Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Katherine Mansfield-Five stories from In A German Pension

In this post I will talk about the last five stories in Katherine Mansfield's first collection of short stories, In A German Pension (1911).    There are 13 interconnected stories in this book.   I have already posted on the first eight.    All of these stories are set in a boarding house in Germany with an affluent collection of clients who stay there while they take cures for various matters at a nearby health spa famous for its waters.   (Katherine Mansfield was sent to a German health spa by her mother in the hope she could be cured of her romantic interest in other women.   I have not been able to find any details on this treatment but it did involve hosing the subjects down with the healing waters!)

The stories in this collection are really funny, really bright, detached and knowing.    Perhaps they  do show a prejudice against Germans-WWI was on the horizon.    In each story we get to know a bit more about life at the pension (old fashioned word for boarding house).   There is a lead character in the collection, a young detached English woman who attracts a lot of attention from the seemingly all German guests.   

In "A Birthday Party" we meet the male owner of the pension as sits down stairs waiting for his wife to give birth to a child.     We see how he viewed the servants servants who did the hard work at the pension:

The servant girl came out of their back door into the yard, carrying his boots. She threw one down on the ground, thrust her hand into the other, and stared at it, sucking in her cheeks. Suddenly she bent forward, spat on the toecap, and started polishing with a brush rooted out of her apron pocket. … “Slut of a girl! Heaven kn what infectious disease may be breeding

In "The Child Who Was Tired" we see what it was like to be a child servant in the boarding house.     Mansfield is very subtle in her conveyance of the waking of the child servant from a dream:

She was just beginning to walk along a little white road with tall black trees on either side, a little road that led to nowhere, and where nobody walked at all, when a hand gripped her shoulder, shook her, slapped her ear.
“Oh, oh, don't stop me,” cried the Child-Who-Was-Tired. “Let me go.”

“Get up, you good-for-nothing brat,” said a voice; “get up and light the oven or I'll shake every bone out of your body.” 

The pension owner's wife seems very abusive:
“Swine of a day—swine's life,” mumbled the Man, sitting by the table and staring out of the window at the bruised sky, which seemed to bulge heavily over the dull land. He stuffed his mouth with bread and then swilled it down with the coffee.   The Frau seemed to be as big as a giant, and there was a certain heaviness in all her movements that was terrifying to anyone so small.    "The Frau seemed to be as big as a giant, and there was a certain heaviness in all her movements that was terrifying to anyone so small."

As the story closes it is left for us to wonder if the serving girl really murders the baby or if it all part of her dream.   In this short story Mansfield shows her ability to convey a life history in a few lines.    

In "The Advanced Lady" we learn a bit more about the young lady from England.     Her name is Violet.   The other people staying at the boarding house and taking the waters at the spa call her "The Advanced Lady".   By this they mean she  was an advocate of women's rights (women could not vote then) and was unmarried and not worried about it!.   For sure they is an undercurrent of nastiness in the nick name.   Remember in an earlier story the English woman had told the other ladies she was married to a ship captain just to keep them from asking her too many questions.

Do you think we might ask her to come with us,” said Fräulein Elsa, retying her pink sash ribbon before my mirror. “You know, although she is so intellectual, I cannot help feeling convinced that she has some secret sorrow. And Lisa told me this morning, as she was turning out my room, that she remains hours and hours by herself, writing; in fact Lisa says she is writing a book! I suppose that is why she never cares to mingle with us, and has so little time for her husband and the child.”

Mansfield cannot help but take a swipe at the patronizing attitudes of German intellectuals toward English culture:
“I think you are English?” said she. I acknowledged the fact. “I am reading a great many English books just now—rather, I am studying them.”
From what I have read,” she said, “I do not think they are very deep wells.”
“No,” he answered, “so I have heard. … But do not let us embitter our

In "The Swing of the Pendulum"   the lead female character meets what seems to be a charming and certainly good looking young man but then after getting to know him decides he is but a vapid pretty boy.   He ends up try to basically rape her without success.   One ends this story knowing in the conventions of the time the woman would have been blamed for it by the other guests in the spa had she raised a complaint.

In "A Blaze", the final story in the collection, we meet two other guests at the pension.   One is an unmarried man and the other is a married woman.   They have been carrying on a flirtation that has never advanced beyond the opening stages.    The man accuses the woman of toying with him.   The woman advises him that he must check himself as he is talking to a married woman:

I keeping up the farce—do you suppose that now you have finally lighted your bonfire you are going to find it a peaceful and pleasant thing—you are going to prevent the whole house from burning?”
She suddenly turned white and drew in her breath sharply.
“Don't talk to me like that. You have no right to talk to me like that. I am another man's wife.”
“Hum,” he sneered, throwing back his head, “that's rather late in the game, and that's been your trump card all along. You only love Victor on the cat-and-cream principle— 

I love that line-cat and cream principle.

I read all these stories on line at the New Zealand Electronic Text Center

In A German Pension (1911) was Mansfield's first collection of short stories.   She edited and arranged publication herself.  

If anyone has any suggestion as to short stories I might like please leave a comment.

Mel u


Suko said...

Mel, you are now a Katherine Mansfield scholar! This sounds like a wonderful collection of short fiction. Her story The Garden Party is phenomenal.

bibliophiliac said...

Hi Mel, I have an award for you at my blog!