Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Shout from Copenhagen, Thomas E. Kennedy


In 1961, in a short story anthology, I read a short-short entitled "Miss Brill." It was about an old vulnerable woman whose joy of life is destroyed by two thoughtless young people. The story, by turns, filled me with sorrow and fury. I was furious at the author for what, I thought, she had gratuitously subjected this vulnerable old woman to. I had not yet learned the difference between a human being and a fictional character or a real occurrence and a dramatic one. Thus, I believed that the author of the story was responsible for the old woman's pain. I was seventeen years old and decided to marshal all my linguistic powers to write a scathing letter to the author, Katherine Mansfield, to convince her that she should top abusing helpless old women.

Reviewing the bio notes at the back of the book, I learned that Katherine Mansfield was beyond scolding, for she had been dead for some forty years. So the author was dead but her character was still sufficiently alive to upset me. Her pain had been immortalized by the power of Katherine Mansfield. It was as though she had reached out of the grave and into my teenaged heart. This was a power that I wanted to make my own – so I decided, on the spot, to become a writer, a decision I have followed ever since.

This year, 47 years later, the brilliant expatriate writer Linda Lappin – American by birth, living in Italy for many years – has published a novel based upon the life of Katherine Mansfield, from the focus of the final period of her life, dying of tuberculosis in France. It is a beautiful novel which presents a moving, insightful portrait of this brilliant New Zealand writer who lived a mere thirty-five years and produced a body of stories capable of reaching into the human heart and changing people, making them feel. Mansfield may have immortalized her characters, but Linda Lappin has immortalized Katherine Mansfield in this novel about her final years.

My colleague, friend, and frequent collaborator, Walter Cummins ( has written a review of Linda Lappin's novel which appears in the current issue of The Literary Review (Vol 52, No 1), published by Fairleigh Dickinson University. I have been given permission to reprint that review here, which I do so with pleasure because I find it concisely and beautifully discusses a beautiful, powerful novel which I hereby recommend as I do Linda Lappin's other remarkable, powerful writings (; and, for anyone who might not be aware of it, Mansfield's work as well which, influenced by Chekov, has been powerfully influential itself ever since.

Linda Lappin. Katherine's Wish. La Grande, Oregon: Wordcraft of Oregon, 2008.
A review by Walter Cummins (reprinted from The Literary Review)

"The more Katherine Mansfield approaches death, the more she comes to life in Linda Lappin's Katherine's Wish. That's not to say that she isn't a vivid character from the very first paragraphs of the novel, in 1918, on a train pulling its way through a blizzard, trapped in a compartment "pervaded by the sickening smell of mothballs, perspiration, and wet galoshes," taking "short, tremulous breaths to keep herself from coughing." This initial image of her in a coffin-like carriage on a frantic journey to Mediterranean sun, in pain, immersed in white embodies her condition and the struggles she will face throughout the next four years in a desperate and futile effort to stay alive.

"Many luminaries populate the novel, from D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf to the more rarified characters, such as Chekhov translator S.S. Koreliansky, Lady Ottoline, and P.D. Ousepensky, along with Katherine's intimates, her wealthy, distant father, Ida Constance Baker, her smitten, service companion since childhood, her self-absorbed, philandering husband, John Middleton Murry, and his mistresses.

"Lappin spent nearly two decades researching and writing Katherine's Wish, as evidenced by the consequent specificity and vivid details. The interiors of the many rooms and the exteriors of the many landscapes are described with a cinematic richness: "This cool, wet August had plumped the blackberries on the bushes along the garden wall. She could almost taste their tartness with her eyes, but the leaves of the willows were edged in brown . . ." This is hardly a typical costume drama, decorated with dusty artifacts and burdened by the mythology of its famous protagonists.

"Of particular note is Lappin's ability to create original portrayals of Woolf and Lawrence, a fresh way of seeing people whose identities are almost clichés, as in this meeting between Mansfield and Woolf:

"'Conversations with Virginia were agonizingly slow to ignite. One had to break through the cocoon of isolation Virginia spun around herself, with her perfect demeanor, her flawless chitchat, even those ludicrous hats and dresses she wore were a deterrent to keeping others from coming too close.'

"But most crucial is the evocation of Katherine's consumption, the painful stages of her dying, her struggles for survival, her growing debilitation. Lappin reveals the spots on the lungs, the dysentery and fevers, the "ominous heaving rumble" of her coughing. Ultimately, she makes readers care about a writer dead for more than eighty years, and share Katherine's own wish that she could live forever. Lappin's achievement is to succeed where medicine failed and, through her words, give Katherine Mansfield ongoing life."

Greetings from this ancient kingdom!
Thomas E. Kennedy

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