The year was 1921 and Katherine Mansfield was dying of tuberculosis. In a chalet high in the Swiss Alps she retreated to write, to try and recover. The Montana Stories, a collection curated and published by Persephone Books, is a mish mash of published stories, incomplete pieces, letters, and journal entries. Everything Mansfield wrote during this nine-month period at the end of her life.
More interesting than the finished stories, are the unfinished ones. The fragments of scenes, the false starts, the unedited dialogue. Here is a rare glimpse into works-in-progress, mysterious middle drafts. It's illuminating. And comforting.
Yes! Even fantastic authors write junky first drafts. Beautiful stories don't arrive ready made and fully formed. All that effortless prose? It takes effort. And involves heaps of self doubt. In a letter to a friend (pg. 310) Mansfield confessed her stories were too simple: "I don't believe they are much good."
On the bottom of the manuscript of The Garden Party, she scribbled: "This is a moderately successful story, and that's all." (pg. 317-318)
Mansfield was a perfectionist, obsessed with truth. About a story called An Ideal Family, she complained: I worked at it hard enough, God knows, and yet I didn't get the deepest truth out of the idea, even once… This looks and smells like a story, but I wouldn't buy it. I don't want to possess it - to live with it. NO."
Of a story called Mr. and Mrs. Dove, she said: "It's not inevitable….it's not strong enough. I want to be nearer - far, far nearer than that. I want to use all my force even when I am taking a fine line."
There is a gap that exists between the promise of a story - the platonic ideal, magnificent and vague, that shimmers just in front of you - and the actual piece that you full-body wrestle onto the page. Zadie Smith writes about the disconnect. And Mansfield grapples with it too, grasping to define, to pin down, exactly what it is that she senses is lacking in her work.
And what of procrastination? Perhaps you think, being in Death's antechamber, in a time before the internet, in a remote scenic location…surely this is the antidote to idleness.
Of her time in the Alps, Mansfield wrote: "M. [her husband] and I live like two small timetables. We work all the morning and from tea to supper." How disciplined it sounds. How productive. But her journal entries and letters paint a different, more honest, picture. Again and again she laments her laziness.
"I have had an idle day. God knows why. All was to be written but I just didn't write it."
"There is so much to do, and I do so little. Life would be almost perfect here if only when I am pretending to work I always was working."
"Look at the stories that wait and wait just at the threshold. Why don't I let them in?"
Here was the great Katherine Mansfield, at the untimely end, hearing the clock ticking down her last days, and still she stalled and frittered. We are, all of us, procrastinators. To the bitter end.