I am now in the second half of my seventeen day run working the equivalent of every day (that’s working twice on Fridays, twice), and it is my grasp of the English language that is most starting to suffer. Or, perhaps, I have just become aware of a superior talent and flooded myself with the entirety of everything she ever published and thus lost all faith in my abilities as a hotshot prose stylist. Reading back over that paragraph, I think my gut instinct was right. But whether or not I’m over the hill, the dead Katherine Mansfield is not.
The prose of Katherine Mansfield is superb. Though this 700pageish tome isn’t gold on gold on gold, the stories originally published in Bliss and Other Stories, The Garden Party and Other Stories and the left-on-her-deathbed semi-complete The Dove’s Nest and Other Stories are mostly all knock out. Mansfield wrote short stories, published three books in her lifetime and left enough for two more behind. She had a mastery of voice that is incredibly impressive for someone who spent most of her youth in rural New Zealand. One gets the impression, though, when reading Mansfield, that every person she met and every place she visited was sucked from the world and into her mind. Though there are many stories with a Kiwi setting, or about New Zealanders in Europe, far more of her stories are about people from other places, in other places, leading other lives. Her first collection, In A German Pension (a book she refused to have republished during her brief lifetime), is almost entirely about Germans, about the intricacies of class and gender and sexuality. Now, of course, these are universal topics that could have been explored with such gusto anywhere, but the writer’s personal distance from her characters is never apparent. One doesn’t read Mansfield and feel she was writing pointlessly about people and places she barely knew, but that she possessed the strength of imagination to evoke complex and engrossing characters and narratives that are never (except for three, maybe four, exceptions) more than fifteen pages long.
Every story included in this book that Mansfield deemed complete is well structured and deeply felt. The unfinished stories packaged in The Dove’s Nest by her husband after she died of tuberculosis aged 33 [CHECK THAT FACT] lack her deep structuring, but are still able to create character and sense of place even as snippets; they are all coherent middles or beginnings or endings despite lacking a sustaining story.
And included in this section, too, is a series of extracts from her journals where she establishes with trenchant solidity the creative urge within her, the secondariness of all activities bar writing and the joy and the pleasure to be found in life both on and off the page.
She writes children, old men, young women, peasants, aristocrats, clerks, servants, farmers; those in love, those out of love, she writes of desire and politics and family and travel, of mortality and fear and horror and pain.
Katherine Mansfield’s deeply varied stories made me laugh, cry, and want to read more. I sat down with this mammoth volume with the intention of reading only one collection for my book club, but enjoyed it so much I carried on. Sadly, this volume does end on a low note by placing her less refined, youthful, In A German Pension at the end, but I suppose that the love of her prose established with the work before it had won me round enough to read it as a completist.
A thoroughly good read, and a fucking steal in the Wordsworth Classics edition I bought it in. A bargain at £2.50. Highly recommended.
My story picks, if you want to Project Gutenburg then:
‘Je Ne Parle Pas Francais’ and ‘Psychology’ from Bliss and Other Stories; ‘At the Bay’, ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel’, ‘Life of Ma Parker’, ‘Marriage a la Mode’, ‘Miss Brill’, ‘The Singing Lesson’, ‘Bank Holiday’ and ‘The Lady’s Maid’ from The Garden-Party and Other Stories; and ‘A Cup of Tea’ and ‘The Fly’ from The Dove’s Nest.