Absent Friends: Lean Years of Plenty
In 1919 John Middleton Murry was appointed editor of the London literary magazine The Athenaeum. Shortly afterward, in a rare case of felicitous nepotism, he hired his wife Katherine Mansfield to be its fiction reviewer.
A berth reviewing the unending landslide of new novels seems like a bad fit for a writer of Mansfield’s rarefied gifts. Her stories have the oceanic qualities that define the best of 20th-century modernism—all flashing, curving surfaces that at sudden moments reveal the chaotic emotional currents hidden below. She was at once a painstakingly sensitive impressionist and a writer of high passions. She had little use for the traditional conventions of the short story. What was such a person doing turning out deadline copy like an ink-stained Fleet Street hack?
Yet the position had a hugely tonic effect on her writing. Mansfield tended to work at an agonizing pace. She spent much of the 1910s furtively tweaking the same few stories, regularly halted in her progress by periods of crippling self-doubt (a vulnerability aggravated by her pathologically controlling husband, who had the bizarre capacity to boast of her genius while simultaneously ordering her around like a kitchen maid). But in 1918 a diagnosis of consumption—driven home by a horrifying episode of pulmonary hemorrhaging—impressed on her the need to work more quickly. The weekly grind of book reviewing, sustained over nearly two years until her illness became too debilitating, helped her build the writing muscles needed to do so.
Some time after her death in 1923 Murry gathered these pieces into a collection titled Novels and Novelists. Though it’s fallen out of print, it can be easily ordered through any of one’s preferred online booksellers. Arranged chronologically and apparently unexpurgated, the collection is a fascinating collision of iconoclasty with popularity, a genuine innovator’s take on the mainstream fiction of the day.
Of course some of the appeal of such a book is historical curiosity. It’s intriguing to find Mansfield aghast by the “maddening monotony” of Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives (“It is writing in real rag-time. Heaven forbid Miss Stein should become a fashion!”). Her unreserved enthusiasm for two little-known comedic novels by Rose Macaulay hints that Macaulay may have had a stronger influence on Mansfield’s generation than has been recognized (and suggests the need for a revival of Macaulay’s books). Then there is the review of Night and Day, by her friend and bitterest rival, Virginia Woolf. The piece caused a great deal of awkwardness in the Bloomsbury salons. When Mansfield complimented the novel for being “Austen up-to-date” it looked as though she were calling Woolf safe and unoriginal; when she quibbled about the vagueness of the characters and the dreaminess of the atmosphere, she seemed to be comparing it unfavorably to her own fiction, where interiority had a sharper, more astringent physical presence.
But though recognizable names run through this collection (Joseph Conrad, Knut Hamsun, Edith Wharton, and even H. Rider Haggard, a relic from a bygone age, all appear), the real fun is in seeing what Mansfield does with the books that had their week in the pale English sunlight and then were never heard from again. There’s a tantalizing and instructive inversion at play in these pages, since time has proven that most of the reviews have far more literary interest and historical significance than the novels they’re about.
It would be a stretch to suggest that Mansfield was writing them for the ages (she certainly felt that way about her fiction), but from her very first column she’s frank about the terrible ephemerality of most fiction, and the trap both reviewers and readers can fall into by hitching themselves to a brand new novel’s rapidly dying star. The books in question here are Hope Trueblood, by Patience Worth, The House of Courage, by Mrs. Victor Rickard, and The Tunnel, by Dorothy Richardson, but before she will discuss them, Mansfield openly wonders why anyone should bother with new novels at all:
Public Opinion, garrulous, lying old nurse that she is, cries: ‘Yes! Great books, immortal books are being born every minute, each one more lusty than the last. Let him who is without sin among you cast the first criticism.’ It would be a superb, thrilling world if this were true! Or even if the moderate number of them were anything but little puppets, little make-believes, playthings on strings with the same stare and the same sawdust filling, just unlike enough to keep the attention distracted, but all like enough to do nothing more profound. After all, in these lean years of plenty how could it be otherwise? Not even the most hardened reader, at the rate books are written and read nowadays, could stand up against so many attacks upon his mind and heart, if it were. Reading, for the great majority—for the reading public—is not a passion but a pastime, and writing, for the vast number of modern authors, is a pastime and not a passion.
This is a remarkable tone to set for a regular book column, an a priori dismissal of almost everything that will come in its path. It’s true that, at one point or another, all reviewers are gripped by a disgust at the utter inconsequence of most books (the phrase “lean years of plenty” could be superimposed onto any generation of fiction since Defoe’s), and it’s common to find that feeling weakening their sentences like osteoporosis. Usually it signals the twilight of a reviewer’s tenure: Once motored by hope and enthusiasm, he has become jaded; bland books seem like a personal reproach; maybe there’s an opening for a restaurant critic?
But on the contrary, in Mansfield’s case there is more candor than cynicism. She is setting out the tough terms of her critic’s manifesto—since her reviews can’t rely on the books to make them worthwhile, they must hold up on their own.
Indeed, wry exasperation with the surfeit of “pastime” fiction is a theme that Mansfield turns to for many of her funniest opening gambits. Here is her introduction to a book by Jerome K. Jerome: “All Roads Lead to Calvary is another novel. It is not more; it is one of that enormous pile of novels. . . ‘Are they fresh?’ ‘Yes, baked today, Madame.’ But they are just the same as those that were baked yesterday and the day before—and the day before that.” Her round-up of The Marbeck Inn, by Harold Brighouse, and Lighting-up Time, by Ivor Brown, begins even more demonstratively:
No, no; our case is not really as desperate as this great number of authors would seem to believe. We are not standing on the back-door step with an empty bag, ready for anything you may care to part with, sir; we are not sitting at the window of the dead drawing-room, wondering whether the couple on the opposite pavement is engaged or married or likely to be engaged and married. It is true that we have a lean and hungry look, but oh, that our sympathetic entertainers would realize it is not to be changed by the crusts and leavings they are so boundlessly willing to bestow!
These excerpts make Mansfield seem cavalier. In fact, she does her due diligence with each book, isolating excerpts and scrupulously inditing plot summaries (a little too scrupulously, perhaps—these are the least engrossing parts of the reviews). She is happy to show her admiration for a charming passage or well-rendered effect, and she regularly tips her cap to adept performances. Yet she never relaxes her standards for what raises art from pleasant distraction, no matter how many successive books fail to meet them. She refuses to grade on a curve.
Her standards hang on intangible qualities—strangeness, passion, a divergence from the worn path even at the expense of simple enjoyment. “Readable, yes, eminently readable,” she says of F. Brett Young’s The Young Physician—“readable to a fault. If only Mr. Young could forget the impatient public and let himself be carried away into places where he thinks they do not care to follow!” Hugh Walpole’s The Captives is faulted for that finest of distinctions: “we feel that it is determination rather than inspiration, strength of will rather than the artist’s compulsion, which has produced [it].” And at times, when she points out the fundamental dishonesty of books written to a template, there is a sharper edge to her protests:
How are we expected to take seriously…any work which appears to have engaged less than the whole passionate attention of its author? To be fobbed off, at the last, with something which we feel to be less true than the author knew it to be, challenges the importance of the whole art of writing, and instead of enlarging the bounds of our experience, it leaves them where they are.
These moments of bald rebuke are relatively rare. Mansfield more often takes a sinuous pleasure in capturing the many ways that books can leave us less than satisfied. The style of Ethel Colburn Mayne, who is judged in her novel Blindman to look too little beyond flickering surface impressions, is likened to the gaze of the dragonfly:
Who can tell, watching the dragonfly, at what point in its swift angular flight it will suddenly pause and hover, quivering over this or that? The strange little jerk—the quivering moment of suspension—we might almost fancy they were the signs of a minute inward shock of recognition felt by the dragonfly. ‘There is something here; something here for me. What is it?’ it seems to say. And then, at the same instant, it is gone.
Two novels that “attempt to re-enter the kingdom of childhood” (Conal O’Riordan’s Adam of Dublin and Bohun Lynch’s Forgotten Realms) are treated with particular solicitude, as some of Mansfield’s best stories take the oddly refracted perspective of children. Since childhood, in books, can exist only as the distant vision of adults, she asks, “How shall a child express what is for us the essence of childhood—its recognition of the validity of the dream? It is implicit in the belief of the child that the dream exists side by side with reality; there are no barriers between. It is only after he has suffered the common fate of little children—after he has been stolen away by the fairies—that the changeling who usurps his heritage builds those great walls which confront him when he will return.”
Mansfield herself, in stories like “Prelude,” “Sun and Moon,” and “The Wind Blows,” worked out a nearly Cubist approach to the dilemma, merging remembrance and immediate experience within haunted, slippery gestures and sensations. This was the kind of innovation she would have had in mind when a review occasioned this remarkable detour:
There is a title which the amateur novelist shares (but how differently!) with the true artist: it is that of experimentalist. However deep the knowledge a writer has of his characters, however finely he may convey that knowledge to us, it is only when he passes beyond it, when he begins to break new ground, to discover for himself, to experiment, that we are enthralled. The ‘false’ writer begins as an experimentalist; the true artist ends as one.
For the curious, the books considered in that piece were Allan Monkhouse’s True Love and G.B. Stern’s Children of No Man’s Land. It can be a little bit staggering wandering through the book graveyard of this collection, encountering title after title that no living soul has ever heard of, much less read—Stephen McKenna’s Lady Lilith, Horace W. C. Newte’s The Extra Lady, J. C. Snaith’s The Adventurous Lady, Lady Trent’s Daughter, by Isabel Clarke, and those are just the ladies. Yet there’s a bracing reminder for the critic as well, that reviews are destined to be entombed alongside those books like so much pharaonic paraphernalia unless they save themselves by containing something brilliant or beautiful—unless they can stand alone as works of art.
This is the truth so often ignored in the perpetual debate over the ethics of negative reviewing: Book reviews are a genre of literature. Just as you can’t dictate to novelists how likable they should make their characters or how happy their endings ought to be, you can’t insist on lip-service praise without consigning a reviewer to irrelevancy. It’s likely that Mansfield was not always fair and balanced in her judgments. (What of poor Dorothy Richardson, so cursorily waved away in the review that starts the collection? She all but originated the stream-of-consciousness novel, and seems unjustly lumped together with the other forgotten books.) But fairness is a short-lived virtue, and deference is a death sentence. The point is not to be constructive but to construct something of lasting value in the little space and little time you’re granted. Like all writing, it should be a passion, not a pastime. The point is to dazzle.
Sam Sacks writes the Fiction Chronicle for the Wall Street Journal and is a founding editor at Open Letters.