The Critical Response to Katherine Mansfield

By Jan Pilditch | Go to book overview

Malcolm Cowley, "Page Dr Blum!": Bliss

Bliss is one of those books which it is very hard to forget. Yet Bliss is not at all a likable book; Katherine Mansfield is impressed too much by people she dislikes and is more apt to write about them than about people she finds agreeable to her. Such at least is the evidence of these stories. In them the disagreeable people far outnumber the sympathetic; her likable characters, indeed, are usually introduced as a foil. Most of them are men and only two or three of them receive full-length portraits. Those figures which she draws in most carefully are women; they are selfish, weak, cultured, irritable, and conceited. Bliss in one sense is a book of neurotics; a literary corridor of the psychopathic ward.

But with what a vigour does she depict these neurotics. Typical of them is Monica Tyrrell, who suffered from nerves every morning from eight o'clock till about half-past eleven, "suffered so terribly that these hours were--agonizing, simply." There is Monica's male counterpart, Mr Reginald Peacock; fourteen pages are devoted to a venomously meticulous account of a day from his life. There are Linda Burnell and her sister Beryl from the first story. Most horrible of all is the woman in "The Escape", with her refrain of:

"Oh, why am I made to bear these things? . . . Oh, to care as I care-to feel as I feel, and ever to be saved anything-never to know for one moment what it was to . . . to."

From this treatment of Katherine Mansfield one might think that she was no more than a literary specialist in nervous disorders. The idea is mistaken; only about a third of the stories in her volume deal specifically with neurotics. It is simply that her handling of them is so vivid that they overshadow most of the other characters.

Yet these other characters are by no means lifeless. Her observation of people is extensive and accurate, and wherever her sympathy does not lead her to understanding, her hate does. Her style fits accurately to her matter. She has borrowed just enough from the new experiments in prose without trying to swallow them whole. In her punctuation she shows a positive genius. The result of all this is that her best descriptions are final and perfect; one must fight back the temptation to quote whole pages of them.

The form of her stories shows usually a certain amount of experiment; this carries her, in most of her work, to about the same stage as Chekhov. I do not mean to make any comparison of excellence with Chekhov; I mean simply that, like him, she has come to a point where she writes most of her stories around a situation instead of around a plot. Sometimes she goes farther. She has written one story around two themes instead of around a situation; she approaches here to the construction of music.

If you analyze "Je ne parle pas Français" conventionally for its plot, you will find very little. It is the story of how an Englishman ran off to Paris with a girl and left her there alone on account of his greater love for his mother. Implication of Freud. It covers some forty-four pages but the plot as stated is disposed of in less than twenty; the rest of the space is taken up with the divagations of Raoul

-5-

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