I have only ever read one of Katherine Mansfield’s short stories – The Garden Party – and I read it almost a decade ago. All this time later, I can still remember the closing lines word-for-word, and the indescribable emotion that it raised in me.
While reading her journal recently, I have experienced another moment of literary haunting, from a writer who seems to speak to you directly through the ages.
“O you who come after me…”
Hair raised on my arms and the back of my neck, as if I had been watching this long-dead woman in solitary work over her notebook, thinking myself an unseen observer, and she had suddenly lifted her head and looked me directly in the eye and somehow recognised me…
December 17th, 1919:
“I’d like to write my books and spend some happy time with J. … and see L. in a sunny place and pick violets – all kinds of flowers. I’d like to do heaps of things, really. But I don’t mind if I do not do them. … Honesty (why?) is the only thing one seems to prize beyond life, love, death, everything. It alone remaineth. O you who come after me, will you believe it? At the end truth is the only thing worth having: it’s more thrilling than love, more joyful and more passionate. It simply cannot fail. All else fails. I, at any rate, give the remainder of my life to it and it alone.”
“The waves, as I drove home this afternoon, and the high foam, how it was suspended in the air before it fell…. What is it that happens in that moment of suspension? It is timeless. In that moment (what do I mean?) the whole life of the soul is contained. One is flung up – out of life – one is ‘held’, and then, – down, bright, broken, glittering on to the rocks, tossed back, part of the ebb and flow.
I don’t want to be sentimental. But while one hangs, suspended in the air, held – while I watched the spray, I was conscious for life of the white sky with a web of torn grey over it; of the slipping, sliding, slithering sea; of the dark woods blotted against the cape; of the flowers on the tree I was passing; and more – of a huge cavern where my selves (who were like ancient sea-weed gatherers) mumbled, indifferent and intimate… and this other self apart in the carriage, grasping the cold knob of her umbrella, thinking of a ship, of ropes stiffened with white paint and the wet, flapping oilskins of sailors…. Shall one ever be at peace with oneself? Ever quiet and uninterrupted – without pain – with the one whom one loves under the same roof? Is it too much to ask?”
October 10th, 1922:
“Now, Katherine, what do you mean by health? And what do you want it for?
Answer: By health I mean the power to live a full, adult, living, breathing life in close contact with what I love – the earth and the wonders thereof – the sea – the sun. All that we mean when we speak of the external world. I want to enter into it, to be part of it, to live in it, to learn from it, to lose all that is superficial and acquired in me and to become a conscious direct human being. I want, by understanding myself, to understand others. I want to be all that I am capable of becoming so that I may be (and here I have stopped and waited and waited and it’s no good – there’s only one phrase that will do) a child of the sun.
[...] Then I want to work. At what? I want so to live that I work with my hands and my feeling and my brain. I want a garden, a small house, grass, animals, books, pictures, music. And out of this, the expression of this, I want to be writing.
[...] But warm, eager, living life – to be rooted in life – to learn, to desire to know, to feel, to think, to act. That is what I want. And nothing less. That is what I must try for.”