Monday, 21 September 2009

Katherine Mansfield


During Persephone Reading Week I started to read Katherine Mansfield's Journal and realised that to truly appreciate it I needed to reread those Katherine Mansfield short stories I have loved and read those that are to me. Mansfield has been a popular blog topic in the last couple of weeks and I was inspired to pick up one of my volumes of her stories. Upon doing so I wanted to reread "Bliss".

"Bliss" reminds me of Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. ‘I was jealous of her writing. The only writing I have ever been jealous of,’ so said Virginia Woolf of her friend, contemporary and rival Katherine Mansfield, but only as a posthumous accolade; before Mansfield’s death their relationship was fraught with bitterness and envy. Such a self-deprecating and modest admission to make when one is the female writer at the forefront of the Modernist movement. To read now, that Woolf was jealous of a contemporary’s talent, is as startling as reading the same of Shakespeare. Woolf was the most innovative in style, influential in feminism and literary mode, and as equally famous and infamous of all female writers from the twentieth-century, if not the literary canon. Yet, she was envious of Mansfield; perhaps if the latter had lived to realise her potential , instead of dying tragically young, she would now have held this mantle.

She would certainly be worthy of doing so; her writing and use of language is stunning and her stories each perfected pieces of art. I love her short stories and I have a love-hate relationship with the medium; Katherine Mansfield see-saws heavily on the love side.

I was first introduced to Katherine Mansfield by a beloved English teacher at school who gave us "The Doll House" to read, which remains one of my favourite short stories because of its apparent simplicity yet also inexplicable quality. Mansfield often features details and symbols that resonate within the reading but elude definition; the reader is unable to full grasp the significant meaning of the symbol as with the pear tree in "Bliss" and the little lamp in "The Doll's House", not strictly symbolic as they are not representative of a specific thing but freely open to interpretation, like Woolf's lighthouse, which she meant "nothing by".

Mansfield often employs abrupt beginnings that jar - the reader has to be alert and questioning from the outset, sometimes they even begin with a conjunction. She disposes of tedious descriptions/back story and launches into the midst of the action. Mansfield prompts examination at level of the word: semiotics, word choice and syntax. In "Bliss" she begins in medias res:

Although Bertha Young was thirty she still had moments like this when she wanted to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement, to bowl a hoop, to throw something up in the air and catch it again, or to stand still and laugh at-nothing-at nothing, simply.
What can you do if you are thirty and, turning the corner of your own street, you are overcome, suddenly by a feeling of bliss-absolute bliss!- as though you'd suddenly swallowed a bright piece of that late afternoon sun and it burned in your bosom, sending out a little shower of sparks into every particle, into every finger and toe? ...


Immediately I questioned who is Bertha and why is she so blissful? The word bliss and its derivatives are repeated and emphasised throughout the story and begin to describe a sexual awakening and longing for her husband, her best friend. Bertha is brimming over with emotion, desire and the search for fulfillment, a rite of passage that comes to realisation "For the first time in her life Bertha Young desired her husband." Mostly I hoped Bertha would remain in her blissful state but predicted that in the denouement she would be crushed and she is... by an ironic blow.

You can read "Bliss" online here. Please do or alternatively read a volume of her stories.


19 comments:

Rachel said...

Wonderful post. Isn't she terrific? I love that VW was jealous of her, it shows just how much potential she had. I reread Bliss last week after, I think Simon's post? Or was it Danielle's? I can't remember..anyway, I was reminded afresh of how perfect her stories are when I read it. When I get home tonight I'm going to crack out my hefty volume of her collected stories and reread some of my old favourites. I have been meaning to read her Journal for ages too so that's going to go up my tbr pile.

Do you own the copy pictured in your post, Claire? I couldn't own a book with that cover, it would make me so hungry! You have given me a massive craving for clotted cream and jam and scones...mmm...

Tony said...

I have been meaning to buy a Katherine Mansfield collection for some time, and this might finally push me over the edge :) Apart from anything else, it'll add another nationality to the list for 2009!

verity said...

I do love the cover on the that one - it is luscious.

I still haven't read any Katherine Mansfield but I have seen so many blog posts about her now that I will have to rectify this.

Paperback Reader said...

Thanks, Rachel. She really is terrific. I think later -posthumously- VW had a grudging respect for her and even admiration but that was obviously when she was no longer any professional threat, being dead. I can see us all with our KM volumes propped open over the coming weeks. I am very excited about her Journal.

The photograph is of my actual copy although I have a couple of others (including the one Simon featured in his post). I love it but do admit is is tempting!

Tony, that's reason enough! NZ authors seem to be in short supply, in my ignorant little opinion... I don't know much at all about Antipodean writers but would like to. Hope this does end up finally pushing you over the edge!

Verity, the cover is one of my favourite Penguin Modern Classics.

You do have to rectify it! Don't be put off by her writing short stories because they are wonderful and you simply must read them.

savidgereads said...

I definately need to give Katherine Mansfield a go. I think that Bliss sounds delightful and I must, must get that collection of short stories, what a fabulous cover! Lovely post!

Paperback Reader said...

Thanks, Simon. I do love that cover and find KM utterly delightful; her writing is sublime.

JoAnn said...

Thanks for including the link! Haven't read Mansfield, but have bookmarked this (and The Doll House) for later...maybe short story Monday next week?

Bloomsbury Bell said...

Bliss is one of my all time favourite stories and it really does prove Mansfield to be a writer to rival Woolf!
I was in Persephone on Saturday eyeing up the Journal so I am absolutely going to order it now. Instead, I bought the Montana Stories to give to a friend (on the brilliant recommendation of Rachel) - I have a copy myself and I love dipping into them - I also love The Garden Party.

Lezlie said...

I recently bought a complete collection of Katherine Mansfield stories after watching a DVD lecture that discussed this very story! I also read "Miss Brill" a while back, which was another phenomenal piece of work. I'm hoping to delve deeper into her stories in the coming year.

Lezlie

Nymeth said...

I've been meaning to read Mansfield for years, and my interest was renewed recently when I read Daphne du Maurier's Myself When Young: she too said that her greatest aspiration was to write like Katherine Mansfield. Thank you for the link to Bliss - I'll be sure to read it.

Paperback Reader said...

JoAnn, I'm glad you've bookmarked those two and they will be perfect for Short Story Mondays. I sincerely hope that you enjoy them.

Naomi, "Bliss" is exceptionally good as is "The Garden Party" and I've read them both so many times.

I COVET the Persephone Montana Stories! I hope you enjoy the Journal; I can't wait to read it (must read more stories first).

Lezlie, I hope you enjoy them. I read "Miss Brill" in a great volume of short stories by women that I have and it's fantastic; there are so many of KM's story that are phenomenal.

Paperback Reader said...

Ana, she definitely inspires and I am sure you will love her writing.

Mae said...

Since starting writing, and appreciating, short stories I've more fully appreciated the genius of Katherine. The atmosphere and character development she manages in such succinct and sharp language is amazing! I've only read her volume of 'The Garden Party' and other short stories. I'm a bit iffy about reading diaries - perhaps at a later stage.

Steph said...

Thanks for this lovely review, Claire. I have never read any Mansfield before (whenever I see her name, I immediately think she is a character in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, rather than a real person!), but you're right that she's been making her presence known in the book blogging community of late.

I particularly want to commend you on this review, because I too have a love-hate relationship with short stories (I so frequently find them unsatisfying, but I can't help but keep trying more and more), but your review has really made me want to give Mansfield a shot. And since you've posted a link to Bliss, now I can (and will then probably want to buy all of her books!)!

Paperback Reader said...

Mae, from a writer's perspective, Katherine Mansfield is definitely the type of writer many would aspire to me as her stories are so concise and beautifully crafted.

Have you read Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose? I've been dipping in an out of it for a while now using it to analyse some great short stories (many are referenced in the book) and appreciating short stories on another level.

Steph, you're welcome. I hope you do enjoy Mansfield. So many people shy away from short stories and I can understand why but there are so many amazing ones out there and a lot of them were written by Katherine Mansfield. I find that I can't read many at once because I require something longer to lose myself in; sampling ones here and there in stolen moments is great though. Your Mansfield Park comment made me laugh!

farmlanebooks said...

I haven't read any Katherine Mansfield, but I'm not a fan of short stories so don't think this is a good place to start. I haven't read any Virginia Woolf either - I really should do something about that!

Paperback Reader said...

Jackie, Katherine Mansfield only wrote short stories so I would at least attempt one of them.

I saw somewhere (on the other Claire's blog, I think) that there will be a Virginia Woolf read-along at the beginning of next year so perhaps that will be the perfect incentive for you!

Rebecca Reid said...

I haven't read Mansfield yet, so thanks for the headsup. Sounds wonderful!

Paperback Reader said...

Rebecca, she really is wonderful and I hope you think likewise when you do read her.