No sooner is my January flight to New Zealand booked than I am, of course, thinking about what to read.
I have quite a few books and authors on my list ...Janet Frame (of course) Ngaio Marsh, born in Christchurch, and several of whose books are set in New Zealand ( Died in the Wool, Colour Scheme, Call of the Kiwi) Robin Hyde, Elizabeth Knox, Rose Tremain's The Colour, perhaps a re-read of my ancient copy of Green Dolphin Country by Elizabeth Goudge bought for me by my mum one day when I was going on night duty and found myself unthinkably book-less. And top of the list was Katherine Mansfield.
I always take care when reading Katherine Mansfield.. care of me that is.
Too much of the letters, diaries, notebooks or short stories in one session and I can feel overwhelmed by melancholy. Her life so tragically cut short at the age of thirty-four, and I always sense so full of misplaced hope and optimism for a cure for her TB and that last ditch attempt with the doctor in Paris, and then I start imagining the fear as that final haemorrhage began on the night of January 9th 1923....and then I am undone and have to stop.
I wonder if authors affect any of you in this way?
I suffer the same with Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf, there is definitely a tipping point and I have to stop.
As luck would also have it Notting Hill Editions had recently offered me a copy of My Katherine Mansfield Project, an extended essay by Kirsty Gunn.
I am of course hoping to still be me when I get back to the Shire after a month away but Kirsty Gunn's exploration of the meaning of home in relation to the life and writing of Katherine Mansfield led me immediately to the New Zealand stories of which there seem to be ten...
The Woman at the Store
How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped
The Wind Blows
Her First Ball
At the Bay
The Doll's House
Taking the Veil
I found all bar the last two in the Oxford World Classics edition of the Collected Stories. I will have to search around for Taking the Veil whilst Ole Underwood is available online here
Having been born in Wellington, New Zealand and now with homes in London and Scotland, Kirsty Gunn returns to the city as a Randell Fellow on a scholarship, living there for six months and taking her two young daughters with her. Millie and Katherine attend Queen Margaret's school, as had Kirsty Gunn as a child, and this somehow adds a completeness to her experience of exploring both how the city as home feels now and how Katherine Mansfield's world, her inspiration and her imagination segues with it. For the children it is an experience of the parental past...
'in a way that no children believe their parents had a life before they came along.'
And I thought about that and was off on a diversion. I love books that offer a diversion into my own memories and experiences, they are well worth their weight and this one offered plenty of opportunities.
I was reminded about how much I knew about my mum's wartime childhood in Liverpool because she would talk about it so lovingly. As we grew up her toys and books filtered into our lives and with each one would come the narrative behind it...
Get the coloured ball into a hole of the same colour and score double points (that top red fifty required what we called The Dambusters bouncing ball approach) and it would all get very raucous. The box still has the bits of papers with our Trianhole Tournament scores written on, the set bought for my mum by her dad when a bout of illness kept her off school...
Then there was a card game called Grandfather's Whiskers which involved shouting 'Grandfather's whiskers in...' or 'Grandfather's whiskers out...' depending on which side of the counterpane they were. It was hilarious and noisy and, along with the less than straightforward puzzles on the reverse we loved it. My mum had found it in her stocking one Christmas morning...
It all made me think about in what ways and means various is that essence of home transferred from one generation to the next, and the extraordinary significance of the seemingly ordinary. I of course will be taking a huge slice of her old home, in the shape of the quilt, to Offspringette in her new home in New Zealand.
Some of that transference for Kirsty Gunn's daughters was about wearing the same school uniform and attending, albeit briefly, the same school as their mother. I knew so much about my mum's schools in Liverpool... Matthew Arnold and St Edmund's, I think I could happily have sat in lessons and felt I belonged, and I even found her school tie when I was sorting out the Tinker's things. I hope Millie and Katherine felt that same sense of connection as they walked along Tinakori Road to St Margaret's, and what a memory that in turn creates for them in the future.
Kirsty Gunn explores the meaning of 'heimweh', a single German word for which an English translation requires many...a need to escape combined with the pain of leaving, of separation, a journey in the mind to the place left behind. To be sick of home, yet homesick for it, is reflected frequently in Katherine Mansfield's diaries, letters and notebooks and also her stories. Glimpses of a familiar and established domestic world demonstrate that the notion of home was a place where Katherine Mansfield's imagination could roam, for Kirsty Gunn Katherine Mansfield's fiction 'is where I go to feel at home.'
Just as the front of the house in The Doll's House is opened to reveal what lies within, its miniature contents, a tiny world, so does Kirsty Gunn lift the front off her writing life in this essay to reveal the furnishings of her craft. I was deeply into Kirsty Gunn's novel The Big Music when we set off for Orkney a few years ago, and had quite thought it would make perfect reading 'on location. But you know what it's like...I got there bought masses of George Mackay Brown and looked at little else all holiday. I need to pick up The Big Music again because I have thoroughly enjoyed the Kirsty Gunn's writing and the short stories of her own that she weaves into her Katherine Mansfield Project.
I wonder what you all feel about visits to writer's homes...
As Kirsty Gunn stands in the window of Katherine Mansfield's Wellington home, and sees what Katherine Mansfield would have seen, I was as of one with the allure and the emotion of the moment. I feel it too when I visit places like Monk's House and see the desk and the spectacles and the pen.
I have loved too the chance to revisit a selection of Katherine Mansfield's short stories, always favourites but read in a new and more diffuse light having read this book...
'Domestic life was the very engine of her narrative, the subject and theme for some of her best fiction. The New Zealand stories....put houses and children and domestic life together. The very way people come up against each other, life's forces intruding upon quietness and privacy invaded...'
So a book I can highly recommend if you enjoy Katherine Mansfield's writing, and it comes in a beautiful dovegrey linen-bound cover, but meanwhile my reading list is in its infancy...
Who else should I read before my Kiwi adventure.
Which books should I add to the list...