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‘The novel can’t just leave the war out’: Ali Smith on fiction in times of crisis | Books

“After great pain, a formal feeling comes.” Last week I went to a reading by Claudia Durastanti from her shapeshifting memoir/novel/essay, Strangers I Know. She pointed out the notion of changing form in this quote from Emily Dickinson, her book’s epigraph, and listening to her I wondered what this time of massive shift and change, via Brexit, the spread of Trumpian demagoguery, Covid, and now Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, will ask of us when it comes to literary transfiguration.

Recently I’ve chanced to read what I reckon are three truly great novels of this time, and they’re novels completely unlike each other, back to back: Claire Keegan’s traditional-seeming but quietly radical Small Things Like These; Michelle de Kretser’s brilliant split-form past-and-future dual narrative, Scary Monsters; and Isabel Waidner’s piece of winged originality, Sterling Karat Gold. They’re all three about perilous times and societal and institutional forms of exclusion, what it does to the human spirit, and how that pressure reforms us – and about the way the story is told and the possibilities that arise from this. A formal feeling: I couldn’t help but be reminded of one of the most timely meetings of two writers in the history of literature and what came, exactly a century ago, of the great pain and the massive changes that made what they wrote possible.

In the middle years of the first world war the New Zealand short story writer Katherine Mansfield, who in her short life would revolutionise the idea of the story form, was living between London and Cornwall. Her brother had been killed in an army accident where a grenade he was holding exploded; she’d been altered completely by his loss and was settling for the first time, she wrote in her notebook, seriously to work, in honour of him. The woman who’d shortly become one of the world’s great literary innovators, Virginia Woolf, had recently published her first novel, The Voyage Out, a work ostensibly traditional but texturally rich and subtly challenging about the imperialisms its characters are living; now she was working on Night and Day, her second, and she and her husband Leonard were also setting up the Hogarth Press and looking for writing to publish.

Novel approaches … Virginia Woolf.
Novel approaches … Virginia Woolf in 1902. Photograph: GL Archive/Alamy

“I am going to see Katherine Mansfield, to get a story from her, perhaps,” Woolf wrote to her sister Vanessa Bell in April 1917. “She seems to have gone every sort of hog since she was 17, which is interesting; I also think she has a much better idea of writing than most.” She met Mansfield and commissioned what would become one of her masterworks, Prelude. But Woolf noted her own distaste at the class difference, the social divide between them, with a mix of her usual acidity and an unexpected awe, wishing: “Ones first impression … was not that she stinks like a – well civet cat that had taken to street walking. In truth, I’m a little shocked by her commonness at first sight: lines so hard & cheap. However, when this diminishes, she is so intelligent & inscrutable that she repays friendship.”

Regardless of her own conditioned ambivalence and the foul snootiness of Woolf’s usual cohorts in the Bloomsbury group, who saw Mansfield, “the little colonial”, as a bit like something shoddy on a market barrow (to paraphrase Clive Bell), Woolf knew that Prelude had “the living power, the detached existence of a work of art”. Drawn and repelled both at once, she could also sense that Mansfield was fragile; she was ill with the as yet undiagnosed TB that’d soon end her life (in fact this life-changing friendship would span just six years). She also wasn’t used to finding anyone else’s writing, especially another woman’s, so very good. “As usual I find with Katherine what I don’t find with the other clever women a sense of ease and interest … due to her caring so genuinely if so differently from the way I care, about our precious art.” She was rivalrous; occasionally in her diary she glories over what she sees as Mansfield’s literary/social faux pas. When she read Mansfield’s short story Bliss in the English Review in 1918, “I threw [it] down with the exclamation, ‘She’s done for!’ Indeed I don’t see how much faith in her as a woman or writer can survive that sort of story … her mind is a very thin soil … For Bliss is long enough to give her a chance of going deeper. Instead she is content with superficial smartness.” But then, straight after, because Woolf was never not a stringent self‑scrutiniser, she adds: “Or is it absurd to read all this criticism of her personally into a story?”

Katherine Mansfield set the civet cat among the pigeons.
Katherine Mansfield set the civet cat among the pigeons. Photograph: Granger/Alamy

Mansfield was equally as acerbic (and protective!) as Woolf about the friendship; the Woolfs soon became the Woolves in her letters, Clive Bell “that plump marrow”. But though she abhorred the snobbery of the “Blooms Berries”, she insisted, Virginia was different: “The only one of them that I shall ever see … she does take the writing business seriously and she is honest about it and thrilled by it. One cant ask more.”

It was an important friendship for both: “Consider how rare it is to find someone with the same passion for writing that you have, who desires to be scrupulously truthful with you – and to give you the freedom of the city without any reserves at all,” Mansfield wrote in a flattering, charming letter in June 1917, offering herself, inviting Woolf to offer equally back. In August she wrote again, about how much she’d liked a short story Woolf had written, The Mark on the Wall. A few days later Woolf showed her another short piece called Kew Gardens. While she’d been recovering, herself, from debilitating illness, and working when she was well enough on the ultra-conventional, witty and realist novel Night and Day, Woolf had also been dashing off these short pieces unlike anything else she’d ever written. Discursive, disruptive, close to stream of consciousness, The Mark on the Wall focus-pulls readers’ expectations of story, shifts the possibilities radically and is Woolf’s first formal attempt at a truer representation of what it’s actually like to be alive in “a world which one could slice with one’s thoughts as a fish slices the water with his fin, grazing the stems of the water-lilies”. Kew Gardens pulls off a similarly astonishing shift of focus: life in a park seen from the point of view of insect and mollusc, the leaf-life in a flowerbed, people with all their preoccupations passing it inconsequentially while a snail considers how to move past a leaf. Under or round? The writing of these had given the chronically invalided Woolf a brand new energy, a freedom of the city for sure, like “being blown through the Tube at fifty miles an hour – landing at the other end without a single hairpin in one’s hair! Shot out at the feet of God entirely naked! … With one’s hair flying back like the tail of a race horse!”

“I liked it tre men dously,” Mansfield said of The Mark on the Wall. When she read Kew Gardens she wrote to Woolf that it didn’t just renew language, it made language so primal that it brought the notion of all meaning up for question. She reviewed it in the Athenaeum in 1919 full of admiration, in a critique that declared Woolf way ahead of the “notebook scribblers” making up the contemporary literary milieu, someone with the status of a writer of another age – the future. “She begins where the others leave off … alone and at her leisure … her story is bathed in [leisure] as if it were a light … heightening the importance of everything.”

But it was Mansfield’s next review of Woolf later that year, a piece about Night and Day, that really set the civet cat among the pigeons.

When she read the novel, in Italy where she’d been sent because of her fast-progressing TB, Mansfield was appalled. She wrote in fury to her husband John Middleton Murry: “It is a lie in the soul. The war has never been, that’s what its message is … the novel can’t just leave the war out … I feel it in the profoundest sense that nothing can ever be the same that as artists we are traitors if we feel otherwise. … There is a trifling scene in Virginia’s book where a charming young creature in a bright fantastic attitude plays the flute: it positively frightens me …” She derided its closed-class nature. “Its aristocratic ignoring of all that is outside its little circle & its wonder, surprise, incredulity that other people have heard of William Shakespeare.”

In this review, published in November 1919, she granted Woolf the status of a writer of another age again – this time the past. Is the novel dying, or alive? she began the review. “If the novel dies it will be to give way to some new form of expression; if it lives, it must accept the fact of a new world” And here came “the strange sight of ‘Night and Day’ sailing into the port serene and resolute on a deliberate wind … her aloofness, her air of quiet perfection, her lack of any sign that she has made a perilous voyage. … one is almost tempted to cry it Miss Austen up-to-date … we had thought that this world was vanished for ever, that it was impossible to find on the great ocean of literature a ship that was unaware of what has been happening. Yet here is Night and Day, fresh, new and exquisite… in the midst of our admiration it makes us feel old and chill : we had never thought to look upon its like again!”

Oof!

What Mansfield couldn’t know was that Night and Day was itself a work born of anguish and convalescence, a safe place for Woolf over the war years, and Woolf was clearly hurt by the review. Though she made little of it in her diary and mentioned it only in passing in a couple of letters, she took to her bed for some days, unwell.

Vanessa Redgrave in the film adaptation of Mrs Dalloway
Vanessa Redgrave in the film adaptation of Mrs Dalloway (1997). Photograph: Bbc/Allstar

When Mansfield returned to London the following spring Woolf waited, icily, to be contacted and courted. “I have written to Katherine. No reply.” Then at the end of May: “a stiff & formal note thanking me for my kind postcard & saying she will be delighted to see me.”

Woolf visited. “A steady discomposing formality and coldness at first … no pleasure or excitement at seeing me. … And then she talked about solitude, & I found her expressing my feelings as I had never heard them expressed.”

More: at this meeting, Mansfield declared her own reviews nothing but “‘scribbling’ … Then asked me to write stories for the Athenaeum. ‘But I don’t know that I can write stories,’ I said … Whereupon she turned on me, & said no one else could write stories except me – Kew the right ‘gesture’; a turning point. … Once more as keenly as ever I feel a common certain understanding between us.”

In late 1920 Mansfield wrote from France what would be her last letter to Woolf: “I wonder if you know what your visits were to me – or how much I miss them. You are the only woman with whom I long to talk work. There will never be another. But leagues divide us.”

Night and Day book jacket

Woolf was deep in the genesis of her next novel, written very much in the mode of those stories that had so freed up her energy and that Mansfield had praised so much: slim, experimental, dense, flashing, interruptive, impressionistic, expressionistic. It was the opposite, in every way, of Night and Day. It didn’t directly deal with the war, though its protagonist is killed in it. His surname is Flanders.

Mansfield’s prelude

Did the great master of innovation in the short story form, Katherine Mansfield, ever read Jacob’s Room (1922), the first truly innovative novel by her friend, the writer about to become one of the world’s greatest reshapers and revivifiers of the novel form? There’s no record. We’ve no idea.

In January 1923, Woolf’s servant, Nellie Boxall, announces it at breakfast; she’s seen it in the paper, Mrs Murry, dead.

When a couple of years later Woolf finishes her next novel, Mrs Dalloway, it is the next triumph in what will turn out to be a long line of form-shifting, perception-shifting triumphs: Orlando, To the Lighthouse, The Waves, Between the Acts.

Is Woolf pleased with her achievement? She is despondent. What’s the point? she writes in her diary. “Katherine won’t read it.”

Great pain: formal feeling.

Companion Piece by Ali Smith is published by Hamish Hamilton (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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