Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

Katherine Mansfield's World

Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

Katherine Mansfield's World

Article excerpt

The idea for this essay came to me while reading Amit Chaudhuri's recent book on Calcutta. There he notes that while living in England as a student he was often reminded of Calcutta-the city of his childhood holidays-in 'the oddest of places', but especially when reading Katherine Mansfield's stories, which, as he writes, present life in New Zealand down 'to the last detail, including the "creak of the laundry basket"'.1 I found this sufficiently curious to wonder about whether Mansfield worked like this not just for Chaudhuri but for others too, and if so, why it was that her fictions in particular might appeal in this way to readerships from very different cultures.

A little further enquiry supported the notion that Mansfield is indeed a remarkably transportable writer. Her work has been translated into Arabic, Armenian, Czechoslovakian, Dutch, Esperento, Farsi, German, Hindi, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Portugese, Romanian, Russian, Spanish and Turkish as well as, no doubt, other languages. We know from Gerri Kimber that she has found particular recognition in France.2 But her transportability is most evident in her Chinese reception. Shifen Gong's collection of essays on the topic proves that Mansfield has had a significant presence in Chinese literary history ever since her meeting with Xu Zhimo in Hampstead in 1922 and his publication of his translations of nine of her stories soon after. 3 This helped to set the course for the modern Chinese short story, which seems especially remarkable given that Chinese conditions of everyday life, like Chinese literary traditions, stand so far apart from Europe's.

My task here, however, is not to add to the scholarship on Mansfield's international reception. Nor indeed is it to engage the vibrant body of Mansfield criticism as it has emerged out of feminism, postcolonialism and queer theory: indeed this essay presents a quite different (and perhaps discomforting) view of Mansfield than that which appears there.4 I want rather to explore what kind of 'world writer' she is, and to reflect a little on the concept of 'world' itself. I want to make the case that Mansfield's short fictions, at least in their most developed form, were intended precisely to produce experiences that constitute fictional 'worlds'. As such her writing stands apart from writing that regards its purposes to be, for instance and inter alia, primarily moral, aesthetic or entertaining. To anticipate my argument and to invoke philosophical concepts of her own time, we can say that she writes self-contained stories that communicate a coherent experience by virtue of their concreteness, and a concrete experience by virtue of their coherence, where this concrete and coherent experience constitutes a world. In other words, for me here, 'world literature' is writing that, to use the vocabulary of Mansfield's own time, creates and communicates experiences as worlds, and may be global in its reach for that very reason.

I want to propose further that Mansfield became a maker of verbal artifacts that constitute fictional worlds in these terms under particular conditions, so that world writing may be a more limited procedure than we might suppose. These conditions were largely philosophical, formed in what is now often called 'British idealism' across certain of its guises. That was where Mansfield found the now obsolete lexicon through which her fictions could be conceived as experiences which constitute worlds. But, as we shall see, the conditions that enabled her to create her fictional worlds were also social and political. They belonged to the conjuncture in which British imperialism, and the reconciliation of oligarchy to liberalism that it enabled, met an emergent social democratic state committed to capitalist reproduction. In sum: in Mansfield, philosophy, society and politics clash and mix in particular and determined ways and via an avant-garde conservatism to produce 'world' literature of a particular kind. …

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