Monday, February 28, 2011

Journal of Katherine Mansfield for Persephone Reading Weekend

Katherine Mansfield aspired to write truly and well, to capture something genuine and to get at what is most pure. Her short stories are clean, sharp and light. They reach to the centre of our inner lives and strip away the layers that would hide our vulnerable selves. Mansfield was not afraid to stir up melancholy or bitterness, to show regret, loss or pain. But she did so in a way which was beautiful and transparent, without artifice or gimmickry. She used her immense power to draw out our emotions judiciously.

In the Journal, really an edited collection of unposted letters and notebooks never intended for publication, readers are allowed a rare glimpse into the private thoughts of one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers. The impression of Mansfield that emerges is one of a writer who positively anguished over her work and was frequently stricken with writer’s block. Even as the Journal progresses, and reaches a point in time at which Mansfield was becoming well-known, there is no trace of vanity or self-satisfaction. She was highly self-critical in the face of deteriorating health, wartime deprivations, separation from friends and loved ones and very limited financial resources. Certain passages are awful to read.

Yet there are descriptions to be found that resonate with a joyful understanding and capacity to express that which is simple and good in daily life. If Mansfield writes that the sun is music that fills the sky, we cannot disagree with her. There are days when the sun in Melbourne is brash and brassy. There are days when the light here is soft and tinkling. When Mansfield writes of her cat pausing on the edge of a sea of grass, hesitating to take the plunge into the green waves, there is something in that cat of every cat. We see grass as we have not seen it before, and we will think of her cat every time we see another cat dive into a garden.

Readers of this Journal may well have mixed feelings about its publication. Compiled after her death by her long-term partner, John Middleton Murry, some have questioned his selection and arrangement of material. It would be inappropriate to read this book without regard to the fact that Mansfield did not have the opportunity to approve its content for publication. However, for those who admire her work, and can put to one side their qualms about the way in which it came to exist, the Journal is indispensable reading.

‘It’s only now I am beginning to see again and to recognise again the beauty of the world. Take the swallows to-day, their flutter-flutter, their velvet-forked tails, their transparent wings that are like the fins of fishes. The little dark head and breast golden in the light. Then the beauty of the garden, and the beauty of raked paths….Then, the silence.’

Life isn't a novel. It's lots of novels, one after the other.