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Launching Katherine Mansfield's Europe

Thursday 4 May 2023 2:58pm

On May 2, We launched Katherine Mansfield’s Europe: Station to Station by Redmer Yska at the National Library in Wellington. The book was launched for us by the wonderful Fiona Kidman. It was a fantastic celebration of Redmer Yska’s work, Katherine Mansfield and this gorgeous new book. Thank you to the National Library of New Zealand and the Friends of the Turnbull Library for hosting us and for helping us put this celebration together. And thank you to our friends at Unity Books Wellington for running a bookstall for us and to Fiona Kidman for launching the book.

Here's the wonderful speech that Fiona Kidman gave at the launch:

'Many of you will have read and loved Redmer Yska’s A Strange Beautiful Excitement, that wonderful evocation of Katherine Mansfield’s early life in Aotearoa, in Thorndon and Karori in particular, taking readers to around 1903. That life was rich but there was so much more to come, that strange almost mystical and certainly mythical life that Mansfield would live until her death, twenty years later. That life was lived partly in England among the Bloomsbury set, much of it in Europe. In Redmer’s new book, Katherine Mansfield’s Europe: Station to Station, you will find a close account of those Continental years.

For myself, I look every time I’m in the inner city at the stately elegant sculpture of Katherine Mansfield in Midland Park, her skirt littered with letters, often surrounded by camera toting tourists, a child sometimes having their picture taken as they hold her hand. Is this the true Katherine Mansfield? Or is this Wellington’s original wild child?

The answer is surely both, although it may be, that with our contemporary reverence for Mansfield, or Katherine as Redmer calls her, we overlook the madcap side of the writer, what Bess Manson has described in a recent Post article, after reading Station to station, as ‘a chain-smoking, gunslinging, drug-taking, card-playing writer on a desperate bid to outrun the illness that was slowing consuming her; a writer of luminous talent, a woman prone to obsession.’

So it’s a new and beautiful excitement of a story, picked up by Redmer as he takes us on a journey around the Europe that Mansfield travelled by train, stopping and living for periods in different towns and countries, ravaged by her illness in the latter years. Its told in this absolutely gorgeous book, a breath taking read, most beautifully produced book by Otago University Press, illuminated by wonderful illustrations. Redmer has followed in her footsteps with the aid of Mansfield’s letters and journals. He relates too how he followed the trail of a 1940s book called Katherine Mansfield’s Secret Drama, written by a Frenchman, Roland Merlin, a kind of guidebook to her life. It is, Redmer says, highly romanticised, part literary journalism, part fiction, but nevertheless providing a useful key to unravelling and decoding unexplained mysteries. Merlin had had the benefit of interviewing many otherwise unknown sources who had known Mansfield in the undeclared spaces in her life.

As Redmer tells us, Katherine Mansfield’s many biographers have written at length about her impact on English literature and those Bloomsbury friends, and the way she made such a distinctive contribution to modernism in the early 20th century. But little in depth analysis has been made of those various destinations on the Continent, finding inspiration for her writing, at the same time searching with increasingly frantic determination to find a cure for her tuberculosis. At that time, tuberculosis was an almost certain death sentence. Aided by a generous allowance from her father, Sir Harold Beauchamp, Katherine became used to crossing the Channel, leaping on and off the trains that served the vast network snaking across the Continent. Her voyaging deep into Europe, begun when she was a teenager, never stopped.

Nor, as Redmer tells us, have we learned much about her startling celebrity in interwar France, her iron grip, as he calls it, on its subconscious. This new book addresses these silences. In his words,
Station to station is part homage, part pursuit: an attempt to pick up and follow Katherine’s footsteps through what he calls ‘the tobacco-stained cafés, brasseries, fish markets, hotel lobbies, cake shops, slimy quaysides, train tracks and public gardens she once frequented.‘

But more than that, its also Redmer’s own personal story as he follows these footsteps, never intrusive on his main pursuit, but he’s always there, with an inquiring, sharp eye, a tenderness for his subject and a sense of humour that often comes into play. With him, we track Katherine Mansfield, station to station, from Bavaria and Bad Wörishofen, to Paris and Gray, from Bandol on the Côte d’Azur and back to Paris, from Paris to San Remo, from Ospedaletti to Menton and back, inexorably to Paris, from Paris to Switzerland where some of her fine late work was written, stories like ‘At the Bay’ and ‘A Married Man’s Story’, then Paris again, before that last fateful journey from which she would never return, to Fontainebleau.

The book begins and ends in Fontainebleau, at Katherine’s graveside. Redmer is in the company of Bernard Bosque, Mansfield’s guardian spirit in France. I’d met Bernard in 2006 when I was on tour with a group of New Zealand writers being hosted by the French government. Our group had come to plant wild cherry saplings in a forest grove where Mansfield is commemorated by local woodsmen, with a memorial rock, and the cherry trees. Bernard, a local identity, had been assigned as our guide. He was dressed for the occasion, a living work of art that day, dressed in green corduroy pants, a brown waistcoat beneath a green herringbone jacket and tall brown boots. A yellow orchid buttonhole the size of a posy was pinned to his coat.’ Bernard and I corresponded for some years after this first meeting, so I was happy when I was able to offer his and Redmer’s names to each other. It was Bernard then, who first led Redmer to the rock in the forest one afternoon in 2017. Bernard also maintains Katherine’s tomb at nearby Avon, and shows visiting New Zealanders, the Gurdjieff Institute where Katherine died. Or did she die there? A rumour has persisted that she didn’t die there at all, and it was among Redmer’s many tasks to track down the source of that story. Was it true? You will have to read the book to find out. It was just one of the idiosyncratic journeys he was about to embark on in the company of Bernard and the Bosque family

So Redmer’s journeys took him, with the Bosque family and on his own, where ever Katherine had been. As he says of her travels, “ the personal cost of that hunger for movement proved high. Increasingly her world became a succession of hotel rooms, her life spread out across three black tin trunks. She’d unpack her folding bookstand and dig out the books, a black Japanese fan and, later on, her trusty revolver (likely a walnut-handled Smith and Wesson .32). She’d unfurl her travelling photo folder in leather with silk lining, laying her ‘old wild jackal skin over the counterpane’. By the time she turned 30 in 1918, as war ended and her
health failed, she kept returning to Europe for longer stays to write and convalesce, drawn to the warmer Riviera and pristine air of the Alps. ‘ Somehow, through Redmer’s experience, we are caught in Katherine’s, a magical performance on his part.

Perhaps this roving lifestyle with its drama, its personal odysseys, Katherine’s fraught marriage to John Middleton Murry, her delicate beauty, at least in earlier days, contributed to the unfurling enormous reputation and adoration she had among the French. French readers, in my experience, have a different attitude to writers, a reverence that is not experienced as a rule by English language writers. There is an engagement with the word, and with text, that we find remarkable. And of course in Mansfield’s case, it was superb writing that would outlast the dramas of her life. It’s quality was recognised for what it was.

This book totally enthralled me, it is captivating, brilliant, sad, and sometimes very funny.