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Like Mansfield who knew that loveliness may quickly shift into the chaos of a dark familiar plunge into the abyss, so too does Gunn recognize that any inviolate home anywhere is “just beyond” her “reach.”

Book Review: ‘My Katherine Mansfield Project’ by Kirsty Gunn

Editor’s note: The following review was written by Linda E. Chown and is published by special arrangement.

Reading Kirsty Gunn’s splendid My Katherine Mansfield Project is like being rolled inside a kaleidoscope, its welter of stories upon stories rousing the reader’s curiosity and attention in her elegant and eloquent “stitched quilt” (46). I read it three times and learned at least nine-fold times more.

Kirsty Gunn My Katherine Mansfield Project
Kirsty Gunn

Gunn became a Randell Writing Fellow and went to Wellington, NZ, Katherine Mansfield’s abandoned beloved home, just as it was initially Gunn’s home as well. Gunn’s writing goals overlapped: “to discover more about Mansfield’s life by somehow being inside it” and then, simultaneously, she came to know “I was there entirely, in a story of my own.” (87) As in a kunsterroman, her writing, “a psychic migration,” was constructing the story of herself as a writer, while tracing the contours of Mansfield’s world.

In a haunting magic, her KM Project intertwines more than two ‘stories,’ those of Mansfield and Gunn, but, also, then, too, a free floating blend of speculations on memory, writing, and home. The Introduction layers ideas of homelessness, exile, “homelooseness,” all of which establish the book’s contemplative tone.

Although at first the journey may seem a purposive quest, actually it carries out a narrative freefall, what Gunn calls a “purposive placelessness.” Objective accounts of rainy Wellington streets melt into Gunn’s fiction; interpretations of Mansfield’s “Prelude” crisscross into difficult memories of Gunn’s childhood. This engaging project feels contemporaneously concrete and suspensefully open. In continued allusions to home, Gunn hopes “to carry two powerful ideas of where we might belong in our heads and hearts—and on the page—at the same time” (3).

Simultaneous to her stunning presentation and rediscovery of physical Wellington, Gunn “uncovers” three innovative changes: 1) a fresh approach to words, 2) a writer’s idea of story, and 3) a still unrecognized very experimental narrative integrating objective and personal perspectives. In this detective-story-like-thriller-search, Gunn tests her critical bellwethers, specifically what she calls “zig-zag thinking.” When read with these layers actively in play, this study keeps turning the kaleidoscope, so that the book remains palimpsestic, about Mansfield’s achievement and about Gunn’s world as well.

Gunn discovers this process to be a consummate pleasure: “to remember for myself the way two worlds may overlay each other to create one richly detailed narrative—where every flower and gatepost seems to come embroidered with the memory from some story or other, fragment of a letter or journal entry, where every street I walk could take me from ‘The Garden Party’ to ‘A Birthday’ and ‘The Wind Blows.’ It’s the very idea of ‘home” (84).

At first, Gunn’s notion of words might appear traditional. Words seemed to open paths for a construction of stories, a place where characters can live and to make a setting for them to live in. Words thus serve almost as transitive vehicles to accommodate story. Then, as the book shifts in and out of places, times and people, and stories, Gunn comes to see that words, language, and imagination are everything in themselves. She finds companionship through words, “someone who was simply quite certainly here. With her now” (103). She feels a confidence in “making a home in words, which feels to me as real, as practical and quotidian as making a home in a house….In words, always words—as Katherine Mansfield showed me first—This place you return to is home” (2, 9). Towards the end, Gunn confirms “the words themselves are real, the words themselves bring us home” (113). One, then, does not exactly use words any more. Words simply become us.

Stories also were once a container, “a brick-by-brick-word-by word building of a place that might let a story inhabit it—to create a home of words where I, the writer, may live” (1). What changes throughout the adventure of these Wellington nights and days is Gunn’s idea of what story is. Initially, stories were secure with markers, to hold characters within their setting. As the book grows, its structure and timing become more of a zig-zag than a narrative. In the process, Gunn radically changes her aesthetic understanding of Mansfield’s writing, her own and the nature of writing.

As Gunn explores her notebooks, walks the streets of Wellington, smells the weather, and integrates her own stories into this project “about” Mansfield, she discovers Mansfield‘s Modernist writing to be newer than she knew, a “special prose…a contingent, spontaneous kind of prose that invites the reader to be as much at home in the pages as the characters who live there…To be at home in the novel, not just looking on…” (54). She finds that “it’s not just what the stories were about but how they were made.” And, even more significantly, Gunn concludes: “a story therefore…was not about something. A story rather…simply was” (64).

In July 1918, Katherine Mansfield had addressed her journal with much triumphant anticipation, “People have never explored the lovely medium of language. It is a hidden country still—I feel that so profoundly.” Mansfield was looking for a new standard, blending the best of sound, perception, and language in what she would call the “middle of the note.” In Gunn’s emotional palimpsest, barriers between writer, reader, story, and reality thin, so that in “this way the story itself then becomes that thing that is known.”65 (8) For Mansfield and for Gunn, place was no longer “just the setting…It was her subject” (61).

Gunn’s form integrates story, biography, autobiography, and theoretics. Hoping to find “a reflection of Mansfield’s life in my own terms, using my writing experience and knowledge of the city she and I were both born in as a way to understand both her and my own aesthetic and drive,” Gunn struck gold: “I could see that layering, that splitting of places into places…it was as though by going back, making the journey home, I had arrived at the beginning of my writing life” (65, 47).

Its unique form makes this readable book particularly resonant. Neither about Mansfield nor Gunn nor their writing nor their lives, what can only be called the hovering form of the book becomes its uniqueness. The form is complex and wonderful. In addition to an account of Katherine Mansfield’s life and writing, it fuses Gunn’s Mansfield narrative with Gunn’s fiction: Gunn’s four open-ended inset stories, personal memories about her family and home, episodes from current life with family, along with the entirety of her 2008 conference paper on Mansfield entitled “Place, Familiarity and Distance: What Katherine Mansfield Taught Me.”

A plethora of narrative forms, places, and perspectives hover and cluster constantly. The reader can dance to many melodies in this far-reaching project. Perhaps my favorite section, a decisive moment, “The Notebook,” describes loose-leaf-marked, densely underlined pages on a table filled with the pre-composed chaos of unspent words. What makes this particularly lovely is that it happens in the third person with a character, Isabel, who read about herself being “allowed to build.” Like magic, Isabel knew “the whole construction of the words just like little soft coals that had been piled with bravery and left with hope to settle there.” Isabel, now more emancipated, steps out of being a character: “‘With hope,’ she thought, adding to the sentence herself by now. The whole process of language and thoughts starting within her and making it inevitable where it would lead…” (101). Just as words and Isabel acquire autonomy, instead of a writer shaping and controlling it, the writing takes over: “The writing understood all this, of course…The writing knew already how to let ellipses in, or breaks, huge gaps between paragraphs and so turn a sentence that might have been thick and menacing with ink into simply…” (105). Such kaleidoscopic density keeps the reader guessing: is this real or is this a story or notes from a journal?

What I have been calling “hovering form” is a neighbor of “zigzag thinking.” Zig-zagging becomes a possible way to conjoin, to “keep the two places that describe where I’m from together…” (119). Akin to a “bit of trigonometry,” zig-zags are “those crazy, zany, hopscotch-stepped paths that crisscross all over Wellington’s hills, making of the now and then and the here and there the same place, the same time…I’d forgotten about how zig-zags make the hills and city all of a piece” (118,113).

Gunn’s project is a compelling affirmation of the writer, of words: “in the end the destination I can reach is in words” (122). In this consummately-present-on-many-levels-book, zig-zag sometimes allows one to re-experience home anywhere. Gunn emphasizes that readers can acquire thus both a power and a pleasure: “There’s a kind of roaming around in my imagination, remembering, adding and changing…Until memory and imagination are fused…” (41).

The KM Project does not go home definitively to any permanent lasting place or perspective. The “jolt of the new” and the impact of arrival and departure interrupt any such stable illusion. Like Mansfield who knew that loveliness may quickly shift into the chaos of a dark familiar plunge into the abyss, so too does Gunn recognize that any inviolate home anywhere is “just beyond” her “reach” (95, 122). However, Gunn includes her last story because it “might stand” as part of “a sort of repatriation in prose” (83, 123).

This whole of My Katherine Mansfield Project was quite wonderful throughout: “it was like coming upon something that was always there but had been hidden. Like a nut inside a shell, a seed inside a fruit, a tiny toy found like a treasure inside a special cake” (82).

© 2016 Linda E. Chown

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