Though we customarily honor Katherine Mansfield for her craft, we too often let its mechanisms elude or escape us. Let us pay homage to Mansfield, then, by trying to be clear – a little bit clear anyway - not only about how her texts provoke, assuage, upset, and pacify but also about the way they are made as narrative structures. Two stories will do better than one, especially if they are very different.
First published in 1919, Mansfield's ironic and unforgiving tale "Je ne parle pas français" may strike us as galling and even cruel, certainly in comparison with the almost superhuman pathos of a tale like "Bliss," first published in 1918. If we read the stories in relation to each other, however – they were begun, by the way, less than two weeks apart, in late January and early February, 1918, respectively – we may be surprised by the kind of implicit dialogue they conduct, and in the process discover something precise about the way Mansfield's stories function, both as moral exercises and as narratological ones. Indeed, it may well be the case that narrative economy of the highest order – the kind of economy for which we customarily celebrate Mansfield's peculiar kind of genius - is the identity, or at least the parallelism, of the moral and the narratological. I will try to elaborate that identity or parallelism in Mansfield's work.
While "Bliss" is, of course, well known, "Je ne parle pas français" presents special and unexpected complexities. The story itself is simple enough: Raoul Duquette, a twenty-six-year-old French writer of astonishing pretension and surprising success, befriends a foreigner visiting Paris, an English writer named Dick Harmon. Raoul secures rooms in Paris for Dick on his next visit, which he makes in the company of a beautiful and delicate woman - his fiancée, as it turns out - who, at least by her own testimony, does not speak French; as she puts it, in the only line delivered in French in the story, "Je ne parle pas français." The kick of the tale comes when Dick deserts her, leaving behind a letter that she shares with Raoul, and with us, giving as the reason for Dick's desertion his mother's unwillingness to accept the match. The beautiful and delicate woman - she is given no proper name, only the generic nickname Mouse - is left desolate and alone in Paris, with only the dubious friendship of Raoul. But though Raoul promises to return on the morning after Dick's flight, he fails to do so. He announces his decision to us with a perverse pride in collapsing all decency of feeling - the kind of pride that marks his attitude toward everything in his derisive monologue, which is at one and the same time out of all whack with our customary sense of Mansfield and yet somehow peculiarly representative of certain impulses in her fiction.
The story's real tradition is not so much that of the reflexive or self-conscious récit –a story about writing a story, though it has sure elements of that – as it is of the bad or unpublished tale. The story is a sort of burlesque on both bad fiction and the pop mythology of the rakish aesthete which is among the very raw materials of the Parisian demimonde – the "submerged life," as Mansfield describes it - that the story represents. It particularly mocks the unsavory Raoul, against whose ugly nature we rather automatically react.
In what direction does the story's viciousness cut? Where is its irony to be located? Or to put it another way, where does its irony locate its reader?
One way of answering such a question is to say that what the reader knows in "Je ne parle pas français" are all the things that the story itself derides: an innate sense of compassion, a sense of human worth, a sense of human sharing. All the things that the pretentious narrator maintains are the case are not the case, cannot possibly be the case; all our decency says no. Central here is Raoul's notion that people are, as he puts it, like portmanteaux, or suitcases. "I don't believe in the human soul," says Raoul. "I never have, I believe that people are like portmanteaux - packed with certain things, started going, thrown about, tossed away, dumped down, lost and found, half emptied suddenly, or squeezed fatter than ever, until finally the Ultimate Porter swings them on to the Ultimate Train and away they rattle." Echoing E.M. Forster's indictment of modern life as the "civilization of luggage" in Howards End, of 1910, Raoul's metaphor reduces people to inhuman parcels, and their mortal care, or lack of it, to a kind of indifferent and haphazard registry.
Only such a cynical belief would allow for the callousness of Raoul's behavior, and yet it is a belief that is sustained throughout by a consistent if distasteful vision of how experience is structured. Raoul elaborates, through the logic of his figures of speech, an entire theory of character that is extraordinarily cogent from an abstract point of view.
"People are like portmanteaux," like pieces of luggage, devoid of innate or indwelling essence, because life, or at least our perception of it, is structured in or by a temporal chain whose functioning requires the contrast and comparison of what Raoul calls "moments" or "instants" one with another. "You never do recover the same thing you lose," says Raoul. "It's always a new thing. The moment it leaves you it's changed." While this may sound, on the one hand, like a lovely theory of the constant freshness of experience – and in some degree it is – it is, on the other hand, really a grindingly desperate theory of the evanescent flux of all things beneath our feet. Only by the play of relations, between one moment and another, or between one "habit" and another, can what we ordinarily call an essence or an absolute quality be established as such. The theory of signification implicit here is one familiar to structural linguistics under the name of difference, and to psychoanalysts under the name of deferred action, even though Mansfield's own vocabulary derives from the Romantic tradition of Walter Pater and his privileged moments, and, before him, of William Wordsworth and his "spots of time" in Book 12 of The Prelude. Raoul even explains, disparagingly though logically enough, that his bitterness against life is, as he puts it, the "direct result of the American cinema acting upon a weak mind" – that life is a function of the ideologies into which we are inscribed rather than of any indwelling sanctity it may be said to muster from beyond the bounds of culture. "Everything," says Raoul, "is arranged for you – waiting for you." Hence one's character is, from the ground up, a "pose," as Raoul puts it, which becomes a "habit"; even poor Dick doesn't just "look . . . the part," whatever part that may be; "he was the part."
Such a perspective deracinates all notions of authenticity, not just in the temperamental way we might expect of Raoul but in a seriously persuasive way no matter our moral evaluation of Raoul himself. Authenticity of self – or of world – is no more than a fiction, no less real for being so but surely less secure metaphysically. Indeed, self and world are, from Raoul's point of view, almost entirely without any metaphysical dimension whatsoever.
How far we are from the delectable universe of Bertha in "Bliss," where the human soul, as Mansfield puts it, has a "shower of little sparks coming from it." In Bertha's "bosom," says Mansfield, "there was still that bright glowing place." The difference could not be more exact; Bertha's tropes - "shower of sparks," "bright glowing place" – insist on a human essence, recalling Wordsworth's wishful image of the human spirit in the Intimations ode as well as a whole tradition of Platonic signs for the soul that stands behind it.
At the same time, though, "Bliss," too, is structured by irony. If "Je ne parle pas français" makes us feel, by dint of the reactive thinking irony classically induces as a rhetorical device, that just the reverse of its assertions is true – that there is a human soul, not just people as portmanteaux – then "Bliss" also requires an equal and opposite reaction: the feeling that despite its manifest claims, there is no Wordsworthian or Platonic "shower of sparks." In fact, poor Bertha is disabused of precisely the comforting notion that there is when her recognition of Harry's secret arrangement with Miss Fulton – an almost high-Victorian moment of knowledge, perhaps the reason Virginia Woolf felt obliged to criticize it – punctures her bliss at tale's end.
If in "Je ne parle pas français" the reader is all love and goodness, in "Bliss" the reader is all worldly guile and suspicion. The very first line of "Bliss" makes us prophets of contingency and caution; Bertha's pace is so breathless – like her running in the scenes she imagines – that we want to slow it down for fear she will fall and hurt herself, as she indeed does at the story's close. The story finds the suspicion in us by the force of its negation: "Although Bertha Young was thirty she still had moments like this when she wanted to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement, and to bowl a hoop, to throw something up in the air and catch it again, or to stand still and laugh at – nothing – at nothing, simply." By contrast, the opening lines of "Je ne parle pas français" fill us with the kind of gray rain we later associate with Jean Luc Godard's early hommages to film noir; the story finds the sunshine in us by the force of its negation: "I do not know why I have such a fancy for this little café. It's dirty and sad, sad. It's not as if it had anything to distinguish it from a hundred others – it hasn't."
In "Bliss," what the reader knows is that people are indeed like portmanteaux. Despite Bertha's radiant optimism, they do not wear their essences on their sleeves; their sleeves are packed away in boxes of signification – in portmanteaux like those Raoul describes – that are the rhetorical tokens by means of which narrative allows us to know them and by which it allows Bertha to know them through a painful education. Bertha's fatal blindness or innocence of vision is in reading her surroundings, her husband included, too straightforwardly, reading them as though there were no necessity for reading – until the secret is made so palpable as to shock her into her realization. In this sense the story is an allegory of reading, disabusing the reader as well as Bertha of the notion that the notion of a human essence – whether in life or in a story – is secure.
But in "Je ne parle pas français" what the reader knows is that people are not at all like portmanteaux; that is the tug of the heart against which the story works. We can go up and back like this all day. It is as though Bertha's wishes are fulfilled by the negation of Raoul's view of the world, and Raoul's wishes fulfilled by the negation of Bertha's view of the world. This kind of dialogical play between the two stories is endless. But how can both these claims be true? How can the reaction prompted by one tale be the opposite of that produced by the other? How can one writer exhibit so discordant, so internally divergent a sense of what we ordinarily call character? How can Bertha's naïve Platonism give way to a darker sense of the instability of essences, while Raoul's nasty sense of the instability of essences give way to a brighter, perhaps even genuinely Platonic, sense of the real stability of essences?
Well, if each reaction produces its opposite in the play of the reader's mind, it is likely the case that each category in fact needs the other to be what is. Both can be true at the same time because each claim – so Mansfield's epistemology goes – needs the other for what coherence each may be said to have. One is reminded of Harold Bloom's paradox that if God created the world out of nothing, then he must have created the void at the same time that he created the world. In a curious but implacable logic, Raoul's irony requires its violation by a duplicitous world. Each notion of character depends for its sense upon the other.
In both cases, too, what is dramatized is not so much discordance as the calculated disposition of the structuring trope of irony in a very precise sense: the enactment of the reverse of what is narrated in what the reader knows rather than in what the character shows or tells. Each story represents a falling away from the state that it names. "Bliss" is so named because that is not what the story transacts – not bliss but its sudden opposite. "Je ne parle pas français" is so named because what the story does is speak French, even while announcing that it does not.
Speak French, even while announcing that it does not. Mansfield thereby gives us a wonderfully appropriate figure for the operation that is responsible for what the reader knows. Recall that in the Parisian story the words spoken by the fiancée – "Je ne parle pas français" – are the only words spoken in French in a story that, by all logical implication and necessity, must of course be written in French. It is, after all, a story by the French writer Raoul Duquette, even though it is of course written in English, since it is really a story by the Anglophone writer Katherine Mansfield.
The real but absent text of "Je ne parle pas français" – the French one – is, I would argue, a sign or cipher for the structure of Mansfield's reader, in whom resides the necessary illusion of a French text that finds its prior cause in Mansfield's English text. A French text is what the reader ultimately presumes – a text that exists nowhere but that has to exist everywhere if Mansfield's story is to sustain its illusion. The French one must be supposed: the real text that is missing, that has somehow been translated but that "retains" – the very word choice conveys the sense that there really is a French text – an aura of presence, like the one that attends the Greek whose authoritative absence Virginia Woolf will similarly lament, in a different context, some six years later.
For Mansfield, moreover, the importance of the reader's activity cannot be overestimated. It is the reader that is the instrument or channel supplementing what is lacking in both texts. The reader is a kind of supplemental intersection between the text and the characters that it pretends, as part of its strategy, to be separate from, merely transcribing their self-sufficient essence, even though, as with all literary figures – as distinct from what we call historical ones – there are, strictly speaking, no such originals in fact. Bertha, Raoul, Harry, Mouse, even the Norman Knights, who humorously enough invade Bertha's home in "Bliss" – these are all figures in the reader's mind. They are the result of the work the reader does to exact from the text a stable illusion of character, which exists nowhere but in the reader's apprehension. By this unconscious work on the reader's part, the story takes on what mimetic attributes it may have, the result, not of an unmediated mimesis, but of Mansfield's technique of writing, and of writing her real text – her French one – through the orchestrated play of her reader's moral assumptions.
After all, narrative at large – and Mansfield in particular – constructs readers and, through them, worlds; it does not express, through a discourse of simple correspondence, characters that it projects as real and with whom the reader, as the saying goes, identifies. Rather, narrative opposes, through a discourse of transaction, the image of characters against whom the reader measures himself or herself. It is this revisionary ratio – the one between the reader and the subjective others he or she confronts in the narrative – that structures what the reader knows, and it is here that narrative finds its true destination.
What makes Mansfield so special, then, is the precision with which she both exploits this ratio and clarifies its nature as the active pivot or mechanism of the art of fiction. She shares with some of her contemporaries – D.H. Lawrence and Wyndham Lewis especially – an identifiable Modernist strategy of alienating her reader in calculated and specific ways. The difference, however, is that Mansfield's technique is finally a conservative one that exploits the reader's unconscious and its assumptions rather than upbraids them.
Originally published in Centennial Essays on Katherine Mansfield. Ed. Roger Robinson. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.