Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Rereadings - "From the Stacks Winter Challenge"

Rereadings, edited by Anne Fadiman.

"One of the strongest motivations for rereading is purely selfish," says Fadiman in the introduction to this collection of essays. "It helps you remember what you used to be like." This may not always be pleasant: "Rereading forces you to spend time, at claustrophobically close range, with your earnest, anxious, pretentious, embarassing former self."

Patricia Hampl, in "Relics of Saint Katherine," was introduced first to Katherine Mansfield's personal writings, the journal and letters, instead of the crisp and illuminating short stories. Hampl's guide was Doris, her boyfriend's mother, who plucked these volumes from her ceiling-high bookshelves and said, "You must have these."

Doris was as unfulfilled in the dull St. Paul neighborhood as Mansfield had been in Wellington, New Zealand. Doris was rumored to have
written, and had been a teenager when Mansfield died. Since then, she had maintained a personal attachment to the life and work of the dead "tantalizing bohemian big sister," a connection she passed on to the young Patricia.

She was astonished to
learn that diaries and journals could be published and admired as literature. (After all, she wrote diaries as well!) These books "opened the door to memoir and the essay, forms I came to prize and practice."

Doris loved the short stories and knew the arc of Mansfield's life, including her sexual freedom, relationships with such literati as D. H. Lawrence, and her desperate, final grab at life through the mysticism of Gurdjieff. She also believed and rejoiced in the last words of Mansfield's published journal: "All was well."

"She was so happy," said Doris. "She forgot to be careful."

"It was as if she were there," writes Hampl. But Doris died before she could reread the journal after modern scholars discovered that Mansfield's odious husband had edited it to blunt the agony, loneliness, and despair with a triumphant narrative arc. (Says one of Hampl's friends: he was "boiling Katherine's bones to make soup.")

(One is grateful that Doris was able to enjoy and cherish her Katherine to the end of her life.)

When Hampl visits Bandol, where Mansfield wrote "Prelude" and "Bliss," she ascends to Mansfield's room in the "great peachy Belle Epoque" hotel, delapitated now, "left to pickle in its unhealthy browns and beiges, its sickets greens."
(One thinks of Mansfield's lungs, disintegrating in the bacillus brine of tuberculosis.) Hampl looks out to the same brilliant, blue sea that Mansfield would see after three hours of "happiness in the writing" - the only happiness that remained to the doomed writer.

As Hampl compares Mansfield to Sylvia Plath - two talented women doomed to be more famous for their lives than for their art - one realizes that the same is true of Doris, whose life we see through Hampl's brief narrative, but whose writing we never will know.

"Relics of Saint Katherine," in Hampl's first infatuation, were "the moist devotion of a cultist, not the frank pleasure of a reader." The cultist tracked down Mansfield's favorite brand of soap (Cuticura), wore the soft, velvet clothing Mansfield loved, and pinned up pictures of Mansfield as a personal shrine.

Fadiman's warning that rereading may mean encountering an "embarrassing former self" may describe this early devotion, but we also see that a writer's growth can transform that shallow, self-oriented, early experience into a deep and compassionate understanding.


Hampl's essay is but one of seventeen that examine works from Colette's fiction to the Sue Barton books. Consider yourself warned: come to these essays without pen and paper, else you will want to read almost everything that these writers - those who are read and those who have written - have ever published.



Carrie K said...

Oh, but it sounds so enticing! [adding one more to my Read This list].

Kate S. said...

What a wonderful taste of this collection you've offered here! I only read about half of the essays in it before it was due back at the library but I thoroughly enjoyed them. Now that you've reminded me of its existence and its charms, I will definitely check it out again to read the rest.

Heather said...

I also have loved the stories of Katherine Mansfield for many years, though they bring pain in the reading, too. It is not always comfortable to feel you are inside the skin of someone else when they are suffering.

I love your blog, too, but I just have to point out that KM was a New Zealander.

teabird17 said...

thanks, Heather! I made the change. (I knew that... brain lapse!)