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sweet days of discipline

Translated from Italian by Tim Parks

I read this slight novella between my two 1977 club reads, and that feels oddly long ago now as I sit here trying to find something to say about it. I had seen so many tantalising reviews of this one that I found myself buying it just a few weeks ago. I love a tightly controlled novella – and this is certainly that, written in beautifully spare prose, it is enigmatic and dark. I had expected to love this more than I did, I certainly enjoyed it – if that is the right word, but something about this story left me feeling quite low. In many ways there isn’t a lot to say about this novel – so you may be relieved to know that this review will be quite short.

“At fourteen I was a boarder in a school in the Appenzell. This is where Robert Walser used to take his many walks when he was in the mental hospital in Herisau, not far from our college. He died in the snow. Photographs show his footprints and the position of his body in the snow. We didn’t know the writer.”

Set in post-war Switzerland; the narrator of Sweet Days of Discipline is a fourteen-year-old girl at a boarding school in the Appenzell. The opening of the novel has a deceptive feeling of innocence – our narrator looking back on the days of her schooling reveals herself as quite knowing, well versed in the world of the boarding school – having attended others before this. A child of separated parents she receives her instructions from her mother in Brazil and writes long letters to her father that are only briefly and infrequently answered. The narrator describes her life as a boarder – a life she sees as being that of a captor – always looking for a freedom she can’t find.

“The wind wrinkled the dark lake and my thoughts as it swept on the clouds, chopped them up with its hatchet; between them you could just glimpse the Last Judgement, finding each of us guilty of nothing.”

A new girl arrives at the school named Frédérique, who is immediately noticed by our narrator – who sees her disdain and her high forehead, and that she has ‘no humanity’. Frédérique is fifteen, seemingly perfect and perfectly obedient, and the younger girl is determined to conquer her. As she vies for Frédérique’s attention and friendship she muses on the nature of control and how close to madness it can come.

Dazzled by Frédérique she seeks to understand her, seeking ways to spend time with her and in time to emulate her.

“It was as though she talked about nothing, Her words flew. What was left after them had no wings. She never said the word God and I can barely write it down myself when I think of the silence she surrounded it with.”

The discipline and control represented in the character of Frédérique, is contrasted with that of another girl Micheline. Our unnamed narrator is torn between these two different girls, Frédérique’s cool, poised perfection and Micheline’s chatty exuberance. Having rejected a younger girl’s request to be her protector, and almost immediately seeing how she will regret this, our narrator puts all her energies into winning favour with the object of her (almost) obsession. Frédérique who can play piano and whose handwriting is so beautiful our narrator works hard to copy it. As time passes so does the unsettling nature of these relationships gather pace.

“There is a mortuary look somehow to the faces of the boarders, a faint mortuary smell to even the youngest and most attractive girls. A double image, anatomical and antique. In the one the girl runs about and laughs, and in the other she lies on a bed covered by a lace shroud. It’s her own skin has embroidered it.”

School days end and eventually we get some glimpses of these girls grown up – beyond the confines of their politely controlled world.

There are many strikingly beautiful passages and within them some extraordinary images. While I loved the quality of the writing of this delicately nuanced novella, the narrative left me feeling rather flat as I said before – but I definitely want to read more by this author – and I suspect I would get a lot from reading this again one day, as such prose deserves to be reread.

fleur jaeggy

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men without women

Translated from Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen

Chosen by my very small book Men without women is a collection of short stories by Haruki Murakami. An author I would probably never have read without my book group – and I suspect will never read again. He gave us (my book group) lots to discuss – Overall, I didn’t like this book very much, and that worried me initially, I wondered if I had prejudiced myself against the book before I read it. I don’t read many modern male writers – you may have noticed – and Murakami seemed to sit somewhere outside my comfort zone. Still, it was a book group read, not especially long, I was on holiday from work so able to grimly plough through it a bit more than a day, (an attitude I accept may not have helped). I didn’t find the book unremittingly without merit – there were several things I liked – though out of the seven stories in the collection, probably only two I really engaged with; these were Kino and An Independent Organ.

The premise of the book was the first thing I liked, stories of loneliness, of men struggling in a world, forced to live their lives for whatever reason without women. It was this premise I think which sold it to my small feminist book group – only the second book written by a man we’ve read. It was those questions of how men and women live with or without one another and how men see women that interested us all. Occasionally I came across passages that made me stop and reread – they were so beautifully written – yet most of the time I found Murakmai’s writing to be nothing special. There was a distance in his writing style that I didn’t like – I am usually fine with a writer who stands back from their characters. The sense of loneliness in some of these stories is well done, the men finding it hard to engage with the world or the people around them. The relationships are stunted and awkward even between male friends the relationships are flawed – presumably because they are men without women.

In these stories we have as the title and the premise suggest men living without women. Sometimes it is a strange, slightly unexplained world – where different rules apply. In the opening story ‘Drive My Car’ A man banned from driving hires a woman chauffeur and proceeds to tell her about his odd friendship with the man who was his late wife’s lover. In ‘Yesterday’ we meet a young man who loans his girlfriend to a friend. In ‘An Independent Organ’ A plastic surgeon who finally and fatally falls in love having lived his life enjoying casual and meaningless relationships with women. In this story we learn that women have an independent organ which allows them to lie with ease hmmm!!

“Women are all born with a special, independent organ that allows them to lie. This was Dr. Tokai’s personal opinion. It depends on the person, he said about the kind of lies they tell, what situation they tell them in, and how the lies are told. But at a certain point in their lives, all women tell lies, and they lie about important things. They lie about unimportant things, too, but they also don’t hesitate to lie about the most important things. And when they do, most women’s expressions and voices don’t change at all, since it’s not them lying, but this independent organ they’re equipped with that’s acting on its own. That’s why – except for a few special cases – they can still have a clear conscience and never lose sleep over anything they say.”
(An Independent Organ)

A housekeeper/mistress nicknamed ‘Scheherazade’ in the story of the same name tells stories of her teenage house breaking in pursuit of a boy who didn’t notice her. In ‘Kino’, a man gives up his job when his marriage breaks down and buys a bar with its enigmatic resident cat, and meets a woman bearing the scars of terrible abuse. In ‘Samsa in Love’ – Murakami turns Kafka’s Metamorphosis on its head – Samsa  wakes in confusion to find himself a man. The title story ‘Men without Women’ is the final one in the collection. It seems to be less of a story and more of a series of thoughts about the overarching theme of the book.

“A deep gulf separates the second and the first loneliest on earth. Most likely. Deep, and wide, too. The bottom is heaped high with the corpses of birds who have tried, and failed, to traverse it. Suddenly one day you become Men Without Women. That day comes to you completely out of the blue, without the faintest of warnings or hints beforehand. No premonitions or foreboding, no knocks or clearing of throats. Turn a corner and you know you’re already there. But by then there’s no going back. Once you round that bend, that is the only world you can possibly inhabit. In that world you are called “Men Without Women.” Always a relentlessly frigid plural.”
(Men without Women)

As a book group we were interested particularly in the representation of women and the way women were portrayed by the author or viewed by his characters. It was here I think that my problems started. Now in all these stories the perspective is that of a man or men, and so only through them do we see women. We have women who cheat on the men in their lives, women judged in terms of their attractiveness – others who seem to hold power over a man. In each case these women seem horribly stereotypical and very two dimensional. Is this because Murakami is trying to show us how it is women are perceived by men? Is he making an important point? – I preferred to think so – or does this come from the author himself?

I was nervous about reviewing this book because Murakami is one of those writers with a legion of fans, he seems to enjoy a cult like status and I wondered – does everyone love him but me? Well no, in my book group one other member hated it so much she could see nothing positive at all, a couple of others while not hating it seemed under whelmed. I have seen the g word applied fairly liberally to his work, and I just wasn’t getting it. True, we can’t all like the same thing – still, as someone who appreciates good literary writing, I felt a bit sad that I didn’t get it.

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Happy birthday VMC

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This May sees the fortieth anniversary of Virago Modern Classics – an imprint I read voraciously. I expect most of you will know that I greatly prefer the old green VMCs that were published from the end of the 1970s through to the 1990s. Some of the more recent designs I have been less thrilled with – although I do have a great love for the hardbacked designer editions. Not only are they beautiful but the novels and short stories selected for that edition are wonderful examples of the wide variety of women’s writing in the mid twentieth century. Elizabeth von Arnim, Daphne Du Maurier, Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Jenkins, Barbara Pym, Angela Carter and Molly Keane are all represented in those beautiful hardback editions and I have been unable to stop myself from collecting a few of them.

For the fortieth anniversary Virago are releasing thirteen sparkly new paperback editions of some of their most popular and enduring works – these are glorious editions perfect in every way. There are French flaps – what more do you need to know? The range of books and authors chosen is perfect however, something for everyone I should think. Authors include Rosamond Lehman, Zora Neale Hurston, Patricia Highsmith, Elizabeth Taylor, Rebecca West and Muriel Spark.

In addition to these beautiful new editions Virago are publishing a beautiful hardback – Writers As Readers: A Celebration of Virago Modern Classics. Handily it matches nicely those hardback designer editions I so love. Essays by writers about writers, we have for example Margaret Drabble writing about Jane Austen, Elizabeth Bowen on Antonia White, Anita Desai on Rumer Godden. An utterly delicious book in every way.

So, and try not to hate me, I was gifted a gorgeous package of celebratory material by Virago a few days ago. I think I squealed. I wasn’t the only one to be so spoiled, lots of other Virago readers and bloggers were treated too. I got a beautiful copy of Writers as Readers, a tote bag, four of the beautiful new paperbacks, postcards and bookmark featuring the new designs. I feel very fortunate. The paperbacks I received are: Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann, A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor, Frost in May by Antonia White and Faces in the Water by Janet Frame (one I haven’t read). They were perfect choices as Lehman, Taylor and White are authors I absolutely love.

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Click on the titles below to go to my (rather old and often rather slight) reviews of these books.

cofFrost in May (1933) was famously the first ever VMC published – Antonia White went on to publish three more novels featuring the same character (though with a changed name). That quartet contains such exquisitely powerful writing, and superb storytelling that it quickly became one of my favourite series of books.

Weather in the Streets (1936) by Rosamond Lehmann is a novel I have been meaning to reread for ages. It is the sequel to Invitation to the Waltz – but stands alone just as well I think. Despite having only read it once I think it is my favourite Lehmann novel.

A View of the Harbour (1947) is one of the Elizabeth Taylor novels that I have only read once too – I remember loving Taylor’s depiction of a small seaside community. Again, very overdue a reread.

Rereading is a bit of a luxury this year as I am trying to do ACOB – but at least I know which of my two editions of these books I will be reading when I do get a chance.

I am thinking I may read Faces in the Water very soon – I love being introduced to a new author, and happily 1961 is still waiting to be ticked off in my A Century of Books. I am also going to start dipping into that Writers as Readers book.

So, a very happy birthday Virago. Long may these beautiful editions and publication of these women writers continue.

writers as readers

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dancing girls

My second read for Karen and Simon’s 1977 club was Margaret Atwood’s The Dancing Girls, a collection of short stories. It was only after finishing the collection, and quite by chance that I discovered the list of fourteen stories in the book changes very slightly between two editions. In the original 1977 edition the stories; War in the Bathroom and Rape Fantasies are included – which for the 1982 edition are changed for Betty and The Sin Eater. My Virago edition has this later selection of stories – I can’t help but wonder at the change – although I am pleased at the inclusion of Betty as it was one of my favourite stories in this collection.

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I have thoroughly enjoyed short story collections by Margaret Atwood before – many years ago reading Bluebeard’s Egg – very pre-blog and more recently Stone Mattress and Wilderness Tips. Several of these stories really do stand out and are every bit as excellent as I have come to expect – however some of the others didn’t work quite as well for me. Overall, I liked the collection but didn’t love it.

The men and women in these stories are frequently unable to communicate with one another – they are often separate themselves either physically or mentally. These stories explore the complicated relationships between men and women.

In the opening story; The man from Mars an awkward, slightly overweight student finds herself pursued by a foreign student from an unnamed Eastern country. Christine – living in the shadow of her more glamorous mother and sisters, is unused to such attention. So, when a short, bespectacled oriental looking man begins to follow her around after having once stopped her to ask directions she really doesn’t know what to think. The student is horribly persistent, but also rather pathetic. His attentions are perplexing, and irritating, but he doesn’t seem dangerous. Nevertheless, eventually the police are involved. It is a wonderful story to kick off the collection, there is a deliciously wry humour in the description of Christine’s faithful pursuer – and of a strained little tea party, Christine’s clueless mother insists she has for a man who might turn out to be boyfriend material.

“As the weekdays passed and he showed no signs of letting up, she began to jog-trot between classes, finally to run. He was tireless, and had an amazing wind for one who smoked so heavily: he would speed along behind her, keeping the distance between them the same, as though he were a pull-toy attached to her by a string. She was aware of the ridiculous spectacle they must make, galloping across campus, something out of a cartoon short, a lumbering elephant stampeded by a smiling, emaciated mouse, both of them locked in the classic pattern of comic pursuit and flight.”
(The man from Mars)

Betty – one of those two stories added to this collection in place of others – is the second story in the collection. The story narrator looks back to a time when she was growing up – remembering the neighbours Betty and her husband Fred who she met when her family rented a small cottage for the summer between house moves. Betty hadn’t interested her young neighbour when she was a child – instead it was Fred who absorbed all her interest and fantasies.

“It seemed as if we had lived in the cottage for a long time, though it was only one summer. By August I could hardly remember the apartment in Ottawa and the man who used to beat his wife. That had happened in a remote life, and, despite the sunshine, the water and the open space, a happier one. Before our frequent moves and the insecurities of new schools had forced my sister to value me.”
(Betty)

Now, as an adult looking back on that time, she realises she can no longer remember Fred’s face – though she remembers Betty with great clarity. She remembers how Betty changed after Fred betrayed her – how over the years Betty kept in touch, and the family watched as she re-invented herself yet remained much more of a mystery than Fred ever was.

That foreign ‘otherness’ that is explored in the opening story is present again in the title story Dancing Girls. Set in a boarding house, where Ann and her landlady – wonder about the new man – who has what the landlady calls a native costume in which she politely asks him to appear from time to time. We witness the clash of cultures again, although I felt the story petered out a bit at the end.

Other stories which grabbed me were: When it happens; in which we see a woman who remembers well living through the Second World War is preparing for what she thinks is the end of the world – or some kind of cataclysmic event that will bring almost everything to an end. The Resplendent Quetzal is another superb story – in which the broken relationship of a married couple on a bird watching holiday is beautifully explored. In Hair Jewellery we meet a woman who loves someone who never really returns her feelings. She has romanticised their future break up – which when it comes is nothing like her fantasy – eventually she finds she can never quite leave him behind.

I enjoy Margaret Atwood’s writing – and there is certainly a lot to enjoy in this collection, those stories which I was less keen on stop short of actually being disappointing – they just didn’t grab me.

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Published three years before my last read for #ReadingMuriel2018 The Bachelors has a very different feel from The Girls of Slender Means. Here is a London of the 1950s, of bedsitting rooms, public bars and spiritualist meetings.

Certainly, it is a novel with London very much at its heart – the novel opens with several London place names – and the whole novel has a very London feel to it.

“In Queen’s Gate, Kensington, in Harrington Road, The Boltons, Holland Park, and in King’s Road, Chelsea, and its backwaters, the bachelors stirred between their sheets, reached for their wound watches, and with waking intelligences noted the time; then, remembering it was Saturday morning turned over on their pillows. But soon, since it was Saturday, most would be out on the streets shopping for their bacon and eggs, their week’s supplies of breakfasts and occasional suppers; and these bachelors would set out early, before a quarter past ten, in order to avoid being jostled by the women, the legitimate shoppers.”

Despite the promising opening, The Bachelors is something of a slow burn – and lacks the compelling nature of some other Muriel Spark novels. I was worried I wasn’t going to get on with the novel at all – then suddenly around seventy pages in I realised I was gripped and I ended up finishing rather quickly. Thinking about the novel now in retrospect I actually really like it – so it is a shame that the beginning is a bit of a let-down – a couple of conversations on Twitter suggest I’m not the only reader to feel like this. Spark creates such an authentic community of London bachelors that – considering she uses relatively little description, and quite a lot of dialogue – there is still a lot that is very visual in this novel.

The Bachelors of the title include: a handwriting expert, a lawyer, a priest, a policeman and a spiritual medium. Patrick Seton; the medium is the malevolent presence throughout the novel – he is a truly brilliant Spark villain. Patrick is due to appear in court – charged with defrauding a widow; Freda Flower of her savings. Things however, are not straight forward, as the widow concerned – part of the spiritualist circle – keeps changing her evidence. Like all groups, this spiritualist circle is split into dividing factions – those who think Patrick Seton is innocent and those who see him as a fraud and a criminal. However, even those who believe Patrick defrauded Mrs Flower of her savings – tend to think he is a good medium. Patrick is very confident of being acquitted – and he has a few loyal acolytes who are vocal in their support of him.

However, the reader quickly begins to see Patrick as a really nasty character and potentially a dangerous one. Patrick has a girlfriend – Alice – who is in the early stages of pregnancy – something Patrick is clearly irritated by – thinking of it as ‘her disgusting baby’. Alice wants Patrick to marry her – Patrick tells her, his divorce will be granted soon. Other characters in the novel are surprised to hear that Patrick is married as they had understood him to be single. Alice is an insulin dependent diabetic – and it is quickly apparent that Patrick has a dreadful plan up his sleeve. Not averse to a bit of blackmail – Patrick manages to draw his doctor into the plans for when the ‘unfortunate occurrence’ should be over and he safely acquitted. Patrick is confident he can make everything go his way.

Ronald Bridges is a graphologist; due to give evidence on a note supposedly written by Mrs Flower – though said to have been forged by Patrick Seton – in the up coming trial. Ronald suffers from epilepsy, he is very conscious of his condition, which he seems to feel has blighted his life, and practices using his memory whenever he can. He is a slightly sad discontented man, who wants desperately to be taken seriously. It is Ronald ultimately who is the novel’s rather unlikely hero.

“Ronald was filled with a great melancholy boredom from which he suffered periodically. It was not merely this affair which seemed to suffocate him, but the whole of life – people, small-time criminals, outrage housekeepers, and all his acquaintance from the beginning of time.”

Several of the novel’s other bachelors are concerned with Patrick’s case and the spiritualist group he is part of. Detective Inspector Fergusson is the policeman responsible for Patrick’s appearance in court, while Martin Bowles is the prosecuting barrister. Matthew another of Ronald’s friends has designs on Alice, wanting to get her away from Patrick, watches from the public gallery as the trial gets underway. Alice however is devoted to Patrick despite her friend Elsie’s interference to try and prove his guilt.

While this novel won’t be my favourite Muriel Spark novel, I am glad I have read it, I very much enjoyed hating Patrick Seton – and waiting to see what happened to him made the second half of the book much more compelling.

murielspark

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the danger tree

Today is the start of the 1977 club hosted for us again by Simon and Karen. I got started a few days ago – as I had been looking forward to reading this particular book for a while.

The Danger Tree is the first novel in Olivia Manning’s Levant Trilogy – which follows directly on from her Balkan Trilogy – that I re-read with such relish last year. The Danger Tree is every bit as compelling as those first three novels. Enormously intelligent, it is, at times, a no holds barred account of the war in the desert.

“Cairo had become the clearing house of Eastern Europe. Kings and princes, heads of state, their followers and hangers-on, free governments with all their officials, everyone who saw himself committed to the allied cause, had come to live here off the charity of the British government. Hotels, restaurants and cafés were loud with the squabbles, rivalries, scandals, exhibitions of importance and hurt feelings that occupied the refugees while they waited for the war to end and the old order to return.”

Having been forced to flee Greece – where they ended up having fled the German occupation in Romania – Guy and Harriet Pringle find themselves in Egypt. Again, they are surrounded by the flotsam and jetsam of war – thrown together with strangers and old friends – and enemies – with German forces still far too close for comfort.

1977clubThe novel opens with Simon Boulderstone, just twenty years old, who has just arrived with the draft. A young officer, he had formed close alliances aboard ship – but is now separated from his mates – and finds himself alone, in the midst of chaos. Tobruk has just fallen. After reporting to his new barracks Simon is given two days leave and in search of a friendly face, goes to Cairo to look up his brother’s girlfriend; Edwina Little. Simon knows that somewhere out there in the desert is his brother Hugh and he hopes to get a chance to see him.

Harriet is also in Cairo – though Guy has had to go to Alexandria to find something to do for the Organisation – the Organisation is educational not mafioso which is what it always sounds like to me. Harriet is alone – and there are moments when the heat, flies, loneliness and constant rumour takes its toll.

“On one occasion she was in a landscape which she had seen years before, when riding her bicycle into the country. It was an ordinary English winter landscape; a large field ploughed into ridges that followed the contours of the land, bare hedges, distant elms behind which the sky’s watery grey was broken by gold. She could smell the earth on the wind. There was a gust of rain, wet and cold on her face – then, in an instant, the scene was gone like a light switched off, and she could have wept for the loss of it.”

Harriet encounters Simon in the company of some other ex-pats – when together they go off on a sight-seeing tour. The days end with a stark and tragic reminder of war at the desert home of Sir Desmond Hooper.

Guy is in a reserved occupation but his arrival in Egypt brings him back into conflict with those colleagues who had undermined his position in Greece. Finding himself on the outside again – Guy is not the man to sit back do nothing and get paid – he needs to be doing something. Guy always has a host of people around him – he puts everybody before Harriet – who finds herself every bit as frustrated by this behaviour in her husband as she was in Romania and Greece. While Harriet endures the discomfort of Madame Wilk’s pension, working in the American embassy, where she is daily reminded of her outsider status — Guy is running a course for just two students in Alexandria.

Returning to Cairo – to Harriet’s relief – Guy’s career prospects suddenly improve when he is appointed director. Guy’s appointment means the Pringles can move into better accommodation too – a large room in a shared embassy flat which they share with Edwina Little, a strange, rather sad man named Percy Gibbon and Dobson – who the Pringles first knew in Romania. Outside their window is a large mango tree – the danger tree of the title. Harriet loves the tree, Guy hates it.

“The Danger Tree”. You know that in England someone dies every year from eating duck eggs? – Well, in countries where a lot of mangoes are eaten, someone dies from mango poisoning every year.’ Edwina, who had been putting out her hand for another mango, withdrew it, saying, ‘Dobbie, how could you! What a horrid joke!’”

As the novel progresses we also follow the fortunes of young Simon Boulderstone as he joins his new unit. He is a young, inexperienced officer – and his days are long, hot and often boring. When action comes its swift, terrifying, and bloody. Olivia Manning brings us the realities of war with neither sentiment or gratuitous violence. As ever her storytelling is superb.

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When I read my first collection of short-stories by Katherine Mansfield I was sure it wouldn’t be long before I read my next. Well that was five years ago!

The Montana Stories was one of those odd gaps I had in my Persephone collection – I had meant to acquire a copy for years. I love collections of short-stories – and I have no idea why I left it so long to get and read this one – it is glorious.

The Montana Stories ticked off 2001 in my A Century of Books – which felt like a bit of a cheat, because all the stories were written in 1921 – but this collection was only put together by Persephone in 2001. In 1921, Katherine Mansfield, very ill with TB went to stay in a chalet in Montana, Switzerland for her health. This period became one of her most creative periods – and the pieces in this collection are presented chronologically – which is often such an interesting way to read a writer’s work. This collection contains short stories and unfinished fragments – and some extracts from her letters in the editorial notes at the back. The unfinished stories can be a little frustrating – though still beautiful to read. Some of these unfinished pieces end less abruptly and could be seen as having an ambiguous ending – other pieces end more suddenly. Many of the stories in this edition had been previously published in The Spectator – and illustrations that accompanied those stories are reproduced here too.

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With so many very short stories and fragments in this collection I am only to talk about three particular stories in any detail – but I really can’t stress how perfect every word of the whole collection is. What a truly gifted writer Katherine Mansfield was. Some other stories that will stay with me particularly are: Mr and Mrs Dove, Marriage á la Mode and A Cup of Tea, as well as the frustratingly unfinished A Married Man’s story.

In Bliss and other Stories (1920) – the collection opens with Prelude – a story still that is very memorable to me five years later. In that story we meet the Burnell family – perhaps that story is so memorable for me because it was my introduction to Katherine Mansfield. So, imagine my delight to find not one but two more stories in The Montana Stories featuring the Burnell family; At the Bay and The Doll’s House. One of the daughters of the Burnell family is Kezia – and I read something, somewhere online that suggests that Kezia is an autobiographical character, having little patience with conventional society rules. These two stories were perhaps not surprisingly among my favourites in the collection.

“As the morning lengthened whole parties appeared over the sand-hills and came down on the beach to bathe. It was understood that at eleven o’clock the women and children of the summer colony had the sea to themselves. First the women undressed, pulled on their bathing dresses and covered their heads in hideous caps like sponge bags; then the children were unbuttoned. The beach was strewn with little heaps of clothes and shoes; the big summer hats, with stones on them to keep them from blowing away, looked like immense shells. It was strange that even the sea seemed to sound differently when all those leaping, laughing figures ran into the waves.”
(At the Bay)

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In At the Bay, Stanley Burnell, Kezia’s father goes out for an early morning swim, then returns to the house for breakfast before leaving for work. When he leaves, the women and children – left behind – breathe a sigh of relief. Aunt Beryl talks coolly to a society woman, while Kezia’s mother daydreams the day away, her latest baby at her side – leaving the majority of the household tasks to be supervised by Kezia’s grandmother. It is a beautifully atmospheric story – suffused with a feeling of long, indolent sunny days, bathing, dreaming and talking the day away, until the time comes for the men to return.

In The Doll’s House the Burnell children are given a fabulous Doll’s House that is so large it has to sit outside the house in the garden. The house opens up to reveal tiny, beautifully furnished rooms, Kezia is particularly enchanted by a lamp. The children delight in telling the other children at school all about their doll’s house, Kezia’s older sister reserves the right to do the telling first, she is, after all, the eldest. They are permitted to bring their friends home to see it – a couple at a time, glorying in the envy and delight the other children have for it. However, they are not allowed to bring the Kelveys – who no one else ever associates with the Kelvey siblings either. No one knows who their father is – and their mother is the washerwoman. It is only Kezia who is made uncomfortable by such rules and dares to go against them.

“The hook at the side was stuck fast. Pat prised it open with his penknife, and the whole house swung back, and – there you were gasping at one and the same moment into the drawing-room and dining-room, the kitchen and two bedrooms. That is the way for a house to open! Why don’t all houses open like that? How much more exciting than peering through the slit of a door into a mean little hall with a hat stand and two umbrellas! That is – isn’t it? – what you long to know about a house when you put your hand on the knocker.”
(The Doll’s House)

Another of Katherine Mansfield’s most well-known stories in this collection, is The Garden Party – and this too is utterly masterful. The Sheridan family are preparing for their garden party. Daughter Laura has been put in charge of ensuring the marquee is put in the correct place, while her sister Jose tests the piano. Their mother has ordered masses of lilies and the girls are enchanted by the flowers. As the preparations near completion, the family learn that a working-class neighbour has been killed in an accident, leaving behind a wife and children. Laura thinks the party should be called off out of respect but neither her mother or sister agree. Later she is asked to take a basket of left-overs to the family. The Sheridan sisters also appear briefly in the story Her First Ball.

Persephone short story collections are always a hit with me – I’ve yet to read one that isn’t fabulous. This collection reminds me that I haven’t read nearly enough Katherine Mansfield – and I do have another collection waiting on my kindle.

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