I’ve recently been working on a review of three books: Katherine Mansfield: Storyteller by Kathleen Jones (Auckland: Penguin, 2010) and the first two volumes of The Collected Fiction of Katherine Mansfield (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press 2013). It was a task that I let go on for far too long. One thing I couldn’t really fit in to the word limit was to say how staggered I was by the diligence and tenacity of the editors and the biographer — let alone by the ferocity of Mansfield herself. The very thought of all the archival material Kathleen Jones, Vincent O’Sullivan and Gerri Kimber have had to sift through (less paper trail than paper citadel) made me want to have a bonfire of all my own minor-writer vanities. Yet here I am, leaving an electronic trail. So perhaps I mean it makes me relieved for my husband and children — should they survive me (which selfishly I hope they do) — that I could never achieve Mansfield’s gem-hard, vivid, innovative, glitteringly sympathetic, yet socially skewering talent.
What a very naked business being a dead genius is. How chastening it is to read of the afterlife of the appalling parenting Mansfield’s second husband, John Middleton Murry, gave his children, and — until his fourth marriage — what disastrous liaisons he made with women. I suppose this is partly why we read biographies. Not just to try to scent out the trajectory of talent, to try to touch the alchemy of brilliance, but to warn ourselves off certain risks, derelictions, and mistakes with cautionary tales.
It’s been a disconcerting reading experience, in some ways, seeing the legacy of pain left for John Middleton Murry’s children laid alongside the legacy of Mansfield’s brilliant work. It raises all sorts of questions about the cost of success, about drive and ambition (in any professional field, I think). I reacted so strongly to the story of how Murry’s children were haunted by his obsession with Mansfield that my notes deteriorated to the likes of OH BLOODY MURRY FOR GOD’S SAKE! Not really the stuff of scholarly response, then.
Such reactions weren’t the only obstacles to getting the review written. There’s the shortness of the school day, of course, from the perspective of the slow, steady contemplation any writing needs. (Or maybe that’s just the kind of thinker I am. Sluggardly sloth-ish.) But there were also the intoxicating side effects of Mansfield’s prose. There were several times I had to whip on my running shoes, hurl on a hat, slam the front door and just run: to savour her ‘own country’ while I still have days in my blood: out to take in the misty air like cold sips of ice; out under the autumn trees that burn like giant red, gold and green lamps; out under the tui that swoop in a dark aerial ballet.
One day, when I was making very heavy internal weather of the whole reviewing process, I went for a run to see whether exercise endorphins might kick me out of my slump. On an uphill route I hadn’t been on before, I came across a hand lettered notice. NO LITERATI it said. Up closer, I realised it said NO LOITERING. Endorphins, short-sightedness, Mansfield’s infectious wit, whatever, I took the funny visual mondegreen as a sign. A useful projection. It meant, just get on with it!
Actually, up even closer, I saw the sign really read NO LITTERING. But the change had already come. I was girded, gritted, galvanised. I sprinted back down hill and got the thing DONE. Now I’m just waiting to hear whether it makes the grade. If I start to feel anxious, I’m going to run back up to that sign: I feel a ridiculous affection for it.