Monday, January 20, 2014

Something Childish But Very Natural by Katherine Mansfield

This little collection, part of a Penguin Books series, “Great Loves”, brings together eight short stories from three of Katherine Mansfield short story collections. The stories collected here are: “Something Childish But Very Natural”; “Feuille d’Album”; “Mr and Mrs Dove”; “Marriage à la Mode”; “Bliss”; “Honeymoon”; “Dill Pickle”; and “Widowed”. And what a beautiful collection it is.

I find Katherine Mansfield’s style utterly beguiling and completely intriguing. Her stories are so simple, hardly stories at all really, just vignettes, little slices of life, and yet there is such an astonishing depth to them. Her characters are lovely creations, so fragile and vulnerable and human. You ache for them, for the quiet sadness of their existence, for the failed ideas and lost hopes, for the brittle confidence and stoic resignation. You long for them to be able to communicate, one with the other, to convey their true feelings and allow those feelings to inform their actions. You share their desolation when love, as it so often does, founders. These stories are wonders.

Mansfield herself was dissatisfied with her short stories. She said: "I've been a selective camera, and . . . my slices of life have been partial, misleading, and a little malicious. Further, they have had no other purpose than to record my attitude which in itself stood in need of change if it was to become active instead of passive." I think she is being unnecessarily hard on herself here. While many of her stories end in great unhappiness, there is nothing malicious in them. On the contrary, the stories are designed to allow us, the impartial readers and observers of these people’s misfortunes, to assess what might be done to remedy those misfortunes. They are, then, entirely hopeful and honest endeavours.

Shortly before her death (at the very early of 34, from tuberculosis), she wrote witheringly of her friends in London who:

have come to an agreement not to grow any more, to stay just so – all clipped and pruned and tight. As for taking risks, making mistakes, changing their opinions, being in the wrong, committing themselves, losing themselves, being human beings in fact –no, a thousand times!
And this, it seems to me, is the key to her work. There is a serious and earnest searching for something in these stories, some understanding of what it is to be human, to be alive, to be in love.

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