Rediscovering Reading

In 1911, Katherine Mansfield was 23 years old, as I, in 2018, am too. I have loved her writing ever since I first studied her short stories at the precarious age of seventeen. My English teacher offered us a bite-sized selection to read – Her First Ball, Miss Brill and The Woman at the Store – and enquired afterwards, ‘what do the stories make you feel?’. The seemingly insignificant question immobilised me. Usually, the NCEA standards required us to ‘critically evaluate’ literature on a thematic level or to place a text within a ‘global framework’, linking our threadbare knowledge of New Zealand literature to the larger international void. The question of feeling reached towards something, in my view, greater.

KM House
Katherine Mansfield’s birthplace in Thorndon, Wellington, where I used to volunteer.

For me, reading has always been about emotion. As a child, reading was my passion. I read because I loved to read and I read what I enjoyed, allowing my childhood fantasies to rule my selection: usually stories about animals, classics, historical fiction, fantasy stories about magical worlds, or anything by Jacqueline Wilson. Naturally, as I grew older, my tastes changed. As a teenager, they often flowed with the current ‘popular’ trends in literature – my teenage years coincided with the height and hype of the Twilight series, the tapering years (if there ever were tapering years) of Harry Potter, the rise and fall of the supernatural genre, the growth and explosion of dystopian YA fiction. As I became overwhelmed by essays, exams, work and the pressure of the looming ‘Future’, my reading habits shifted when I turned about fifteen, and soon they slackened to a halt. In my final two high school years, I generally only read fiction that was required for class, as I felt I had no time to enjoy reading; reading would not prepare me for my ‘Future’.

My cataclysmic move across the country to university did not improve this reading ebb; in fact (perhaps ironically), studying English Literature and History only slowed my reading further. This is not to say that I did not enjoy the long lists of required reading for class, because I certainly did (and felt overwhelmingly lucky that my study involved reading fiction), but I did lament the fact that I did not have the time (or did not make the time) to read ‘for fun’ i.e. books of my own choice. I read for enjoyment when I had the time to, especially during the summer, but I always wished that I could read more. Unlike movies or TV shows, reading required a degree of dedication and concentration, and, when that mental space was otherwise taken up, reading fell by the wayside.

Things changed last year. Entering a postgraduate diploma in publishing, I expected to enjoy studying among a small group of like-minded book-lovers, but I was nervous that my lack of consistent or varied reading would somehow put me at a disadvantage. It did not. The best thing about the year was not the classes or the projects, but the people. My classmates, tutors and guest lecturers had an incredible array of reading tastes and reading habits, and most promoted the egalitarian idea that all reading is equal (i.e. that ‘literary’ fiction is no greater than so-called ‘genre’ fiction; all have their place, all have their audience, and as future publishers we should do our best to promote all books). This was a breath of fresh air after four years of studying ‘literary’ fiction at university, which tended to ignore ‘commercial’ fiction (and also followed a mainly white literary ‘canon’ – including a decent amount of female writers did not excuse the lack of diversity). Surrounded by books in all forms, I reignited my own hopeless passion for reading, and I haven’t stopped since.

So, back to Katherine Mansfield. In 1911, she was 23 and living in London. Her life was as precarious as her writing was prolific. In the previous two years she had suffered from serious illness and surgery, a miscarriage, a whirlwind of lovers, multiple abodes in numerous countries, financial debt, and the loss of relationship with her New Zealand mother. In early 1911, she described her life as having ‘been sad lately – unreal and turbulent’ (Letters I. 98).

Portrait of Katherine Mansfield, 1914.
Katherine Mansfield, 1914.

Unusually for the prolific Mansfield, between August 1910 and late May 1911, she produced only one, now out of print, short story. ‘A Fairy Story’ appeared in the short-lived modernist magazine The Open Window in December 1910. Still in the process of choosing a permanent non de plume, Mansfield published her story under the Russian inspired name ‘Katherina Mansfield’. Dismissed as an ‘odd little fable’ by Mansfield historian Antony Alpers and critiqued by her biographer Claire Tomalin as a story which ‘no reader . . . would have recognised as her work’, ‘A Fairy Story’ has never been collected in an anthology and has subsequently received very little (if any) critical attention. During my Honours year, I delved into the archives at the Alexander Turnbull Library and wrote an essay on Mansfield’s ‘A Fairy Story’. Despite it being one of her earliest works, I felt it deserved recognition for its experimental nature, but also for its strange mix of irony and sentiment.

One of the many reasons I love Mansfield’s short stories is their focus on a central character’s emotional state, usually one that enables Mansfield to highlight society’s flaws. ‘A Fairy Story’ is certainly an unusual story in Mansfield’s oeuvre; a satirical tale about the nameless siblings ‘Girl’ and ‘Boy’, it follows a plot and comes to a definite conclusion – unlike the majority of her fragmentary modernist stories. The girl grows up reading literary fiction, such as Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens, Shaw and Ibsen. Her adopted brother, on the other hand, prefers reading the (dare I say ‘genre’?) works of Grimm and Andersen. Their contrasting literary education (and the girl’s education by a decadent teacher figure called the ‘Wanderer’, based on Mansfield’s own Queens’ College teacher Walter Rippmann) results in the girl believing the aim in life is to ‘find herself’ whereas the boy believes it is to ‘find the world.’

Perhaps depicting the two sides of her own personality – the dreamer and the realist, her adolescent self and her young adult self – Mansfield’s story culminates in both of the characters’ death. The boy dies because he tries too hard to learn all the knowledge of the world and is crushed by his ‘great mountain of books’ and the girl dies of a broken heart after forsaking her brother for a decadent lifestyle as an actress. Partly a story about Mansfield dismissing her own teenage fantasies (including her love of Oscar Wilde and the decadents), I suggest that she also wrote this strange fable as a warning against extremes. Instead of being snobbish toward literature, she now believed (as she stated in her personal notebook) in a ‘wider vision’ of reading, she understood the necessity of taking ‘a thread from many harmonious skins’ (Notebooks I. 110).

As to what the story made me feel – like many Mansfield stories, it made me feel somewhat desolate, although not to the degree that her mature stories do. Without explicitly enacting or depicting emotion, Mansfield has the ability to evoke emotion in the reader (or at least, in me). She subtly (and subversively) suggests, through silence, that there is much more that her characters are not saying, much more that they cannot articulate, much more that they are holding back on. I often think of Frau Brechenmacher’s cry (in ‘Frau Brechenmacher Attends a Wedding‘): ‘Always the same . . . all over the world the same’ or Laura and Laurie’s exchange (in ‘A Garden Party‘):

‘… isn’t life—’ But what life was she couldn’t explain. No matter. He quite understood.

Isn’t it, darling?’ said Laurie.

Although ‘A Fairy Story’ was a satirical experiment, it also feels like a keen cry towards home – perhaps her New Zealand home, where Mansfield’s own young brother still lived in 1911 – while she was stuck, ill and unhappy, in London. The emotional power of Mansfield’s stories are, for me, what make them timeless.

In my journey to rediscover reading for pleasure, I also want to push myself to read from ‘many harmonious skins’. Although I don’t usually make New Year resolutions for myself, in 2018 I did. I decided that this year would be the year of reading ‘widely’. Examining my own reading habits in fear of bias, I found that I am generally good at reading about 50/50 female and male authors.  However, with an unconscious bias, I also tend to mainly pick stories from New Zealand, the UK and the US. So I have set myself a goal: read a novel from every country around the world (while also continuing to read New Zealand fiction). It won’t be completed in just one year, but starting this challenge will at least help me on my way to diversify my reading, to read more consciously, to be more open towards books I may not have otherwise picked up and, hopefully, to discover literature that I will read simply for the pure love of it.

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