In A German Pension is a collection of short stories by Katherine Mansfield (1888 to 1923, New Zealand) about the experiences of a young English woman staying in an exclusive boarding house in Germany where she has been sent to take a cure (we do not yet know what for) in a nearby spa famous for its waters. Everyone at the boarding house we have met so far is German. The tone of the young woman is detached and ironic. In this post I will talk a bit about three of the stories in the collection.
"The Modern Soul" (24 pages) begins with our young lady having a conversation with a professor at a prestigious German university. The professor could not be politer or more patronizing of the intellectual limits of the English woman:
Psychologically I understood your refusal. It is your innate feminine delicacy in preferring etherealised sensations. …The conversation is not out of your depth? I have so seldom the time or opportunity to open my heart to a woman that I am apt to forget.The Professor, called "Herr Professor", is seemingly interested in getting to know the English woman better. Also present at the conversation are young Fraulein Sonia and her mother. We have seen overbearing mothers before in a Mansfield story, "The Garden Party" and Sonia's mother seems to fit this description well.
Sonia's mother interjects herself in the conversation as soon as she finds out there is an English woman present (this is three years before WWI)
I have never been to England,” interrupted Fräulein Sonia, “but I have many English acquaintances. They are so cold!” She shivered. Fish-blooded,” snapped Frau Godowska. “Without soul, without heart, without grace. 'England is merely an island of beef flesh swimming in a warm gulf sea of gravy.’ Such a brilliant way of putting things. Do you remember, Sonia?
Sonia is an aspiring writer.
“What a night!” she said. “Do you know that poem of Sappho about her hands in the stars. … I am curiously sapphic. And this is so remarkable—not only am I Sapphic I find it in the work of all the greatest.As I read this I could not help but wonder, is a swipe being taken at Virginia Woolf?
writers, especially in their unedited letters, some touch, some sign of myself—some resemblance, some part of myself, like a thousand reflections of my own hands in a dark mirror.
As the story ends Sonia and Herr Professor leave for a picnic.
"At Lehman's" (20 pages)
In the next story in the collection we get our first look behind closed doors of the servants and helpers that do the day to day work at the pension. We meet the maid Sabina for the first time:
Certainly Sabina did not find life slow. She was on the trot from early morning until late at night. At five o'clock she tumbled out of bed, buttoned on her clothes, wearing a long-sleeved alpaca pinafore over heBusiness at the pension slows down quite a bit in the winter with the coming of the heavy snows.
Winter had come very early to Mindelbau. By the end of October the streets were banked waist-high with snow, and the greater number of the “Cure Guests,” sick unto death of cold water and herbs, had departed in nothing approaching peace. So the large salon was shut at Lehmann's and the breakfast-room was all the accommodation the café afforded. Here the floor had to be washed over, the tables rubbed, coffee-cups set out, each with its little china platter of sugar, and newspapers and magazines hung on their hooks along the walls before Herr Lehmann appeared at seven-thirty and opened business.
One day a very handsome young man enters the cafe and Sabina is quite infatuated by him. Now at this same time the wife of the owner of the pension is set to have a baby any day now. The handsome young gentleman knows he is free to make advances on a serving girl:
He pulled her closer still and kissed her mouth. “Na, what are you doing — what are you doing?” she whispered. He let go her hands, he placed his on her breasts, and the room seemed to swim round Sabina. Suddenly, from the room above, a frightful, tearing shriek. Who did that—who made that noise?”She wrenched herself away, tightened herself, drew herself up. In the silence the thin wailing of a baby. “Achk!” shrieked Sabina, rushing from the room.This wonderful story is about class, a satire of pomposity, contains a swipe at Virginia Woolf (there was personal connection) or at least pretentious female authors overly in touch with the spirit world and it is also just a lot of fun.
"The Luft Bad" (10 pages) takes us for the first time to the spa where we sit in with the women as they take a bath. This story is simply hilarious. We meet our first Russian lady in the baths. . It is of interest to know that at the time much of fashionable literary Paris was in the thrall of Russian spiritualists like Georges Gurdjeff and occult gurus such as those that formed the Order of the Golden Dawn. Mansfield was not exempt from this mania but was smart enough to see it as a bit silly. Mansfield is a master at short descriptions that create a world:
“Oh, I spend the day here now,” she answered. “I am making my own ‘cure,’ and living entirely on raw vegetables and nuts, and each day I feel my spirit is stronger and purer. After all, what can you expect? The majority of us are walking about with pig corpuscles and oxen fragments in our brain. The wonder is the world is as good as it is. Now I live on the simple, provided food” —she pointed to a little bag beside her— “a lettuce, a carrot, a potato, and some nuts are ample, rational nourishment. I wash them under the tap and eat them raw, just as they come from the harmless earth—fresh and uncontaminated.”
All these stories are miniature gems. Taken together they are creating a perfect picture of life at the German pension.
If any one has any suggestions as to short stories please leave a comment.