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Katherine Mansfield and Anton Chekhov

July 23, 2011

I love books – I have all my life. Even with the pervasiveness of work, social engagements and TV I still manage to read two books a month. Asked who would I like to resurrect from the writers from the past I would have to say amongst the many writers I love, I adore the 19th century Russian writer Anton Chekhov (1860-1904)

At fifteen I stumbled on Chekhov when I was reading the short stories of Katherine Mansfield the famous New Zealand short story writer who died in France 1923. I went to boarding school in Wellington near Tinakori Road where Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp, the real name of Katherine Mansfield, used to live with her family in a large substantial wooden house. (My school and Tinakori Rd was on the same fault line which is still seismically active.). Katherine’s father was Chairman of the Bank of New Zealand.

There is no doubt that Katherine Mansfield was inspired as a writer by Anton Chekhov. Katherine’s The Child who is Sleepy is very similar to Sleepy by Chekhov. Nevertheless Katherine certainly had her own unique talent. Both writers suffered and died from TB but in character they were complete opposites. Virginia Woof said of KM “I was delighted by her savage bitchery to just about everyone she knew”.  Chekhov on the other hand had an enormously attractive personality – he was generous, kind, compassionate, and full of good humour.  The similarity in their writing was that both Mansfield and Chekhov wrote with a remarkable directness, they both had the gift of nearness – they created real life on the page.

On the weekend I was sitting by the fire at a friends house at Glenluce reading Janet Malcolm’s book Chekhov A Critical Journey. It’s a gem of a book. It is amazing given his upbringing of Chekhovs refined sensibility. Chekhov”s grandfather was a serf. Chekhov, himself was raised in semi poverty by a harsh, fanatically religious and violent father.

The following is his advice to his older brother who he had been staying with – he was appalled at the way his brother treated his wife and his servants and his brothers constant whining of how miserable life was.

Chekhov’s enemy was vulgarity – he loved elegance in the true meaning of the word.

He thought cultured people should satisfy the following conditions:

They respect humans personally wherever they are always to be kind, gentle, polite, and ready to give to others. They have sympathy not only for beggars and cats alone. Their heart should ache for what the eye does not see. They respect the property of others and therefore pay their debts. They are sincere and dread lying like fire. They do not pose, they behave in the street as if they were at home, they do not show off towards humbler comrades. They do not disparage themselves to rouse compassion. They have not shallow vanity – they don’t care for knowing celebrities.

“If they have talent they respect it –  they sacrifice it to rest, women,wine and vanity.”

They develop aesthetic feelings in themselves – cannot go to sleep in their clothes, see cracks full of bugs in the walls, breathe bad air.

They seek as far as possible to restrain and ennoble the sexual instincts. What they want in a women is not a bedfellow, what they want especially if they are artists is freshness, elegance, and humanity.

All of these I think are the tenets for leading a decent life.My husband – pictured left – bares a striking resemblance to Chekhov, both physically and spiritually.

Katherine Mansfield’s Black Paper Fan.

Two weeks ago I went to the book launch at Readings in Lygon Street  Carlton of Lin van Hek’s latest book Katherine Mansfield’s Black Paper Fan. The voices of the colourful Italian womans choir provided an upbeat note to the launch with their exuberance and  irreverence on a chilly Melbourne evening.

Lin van Hek gave us a glimpse into the corners of Katherine Mansfields life with such useful information as Bertrand Russels bad breath and  KM’s imported pink stockings from Paris. The literary collectors of KM have a reputation of being an eccentric lot. At a recent  international auction  a prized item was KM’s leather garter sold for an astonishing  $2 million. Lin  produced for all to see an exquisite gold shoe belonging to KM  that had been purchased by Mietta O Donnell many years ago for the cost of a Datsun 120Y and given to Lyn as a gift.

I look forward  to reviewing  this book at a later stage.

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