Katherine Mansfield, Bliss and Other Stories (1920)
I don’t usually seek out short stories, though I often enjoy them when I do read them. Usually I’m looking for a longer-term reading experience, with characters I can live with over time. But when I read Katherine Mansfield’s collection Bliss and Other Stories (having drawn it as my Classics Club Spin book), I was reminded of how a beautifully rendered painting of a few objects, or an insightful portrait, can be a perfect work of art; we don’t always want or need a grand historical canvas with dozens of figures. In the same way these exquisitely written stories cast light on just a few characters or events, with an economy of language that does not lessen their emotional impact, but may even serve to heighten it. Freed from the necessity of plodding through a complicated plot, Mansfield often comes at her subjects in a surprising, sideways manner, with effects that are sometimes startling, sometimes amusing, but always masterfully done.
I know next to nothing about Mansfield, except that she was from New Zealand. This gave me the notion that her stories would be set in that country and that I would learn something about that place. However, this turns out not to be a strong element, at least in this particular collection; many of the stories are set in Europe, and the only one that is obviously set in New Zealand, the opening novella called “Prelude,” is far more occupied with the inner lives of the characters and their particular physical circumstances than with the setting in a wider sense. This is in no way a drawback, only a false expectation that I had to overcome in the process of reading.
The stories often end with a reversal or down-turn in the protagonist’s fortunes, but so light was Mansfield’s touch that this somehow did not depress me as it does with some authors. Comedy and tragedy can be very close together, and these stories delicately reveal their affinity.
Many more of Mansfield’s stories await me in my e-book edition. I’m sure I’ll be dipping into them again for a brief, invigorating dose of a fine writer’s art.