Monday, December 25, 2017

Katherine Mansfield

I don't often read collections of short stories; there's something about them that frustrates, that feels incomplete. That was not, however, the case with the stories of Katherine Mansfield, which I've read over the past month.

My introduction to Mansfield comes by way of the Penguin edition of The Garden Party, which was originally published in 1922. I must say at the start that I'd only heard of Mansfield within the context of Woolf and Lawrence (with whom she interacted while living in Europe at the turn of the century). 

No doubt, there are hints of both authors in The Garden Party: the inner lives of characters -- their thoughts and deliberations -- speak strongly, I think, to Woolf; meanwhile, the attention to class and to a burgeoning sexuality is reminiscent at points of Lawrence.  

But I wouldn't say, having now completed The Garden Party, that Mansfield's work is entirely derivate. There's a style here that's decidedly her own, one that for me is characterized by a consistency of tone, a sensitivity to place, and a keen ability to chart emotion. 

My favorite of Mansfield's stories are those in which characters are perfectly presented at a moment in time. This is the magic of Mansfield: her simultaneous ability to situate her readers and to bring her characters to life -- all within the space of no more than ten pages. I found these stories very effective (and often upsetting). 

In the end, though, my favorite -- my absolute favorite -- of the stories collected here is the last: "The Lady's Maid." In it, Mansfield successfully experiments with form and syntax. But she does something else, too: she introduces very modern themes of gender, femininity, and intellectual life. 

The final paragraph of the story in which the central character wonders if she "can't find anything better to do than to start thinking" read with a striking modernity to me. That paragraph, like so many of these stories, stood on the brink of something new and startling. Mansfield should be given credit for her contribution to that newness, to that moment in literary history.

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