“The Modern Soul” by Katherine Mansfield

This week was the first anniversary of this blog, and I think that makes it a good time to try out something new. I love short stories, and while I do read short story collections from time to time I feel like I could be reading a lot more individual short stories. So starting now I’m going to be doing my best to post about one every Friday.

I’m starting off this week with a short story by Katherine Mansfield, a writer from New Zealand to whom Kirsty Gunn has been compared and about whom she’s currently working on a book. If you don’t know anything about her, she had quite the dramatic life. “The Modern Soul” is from her first published collection, In a German Pension (1911).

“The Modern Soul” is much more about characters than action. Mansfield in later life described the stories in In a German Pension as “immature,” and she was right, they are. Sniping at the German middle class and writing oneself in as a clever outsider is immature, but it does happen to be pretty deliciously done at least:

“Cherries,” he said, nodding and smiling. “There is nothing like cherries for producing free saliva after trombone playing, especially after Grieg’s ‘Ich Liebe Dich.’ Those sustained blasts on ‘liebe’ make my throat as dry as a railway tunnel. Have some?” He shook the bag at me.

“I prefer watching you eat them.”

Herr Professor is ridiculous; he is sexist and unprogressive, and so pompous. His friends the Godowskas consist of the ultraconventional Frau (“’My lamented husband, your father, Sonia, knew a great deal about England. But the more he knew about it the oftener he remarked to me, “England is merely an island of beef flesh swimming in a warm gulf sea of gravy.” Such a brilliant way of putting things.'”) and Sonia, “a modern soul,” an actress.

Mansfield gets in her gibes at conventionality (“On the appointed day the married ladies sailed about the pension dressed like upholstered chairs, and the unmarried ladies like draped muslin dressing-table covers.”), but she’s not too kind to the modern soul either. Sonia is almost impossibly pretentious, and the narrator doesn’t find her as “extremely sympathetic” as advertised. After Sonia’s acting performance, she declares that “It is imperative that I free my spirit in the open air for a moment,” so our own gnädige Fräulein accompanies her.

“What a night!” she said. “Do you know that poem of Sappho about her hands in the stars… I am curiously sapphic. And this is so remarkable—not only am I sapphic, I find in all the works of all the greatest writers, especially in their unedited letters, some touch, some sign of myself—some resemblance, some part of myself, like a thousand reflections of my own hands in a dark mirror.”

“But what a bother,” said I.

“I do not know what you mean by ‘bother’; is it rather the curse of my genius…” She paused suddenly, staring at me. “Do you know my tragedy?” she asked.

The two women almost bond a little bit, but ultimately the modern soul is just too much: Sonia foolishly chooses to faint where they are quite alone and the narrator will have to run for aid. The end, where the narrator is too fed up to deal with any of these people anymore and gets in a nice line about modern souls and conventional undergarments, is pat.

In a way Frau Godowska is right about the narrator though, she is “fish-blooded” and cold. Of course, she likes it that way. I like it too, here, where it amounts to a very good, very funny short sketch, but I look forward to reading some of Mansfield’s later work as well.