Katherine Mansfield: the storyteller by Kathleen Jones

What sparked my lifelong fascination with Katherine Mansfield was not so much her stories – I preferred Woolf as a writer – but her letters and journal. I was bewitched by Mansfield the woman. Deeply moved by the tragedy of her short life. I also fell in love with her relationship with John Middleton Murry – which, in those days, had been edited down (by Murry himself) to essentially a beautiful tragic high tide romance of kindred souls.

As a person Katherine was much more fascinating to me than Woolf. She seemed at least three generations ahead of Virginia. I could easily imagine Katherine in our contemporary world; especially her headstrong pioneering nature, her stage-managed narcissism, her refusal to bow down to convention, her need to give expression to multiple facets of her personality; Woolf, on the other hand, was far more Victorian in her corseted diffidence, caution and class snobbery. All mouth and no trousers, you might say!

I had an insatiable need to know everything about Mansfield. I read the excellent biography by Anthony Alpers, though this was hampered by being written while Murry, who jealously censored and guarded Mansfield’s papers, was still alive. That said, I felt Alpers shared my own love and fascination for her and the tone, the emotional fabric of his book was marvellously in tune with what I wanted. Claire Tomlin’s later biography on the other hand, boasting new information, was a dispassionate affair that failed for me to convey any of Katherine’s magical allure.

In those days I trawled the Charing Cross road second hand book stores looking for anything about her. One of the most exciting days was finding a copy of the letters between Mansfield and Middleton Murry. Suddenly I had the other side of the story. And however much Murry edited these letters to show himself in a good light they are genuinely beautiful and heartbreaking.  I then read everything I could find about Middleton Murry – including some truly horrible poems, a woefully inept novel (how could someone so intelligent who spent all his time engrossed in literature write a novel so comically bad?) and an equally forgettable collection of essays. I came to think of them as the English/colonial version of Scott and Zelda, another of my teenage fascinations.

The author here makes a few curious artistic choices. Firstly, as was the case with The BBC dramatization of KM’s life she begins with Katherine’s death. Secondly she writes part of the narrative in the present tense with a perspective that is perhaps closer to a novelist than a biographer. Thirdly her punctuation is a bit eccentric at times. And fourthly she twice interrupts the chronology to insert accounts of Murry’s married life after Katherine’s death. Though this fascinated me I’m not sure Murry had been sufficiently developed at this point to make it fascinating for anyone who knew little about KM’s life. It’s worth noting that Murry became the most hated man in literary England. His exploitation of Katherine’s work for economic gain and subsequent maudlin pseudo-mystical justifications and his self-serving determination to recast her as a kind of deity of purity attracted hostility and scorn from all and sundry. However, I soon grew used to the present tense and though I’m not convinced anything was gained by using it and it just seemed eccentric it stopped bothering me.

First thing, had I read this biography at nineteen, and not the kinder one by Anthony Alpers, I probably would have objected to its more critical approach. I had my illusions and didn’t want them shattered. Kathleen Jones gravitates towards documenting the failings, rather than the achievements, of both KM and JMM in this biography; Alpers was perhaps more alert to the triumphs, both in her writing and in her relationships. Murry especially does not come out of this well. In fact you’re left wondering what the hell she saw in him. History has debunked him in all his literary aspiration; here, he’s almost conclusively tarnished as a husband (and, later, as a father). An example, Katherine is still weak and demoralised after having had an infected gland punctured in a surgical intervention. In the taxi on the way home Murry insists she pays half the fare and the tip.  Later, she writes to a friend, “Fancy not paying your wife’s carriage to and from surgery. I suppose if one fainted he would make one pay 3d for a 6d glass of sal volatile.” You can’t help wondering what Murry felt after she died and he had to read this kind of thing about himself while editing her letters. My romantic notion of their relationship had by now gone for a Burton! That said, little space was given in this biography to their compatibility as romantic playmates – I remember being utterly mesmerised by the way Katherine animated her doll Ribni as a kind of playful cypher for her feelings of love and mischief when they were apart and writing to each other and how well Murry entered into the spirit of the game. In Murry’s defence there’s a sense Katherine had already written the script of the relationship she wanted and tried, successfully at times, to cajole Murry to play the leading role. Both she and Murry come across as people who love being in love in imagination. In other words, they’re both much better at expressing romantic feeling when they are alone. Probably this changed when she was very ill and needed a more practical form of support. This is when Murry is completely out of his depth. It’s when she’s dying that he becomes a monster of ineptitude. There’s also a sense that Katherine is stage-managing how she wants to be seen in both her letters and journal. Her observations on writing and the physical world are brilliant; her commentaries on people, rarely generous, sometimes whiff of self-serving duplicity. She puts people down to elevate herself. Perhaps she’s editing her own letters no less than Murry did after her death. Again to give the author of this biography credit, she probably just about gave Murry the benefit of the doubt. At the end of the day if you write off Murry you also have to reduce much of Katherine’s life to waste which is neither fair nor true. And, in his defence, he took her back after she swanned off to France to have an affair with a friend of his.

This biography definitely opened up a new perspective on KM for me. One thing that occurred to me and began puzzling me was how KM seemed to bring out the worst in people. Did this point to some central falsity in her own nature? Though she enriched a few of the lives around her you can’t really say she did it intentionally or with the best will. Ida Baker, lifelong companion, loved her unconditionally despite Katherine constantly mocking her and perhaps would have lived a more fulfilled life without her. (Alpers was cruel about Ida, seeing her as little more than a lovesick slavish servant. Katherine too was often cruel about her. An intellectual snobbery often creeps into her voice whenever she talks about Ida. But Ida always dropped everything to assist Katherine and ultimately was probably a better soulmate to KM than Murry. I liked the author for giving a more sympathetic portrait of the virginal vampiric Ida.) Murry was ultimately consumed and dwarfed by her. His only claim to literary fame now is the fact of being her husband. Another of her former lovers ended up blackmailing her, hardly an act he would have looked back on with any pride. An anecdote often used to display how nasty Lawrence could be is his famous letter to Katherine telling her he hopes she will stew in her consumption. Wyndham Lewis publicly dismissed her as vulgar, dull and unpleasant to mutual friends (ha ha, that posterity reveres her achievement much higher than yours, mate!) And then there’s the diabolically two-faced Virginia Woolf. At this point, KM was ahead of Virginia. There’s a freshness and innovation of technique in The Garden Party and At the Bay that is beyond anything Woolf has managed in The Voyage Out and especially her somewhat laboured second novel, Night and Day. Every time Woolf mentions Mansfield, except after she’s dead, she comes across as a jealous, spiteful, frumpy snob. Yet she does nothing but praise her in letters written to Katherine. Again Katherine has managed to bring out the worst in someone. (This is my idea, rather than the author’s by the way.)

(A note on literary prizes. Bliss was awarded third prize behind a novel none of us has ever heard of now. Good to see the highly dubious integrity of prizes has been consistent through the decades. I can think of at least three Booker winners that I doubt if anyone will have heard of in 100 years and a number of non-winners that will still be admired.)

Another thing I pondered while reading this: Do we have an inkling of our fate and are therefore attracted to stories and people who we sense mirror it in some way or do our early imaginative identifications create that fate? It’s fascinating that at a very young age Katherine was immensely attracted to the journal of a young Russian writer, Marie Bashkirtseff who was dying of consumption. A decade later Katherine’s own journal would take on an eerily similar tone.

Essentially Kathleen Jones’ biography does a grand job of bringing Katherine back to life and anyone who does that gets five stars from me. It put me through the heartbreak of the last year of her life again and I didn’t want it to end. Probably most writers write too many books. Mansfield didn’t write enough. If there’s one book I could read that never got written it would be Katherine’s follow up to The Garden Party. I’ve always been super proud of sharing a birthday with Katherine Mansfield.833ba17dbf435e8e852db7275e8b9d80

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4321 by Paul Auster

If we live only a small part of our inner life externally, what happens to the rest? Unfortunately Auster doesn’t address this intriguing question in any kind of stimulating way though you’d think a novel about a character living four parallel lives would.
How much of fate comes from within and how much comes from without? Unfortunately Auster doesn’t address this intriguing question in any kind of stimulating way either though you’d think a novel about a character living four parallel lives would.

I’ve got a lot of time for Paul Auster but I’m afraid I found this a self-indulgent and ultimately pointless novel. I wasn’t a great fan of Life after Life but Atkinson’s novel on a similar theme is much more fluid and interesting structurally than this. It’s also immeasurably more outlandishly playful. Atkinson’s heroine becomes a downtrodden bullied wife in one version; assassinates Hitler in another. Auster’s hero, by contrast, goes to Princeton in one version; Colombia in another. Maybe that’s truer to life but it hardly makes for gripping dramatic tension. And yet Auster is quite happy to employ melodrama as a deciding factor in creating crossroad moments – a murdered father, a car crash resulting in the loss of thumb and first finger – except his melodrama leads to banal distinctions. Atkinson, like the film Sliding Doors, identified the crossroad moments when a fate might change course; Auster doesn’t – he uses accidents rather than choices to define the fate of his character. Things happen off-screen and differently from one life to another for no apparent reason: an uncle makes a bizarre decision, the father makes completely different life choices for no apparent reason with far reaching repercussions in one life which he doesn’t make in another. In this regard, Ferguson is like a puppet operated by his male family members.

Auster’s hero is perhaps the biggest problem. I was never convinced he was sufficiently intriguing as a character for a 200 pg novel, let alone an almost 900 pg one. The sixties should be fascinating but Ferguson is like some throwback to the 1950s. Though this novel is waterlogged with the minutiae of 60s news items and memorabilia there’s no mention of LSD, of rock music, of hippy culture. Ferguson loves baseball, basketball, Bach and beer. He’s not a child of his time. Therefore the decade begins to become irrelevant and it’s a bit baffling why so much energy is spent in trying to recreate it. I assumed at least one version would send him to Vietnam or prison to provide some real dramatic contrast. Nope. Instead the cliffhanger is whether Ferguson will become a novelist or a translator of poetry. Gripping stuff! At the heart of this novel is a colossal failure of imagination on Auster’s part – he can’t imagine himself as anything but a writer. That said, I agree with Auster and not with Atkinson – that if we had four cracks at life they wouldn’t be significantly different – but for that very reason this all becomes a very pointless and long winded exercise.

The other problem is you also get three or four lives in a computer game and after a while this began to become as predictable and repetitive as a computer game. Whatever happens isn’t sufficiently consequential to sustain interest. There’s not much at stake when you get four rolls of the dice. So what if he dies in one version? It’s actually a relief because it was hard work trying to remember the thin distinctions between one life and another. At least, we now had one less nuanced account of his love life and literary aspirations to retain in memory. (This novel would be a good test for evaluating how prone you might be to dementia.) And to be honest I didn’t understand why things turned out differently in the various versions. Because his father dies he becomes gay? That seemed to me a crass piece of reasoning. In one version his cousin Amy finds him irresistible; in another she’s sexually indifferent. I never had a clue why. My feeling was Auster didn’t either. That his main motivation for writing this was to lavishly indulge in nostalgia for his lost youth. Then why not just write a memoir? To add insult to injury he deploys an utterly lame post-modernist trick at the end, trying to cajole us into believing the whole thing has been the height of cleverness.

After this, Jane Smiley’s dreadful Some Luck and Murakami’s rambling dead end 1Q84 I’m now going to think very hard before reading any novel over 700 pages.paul-auster

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The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

A bit unfair but there were times when I couldn’t help wishing Milan Kundera in his prime had written this and not Julian Barnes. Just for that extra bit of zest and wit and daring of which Kundera is renowned and the rather dry and self-conscious Barnes isn’t.

Not that this isn’t a good novel. It’s very elegantly structured, intelligent and it makes you think a lot about its pervasive themes – courage and conscience and compromise. And it shows not only the enforced humiliations and blanketing terror of Stalin’s Russia but the mind-boggling preposterousness of many of its premises, especially the artistic ones. At times, in its depiction of Stalin’s Russia, it was as uncomfortable as watching an intelligent misunderstood man being shouted and spat at by a baying mob. What can a man in such a position do? Shostakovich, in Barnes’ portrayal, kind of grins and bears it. He doesn’t have the courage to commit suicide so he compromises, falls back on irony as his defence council. When a man reads out a speech praising a vile regime penned by him for that regime in a deadpan voice we realise it’s a pretty lame form of protest no matter how much irony he might manage to inject into his voice. In fact, it’s the kind of act that would destroy the self-respect of most people. Probably it destroyed the self-respect of Shostakovich.

I enjoyed the first half of this novel a lot more than the second half. The narrative drive slackened for me as Barnes gradually shifted the focus from an intimate lens to a wide angle one. It ends with a meditation on the artist’s final stocktaking of his achievements when you feel you’re eavesdropping on Barnes’ doubts about his own body of work rather than getting any insight into what Shostakovich felt about his achievements and failings. To be honest I doubt if many artists feel smug about their achievements on their death bed as most creative inspiration is born in large part from the dissatisfaction felt for previous attempts. No dissatisfaction, no new work. It’s highly probable Shakespeare died feeling he could have done better. The more interesting question the novel poses is what ethical compromises an artist has to make in order to produce his work – it’s been said, rather harshly, that Ted Hughes and TS Eliot killed their wives to further their artistic careers; Shostakovich had to slowly kill himself. Sometimes, perhaps, it’s better to die young.download (2)

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Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow

Humboldt is a poet, once revered, eventually ridiculed; Charlie Citrine, the narrator, was his acolyte, friend and enemy. Citrine, of an inferior talent, enjoys much greater commercial success than Humboldt.  This anomaly is the foundation for much soul searching about the relationship between the artist and commercial success in America.

Humboldt fulfils society’s most cherished expectation of the poet – he goes nuts and dies ignominiously. In other words, he’s too delicate for this world. Something we all feel in our most sensitive moments. Poets do what we’d sometimes like to – over indulge sensibility to the point of cutting themselves off from the outside world – and we perhaps honour them for that as much as we do for their poetry. Bellow here attempts, not very successfully, the Nick/Gatsby divide in this novel – he has a prosaic narrator recounting the larger than life character, Humboldt. But a failing of this novel is that Bellow can never keep his own voice muffled for long and soon the narrator Charlie Citrine and Humboldt become almost the same character. Charlie ends up as eccentrically broken as Humboldt. And the title’s gift is a rather lame and implausible denouement.

“There’s the most extraordinary, unheard of poetry buried in America, but none of the conventional means known to culture can even begin to extract it…the agony is too deep, the disorder too big for art enterprises undertaken in the old way.” So says Charlie. But this passage is much more applicable to DeLillo’s novels than Bellow’s. I’m not sure I ever really felt Bellow was getting to the heart of this buried poetry. DeLillo is actually much better at finding the poetry in our technological, media circus age because he’s better able to project out beyond himself; DeLillo shows where Bellow tells. Bellow often ends up sounding like the patient on the psychotherapist’s couch, gorgeously eloquent but telling rather than dramatizing.

Saul Bellow would rank pretty high as nightmare husband. He likes the sound of his own voice too much. He holds forth brilliantly but there’s a sense he doesn’t listen much. He tends to see others as appendages or anecdotes. Bellow’s novels are always about Saul Bellow, Saul Bellow and his relationship with the world, Saul Bellow and his dysfunctional relationship with women. All the novels I’ve read by him have had the same narrator. There’s a lack of versatility in his voice. The supporting cast of characters are often more like showcases for how brilliantly and wittily Bellow can write than any kind of approximation of real people. His most successful novel was Herzog because he sent up his rampant egotism in a brilliantly witty fashion. Bellow is probably a much better writer than he is novelist. His prose is fantastic; his plots often half-baked and flimsy. This one just scrapes four stars because of the quality of the prose; as a novel I found it essentially inspired and daft in equal measure.download (1)

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Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Some novels are brilliant all the way through and the ending is of no elevated consequence; with others the ending is all important and can either make it or kill it. This for me falls in the latter category. There was a point about half way through where I felt this was going out of focus. That Smith had assembled an exciting and topical panorama of material but that her storytelling wasn’t quite doing it justice. In short, not for the first time, I had the feeling that she’s a better writer than she is novelist. However the clarity with which the last fifty pages brought all her themes into focus changed my mind to some extent. The ending redeemed some of the mid-point meandering.

No question Ferrante has had a big influence on Zadie. The template for this novel bears lots of similarities with the Elena and Lila saga. The two friends who grow up together; the more talented hampered by social deprivation; the less talented able to move away from the poverty of her background and reinvent herself. Except Smith’s two characters are downgraded versions of Ferrante’s. Tracey is raw talent rather than genius (and infinitely less compelling than Lila as a character) and her friend, the narrator (do we ever learn her name? I don’t think we do), piggybacks on the talent of others rather than ever develop any talent of her own. Also, like Ferrante, this is narrated in the first person.

As is usually the case with Zadie Smith the finest attributes of this novel all centre on her remarkable gift for identifying the changing nature of social and cultural guidelines. She investigates many topical themes – online trolling, celebrity charity, globetrotting, networking, national identity, the adult world becoming increasingly more adolescent. An interesting facet of this novel is perhaps the ascendency of ego in women to the detriment of men. The men in this novel are a hapless bunch. Usually depicted as completely out of their element and unable to make any inroads with regards to ambition or desire. Where it was less successful for me was the narrator herself. She is perhaps too neutral, too passive, too emotionally anaemic. She’s a modern day Nick Carraway – except Fitzgerald used the brilliantly self-effacing Nick to tell the bigger story of Gatsby while Smith’s narrator is way more egotistical and often puts the focus on herself rather than on the more compelling characters around her. This was especially the case in the African section of this book which for me was by far the least successful and where the focus went foggy. And, also like Fitzgerald but again less successfully, Smith keeps the character who supplies most of the novel’s plot a mystery. This is Aimee, a somewhat generic pop megastar for whom the narrator works as a personal assistant. Aimee has about the same GDP as the African country where she sets up a charity to help female school kids. That this ostensibly worthy gesture will degenerate into petty personal bickering is perhaps an emblem of the novel’s prevailing conflict – ego vs genuine nurturing care. Interestingly it’s only the novel’s minor characters who succeed in the latter and they’re all men. In Zadie’s world women have ceased to be nurturing. They are too busy pursuing professional ambition or drenched in bitterness for its demise (though the ending partially contradicts this thesis).

It may, as some have said, be her best book. But I still don’t feel she has quite lived up to the enormous promise of White Teeth and am still waiting for the masterpiece I think she’s got it in her to write.  zadie-smith-slide-5oim-master1050

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In the Land of Armadillos by Helen Maryles Shankman

 

Well, I really enjoyed this. But, at the same time, was left wondering if it’s appropriate to enjoy so much a fictional account of the Holocaust. It reminded me of the ambivalence of emotion many felt while watching Benigni’s film Life is Beautiful. The Holocaust as fairy story is dangerous territory and requires an awful lot of artistry to bring off. I think Helen Maryles Shankman just manages it.

One of the central thrusts of these stories is the idea that hatred of a race is only possible in the abstract. That the minute you have personal relations with a member of the race you despise your blind prejudice will slowly begin to reveal itself as preposterous. Two of the stories in this collection, perhaps the most engaging two, take up this theme. In the Land of Armadillos dramatises the relationship between a Nazi monster and a Jewish painter he employs to fresco his son’s bedroom. The Nazi never registers the discrepancy between the affection and admiration he feels for the artist and the heartlessness, the conclusive lack of empathy with which he is able to treat the rest of the Jewish race. The Jew Hater is about a Polish farmer who snitches on any of his neighbours who help hide Jews. Then partisans charge him with looking after a little Jewish girl threatening him with death if he fails to keep her safe. The little girl has a transformative effect on his character.

Shankman is determined to find reasons to be upbeat about human nature and she often does this by introducing a magical element into her stories. In other words by colouring her narrative of the Holocaust with events that didn’t happen. I’ve read a fair few non-fiction accounts of the Holocaust and without doubt one of the most surprising and beautiful features of these books is the kindness and bravery shown by a few individuals in the face of colossal personal danger. If you want a testament to the selfless courage and generosity of which human nature is capable the Holocaust is a good place to look. In the universal imagination Schindler has come to represent the Holocaust more than, say, Richard Heydrich. We want to believe in the ultimate triumph of good. Shankman, like Spielberg, doesn’t shy away from the horrors. But ultimately the horrors are at the service of a life affirming message. Nothing wrong with that. But as a modus operandi it began to get a bit predictable. Every story in the collection ends on an upbeat note. The prevailing atmosphere of fear and tension which should permeate literature about Jewish characters living under the threat of Nazism is replaced by an expectation of the next magic event. I guess this would be my main criticism. Shankman’s determination to ultimately replace the horror with reasons to be cheerful about human nature. Of course she’s not alone. In fact, as some of us have discussed recently, there’s a growing trend for authors to commercially exploit the Holocaust as a vehicle for romance-driven or YA action heroine novels. Probably 90% of novels dealing with the Holocaust end on an upbeat note. We’ve become insistent on that upbeat ending. Hollywood has known this for a long time. Literature maybe is beginning to follow in its wake. It’s like if Tess was written now, she wouldn’t die on the gallows; she would walk off towards the sunset with Angel because our tolerance for the disturbing and depressing message has diminished unless it comes with the caveat of an upbeat ending, unless it sends us to bed feeling optimistic about human nature and some basic fairness in life. We’ve perhaps become more sentimental in recent times. And, as a result, perhaps even a little complacent that the Holocaust could never happen again.

Nevertheless, the fact that this collection of stories makes one think about these issues is a testament to its daring. On top of that Shankman is a very accomplished story teller. One decisive factor in determining the persuasive charge of all fiction is how much imaginative commitment and feeling an author is able to muster for her characters. Shankman excels in this regard. The fact she’s writing about her own family no doubt helps here.

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Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

It’s been a while since I last read Mrs Dalloway. I’d always had it down as her third best book, but falling a fair way short of The Waves and To the Lighthouse. Therefore I was surprised by just how much I loved and admired it this time round. It’s probably her most popular novel – because it’s more intimate, more personal and sprightly and warm than her other novels. What’s most brilliant about it is the easy fluid way she makes of each passing moment a ruffled reservoir of the inner life of her characters. Every moment alters the composition, the ebb and flow of memory and identity.  And everything, very subtly, is experienced in relation to the inevitability of death. It’s a deeply elegiac novel and one of the finest celebrations of the beauty to be gleaned in the passing moment I can think of.

She does, now and again, get carried away with her metaphors. Extending them until they bear little relation with their starting point, like shadows that have no source. In fact so epic and sweeping are her metaphors sometimes – usually when she’s writing about/making fun of men – that you think she might have had a copy of The Iliad on her desk while writing this. And men get a pretty rough deal on the whole.

There’s probably no richer book about London in the history of literature.  I remember when I was a skinny nineteen year old thing walking about London and how Woolf’s presence, through her prose, was almost like a medium permeating the squares of Bloomsbury, the bridges and churches and parks of the city. She added an entire layer to my experience of the hidden riches of London. At one point Clarissa muses,  “It ended in a transcendental theory which, with her horror of death, allowed her to believe, or say that she believed (for all her scepticism), that since our apparitions, the part of us which appears, are so momentary compared with the other, the unseen part of us, which spreads wide, the unseen might survive, be recovered somehow attached to this person or that, or even haunting certain places, after death. Perhaps – perhaps.” Well, no question, Virginia still haunts certain places –pretty much every London location she writes about in this novel.

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