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Juvenilia

mansfield

I’ve recently read a few short stories by Katherine Mansfield: Germans at Meat, The Baron, The Luft Bad and other equally unknown titles which don’t figure in any ‘best of’ collection of her work. This is because they come from her very first collection, In a German Pension, published in 1911, when she was just 22. They were written during her stay in the Pension Müller, Bavaria, where her mother, suspecting she may have had a lesbian relationship, took her for ‘a course of cold baths and wholesome exercise.’

In a German Pension went through three editions, but then the publisher went bankrupt. Mansfield wasn’t disappointed by this; on the contrary, she no longer liked the stories, and when, after being recognised as one of the leading authors of her day, she was begged by another publisher to let him reprint them, she wrote, ‘I cannot have it reprinted under any circumstances. It is far too immature, and I don’t even acknowledge it today. I can’t go foisting that kind of stuff on the public. It’s not good enough.’ This was despite the fact that she was sorely in need of the money it would have brought her.

Was she right? Yes, I dare say, by the high standards she set herself. The stories lack the depth and intensity of her later work – although, rereading that, I sometimes find it a little febrile, a little too intense. But it would have been a great shame if John Middleton Murry, her second husband, hadn’t included In a German Pension in the complete collection of her stories he edited after her death. They are superbly written, with a deliciously mischievous, biting wit that renders in writing what comes across in the best cartoon caricatures.

Reading it, I thought, ‘Wow! To be writing that so young!’ Writers often repudiate juvenilia, and with good reason, but I would have given my eye teeth to be able to write like that at 21. I thought back to my own beginning: I finished my first novel at 26, about a group of friends in the mid-1970s, driving round France and Spain in a restless search for meaningfulness and adventure. I’d repudiate it now, I guess, but it wasn’t entirely cringeworthy. It earned me an appointment with an agent, who said if she’d read it ten years earlier, she’d have snapped it up. But by then, there were lots of similar explorations of the prevailing counterculture, and it didn’t break new ground. She had her finger firmly on the zeitgeist, and advised me to write a family saga instead, but I never did. Perhaps I should have.

Is there an age at which writers peak? Must good writing be apparent already when young? Mansfield is far from the only one whose talent was obvious so early. This New Yorker article sets the question in perspective, while for those who fear they may be past it already, there’s also ample evidence that it’s never too late to write a book.

Any thoughts on the matter? When you recall your first attempts, do you cringe, puff with pride, or sit somewhere in between?

 

 

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20 thoughts on “Juvenilia

  1. Thank you for introducing Katherine Mansfield to those of us who have been only imperfectly and/or eccentrically educated. I confess I knew nothing about the woman or her writings until I read your blog post this morning. When you describe Ms. Mansfield’s first collection of stories as “. . . superbly written, with a deliciously mischievous, biting wit that renders in writing what comes across in the best cartoon caricatures,” I hear echoes of Wilde and Waugh.

    As to your questions: “Is there an age at which writers peak? Must good writing be apparent already when young?” I would prefer to answer in reverse order.

    Q: Must good writing be apparent already when young?

    A: No, but it sure doesn’t hurt! I could cite any number of literary examples here pro and con, but to what end? The take-away for me is: All non-hack writers show improvement over time. I can’t resist, however, citing two popular genre examples of writers that improved over time: Compare and contrast (as the English teachers say) Ray Bradbury’s re-written passages of The October Country to their original versions in Dark Carnival. Or Stephen King’s original version of The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger to his re-worked version. ‘Nuff said.

    As to my own writing: Thank god it shows improvement over time! I see in my early fumbling attempts at the craft what I discern in all writers who improve over the arc of their careers: some rough-idling measure of talent; a promise of better things to come.

    Q: Is there an age at which writers peak?

    A: Yep! Pre-death. Depending on circumstances and the ravages of drugs, life-lived experience, disease, the general depravities and depredations wrought by time, “peak” writing age for writers is as varied and idiosyncratic as writers themselves.

    A personal favorite of mine who flowered late: William Gay.

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/author-william-gay-dies-at-93/2012/03/01/gIQAmLLPlR_story.html

    Liked by 5 people

    • One of the epiphany moments in my college education happened during a lecture on “Titus Andronicus” when the professor was pointing out (with great glee, I would add) Shakespeare’s “early fumblings at craft.” It was at that moment when I realized that all writers go through an apprenticeship of sorts, and I could, too. That epiphany moment in Michael Andrews’ class changed my life.

      Liked by 5 people

      • The only writer I can think of who flies in the face of the idea of improvement over time is Rimbaud, who wrote ‘Le Bateau Ivre’ at 16. But then he gave up writing at 21. Definitely an outlier. All others, I think, offer us the encouragement you mention.

        Liked by 3 people

    • I came to Mansfield via Virginia Woolf, who said of her that she was the only writer she was jealous of – which gives an idea of the quality of her writing. But much as I still admire her writing, the content doesn’t resonate with me as it used to.
      Yes, I quite agree with your answers. There’s no doubt a bell curve of the correlation between age and quality of production, but my guess is that it’s fairly flat, with a good many outliers.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Perry Palin says:

    I believe as Carl says, good writers improve over time and their best writing is pre-death. I discount the cases where early acclaim lured a writer into dissipation and decay.

    I haven’t written anything really cringe worthy since the day before yesterday. Yesterday I took the day off. But with years of experience I think I am better able to recognize the really bad stuff as bad, and the better stuff as better.

    Liked by 6 people

  3. mimispeike says:

    I started writing in 1980, at thirty-four. Why do I remember it so clearly? I had illustrated my story and given one of the illustrations to the small daughter of a good friend, and I can picture where it hung in their home in Lexington. They moved shortly after out to western Mass.

    YES, GD. It was another mouse story.

    I wrote the biography (my original inspiration Louise Brooks) of a forgotten silent film legend, Marie LaMouse, in gushy, adoring, movie-mag style. I did intense research for it, this was way before the web, I bought movie magazines from the twenties, paid a pretty penny for them, and plundered them for good lines. In one interview, Gloria Swanson commented (something like), ‘They say someone five-feet tall cannot be glamorous. I believe I prove that wrong.’ (She was five-foot two, about.)

    I rewrote it: ‘They say someone five-inches tall cannot be glamorous.’ And so on. I created movie stills for LaMouse. The one I gave away depicted her and her favorite leading man, Rudolph Rodentino, in a clinch from ‘Siren of the Sands’.

    I had the thing all written. Then my life got rocky. I moved often. All I had was one typewritten copy, this was pre-computer. Somewhere in my many moves my one printout disappeared. I only have the blurb for a back cover, and I can’t lay hands on that today. I might have it filed in one of my folders of old odds and ends. It likely never made it onto the computer. I come across it in print form every now and then, and it always puts a big smile on my face.

    My style hasn’t changed. I still deal in intricate description, I still have my caustic point of view, and I still have a signature flow.

    Does a writer improve with time? He may improve technically, certainly, but there has to be a facility to build on. I always wrote well. I always got high marks in school. At one point, in an essay competition sponsored by our local DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) I was runner-up to a woman who is now an English professor at Stanford and a world-known authority on James Joyce.

    Done with school, I didn’t write for ten years. I thought I didn’t have any ideas. No ideas! Can you imagine that?

    I don’t believe my style has changed, only my tactics. I have more live action than I did. I haven’t done away with my reams of description, I’ve only broken it up. When I look at material I wrote almost forty years ago, no, I do not cringe. I enjoy the hell out of it.

    Liked by 7 people

  4. victoracquista says:

    Three questions you have asked that I’ll take a stab at:

    Is there an age at which writers peak?
    I think the question needs to be qualified. It isn’t like an athlete whose athletic prowess does have a peak of sorts. What type of writing are we talking about? Fiction, nonfiction, prose, poetry all seem to be different; however, I can conceive of potential peaks and valleys and a time when conceivably they are at their best. This may be in the beginning, middle, or ending of a writer’s career. So, I don’t associate that peak with any particular age. I’ve read early works of an author and gave the work high praise that was followed by noteworthy disappointment in a subsequent work by the same author. The passion and enthusiasm and raw qualities that might characterize an author’s early works may be absent in a later work. What is the metric by which we measure ‘peak’ in this instance?

    Must good writing be apparent already when young?
    I don’t think this is the case. I think GD shared with me that he read some of Arthur Clarke’s early works and they weren’t very good. For some, good writing is a natural talent, for others it is more a matter of diligent practice and improvement.

    When you recall your first attempts, do you cringe, puff with pride, or sit somewhere in between?
    I recently read through an 8000 word story I wrote about 20 years ago and it was cringe-worthy. I’ve also stumbled upon things I’ve written many years in the past and marveled a little at what I had captured on paper. I do believe that my technical skills and application of craft are improving over time, but I’m still a novice.I hope I’m not past my peak.

    Liked by 4 people

    • You are not past your peak, Victor, if you can reread first-draft writing a week or so later and find ways to improve it. If the day ever comes that you cannot see a way to improve white-hot, fever-dream, 1st-draft writing; cover the typewriter, break your pencils, and unplug the computer–you are done. All good writing is rewriting.

      The first draft reveals the art, revision reveals the artist.

      –Michael Lee

      Liked by 3 people

  5. atthysgage says:

    I’m the late bloomer. I didn’t start my first novel until I was 47 years old. And I still think it’s pretty good, but of course I have been rewriting it on and off for the last 12 years, so it’s not really a fair evaluation. It would be different, I’m sure, if I’d lost it in a a chifferobe drawer and discovered it twelve years later under a loose floorboard. Probably I’d have read a page and shoved the whole thing back under the floorboard.

    Before I got serious about writing fiction, I wrote songs. My earliest songs were decidedly cringeworthy, but I couldn’t sing very well so probably nobody noticed. (Also they were pretty loud.) They got better as time went by. I took it pretty damned seriously, which is a good way to make yourself look foolish, but also tends to make you work pretty damned hard at whatever it is you’re doing, so yeah, they definitely got better. Work will do that.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. mimispeike says:

    On the other hand, I’ve spent forty years writing about talking animals, giving them personalities, putting words in their mouths and hats on their heads. I have it down. If I were to try a murder mystery (I’ve thought about it) it might be very bad indeed.

    Liked by 5 people

  7. mimispeike says:

    I see we’re talking about two different things here: craft and depth/maturity of perception and expression.

    In terms of my output, the question is, how deep can you go with talking animals? Deeper, I expect, than most would think. My critters are my surrogates, embodying some twisted slice of me. This is me, from one angle or another. All my neuroses are on display. They are amusing to write about, not too amusing to have lived.

    My book one is done. My husband is reading it, finding a few (very few) things to tweak, loving what drives many crazy, my dense (faux) historical underpinning.

    Do I need an ISBN number? Where do I get one cheap?

    Liked by 2 people

    • atthysgage says:

      The difference between craft and depth of ideas or expression is always a distinction, even between writers of the same age. At sixty, I am less convinced that age makes us better writers in any way EXCEPT that if probably means we have written more, edited more, tried and failed much, much more than a young writer. (Also, maybe, it helps with the whole not-taking-ourselves-too-seriously issue.) I don’t feel any more assured or confident that I have anything, wise or wonderful or otherwise, to share with the world. I do hope the writing has improved.

      As for ISBN’s, I’m pretty sure Amazon will assign one for free if you publish through them. I think Smashmouth might as well. If you want an independent ISBN (and if you’re hoping to be marketed through bookstores, you might want one) then you can go to Bowker and buy one. I remember them being pretty expensive, cheaper if you buy say ten, but I forget how much. It’s been a while since I’ve done any of this, so I may be out of date.

      Liked by 4 people

      • mimispeike says:

        On one site I just visited an ISBN number is offered for $18.99. I seems to recall reading a year or so ago that one ISBN would run around one hundred dollars. I’m wary, having just fallen for a scam on a copy of Microsoft Office that wasn’t useable, wouldn’t activate. We got our money back and I paid full price from Microsoft.

        I’ll start to research it. Thanks.

        Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for the comment, Mike. Yes, a long journey and lots of choices, and we generally take a wrong path somewhere along the way! I know I have, so currently trying to get back on track. All the best with your own journey.

      Like

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