Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Novels and Novelists - Katherine Mansfield on writing

Riddle: - Wanted a New World

‘I am neither a short story, nor a sketch, nor an impression, nor a tale. I am written in prose. I am a great deal shorter than a novel; I may be only one page long, but, on the other hand, there is no reason why I should not be thirty. I have a special quality - a something, a something which is immediately, perfectly recognisable. It belongs to me; it is of my essence. In fact I am often given away in the first sentence. I seem almost to stand or fall by it. It is to me what the first phrase of the song is to the singer. Those who know me feel; “Yes, that is it.” And they are from that moment prepared for what is to follow.’
June 25 1920

Remarks on keeping notebooks. ‘It would be almost amusing to remember how short a time has passed since Samuel Butler advised the budding author to keep a notebook.’ Nowadays young writers rest ‘their laurels’ on them. ‘They shall be regarded as of the first importance, read with a deadly seriousness and acclaimed as a kind of new Art - the art of not taking pains’.
June 13th 1919
(Ironic considering that her notebooks contain much of her best writing and are nowadays what she is most famous for.)

‘Very often, after reading a modern novel, the question suggests itself; why was it written? ..... We cannot help wondering, when the book is finished and laid by, as to the nature of that mysterious compulsion. It is terrifying to think of the number of novels that are written and announced and published and to be had of all libraries, and reviewed and bought and borrowed and read, and left in hotel lounges and omnibuses and railway carriages and deck chairs. . . . .’
4th April 1919

KM laments the endless supply of novels all the same like freshly baked buns made from the same ingredients to be endlessly consumed, leaving the consumer empty:

‘We are quickly tired. Repetition - the charm of knowing what is coming, of beating the tune and being ready with the smiles and the laugh at just the right moment, no longer has the power to soothe and distract us. It wakes in us a demon of restlessness, a fever to break out of the circle of the tune, however brilliant the tune may be.
Jan 30th 1920

In ‘A Novel without a Crisis’ KM sets out what she is looking for in the plot of a novel.
‘... having decided on the novel form, one cannot lightly throw one’s story over the mill without replacing it with another story which is, in its way, obedient to the rules of that discarded one. There must be the same setting out upon a voyage of discovery (but through unknown seas instead of charted waters), the same difficulties and dangers must be encountered, and there must be an ever-increasing sense of the greatness of the adventure and an ever more passioante desire to possess and explore the mysterious country. There must be given the crisis when the great final attempt is made which succeeds - or does not succeed.’. Without this ‘central point of significance’, ‘the form of the novel, as we see it, is lost. Without it, how are we to appreciate the importance of one ‘spiritual event’ rather than another? What is to prevent each being unrelated if the gradual unfolding in growing, gaining light is not to be followed by one blazing moment?’
May 30 1919

Novels and Novelists - a collection of reviews by Katherine Mansfield which appeared in the Athenaeum between April 1919 and December 1920 edited after her death by John Middleton Murry.
More information on Katherine Mansfield's life and work.

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