Monday, February 8, 2016

Katherine Mansfield / A brief survey of the short story

Katherine Mansfield
Poster by T.A.

A brief survey of the short story part 11

Katherine Mansfield

Although some of her work is stunningly bad, the best of it ranks alongside the greats

Chris Power
Tuesday 5 August 2008 08.00 BST

Katherine Mansfield's short stories tend to polarise opinion. In the very first blog of this series, one casual below-the-line mention of her was enough to prompt both brickbats and devotionals. For myself, I both love and hate her work.
It's easy enough to enjoy the young, breezily comic but insubstantial Mansfield of In a German Pension (1911), her first collection. Far less winsome is the melodramatic, clumsy, and at times unbearably sentimental creator of later stories such as The Canary, A Suburban Fairy Tale, or The Fly, which ruins some fine writing with a metaphor only marginally less subtle than a klaxon's blast.
Taken as a whole Mansfield's work confounds because, from 1915 onwards (following her debut she suffered several years of writer's block), the very good and the plain bad arrive tripping over one another's heels. All writers fail as well as triumph, but the gulf between the successful and the disastrous is rarely as wide as it is in her work.
To concentrate on the successes, Mansfield's second and third collections, Bliss (1920) and The Garden-Party (1922), contain strikingly impressive pieces such as Prelude, The Little Governess, Je Ne Parle Pas Français, The Voyage and The Daughters of the Late Colonel. This last story, perhaps her greatest achievement, describes two spinsters whose overbearing father has just died. It flickers between comedy, menace, outlandish interludes and engulfing sorrow with consummate skill.
The story's razor-sharp humour is a more refined variant of that displayed in her debut collection. Similarly, the darker currents of Mansfield's fiction - ever present to a degree, as her early story of backwoods murder The Woman at the Store makes plain - had by now grown more powerfully insinuating. In her later works the tone can shift from light-hearted to menacing in an instant; relationships between men and women are oppressive and predatory (The Little Governess), life a sequence of missteps (see Psychology, wherein a couple on the cusp of a kiss falter, and suddenly see themselves as "two grinning puppets jigging away in nothingness"), and happiness fragile and fleeting (as in Bliss, whose subject, Bertha, is a highly-strung cousin to Virginia Woolf's Clarissa Dalloway).

Talk of recurrent themes might, however, give an inaccurate impression of uniformity to Mansfield's work. In fact she was constantly altering her voice, which is another reason for her inconsistency. As Claire Tomalin notes in her excellent biography, "Katherine did not seem to be interested in building on a successful piece of work, but persistently dispersed herself in different styles and tones. In her writing, as in her life, she revelled in change, disguise, mystery and mimicry: the last she saw as the key to creation and understanding of character. It gave her freedom, but it also became a weakness; lacking stamina, she dispersed herself too widely in different effects."
But it would be ludicrous to allow her bad stories to demean the good. She may lack the body of work to qualify as a major writer, but her influence has nevertheless been significant. She is essentially too strange a writer to be copied, but writers as accomplished as VS Pritchett have learned, as he put it in the New Statesman in 1946, from "her economy, the boldness of her comic gift, her speed, her dramatic changes of the point of interest, her power to dissolve and reassemble a character and situation by a few lines"; Philip Larkin and Angela Carter both claimed an affinity with her; Virginia Woolf extolled "the only writing I have ever been jealous of."
If excuses are to be sought for those stories of Mansfield's which would discourage some from ever reading her again, they are manifold and pitiable. She contracted gonorrhoea in 1909, the inexpert treatment of which caused it to spread to her bloodstream. From 1910 onwards she was a chronic invalid. In 1917 she was diagnosed with tuberculosis, which she probably contracted from her friend DH Lawrence the year before, during their ill-starred co-habitation in Zennor. She and her partner, JM Murry, were always short of cash, and she wrote many stories purely as a means of getting some. Rather than destroy these rush jobs after her death, as she requested, Murry had them published in two posthumous collections of scant quality (How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped and the unfinished A Married Man's Story being notable exceptions).
She died in 1923. She lived her life pell-mell, only rarely experiencing conditions ideal, or even sufficient, for the pursuit of her craft. But while biographical information goes a long way to explaining her artistic failings, no such knowledge is required to appreciate the brilliance of her best stories. They stand on merit alone.


A brief survey of the short story

001 Anton Chekhov
002 HP Lovecraft
003 Mavis Gallant
004 Ryunosuke Akutagawa
005 Raymond Carver
006 Julian Maclaren-Ross
007 Etgar Keret
008 Robert Walser
009 VS Pritchett
010 Grace Paley

011 Katherine Mansfield
012 Heinrich von Kleist 

013 Franz Kafka
014 MR James
015 F Scott Fitzgerald
016 Donald Barthelme
017 Jane Bowles
018 Stefan Zweig
019 Ray Badbury 
020 Nikolai Gogol

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