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

Thursday, May 19, 2011

"Misery" by Anton Chekhov versus "The Life of Ma Parker" by Katherine Mansfield

"Misery" by Anton Chekhov (1886, 5 pages, translated by Constant Garnett)
"The Life of Ma Parker" by Katherine Mansfield  (1921, 4 pages)-a second look

A Look at One of Tolstoy's Favorite Chekhov Stories
How wrong is Frank O'Connor 
about Katherine Mansfield?

Frank O'Connor in The Lonely Voice:   A Study of the Short Story says some things about Katherine Mansfield that seem, I read them a second time, very nasty, homophobic, sexist and just flat out stupid.   Ordinarily I just dismiss such views but O'Connor is too brilliant to really allow me to do that.   O'Connor writing in his 1960 lectures (published in 1961) says of Mansfield

"Most of her work seems to me to be that of a clever, spoiled, malicious woman.   Though I know nothing that would suggest she had any homosexual experiences, the assertiveness, malice, and even destructiveness in her life and work make me wonder whether she hadn't"

Speaking of Mansfield's numerous relationships with men he says "but the idea of experience by which she justified them is a typical expedient of a woman with a homosexual streak who envies men and attributes their imagined superiority to the greater freedom with which they satisfy their sexual appetites".

He says Mansfield has the worldliness of permanent adolescence...that she is always writing about her amorous orgies..there is one quality that is always missing in almost everything she wrote and that is "heart".   He says Mansfield has no more a feel for the poor than Dickens does.   He says to Mansfield the lower classes are merely people with improper pronunciations.  

Frank O'Connor says, and no one would argue with this, that Mansfield was heavily influenced by Chekhov  (1860 to 1904-Russia.)   Mansfield may well have in one case taken the plot of an at the time untranslated Chekhov story and used the plot lines to create her own story without giving Chekhov credit.   Mansfield scholars say there is proof of this and I accept it.   I do not see it as a "big deal" though in a perfect world such things should not happen.  O'Connor jumps from this one fact to assuming that any Mansfield story that in any way resembled a Chekhov story is basically a lifted plot.   

"Misery" was one of Leo Tolstoy's favorite Chekhov stories.   O'Connor says it is among his very best stories.   I really found it a powerful look at the very deep sadness in the life of a Russian horse cab driver.   As the story opens the cab driver has just picked up a fare.    As he drives he tries to tell his customer (being able to afford a horse cab already sets you out as having a bit of money) that his son, all he had in life, has very recently died.   His passenger basically says :"Oh too bad but watch how you are driving".     His next passengers are three young men out for a night on the town.    In a really masterful scene which helped me see a bit of the greatness of Chekhov, the young men knowingly offer him an unfair fee for their proposed cab ride and he accepts it.   The young men are abusive to him throughout the ride.   We know he has always been abused by his customers.   He needs badly to talk to someone about his son's death.   The three men, death is so remote to the young, could not care less and basically tell him to mind the road and not to blather on.   At the end of the story, he tells his horse what has happened.   

"The Life of Ma Parker" by Katherine Mansfield (1888 to 1923-New Zealand) (I posted on it in October, 2010) is about a seemingly ancient maid doing her once a week cleaning job in the house of a what is called a "literary gentlemen".    (I am sure this gentlemen is probably meant as a jibe at someone in Mansfield's life but I do not know who-If  you do please leave a comment or e mail me.)   Ma Parker (as everyone calls her) her was sent into service at 14 as  scullery maid to a cruel cook, had 12 children half of whom died as children, and a life of hard work cleaning up after others.   I do not see how O'Connor can say Mansfield knew nothing or felt nothing for the poor.   (Maybe O'Connor knew her father was the chairmen of the Bank of New Zealand and just saw Mansfield as poor little rich girl playing at artistic poverty-maybe he was jealous of her as by 1960 her readership far exceeded his own).   After reading the story for a second time I would now change my post on it a bit but basically I stand by what I said last year.   There are other stories like "A Cup of Tea" that amply show that Mansfield could portray the poor without condescension.   As to O'Connor's claim that the stories of Mansfield do not at all deal with members of "submerged groups" this seems almost blind.    Many of Mansfield's  stories are about a single woman without great means trying to live in a country or a place that is not her home.   The fact that Mansfield had a way out of her poverty if she wanted it is probably why O'Connor feels her stories are inauthentic.   I think O'Connor goes too far in wanting an author to somehow earn the right to produce their stories by their own life.    It is as if one cannot write a story set in a war if one has not been in a war.  

O'Connor also makes the common mistake of seeing her work as somehow reaching an artistic peak just before she died.   This is just reverse literary engineering.   It was interesting to learn from O'Connor how the literary world viewed Mansfield's husband John Middleton Murry.   O'Connor does love some of Mansfield's work (I know I am myself going to be prejudiced against anyone who says anything bad about Katherine Mansfield so I try to discount my feelings) and says "The Prelude" is among the best short stories ever written.

I totally endorse both of these stories.   You can ponder the claim that Mansfield lifted her plot from "Misery".

You can read "Misery" HERE

There is a link to "The Life of Ma Parker" in my post on it.

I know I need to read much more Chekhov and I hope to over the next 12 months.

Please feel free to leave a comment  about my opening question.

O'Connor is a brilliant expositor of the short story, especially when it is by a  writer of the type he is comfortable with.     It is kind of a sad irony to me that O'Connor focuses so much on "submerged groups" in his analysis of  the short story but so full of prejudice against Jews and women who dare to assert themselves

People are a product of their times.   Still I find it hard to imagine in 1960 in Stanford University in California people did not feel inclined to walk out on him.

I still endorse the reading of The Lonely Voice-A Study in the Short Story.   Parts of it are really brilliant and inspired me to read on and on in the short story.   I learned a lot from his book even though I think he is very wrong about  much of what he says about Mansfield.    I think O'Connor even though he was lecturing in 1960 was thinking in 1930.

 OK enough bashing-if anyone has read this far please say hello!

Mel u


Suko said...

Hmm. . . .It sounds like O'Connor may have been jealous of Mansfield.

JoAnn said...

Your post makes me even more anxious to read The Lonely Voice. I ordered it through inter-library loan... hope it arrives next week.

Ann Summerville said...

Interesting post - food for thought.

Short Story Slore said...

"I think O'Connor goes too far in wanting an author to somehow earn the right to produce their stories by their own life. It is as if one cannot write a story set in a war if one has not been in a war." I completely agree with this. Part of being a writer is using your imagination. If we only wrote about what has happened to us, the authors in the horror and fantasy genres wouldn't write anything. I read to be entertained and I think a great author makes you feel like the author did experience these events. Stephen King makes a good point in his short story collection Just After Sunset about a professor ripping into him for writing about 9/11 when he wasn't in NYC at the time. If I still had that book, I'd post his response here :)

Unknown said...

wow that is scathing on O'Connor's part! i think that 'what he is comfortable with' is very telling. it's a shame that someone so esteemed can't set aside prejudices better, but he's human.

as for her lifting of the plot, heck, writers and artists do this all the time. it's part of the creative process. isn't all art imitation, nothing is original and so on?
i believe she made it her own, that's what matters.

Mel u said...

Suko-you well maybe right-in addition to being jealous of Mansfield's status as a writer, he might have felt envy at the wealth of her family and the comfort in which she was raised-all just speculation

JoAnn-I will look forward to your reaction to this book

Cozy In Texas-thanks for your visit and comment

Mel u said...

Short Story Slore-you mentioned the Stephen King story-I am glad you supported by remarks

Monica-I agree with your remark about writers using plot ideas from other authors-I mean is Joyce guilty of lifting the plot of Ulysses from Homer because of plot line similarities? -I am glad I am now following your blog