“Ach, Tchekov! Why are you dead? Why can’t I talk to you in a big darkish room at late evening—where the light is green from the waving trees outside? I’d like to write a series of Heavens: that would be one.” — Katherine Mansfield
I have never spent much time studying one particular author, until this summer.
Authors were like acquaintances, people I’d meet and enjoy speaking with and then say goodbye to after some time.
But not Katherine Mansfield. She has been a friend, someone I’m getting to know better and better with each read and re-read of her stories. The more I know about her the more I want to know. A New Zealand writer who revolutionized the short story. A split personality. A voice crying out for balance and order in the wake of the “Great War.” I would love to speak with her.
But as Tchekov was not alive to talk with Mansfield in a “big darkish room at late evening,” so Mansfield is not alive to talk with me. Still, I have access to her notebooks and her letters, far more private information about her than I would be allowed to know if we were contemporaries.
And best of all, I get to write about her. I get to go through her written material like I’m a detective trying to find one shining clue about her that will suddenly clarify everything. I get to type it all up and try to make something coherent and comprehensive, but I wonder if it’s any use, if Mansfield will allow herself to be deciphered.
I keep going anyway. During the day when I need some fresh air, I walk around the Cité Universitaire campus, watching students sun themselves in the grass. I return to my room and attempt to write down whatever revelation I had while walking . After the sun goes down, with the window of my room open and the summer air sneaking in, I sit at my desk in the uncomfortable chair that’s far too high for the desk and continue my investigations.
I know it’s good for me to get out, to spend time out in the city not thinking about Katherine Mansfield at all. But it’s not really possible. When I do get out, I bring my notepad in case something occurs to me. I go to the Jardin des Plantes and take the 600-page Katherine Mansfield Notebooks: Complete Edition with me, sitting and writing down my observations as tourists photograph the flowers, as fathers on the bench next to me feed their babies orange mash.
I’ll never get to invite Mansfield for tea or coffee in my living room, but I like to think that if I did, I could show her what I’m writing and say, “am I on the right track?”
I don’t know her well enough yet to know whether she’d give me a straight answer. Then again I’m not sure anyone does.
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About the author
Rebekah Lee Mays is an American freelance travel writer who’s lived and worked in Europe for the past three years. Her fiction has been published in Hobart and the Forge Literary Magazine, and she currently studies literature and creative writing a few blocks from the Luxembourg Garden in Paris. You can follow her adventures on Twitter.