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Blissful reading

Selected Stories - Katherine Mansfield

Mansfield was revered to the point of envy as a writer by Virginia Woolf. Her stories are written in a distinctive style, somehow spare and yet lush, usually accessible and emotionally charged, with extraordinary characters, often so well realised that they take up residence in the reader's consciousness. I read this as I began my solitary travels in Brazil, and Kezia followed me everywhere through those months; her longing for her grandmother's unconditional love and the security of her embraces reflected my constant mindfulness of my family and especially my mother's concern for my safety.

However, the genius of these stories goes much deeper than aesthetic success and emotional resonance. They are innovative, form-breaking and rich in critical thought.The Aloe and Prelude critique the subjugation of women by the construction of their sexuality and roles, both through the characters thoughts, and structurally, by refusing the climax/resolution structure of traditional narrative. Rather they are excerpts from a fluid cycle incorporating moments of ecstatic pleasure and self-awareness/development.

Mansfield's use of momentary 'bliss' (one of her stories has this title, and actually explicitly discusses the self-engulfing state of bliss) is more sophisticated than the naive aestheticism of Wilde (maybe I should say his disciples rather than slander an important writer): it affirms the inexpressible pleasure of being alive, drawing the reader directly into the immediacy of the ecstatic moment, but it goes on to develop the feeling in relation to dramatic irony and other pleasures-of-reading. It reflects Barthes' concept of pleasure-as-suspension, in which ecstatic moments have a subversive function, shrugging off attempts to appropriate them to serve restrictive constructions of identity such as gender.

Commentators have pointed out that Mansfield is part of the innovative strain of modernism that shortened the unit of time in fiction from the year (in every pre-twentieth century novel, every traditional novel) to the day, allowing for a focus on the epiphany, the 'one blazing moment' in Mansfield's words, which she said allows us to 'appreciate the importance of one "spiritual event" rather than another'. This helps explain why short story form has been a playground for innovative writers since Mansfield, Woolf, Joyce, Lawrence etc.