I’m sorry, but I really don’t get short stories. I’m the sort of person who wants to engage in a story and with the characters, and I find that ten pages really doesn’t do it for me. Even with my favourite authors, it feels all wrong. Spread over 400 pages, Haruki Murakami’s juxtaposition of the bizarre and the utterly ordinary works wonders. In a short story, however, it just seems weird. Full stop.
So what am I to do with someone who is regarded as the forerunner of modern short-story tellers, the writer from just across the Tasman sea, Katherine Mansfield? Mansfield only wrote short stories (nary a novel, or even novella, in sight) and yet is still known and loved today. Well, I’ll give it a go…
As you can see to the left, I have acquired a big brick containing all Mansfield’s stories (and unfinished fragments), which I am planning to read a bit at a time in chronological order of writing. So I started on page 586 (I felt very strange for a while there).
In a German Pension was Mansfield’s first publication, one she later wished she could disown owing to its alleged immaturity. The sketches of life in a typically German spa town are cutting and accurate: the linguistic structures she uses to indicate German thought patterns and cultural behaviour work very well, and the strange, almost scientific curiosity with which the locals regard the foreign intruder is wittily sketched out. Mansfield refused to allow a republication just before the first World War as she was ashamed by both the immaturity and stereotyping of the stories.
Something Childish and Other Stories is a posthumous collection of stories written between Mansfield’s first and second published collections. In this (longer) collection, the writer continues with her wry observations of foreign manners and sympathetic portrayals of lonely women in dreary boarding rooms. There are also, however, some shorter (and stranger) morsels to be found.
I liked most of the stories, but my preference was for the first-person tales, where Mansfield’s cool, wry Down Under persona is contrasted with self-confident European behaviour. These tales are witty and cutting, and I could well empathise with the writer’s desire to be left alone by the tour guides and tourists of European travel spots.
Verdict? The jury’s still out on this one. As promised, short and sweet; more on this in the coming months…