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Mansfield and Me: A Graphic Memoir by Sarah Laing - book review

Frank Sargeson reckoned she led “everyone down the garden path”, but Katherine Mansfield continues to inspire other New Zealand writers, the latest being graphic novelist Sarah Laing.

Katherine Mansfield “has that essential quality New Zealanders love”.

She’s been dead for almost a century. She left New Zealand in 1908, when she was still a teenager, and never returned. Many of us know her name but haven’t read her stories: the fame is the thing. So why are we still obsessed with Katherine Mansfield?

In Ashleigh Young’s new essay collection Can You Tolerate This?, the author recalls working at the Mansfield Birthplace in Wellington, where visitors would speak of Mansfield’s life “with admiration, and then confess to me as they left the house, ‘I’ve never actually read any of her stuff. I should.’” Sarah Laing, author of a new graphic memoir, Mansfield and Me, suggests that Mansfield “has that essential quality New Zealanders love – she has been internationally endorsed”. We “often don’t believe we’re any good unless People Overseas tell us we are”.

It’s hard not to see Mansfield’s life and international reputation as the big draw for many locals, rather than her shape-shifting and often audacious short stories. So many of us know the plot points of her life: the flight from “narrow, sodden, mean” Wellington, the flings with women and men in London; a first marriage of convenience; STDs and a miscarriage; the fraught partnership with the plodding John Middleton Murry; the death of her beloved brother during the war; TB; Bloomsbury; France; Gurdjieff; the final, fatal dash up the stairs.

The Mansfield Birthplace is just the birthplace, a place the family left when she was still a small child, with only a few sticks of original furniture. The important thing is that Katherine Was Here, though her name wasn’t even Katherine then.

Frank Sargeson in 1927. Photo/Alexander Turnbull/1/2-079007-F

The flip side of hero worship in this country is, of course, tall-poppyish carping. “Our Kathie has had a bad influence on people who try to write out here,” Frank Sargeson complained to his London publisher in 1939. “Our kicking-off point should have been something resembling Huckleberry Finn – our material is somewhat similar to Twain’s. But Kathie, who should have been born in England and only come out here on comfortably conducted tours, has led practically everyone down the garden path.”

“You can see why Sargeson had to downsize Mansfield,” says Vincent O’Sullivan, our pre-eminent Mansfield scholar, who was once warned by Sargeson not to waste his energy on “the dreams of a Karori schoolgirl”. Sargeson “needn’t have worried as he did, but at the time it seemed there wasn’t room for more than one on the top shelf”.

New Mansfield scholarship continues to clutter that top shelf. Otago University Press in association with Edinburgh University Press recently published a finely transcribed edition of Mansfield’s The Urewera Notebook, comprising the notes, letters and diary entries written during the writer’s 1907 camping tour of the central North Island shortly before she left New Zealand, edited by Anna Plumridge.

This will be followed at Christmas by OUP’s The Collected Poems of Katherine Mansfield, including 26 discovered by co-editor Gerri Kimber in the Newberry Library in Chicago last year. Historian Redmer Yska is working on a book about Mansfield’s early Wellington years and the influence of the city of her birth on her later writing.

Every year, Edinburgh University Press brings out a new volume of Katherine Mansfield Studies: this year the theme is Mansfield and Psychology, bringing together a number of essays (I contributed a re-visioning of “The Garden Party” set in contemporary Mt Roskill) that position Mansfield’s work in the literary and psychoanalytical milieu of the time.

Bill Manhire (whose 1988 novella The Brain of Katherine Mansfield is included in last year’s The Stories of Bill Manhire), Witi Ihimaera, Janet Frame, Patricia Grace, Lloyd Jones, Ian Wedde, Rachel McAlpine, Fleur Adcock, Marilyn Duckworth – there’s a long tradition of glancing off the legacy of “our” K-Em. Too much Mansfield?

No, says O’Sullivan, who argues she’s “a great writer who is greatly admired”. At times, he concedes, there’s “too much buzz and chatter among those who believe there is something to gain by jostling among the train-bearers. But there are still things to be said about her that are worth hearing. More importantly, for some writers at least, she runs an ongoing creative writing course that is worth attending.”

Mansfield is more than just a writing role model for these writers: often it’s her life that inspires, warns or instructs. In Thorndon: Wellington and Home: My Katherine Mansfield Project (BWB Texts, 2014), Kirsty Gunn writes superbly of the restless impulses she experienced as a girl and an intense identification with Mansfield’s physical flight and imaginative return and with the tussle of belonging to two places at once.

Sarah Laing. Photo/Grant Maiden

As a dreamy teenager with nothing but “imagination and reading”, Gunn had followed Mansfield’s example and yearned to escape the “raw hills and crashing empty water beyond them that washed across miles and miles of nothing to break upon a faraway shore. Of course I’d had to leave. Of course I’d had to say, ‘I’ll not be back.’” Flying from her home in London in 2009 to take up the Randell Cottage Residency back in Wellington, Gunn initially had the same extreme reaction as Mansfield: “that you only get the one by not having the other … There could be no city of in-between.” But by the end of her tenure she sees “the streets of both cities running parallel in my mind”, and has a deeper understanding of Mansfield’s late embrace, in her letters and stories, of the place she was from.

Gunn’s “personal relationship with Mansfield” impressed Sarah Laing when she was working on the witty and revealing Mansfield and Me. “But she wasn’t the only one. So many people have come up to me to tell me that Mansfield was their dear friend or that they felt a deep connection with her. She is that kind of curious figure who people feel they have a personal connection with. Maybe it’s because we get to read all her diaries – a stolen intimacy, because John Middleton Murry was supposed to destroy them all.”

Laing’s memoir begins with the question: “When did I add Katherine Mansfield to my list of fascinating people? People I might become if I obsessed about them enough?” Like Laing’s other teen crushes – Madonna, Morrissey, Frida Kahlo and “Sparrow from Minsk” gymnast Olga Korbut – Mansfield was someone “who fuelled my desire for greatness”.

Unlike Gunn, Laing felt more haunted than befriended by Mansfield. “The myth of Katherine Mansfield had been instilled in me very early on. We’d been on the big pilgrimage [to the Mansfield birthplace] at school, and my grandmother and great-aunts all had stories.” For Laing, it wasn’t the work but the “image of the sexy, international writer I wanted to be” that appealed. “Janet Frame or Patricia Grace had more power over me at school – Potiki and Mutuwhenua had a big impact. But Mansfield had that European acceptance, that thing I’m still striving for, and that makes her so iconic.”

Laing was drawing comics “as a procrastination device” while writing another book when Mansfield “started photo-bombing” the pages. “I have quite an inferiority complex when it comes to her,” Laing says, recalling Mansfield in her red tights as the epitome of the glam cool-crowd writer, a punk before her time. “She wore lipstick and perfume. She was always putting on costumes. She didn’t present herself as an upper-class woman. She also had a real potty mouth, swearing and telling dirty jokes.”

In Mansfield and Me, Laing explores Mansfield’s life story in tandem with her own: the sexual experimentation, the desire to live and write overseas, the health struggles, the steps towards publication. Sometimes poignant, sometimes funny and fresh, sometimes a stretch, but always compelling and honest. (“I have the impulse to disclose everything,” Laing admits, “and then regret it.”)

As O’Sullivan says, Mansfield is “a writer who continues to fascinate and hold and freshly attract a range of readers. It’s not because she’s ‘famous’ in some glitzy celebrity way, but because her writing, whether in stories or letters or notebooks, is so good, and in what she does well, few have done better.”

But it’s precisely Mansfield’s super-sized literary fame, and Laing’s desire for a piece of it, that the memoir explores – less Laing’s connection with that Karori schoolgirl, more her sense of disconnection from Mansfield’s success and acceptance overseas.

Facing up to Mansfield, she says, is part of “battling my obsession with celebrity culture, my madly ambitious dreams. I wanted for myself to find some peace with that, to let it go. I’ve been brainwashed as an 80s child. Everyone’s a special snowflake! I watched too many music videos. I was the child of a baby boomer – anything is possible! Reach for your dreams! That’s bullshit.”

For Laing, this book – her first full-length graphic work – is about “trying to return to the roots of why we make things, why we tell stories”. In making the book – from pencil sketches through to watercolours to shaping the narrative – Laing rediscovered the joy Mansfield herself experienced of “making stories”. Making art rather than myth had to be the source of pleasure. “I have to remind myself of that,” says Laing, “and get over my obsession with this dazzling author.”

MANSFIELD AND ME: A GRAPHIC MEMOIR, by Sarah Laing (Victoria University Press, $35), available from October 13

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