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Katherine Mansfield’s Canary, a “wounded bird”.

27 septembre 2006

par Vincent O’Sullivan

Traduction | The short story

As one reads Katherine Mansfield’s correspondence and notebooks for 1922, it becomes even more clear than in the preceding few years that her dominant concern was not simply to recover her health, but how to evaluate experience, how satisfactorily to define her own reality. As she wrote in a notebook early in February, ‘I must heal my Self before I will be well.’(KMN, 324.) It was a thought constantly with her during a year that took her from Switzerland to four months in Paris for a new but medically useless treatment, then back to Sierre, two months in London, then again to Paris before staking all on a last throw of the dice - Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at Fontainbleau, where she died on 9 January 1923. Mansfield biographers become uneasy with talk of ‘spiritual renewal’, and have difficulties in accepting her last few months. The supposition that she was ‘desperate’ is invoked to account for her decision to join a community largely made up of Russians disillusioned and displaced by Bolshevism, a group willing to submit to Gurdjieff’s dubious mysticism. Such a thing repels the pragmatic Anglo-Saxon mind. For Mansfield herself, the decision was very clear.

‘The world as I know it is no joy to me and I am useless in it. People are almost non- existent. This world to me is a dream and the people in it are sleepers. I have known just instances of waking but that is all. I want to find a world in which these instances are united. Shall I succeed ? I do not know. I scarcely care. What is important is to try and learn to live - really live - and in relation to everything - not isolated (this isolation is death to me.)’ ( LKM, II, 260.)

Most of what Mansfield wrote in the eighteen months before her death was part of her deliberate attempt to make money quickly to cover medical costs. Some of the stories she turned out were inferior work. Others, such as “The Fly’, were among her best. And there is a particular interest in following the genesis of ‘The Canary’, her last completed story.

Inseparable from that desire for a new unity of being, for a resolution to her ‘divided selves’, was the conviction that her fiction had come to a dead end. As she told her cousin, the novelist Elizabeth, Countess Russell, in one of the last letters she wrote, ‘I am tired of my little stories like birds bred in cages.’ (31 December 1922). Earlier in the year she drew up lists of stories she had thought out and intended writing during 1922, including a long piece called ‘The Doves’ Nest’, which survives only as a fragment. She even had plans for a story about a wedding which would form a kind of triptych with ‘Prelude’ and ‘At the Bay’, but that too was abandoned. Although after her death John Middleton Murry assiduously gathered her drafts and the several stories she left uncompleted, there may have been others that she destroyed. In the second half of the year, she even seems to have thought it more rewarding to work with her Ukrainian friend S.S.Koteliansky on translations of Dostoevsky’s letters, and reminiscences by Gorky, than she did to press on with her own writing. There is only one completed story that survives from the second half of the year, an elegiac farewell to a caged bird that is now silent.

That image, and the associations it carried with it, began with a casual remark at the beginning of the year. As she told her old friend, the painter Anne Estelle Drey, she had from her sixth floor room at the Victoria Palace Hotel in rue Blaise Desgoffe,‘a view into the windows opposite - which I love. It’s so nice to watch la belle dame opposite bring her canary in when it rains and put her hyacinth out.’ (4 February 1922) A small observation she expanded on a few weeks later when she wrote to her cousin Elizabeth, Countess Russell, the novelist “Elizabeth’ : ‘The woman in the room opposite has a wicker cage full of canaries. How can one possibly express in words the beauty of their quick little song rising, as it were, out of the very stones. I wonder what they dream about when she covers them at night, and what does that rapid flutter really mean.’ (21 February 1922) A few days later again, she told her London friend and another painter, Dorothy Brett, how ‘I think my story for you will be about Canaries. The large cage opposite has fascinated me completely. I think & think about them - their feelings, their dreams, the life they led before they were caught. The difference between the two pale little fluffy ones who were born in captivity & their grandfather and grandmother who knew the South American forests and have seen the immense perfumed sea. . . . Words cannot express the beauty of that high shrill little song rising out of the very stones.’ (26 February 1922)

Mansfield then converted the canaries to a passing analogy for her own entrapment in ill health, when she told Elizabeth at the beginning of June that ‘the truth is some people live in cages and some are free. One had better accept one’s cage and say no more about it. I can. I will. And I do think it’s simply unpardonable to bore one’s friends with “I can’t get out.” ‘ (5 June 1922) The caged birds neatly paralleled her own confinement, much as during the First World War ‘the battlefield’ had become a way to speak of her damaged lungs.

(A suggestive aside : while the birds offered an image for Mansfield’s own entrapment, she also drew a more sinister comparison. In mid-February, when she was particularly ill, she jotted in a notebook ‘The canaries sing.’, even as she noted ‘the pain in my back and so on makes my prison almost unendurable. . . . rather like being a beetle shut in a book, so shackled that one can do nothing but lie down.’ ( KMN, 326.) Sinister, especially if one takes with it the recurring image of the fly throughout her notebooks. One might think, for example, of her finding out in 1918 that for many years she had been suffering from gonorrhea, and so made the notebook entry : ‘Oh, the times when she had walked upside down on the ceiling, run up glittering panes, floated in a lake of light, flashed through a shining beam !

And God looked upon the fly fallen into the jug of milk and saw that it was good. And the smallest Cherubim and Seraphim of all, who delight in misfortunate, struck their silver harps and shrilled : ‘How is the fly fallen, fallen.’ (See Alpers, 289.)

Such a note anticipates the tormented yet defiant creature gradually drowned in inundating ink in ‘The Fly’, a story written at the Victoria Palace Hotel in February 1922. One might reasonably take those contrasting images of the entrapment of the fly, and the struggle towards beauty and ‘voice’ from the caged singing birds, as bracketing so much of Mansfield’s though in her last year. The sense of adamantine fate, as it were, in her incurable disease, and set against it, even deriving from it, her defiant and final existential stance. But that is another much longer story !)

The story Mansfield had promised her friend Brett for her kindness is mentioned again when she returned to Switzerland in June. She delighted in the summer, the countryside, the animals, the pleasant hotel, as it came in on her that conventional medical treatment could do little more, and that she must ‘risk everything’ by opting for Fontainebleau. It was in this interval of rare contentment that she wrote ‘The Canary’ on 7 July. A yearning for being, for the elusive yet irrefutable expression of fulfillment, is at the centre of one of the shortest stories Mansfield wrote. The details of the birds she had watched from a high window across a Paris street she moves back to the Wellington where she grew up, in what is both a celebration and a lament for the pure joy that is now recalled rather than experienced. To draw its full biographical import, one must read the story with her poem on the wounded bird, written during those same weeks at the same hotel. In the story, the bird’s vivid presence is in the narrator’s mourning its absence. In the poem, the writer assumes the persona of a damaged bird. (There are many occasions in her correspondence when Mansfield had spoken of her lungs as her ‘wings’). But to take the story and the poem together, is to hear Mansfield’s fictional voice presenting and reshaping reality for the last time. It is also a depiction she resents. The memory of the canary singing in its cage, the other bird’s final insistence, ‘I am not so dreadfully hurt’, move through a scale of intention and achievement that seems insufficient, yet what more can one ask, than the occasion to declare it ? As she would be able to say, writing to Murry a fortnight before she died, and in defence of her decision to go to Fontainebleau, ‘this place. . . has taken from me one thing after another (the things were never mine) until at the present moment all I know really is that I am not annihilated.’ (26 December 1922)

The story and the poem were the last literary things, one might say, that needed to be got rid of before the stark existential purity of that last remark.

Vincent O’Sullivan

Texts referred to :
Alpers Antony Alpers, The Life of Katherine Mansfield, 1980
LKM The Letters of Katherine Mansfield, ed. John Middleton Murry, 1928
KMN The Katherine Mansfield Notebooks, ed. Margaret Scott, 1997
Other letters referred to will appear in The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield, vol. V, ed. Vincent O’Sullivan and Margaret Scott, date not yet available.


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