’s attempts to care for her. A doctor has recommended she go somewhere with ‘a decent climate’ for two years if she’s to stand a chance of survival. And then:

…He is with her. ‘Robert, the awful thing is – I suppose it’s my illness – I simply feel I could not go alone. You see – you’re everything. You’re bread and wine, Robert, bread and wine. Oh, my darling – what am I saying? Of course I could, of course I won’t take you away….’ (p. 179)


17th Feb

[On the Scott Walker documentary, 30 Century Man, shown on BBC 4 recently:] Scott said that record by record he’s stripping out the personality from his performances, so that – contrarily – any feeling or emotion that makes it through to the records is genuine. What a distinction to make! It fits perfectly with this passage in Mansfield, a mess of personality:

‘Good morning,’ she said, copying her mother’s voice. But that sounded so fearfully affected that she was ashamed, and stammered like a little girl, ‘Oh – er – have you come – is it about the marquee? (p. 287, from ‘The Garden Party’)

[Not from my diary, but following on from this quotation:]

In ‘The Garden Party’, Mansfield begins with a scene of social awkwardness, as the rich Laura Sheridan addresses some workmen who have come to put up a marquee for her mother’s garden party. Fortunately the one who replies has a smile ‘so easy, so friendly, that Laura recovered’. She decides that she likes workmen. The story is a light comedy in this vein until the point at which the man delivering the cream puffs passes on the information that a man who lived in one of the cottages just outside the Sheridans’ grounds has fallen from his horse and been killed. ‘He’s left a wife and five little ones’ (p. 292). Nobody is very much bothered about this except for Laura, who feels that the garden party must be cancelled: ‘just think of what the band would sound like to that poor woman’ (p. 293) she protests to her sister Jose. Jose doesn’t see it that way, and neither does Mrs Sheridan (‘But, my dear child, use your common sense. It’s only by accident we’ve heard of it.’ (p. 294)), so the garden party goes ahead.

After the guests have gone they do have the grace to be slightly ashamed about this, and, looking at the catering leftovers, Mrs Sheridan decides that Laura must take a basket of food to the widow Mrs Scott, to show sympathy. It isn’t an unkind thought, but it is one that jars a little: clearly Mrs Sheridan sees Mrs Scott as socially inferior, and her fellow feeling in a time of tragedy is only going to take her so far. Laura, fresh from her pleasant experiences with the workmen, feels the injustice of this, but takes the basket willingly enough. Now, you would think that comeuppance of some sort for this lack of tact was just around the corner, but the story takes an unexpected turn when Laura is ushered into Mrs Scott’s house by her sister, who also insists on showing her the body. This is her reaction:

There lay a young man, fast asleep – sleeping so soundly, so deeply, that he was far, far away from them both. Oh, so remote, so peaceful. He was dreaming. Never wake him up again. His head was sunk in the pillow, his eyes were closed; they were blind under the closed eyelids. He was given up to his dream. What did garden parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from all those things. He was wonderful, beautiful. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane. Happy… happy… . All is well, said that sleeping face. This is just as it should be. I am content. (p. 298)

In a letter included in this edition, Mansfield explains that in ‘The Garden Party’ she was trying to convey ‘the diversity of life and how we try to fit in everything, Death included. This is bewildering to a person of Laura’s age.’ (p. 331). Although the embarrassment and sadness of visiting Mrs Scott are real, Laura is able to place them in a much wider context, and this is the point of the story: not the clash of classes, but the way they get along.

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