“These Russians”, Natasha Templeton

Katerina: The Russian World of Katherine Mansfield
Joanna Woods
Penguin, $39.95,
ISBN 0143018051

Manhattan. The buildings of Columbia merge into midwinter murk. I enter a warm cave of bookshelves. In the beam of a desk lamp, Rufus W Mathewson is studying the outline of my proposed thesis, “‘The-Child-Who-Was-Tired’: Katherine Mansfield’s version of Chekhov’s ‘Spat Khochetsya’”.

I can sense my supervisor’s displeasure. The fastidious reasoning of an Ivy League academic is expressed in the chill tones of a New England puritan. This topic will not do on two counts. It’s outside the scope of Russian literature. And then there is the question of ethics. Should one build an academic research project on a case of plagiarism?

Plagiarism? I haven’t mentioned the word. I wanted to explore the link between Chekhov and Mansfield. Relying on a migrant’s instinct, I thought of building a bridge to my adopted culture. But the professor is an authority on Chekhov, whom he describes as “a poet of murder and terror”. He admires Chekhov’s wisdom, modesty and absolute integrity. Defeated, and feeling unclean, I drive home down shimmering avenues. By the end of my thesis year, Kennedy will meet his assassin in Dallas.

That scene came back to me as I read Joanna Woods’s Katerina. Regret that I did not fight for my topic. At least Mathewson could have pointed out that I had stumbled onto a well-trodden path, that the debate started by two Columbia scholars in 1924 was still raging. In 1935, Eva Jacoubert wrote about Mansfield’s “borrowings”. In 1951, E M Almedingen savaged Mansfield in the TLS. In 1962, R Sutherland defended Mansfield in “Plagiarist, disciple or ardent admirer”. In 1963 Frank O’Connor described her as “a rapacious copyhound”.

The attacks must have been deeply offensive to Antony Alpers when he published his first Mansfield biography in 1953. Thirty years later, in his definitive Life, he wrote that “the supposed indebtedness of Katherine Mansfield to Anton Chekhov is shown, I believe, to be mostly an illusion”, and that Mansfield as the “English Chekhov” was Murry’s invention after her death.

The curious aspect of Alpers’ rejection of Chekhov is that he offers his own alternative influence: Theocritus, the Greek pastoral poet, born c310 BC. Mansfield wrote a pastiche of his XVth Idyll for the Coronation of George V; so she is supposed to have learnt “from Theocritus, and not from Chekhov, the method that she later made her own.” Discussing the pastoral opening to “At The Bay”,  Alpers comments that “The master here is Theocritus.”

If Alpers’ protectiveness reflects our own view of an enshrined genius who preserved our colonial heritage in her stories, it says more about our insularity than about Mansfield. It’s not too difficult to accept that Mansfield, the writer, was shaped by another culture. If her best writing sprang from her New Zealand roots, it was because she had discovered her true voice in reconstructions of childhood. She found a tune which suited her emotional range. Mansfield was a woman of the 20th century – the Russian century. I doubt she could have written her mature stories without her European experience, and without the Russian influence.

2

After the Alpers’ orthodoxy, it is liberating to read Katerina, a well-written, thoughtful biography with a new focus – the Russian world of Katherine Mansfield. Joanna Woods’s theme is Mansfield’s absorption with Russia. The evidence for this cultural love affair is so overwhelming that it is surprising no one in New Zealand has discussed it before. It is an important addition to Mansfield research. Yet even Woods is cautious about the plagiarism allegation, which has to some extent damaged Mansfield’s reputation in the West. It isn’t until the final chapter in her book that she mentions it, only to add that “no one in the Soviet Union bothered to read such stuff.”

The point I want to make is that Mansfield was not alone in her admiration for the Russians; all of literary London of her day was infected with the Russian fever. It was a ferment which stirred the capitals of Europe. Russian arts were in vogue. Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe stormed London in 1912, with Chagall’s sets for Petroushka. Russian avantgarde artists were exhibiting in Paris and Berlin. Devotees of the rage wore Russian fancy dress, smoked Sobranie cigarettes and addressed one another by Russian pet names. Vita Sackville-West and Violet Treffusis were “Russian” lovers. Lady Ottoline and Mansfield quoted War and Peace to each other. Mansfield also provided clever amusing parodies on Russian writing for the Garsington gatherings.

The Russian literary tsunami that engulfed the West resembled the rediscovery of classical writers which opened the Renaissance floodgates in 15th century Florence. Translations of Turgenev and Tolstoy, Chekhov’s stories and plays, and Dostoyevsky’s novels found an ardent and awed readership. They also read translations of letters and diaries. Well into the post-war 1950s, Dostoyevsky’s tortured talent mesmerised Sartre and Camus.

Virginia Woolf wrote: “These Russians! To write any fiction save theirs is a waste of time!” And Mansfield, in a letter, thanked the queen of translators, Constance Garnett, “for the whole other world that you have revealed to us through these marvellous translations from the Russian. These books have changed our lives, no less.” Translations of Russian authors were part of the publishing industry. Between 1916 and the mid-1920s, Garnett put out eight volumes of Chekhov’s stories. She competed with Koteliansky and his team of collaborators: Leonard Woolf, Murry and Mansfield, who polished Koteliansky’s English. All major literary periodicals printed reviews of Russian fiction. Mansfield wrote weekly reviews of Russian and other novels for The Athenaeum. Murry published a study of Dostoyevsky. Maurice Bowra translated Russian poets at Oxford. And after the 1917 October Revolution, a new political idealism was born in Cambridge, which would soon begin recruiting its apostles.

For Mansfield that stimulating age came to a shocking end in 1918. On her 30th birthday in October she received a death sentence. With treatment she might live four years at the outside. From then on, her life became a race against time: “How unbearable it would be to die – leave ‘scraps’, ‘bits’ … nothing real finished …” In July of that terrible year, “Prelude” was published; the first of her later New Zealand stories. The following year she worked with Koteliansky on Chekhov’s letters. In 1920, exiled to a warmer climate, Mansfield committed herself to writing. She produced  her best stories during the next three years. In January 1923, she died in the Fontainebleau commune of a Russian guru.

Mansfield’s indebtedness to Chekhov and other 19th century Russian writers is enormous and undeniable. Anyone with an intimate knowledge of their writing can find a host of affinities in her stories. Kezia kissing her grandmother under the chin is straight out of War and Peace: it’s Natasha in the bedtime ritual with her mother. “Je ne parle pas français” traces Dostoyevsky’s “underground man”. “Life of Ma Parker”, “An Ideal Family”, “Marriage à la Mode” are some of those with plots taken from Chekhov.

If T S Eliot’s idea that immature poets imitate and mature poets steal is applied to Mansfield’s work, “The-Child-Who-Was-Tired” is immature imitation rather than mature theft. But the later stories stand the test. An American critic wrote in 1921: “One has not read a page of Miss Mansfield’s book before one has said Chekhov, but one has not read two pages before Chekhov is forgotten.”

What matters ultimately is not the list of borrowings, but the quality of the work. Originality is an elusive concept, when all culture is a maze of imitations.

 

Natasha Templeton is a novelist living in Wellington.

 

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Posted in Biography, Literature, Non-fiction and Review
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