Kirsty Gunn: The wonder to be found in Katherine Mansfield’s letters

The letters of Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) would have a major impact on any writer (Picture: Keystone/Getty Images)
The letters of Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) would have a major impact on any writer (Picture: Keystone/Getty Images)
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I was in London last week listening to Ali Smith talk about Katherine Mansfield. Now that’s a lovely sentence to write.

Because as we know, listening to Ali talk is one of literary life’s great pleasures. And listening to her talk about a writer whose work is as imprinted upon my own heart and mind as much as any other experience that has gone into making me who I am ... well, you might just say it was one of those gorgeous all-of-your-birthdays-coming-all-at once moments. The candles on the cake lit up and you can’t possibly blow them out. Ali Smith was in the room and she was on fire.

Her talk, hosted by the Katherine Mansfield International Society, was part of a terrific two-day conference about the New Zealand-born short story writer of classics such as “Prelude” and “The Doll’s House” and representative of an ongoing project, comprising lectures and symposia and a publishing initiative with Edinburgh University Press, to bring the author’s life and work more fully into the centre of British letters. The society was established exactly ten years ago by Gerri Kimber, the scholar and critic who, with colleagues and fellow writers, was determined to extend the reputation of a writer whose contribution to English language fiction had, until then, gone largely unmarked outside her native country and France. It was at that inaugural conference that I first met Vincent O’Sullivan, one of the world’s greatest Mansfield scholars, who, along with Margaret Scott, was an early forerunner in the entire KM studies game, having co-edited the Complete Letters of Katherine Mansfield for Oxford University Press that Ali said sit upon her desk in all their five-volume, yellow-bound splendour. I keep thinking about those letters. The weight of them. The impact they might make upon a writer ...

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I remember it was one of the things Ali and I talked about when she and I first met, how we had that in common, a great respect and need for the formidable wall of scholarship lined up in chronological order, Numbers One to Five, that we both have sitting above our computers on a shelf in the room where we write. How they open up our sense of what writing can be, those pages and pages of communication from a writer to her friends and family and world, that we may use them to look about us with a greater sense of wonder and astonishment and sense of possibility. Indeed, that word “possible”, Ali showed us in her talk, makes anything possible. Just look how many times the word appears in one sentence. She took up one letter, written late in Mansfield’s short life, when she was hard up against the clock and knew she was dying, and had us see, in her close reading of it, how the writing of that letter was like the creation of a living thing, a making of something that hadn’t existed before that was now generating, on its own, something new, a bare branch giving out a leaf of green. Look!, the writing says, look! It’s as though at the point of pen to paper life is fused to the page and takes root – not only, In Mansfield’s case, carrying the possibility of her not dying, not now, not so young, but not dying at all, but of having created something that will still be here, putting out fresh ideas, bringing in new readers, when we are not. It’s all “possible, possible”, Ali showed us, in her 100-miles-a-minute and unspeakably merry way – that demonstrates at every turn such thought and erudition and learning that is always so lightly worn – leaning happily on the podium as she read and talked and waggled her fingers in the air. “I speak quickly,” she told us at the beginning of her hour-long lecture that spun by in a delicious whirl of biography, close reading, memoir, confession and story. “Let me.”

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Is this why her own work crackles so with life and urgency, I wonder? Because she has so much to say and such a sense that there’s not that much time in which to say it? Her latest project, a quartet of novels that are written almost at the point of contact of the life they are being written about, tells us that it must be now – now! — that we read and think and respond and read again. Because it does, she is telling us, it really does need to be written and said, this present life of ours, and in this present tense. The world is responded to as it is crashing down around us and in this second, this minute. So a year becomes a year in four novels. First Autumn, then Winter. One can almost hear the clock ticking at her back. “Let me...” she said at the conference. And it was a wonderful thing to say. Reminding us not only of the press of her own thoughts but that we all of us might be aware, too, of allowing each other, letting each other. Do things in our own way, at our own speed. Giving each other space and room to speak and be.

That lovely word “felicity” comes to mind. “Let me...” Everybody settled back into their seat and knew we were in for 60 minutes of education, plain talk and word spinning – of the sort that only one of Scotland’s finest writers can magic up out of the air.

To be at the conference and in time for another talk I was giving about fiction and, yes, felicity – it’s true, it’s a word that’s on my mind – I drove down from Caithness to London in one fell swoop. A day beginning with a run on the lawn with my sister’s dogs and cats in Dunbeath in the early morning light and finishing at dusk in London, the traffic banking up as I came in off the M40. I played Wagner’s Gotterdammerung, the last terrible and beautiful twilight of the gods opera that is the completion of Wagner’s mighty Ring Cycle, for most of the way down through Scotland and then fell silent as the miles flicked by beneath my wheels. I’ll drive back in the same way this week listening to the opera that precedes it, “Siegfried”, and I‘ll have our own dogs with me this time, so may have to turn the music down a little. One of them is still just a puppy. Even so – music, art, time. Animals and humans and everything we love. There’s a connection here, in the way words bring us to life.