You may or may not know I've been struggling along as I read Katherine Mansfield's Journal. It was published posthumously by her husband John Middleton Murray in 1927 to wide acclaim. I have been feeling a little bit out of my league as I read it. I've felt as though I don't have a sufficient frame of reference in terms of her biography and knowledge of her work to adequately appreciate what I have been reading. Do you ever feel as you are reading that you are in the presence of genius and not quite up to the challenge? That said, I finished it a couple of days ago, and now I sort of feel bereft for having completed it.
It is made of literally of fragments of her writing--unposted letters, story ideas, diary entries and scraps of her writings. Middleton Murray assembled all these various pieces of her work and created a journal. It covers the years from 1910 (skipping 1911-1913) through 1922 until shortly before her death in January 1923. What I could and did appreciate was when she was just writing for herself. She was constantly questioning her abilities as well as how much she was or wasn't writing. It felt a bit voyeuristic as I was reading it at times. This was a woman, an artist really, who was grappling with an illness and still trying to create. At times the writing was so incredibly sad and poignant. Of course she would have probably hated that characterization! In October of 1922 she wrote:
"I wonder why it should be so very difficult to be humble. I do not think I am a good writer; I realize my faults better than anyone else could realize them. I know exactly where I fail. And yet, when I have finished a story about before I have begun another, I catch myself preening my feathers. It is disheartening. There seems to be some bad old pride in my heart; a root of it that puts out a thick shoot on the slightest provocation...This interferes very much with work. One can't be calm, clear, good as one must be, while it goes on. I look at the mountains, I try to pray and I think of something clever. It's a kind of excitement within, which shouldn't be there. Calm yourself. Clear yourself. And anything that I write in this mood will be no good; it will be full of sediment. If I were well, I would go off by myself somewhere and sit under a tree. One must learn, one must practice, to forget oneself. I can't tell the truth about Aunt Anne unless I am free to look into her life without self-consciousness. Oh God! I am divided still. I am bad. I fail in my personal life. I lapse into impatience, temper, vanity, and so I fail as thy priest. Perhaps poetry will help."
Virginia Woolf wrote a review of the Journal titled "A Terribly Sensitive Mind". I was under the impression that Woolf and Mansfield had a bit of a love, hate relationship, but Woolf wrote a wonderful review of her Journal. She sums it up so much more gracefully than I ever could.
"No one felt more seriously the importance of writing than she did. In all the pages of her journal, instinctive, rapid as they are, her attitude toward her work is admirable, sane, caustic, and austere. There is no literary gossip; no vanity; no jealousy. Although during her last years she must have been aware of her success she makes no allusion to it. Her own comments upon her work are always penetrating and disparaging. Her stories wanted richness and depth; she was only 'skimming the top--and no more'. But writing, the mere expression of things adequately and sensitively is not enough. It is founded upon something unexpressed; and this something must be solid and entire. Under the desperate pressure of increasing illness she began a curious and difficult search, of which we catch glimpses only and those hard to interpret, after the crystal clearness which is needed if one is to write truthfully."
Of course upon closing the Journal I want to immediately pick up the biography by Claire Tomalin or dig into her Collected Letters. I will certainly be reading some of her short stories! I think I will leave her Journal by my bedside to pick up and read randomly. Now that I've gone through it once, I think anything more I read will be more appreciated the next time through.