Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Garden Party and Other Stories

This volume, which includes several of the later short stories of Katherine Mansfield, has turned out to be better than I expected. Mansfield is unusually strong in the observation of people and in the divining of their thoughts, while also rendering physical details with precise language and an economy of words. I found the opening paragraphs of At the Bay a pleasure to read:

Very early morning. The sun was not yet risen, and the whole of Crescent Bay was hidden under a white sea-mist. The big bush-covered hills at the back were smothered. You could not see where they ended and the paddocks and bungalows began. The sandy road was gone and the paddocks and bungalows the other side of it; there were no white dunes covered with reddish grass beyond them; there was nothing to mark which was a beach and where was the sea. A heavy dew had fallen. The grass was blue. Big drops hung on the bushes and just did not fall; the silvery, fluffy toi-toi was limp on its long stalks, and all the marigolds and the pinks in the bungalow gardens were bowed to the earth with wetness. Drenched were the cold fuchsias, round pearls of dew lay on the nasturtium leaves. It looked as though the sea had beaten up softly in the darkness, as though one immense wave had come rippling, rippling – how far? Perhaps if you had waked up in the middle of the night you might have seen a big fish flicking in at the window and gone again...

Ah, aah! sounded the sleepy sea. And from the bush there came the sounds of little streams flowing, quickly, lightly, slipping between the smooth stones, gushing into ferny basins and out again; and there was the splashing of big drops on large leaves, and something else – what was it? – a faint stirring and shaking, the snapping of a twig and then such a silence that it seemed someone was listening.

I think what makes Mansfield especially compelling to me is her talent that realistically combines physical description with the thoughts and feelings of her characters. Most of them are girls or young women, though she throws in a few boys, men and older women. She captures fleeting situations with stunning accuracy. When Mansfield was writing, the short story was going through a metamorphosis. The short stories of the nineteenth century were often quite long, like short novels. In Mansfield's day, very short vignettes became popular. These stories don't have real plots, and most of them are like snapshots of an era. The lengthier ones engage in slightly longer sequences of events, but show no signs of breaking out into narratives that might become novels. I think Mansfield does a much better job showing how her characters are relating to their environments than most writers are capable. Actually, I liked some of the shorter ones best: Miss BrillMr. and Mrs. DoveThe Voyage and The Singing Lesson. The title story, The Garden Party, isn't bad; it contains a coming-of-age episode, in which a girl has an unsettling first exposure to class differences.

Mansfield grew up in an upper-middle-class New Zealand family, completed her schooling in England and moved there. Apparently, she led a rather wild and reckless life in England, sleeping with all kinds of people, both men and women, and marrying twice, finally contracting tuberculosis, which killed her in 1923 at the age of thirty-four.  You would never know it from these stories, which seem careful and conservative by current standards. It seems a little odd that someone who felt stifled by bourgeois life in New Zealand, as did Simone de Beauvoir a few years later in France, would dutifully record it with such respect. I suspect that if she had lived longer she would have written more radical things. There is probably no way of knowing whether she might have produced a good novel. However, on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis, I think she is as good as Flaubert or anyone, and certainly better than most of the writers with whom I'm familiar. She probably did not have the intellectual range of George Eliot, but her writing had an elegance that I'm sure George Eliot would admire. I think that Virginia Woolf was rightly jealous. Mansfield expressed herself eloquently without resorting to any of the gimmicks that have become commonplace in contemporary literature.

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